Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire 
by David Cannadine.
Allen Lane, 264 pp., £16.99, May 2001, 0 7139 9506 8
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The British Empire attained its maximum extent just after the First World War, but the peak of imperial visibility and imperialist sentiment at home was arguably reached two or three decades earlier, most colourfully in the great imperial pageant that marked the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The thumping Unionist electoral triumph of 1895 was confidently ascribed by Sir Robert Ensor (who had been a Winchester schoolboy at the time) to an upsurge of expansionist imperialism, while A.G. Gardiner, the biographer of Sir William Harcourt, spoke of ‘a tidal wave of Jingoism’, as ‘the arrogant nationalism of Mr Kipling and the glamour of Rhodes’s imperialism’ led the country to ‘strange adventures’. Nowadays the picture seems less clear. Imperial enthusiasm may have militated in favour of the Unionists, but it hardly created a ‘tidal wave’. Their massive majority in seats was based on a much less impressive preponderance of votes, and the same is true of their victory in the so-called ‘Khaki’ election of 1900, fought during the greatest imperial crisis since the Indian Mutiny, the Boer War. It was the British electoral system, still heavily weighted in favour of the better-off, rather than the British voter, that seemed so resoundingly to acclaim the British Empire.

It was, and remains, obscure how much or what the Empire meant to the mass of the British people. Selling it to them as the engine of the prosperity which would finance the improvement of their condition, Joseph Chamberlain was driven to wish, in the course of the 1895 election, that ‘the working classes would pay a little more attention to the history of the growth of this Empire. I wish they would think more of the questions connected with its further expansion.’ It would be interesting to see a detailed calculation of the proportion of the British population directly or indirectly connected with the Empire at its height. The numbers deriving immediate profit or employment from imperial investment, trade, administration and defence were perhaps not very great in relative terms, but the penumbra of their families and friends, the recipients of their earnings, their letters home, their souvenirs and reminiscences, must have been large. Add the impact of the proliferation of imperial motifs in imagery and artefacts of every kind, of imperial literature, of imperial festival, of imperial propaganda in schools, and it is hard not to suppose a widespread consciousness of empire among all classes. But informed interest and enthusiasm cannot safely be inferred. The 13-year-old Leo Amery, delighting his Harrow master by citing the Nizam of Hyderabad’s offer of money and troops to the Queen in the event of trouble with Russia as the most important political event of the summer holidays, was in a class of his own. Further down the social scale, the level of awareness was nearer that suggested in Walter Besant’s East London (1901):

The Union Jack is never seen in East London, except on the river, it does not float over the schools; the children are not taught to reverence the flag of their country as the symbol of their liberties and their responsibilities; alone among the cities of the world, East London never teaches her children the meaning of patriotism, the history of their liberties, the pride and privilege of citizenship in a mighty Empire.

For most working people in the great cities, the Empire was first and foremost where you saw Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd.

Even in Joseph Chamberlain and Leo Amery’s Birmingham, sixty years or so later, empire did not mean a great deal, to judge by David Cannadine’s memoir of his not very imperial childhood which he appends to his new book. Cannadine’s aim is to answer P.D. Morgan’s challenge to envisage the empire as ‘an entire interactive system, one vast interconnected world’. This requires a careful choice of ground. If the British Empire was not acquired in a fit of absence of mind, it was certainly put – and held – together in very varying states of mind. There is not much prospect of exhibiting ‘system’ in the acquisition, exploitation and governance of the Empire, in terms either of public policy or of private purpose, or of showing that the manifold relationships between the metropolis and the diverse countries and peoples that it ruled conformed to a single pattern. Instead, Cannadine looks for the binding thread in the way the British conceived of the Empire as a social structure. To his fundamental question, ‘what did the British Empire look like?’, he answers that it looked like home; that is, that the British strove to understand, and hence to order and control, their remarkable diversity of possessions by analogy with the structure of social relations that they knew at home, partly by extending that structure into the colonies of white settlement, partly by detecting and attempting to work through similar structures elsewhere. Ornamentalism picks up the baton from Cannadine’s earlier Class in Britain. It assumes British attachment to a layered, traditional and, in its most basic form, rural social order, which a people finding itself endowed, or embarrassed, with an empire sought strenuously to implant or to discover in territories which it could imagine no other means of organising, either conceptually or practically. ‘To the extent,’ Cannadine writes, ‘that there was a unified, coherent British imperial enterprise, there is a case for saying that it was the effort to fashion and to tie together the Empire abroad in the vernacular image of the domestic, ranked social hierarchy.’

However, he ends the book ‘not sure that there was ever such a thing as “the imperial project”: even at its apogee, the British Empire was far too ramshackle a thing ever to display such unanimity of action and consistency of purpose.’ He knows perfectly well that the ‘vision of the British Empire as a layered, rural, traditional and organic society was an ignorant oversimplification of a very complex thing, as was the hierarchical vision of Britain itself from which this broader perspective was derived and developed, and which it helped to reinforce’. Readers who snort their way through his first nine chapters, muttering, ‘but surely it didn’t work quite so neatly in practice,’ will find that Chapter 10 says precisely that. Cannadine is exploring an angle of vision, not delivering a definitive verdict. In doing so, he displays all his characteristic virtues: the appetite to seize a large and controversial topic, the energy to synthesise a vast amount of published research about it, the ability to open it up afresh with a big, challenging, organising idea, the clarity and vigour of exposition to make it available to a broad public. This is history meant to matter to the self-comprehension and self-definition of a people, but its central argument is questionable to an even greater extent than its author’s dexterity in anticipating criticism allows.

The title is, of course, a sidelong reference to Edward Said’s Orientalism. Cannadine thinks it is time we ‘reoriented Orientalism’ by recognising that the British understanding of the native peoples of the Empire did not automatically rest on the construction of an inferior, and naturally subordinate, Other, but as much or more on the construction of a comfortingly analogous Other, socially structured in a graduated hierarchy, the ranks of which could be crudely assimilated to those of British society itself. From the point of view of social organisation and authority, East was therefore as near West as made no difference, and within equivalent social categories the twain could meet on more or less equal terms. The thesis is argued with a skill and verve which fulfil Cannadine’s intention to bring centre-stage a way of looking at empire which has hitherto been confined to the wings (though not unnoticed, as his opening quotation from P.J. Marshall acknowledges). But hierarchy as master imperial concept and organising principle runs into objections about the role of race, the realities of power, and, in the case of the white (or mainly white) Dominions, the force of rejection, which drastically circumscribe its usefulness.

Cannadine’s evidence on the interplay of rank and race is more ambiguous than he wants to admit. He quotes the wife (unnamed) of Arthur Hamilton Gordon, installed as Governor of Fiji in 1874, who found the manners of the high-ranking Fijians ‘so perfectly easy and well bred. Nurse can’t understand it at all, she looks down on them as an inferior race. I don’t like to tell her that these ladies are my equals, which she is not!’ Perhaps, in this example, we should keep a hold of Nurse as well as of her mistress. It is Cannadine’s contention that when the British thought about the inhabitants of the Empire in collective terms, they tended to see them in crude relations of inferiority and superiority, but when they thought in individual terms (‘as they usually did’), they were more concerned with ‘status similarities based on perceptions of affinity’. But thinking in individual terms depended on a directness of acquaintance with individuals which the bulk of the British population could not possess, and those towards the bottom of the social scale who encountered the native inhabitants of empire at first hand, like Nurse, inevitably preferred to assert their affinity, not with the lower castes of a subject people, but with the white ruling class to which they could persuade themselves that they belonged, not, of course, by social status, but by race and ‘civilisation’. The view of the Empire as a reassuringly familiar social scene, where one might even run into a rajah or a rancher from one’s public school, was not available to most Britons. The British Empire and the Hackney Empire were oceans apart.

Cannadine, as he makes clear, is really talking not about ‘the British’, but about those who ruled the Empire, together with ‘those followers and supporters who went along with it in Britain and overseas’. But even they saw imperial sway through racial lenses. Explaining to his brother-in-law, the German Crown Prince, why the visiting King Kalakaua of Hawaii must take precedence over him, the future Edward VII said: ‘Either the brute is a king, or he’s a common or garden nigger; and if the latter, what’s he doing here?’ Cannadine chooses to emphasise the ‘freemasonry based on the shared recognition of high social rank’ rather than the racism of the remark. But it sounds as though the Prince of Wales had much in common with Nurse. The Empire reeked of race. On Cannadine’s own premises, it could hardly have been otherwise. For if the rulers and the higher ranks of the ruled were on a level of social equality, there was no justification for the dominance of the former over the latter beyond that of presumed superiority of race and civilisation.

The British Empire was a political, not a social, construct. In a recent radio discussion, Cannadine suggested that the Governor of the Gold Coast, pictured next to the King of the Asante in one of the book’s many excellent illustrations, would have regarded the King as his social superior. Perhaps so, but in the photograph it is the Governor who wears the sword and plays the part of the sovereign power. Whatever social equivalences might be acknowledged or intimacies formed across racial lines, the reality of power ultimately denied equality of status. The taste for recognising indigenous hierarchies in Asia, Africa or the Middle East, which Cannadine describes, was a taste for giving a decent native clothing to an authority ultimately dependent on imperial force. Robert Blake, in his Disraeli, quotes the Third Marquis of Salisbury, commenting in 1876 on Lord Lytton’s proposal to establish an Indian peerage: ‘Whether the Indian aristocracy themselves are very powerful may be doubted … but … their goodwill and co-operation, if we can obtain it, will at all events serve to hide to the eyes of our own people & perhaps of the growing literary class in India the nakedness of the sword upon which we really rely.’

The sword, of course, was inappropriate, and race a peripheral question, in the Dominions of British settlement, in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. But so was hierarchy, in territories to which people had emigrated very often in order to escape it. Cannadine does all he can with the Vancouver Club and Burke’s Colonial Gentry (‘full of inconsistencies, inventions and mistakes’); but his quotation from Trollope, writing in 1873 that the Colonies were ‘rather a repetition of England than an imitation of America’, needs to be balanced against Bagehot’s observation a few years earlier that though there had been ‘a whole series of attempts to transplant to the Colonies a graduated English society’, they had always failed from the outset, because the ‘rude’ classes, with land and opportunity for the asking, had no need or inclination to defer to the ‘delicate’ classes. Whatever facsimile of high society might be contrived around the various Government Houses, the tendency of the white Dominions was to repudiate rather than replicate the social stratification of the old country and the structure of political power that went with it.

When hierarchy was available for use by the ruling race, and backed by adequate force, the result was a system which might look familiar and congenial to some Britons, but seemed reactionary and menacing to others. Cannadine points out that where rule through hierarchical, traditional agencies seemed to be most successful, the Empire took on in the late 19th century the aspect of a model polity and potential refuge for aristocrats feeling oppressed by ‘agricultural depression, mass politics in the cities, anti-landlord agitation in Ireland and attacks on the House of Lords itself’. It was India (on which so much of Cannadine’s analysis depends) that appealed most as a supposed type of the social order that was under threat in Britain, and it was perhaps India that most alarmed those Britons, marginalised in this book, for whom empire as a hierarchical construct and defence against modernity represented a bastion of reaction and a barrier to progress.

Cannadine brushes off the mostly ‘urban, middle class and intellectual’ critics of Empire – ‘from Paine and Cobden to Morel and beyond’ – with the bare summary that they saw the Empire as ‘a “Tory racket” … a system of outdoor relief and exploitation for those at the top – the titled and the rich’. But their concerns were deeper than that. What they saw rising in the East was not only a profit centre for the upper classes but a model of arbitrary and autocratic government based on a status rather than a market society, which threatened to cast its shadow on the metropolis. Empire, which in the 1850s and 1860s had signified Napoleonic despotism, came in the late 1870s to mean Disraelian despotism in the eyes of many Liberals. Of course it was far-fetched to take the conferring of the imperial title on Queen Victoria in 1876 with her Prime Minister’s movement of Indian troops to Malta and acquisition of Cyprus without Parliamentary sanction during the Eastern crisis in 1878, mix in Disraeli’s flight of fancy in a novel published thirty years earlier about the transfer of the Court from a decaying England to Delhi, where the Queen might reign over a great eastern empire without ‘the embarrassment of her Chambers’, and turn all this into evidence of a sinister conspiracy to subvert Parliamentary government in favour of some kind of oriental despotism. But it was not an altogether absurd representation of the seduction of empire, especially India, for some imperialists. ‘The experience of ruling without having to consult constituencies, the press or any other organ of public opinion except that most delicate organ of private conscience is unique, and also the feeling that what people here, both natives and Englishmen, expect and require is firmness’ is how in 1885 Lord Reay commented on the government of Bombay. J.A. Hobson appears momentarily in Cannadine’s book in his usual guise as an exponent of the economic interpretation of empire, but it was as much or more with its social and political implications that he was concerned in Imperialism. His fear was less that imperialism was a system of plunder than that it diverted attention and resources from social improvement at home, fostered arbitrary methods of rule resistant to public knowledge and control, and perverted ‘the character of our people by feeding the habits of snobbish subservience, the admiration of wealth and rank, the corrupt survivals of the inequalities of feudalism’ – all things destined to obstruct the work of democracy as ex-colonial soldiers and administrators, ‘trained in the temper and methods of autocracy’, repatriated their prejudices to the South and South-West of England.

The ‘ornamentalism’, the vast, glittering, enfolding system of honours and rewards, ceremonies and celebrations, pomp and circumstance, which was intended to bind the imperial peoples together in an ordered pyramid of rank, service and esteem with the monarchy perched at its apex, the ‘hierarchy made visible, immanent and actual’, which Cannadine admirably describes, dazzled and inspired some Britons, but disgusted and repelled others, and left large numbers more or less indifferent. Even the most assiduous guardians of empire sometimes smiled at the show behind their hands. Salisbury, then Indian Secretary, wrote that the Viceroy Lord Lytton’s ‘Imperial Assemblage’ of 1877 should be ‘gaudy enough to impress the orientals, yet not enough to give hold for ridicule here’. His cynicism would have found plenty of matter in Curzon’s durbar of 1903 or the coronation durbar of 1911. But however ludicrous such festivals might seem, they witnessed to a renewed recognition in Europe, as the age of urban democracy dawned, of the uses of spectacle in the manipulation of popular consciousness. The whole empire was assimilated to the ‘theatrical show’ that Bagehot had alleged to be the essential means of inducing among the benighted peasantry of Dorset and their kind those feelings of deference without which government in a hierarchical society could not function. Where rule could not easily be justified by right or reason, theatrical monumentalism became the ultimate support, as it was the most imposing expression, of coercive power. Imperial orders and ceremony were indeed ‘hierarchy made visible’, marshalling the ranks of imperial society in configurations agreeable to its rulers. The photograph in this book of Hitler surveying the massed phalanxes of the 1938 Nuremberg Nazi Party rally recognises a parallel which Cannadine does not choose to explore. ‘Absolute authority’, as Siegfried Kracauer says in From Caligari to Hitler, ‘asserts itself by arranging people under its domination in pleasing designs … Whenever Hitler harangued the people, he surveyed not so much hundreds of thousands of listeners as an enormous ornament consisting of hundreds of thousands of particles.’ Ornamentalism was not just imperial power on show but imperial power in application, constantly renewing and reasserting itself by making its minions muster and manoeuvre in an ordered geometry to its martial tunes (though not, Curzon decreed, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, with its words, ‘Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane’).

The dissolution of Empire after the Second World War, Cannadine asserts, taking up a famous article by Peregrine Worsthorne in Foreign Affairs, eroded the prestige and diminished the resources of the whole hierarchical and monarchical system. The howdah and its trappings looked silly when the elephant had absconded. But hierarchy and the deference which underpinned it had long been on the wane, and so had the willingness of the British governing elite to go on making the efforts and the sacrifices needed to sustain them. The thick ornamental encrustation of imperialism concealed an absence of sustaining national will. ‘Our empire,’ Disraeli had declared in 1864, ‘is now unrivalled for its extent; but the base – the material base – of that empire is by no means equal to the colossal superstructure. It is not our iron ships; it is not our celebrated regiments; it is not these things which have created, or indeed really maintain, our empire. It is the character of the people.’ But the character of the British people, and hence the character of the British Empire, was not unproblematic or uncontested. As there were competing views of Britain, so there were competing views of empire. Cannadine finds persuasive David Armitage’s recent description of the ideology of empire in the 17th and 18th centuries as ‘Protestant, commercial, maritime and free’, but skates over in a footnote, as still awaiting its historian, what he takes to be its subsequent evolution into ‘something rather different’. It would be better to explore the continuing vitality of this older ideology and the strength of its resistance to the more romantic, traditionary, hierarchical, autocratic and military vision of empire, the imperialism which Cannadine describes as though it were the only article in the shop. There could be no common imperial project among a population which saw its relation to empire in very different ways, when it could be brought to see it at all.

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