God’s Own

Angus Calder

  • Empire and English Character by Kathryn Tidrick
    Tauris, 338 pp, £24.95, August 1990, ISBN 1 85043 191 4
  • Into Africa: The story of the East African Safari by Kenneth Cameron
    Constable, 229 pp, £14.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 09 469770 1
  • Burton: Snow upon the Desert by Frank McLynn
    Murray, 428 pp, £19.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 7195 4818 7
  • From the Sierras to the Pampas: Richard Burton’s Travels in the Americas, 1860-69 by Frank McLynn
    Barrie and Jenkins, 258 pp, £16.99, July 1991, ISBN 0 7126 3789 3
  • The Duke of Puddle Dock: Travels in the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles by Nigel Barley
    Viking, 276 pp, £16.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 670 83642 7

It is no surprise when you arrive in Harare, formerly Salisbury, and a taxi driver recommends the Courtney Hotel. After all, there is still a hotel named after Speke in Kampala, Uganda, and the New Stanley Hotel has remained a well-known establishment in Nairobi. But to discover that the Courtney is in Selous Avenue is more of a jolt It’s over a decade since Mugabe and his guerrillas in effect won the war to liberate Zimbabwe, but its capital’s street names are a bizarre mélange. North of Selous the next avenue is Livingstone; then comes Herbert Chitepo, named after an African leader martyred in the struggle. To the south, Baker and Speke intrude between Samora Machel and Mugabe. Since those two famous explorers never came anywhere near the territory formerly known as Southern Rhodesia, their continued invocation in the centre of decolonised Harare is remarkable testimony to the charisma attached to the myth of the doughty white man worming into the core of a dark continent.

Uganda, which Speke ‘discovered’, had indeed been remote from European knowledge. On the other hand, when he and Burton went to Lake Tanganyika, they had been on a track well beaten by Arab slavers, and knew exactly what they could expect to find. No one who has flown over central Africa below the clouds, as I did on routes taking me from Uganda to Kenya, then on to Malawi and Zimbabwe, in November 1991, will underestimate the hardiness and courage of David Livingstone, who traversed, on foot, thousands of miles of bush, mountain and swamp, fearsome to behold even from the air. But Livingstone’s country had not been unknown to the Portuguese, established on both east and west coast for centuries. The term ‘explorer’ really needs to be dropped in favour of ‘traveller’, except when uninhabited tracts such as Antarctica are referred to. Cook was a genuine explorer when he scythed across high southern latitudes proving that there was no land, and no inhabitants, in an area where geographers had hypothesised a great southern continent. In the Pacific, he travelled, or ‘voyaged’, over seas which Polynesian seafarers had mastered.

The cult of the White Explorer overlaps with that of the White Hunter. Speke, to Burton’s disgust, never tired of slaughtering birds and animals. Baker was a daring, wealthy ‘sportsman’. Frederick Courtenay Selous, as DNB styles him (my hotel’s original begetter seems to have borrowed his middle name and misspelt it), was manifestly not an explorer. Kathryn Tidrick, in her admirable study, labels him an ‘adventurer’. He was a dedicated if rather unsuccessful marksman who achieved celebrity by writing, with some charm, about A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa (1881). Tidrick suggests that Selous, an old Rugbcian, deliberately created an authorial personality to recall Tom Brown: ‘honest, modest, brave, and enlivened’ by an innocent love of mischief. She drily adds: ‘Of his modesty, it may be said that though everyone remarked on his reluctance to talk about himself, it is not recorded that anyone ever failed to get him to do so.’

Rider Haggard, in turn, obviously used Selous as a basis for Allan Quatermain in King Solomon’s Mines (1885). Like Selous, ‘Quatermain hunts trouserless and fortifies himself with cold tea.’ Then ‘life imitated art once again.’ Selous, in successive books, ‘sounded more and more like Ouatermain’. He became a national beau idéal, so that his death in action against the Germans in Tanganyika, aged 65, in 1917, provoked eulogies in the British press. In ‘Rhodesia’, settlers remembered him as the embodiment of that ‘justice and fairness’ with which the British inspired respect in the ‘natives’. ‘No one,’ effused one settler, ‘has ever left me with the impression of being a “whiter” man.’ Ian Smith’s Selous Scouts sustained his legend. Tidrick, however, can show that this model Rugbcian lied in order to promote the cause of white settlement and empire. In 1889 he stated, with bald falsehood, in the London press, that the high plateau of Mashonaland had been emptied of people by Matabele (Ndebele) raids. So it would be quite all right for whites to settle it. ‘At some point, it appears, Selous had decided to make a supreme sacrifice – that of his honesty – on the altar of a greater, imperial good.’ Tidrick, however, is analyst, not mocker. ‘In matters not affecting the immediate practical interests of empire he was fearless for the right. He was the first to recognise and tell the shocking truth about Zimbabwe – that it was built by Africans and not some mysterious Semitic visitors.’

Since those stone ruins have an important role in the mythology of Mugabe’s African state, perhaps Selous deserves to have his name commemorated in a black capital for longer than the egregious Ewart Grogan, famous for travelling all the way from the Cape to Cairo in 1898-9. Grogan made a fortune out of land speculation in Kenya Colony, after he had been imprisoned (nominally) for publicly flogging three Kikuyu in Nairobi in 1907 when they ‘insulted’ a white woman by shaking the shafts of the rickshaw in which they were pulling her. He lived long enough to hurl his own insults at Africans during the Mau Mau emergency. When I resided in Nairobi in 1968-71, there was still a Grogan Road in the city centre after several years of black majority rule, though he had written that ‘the Boer method of treating niggers as vermin’ is ‘the only one they deserve’. Since then, he has disappeared from the street map.

On the Kenyan settlers in general Tidrick is properly severe. She is unimpressed by the mythology which turned them into brave pioneers. ‘Many settlers’ most heroic struggles were with their banks.’ To farm in Kenya you had to have gentlemanly status and a bit of money: poor whites were never welcome. Comfortable stone homesteads in the White Highlands represented ‘the Cotswold ideal, transplanted to the equator, inflated in scale, and without the servant problem’. Tidrick disposes ably of the pseudo-liberal fantasies of Elspeth Huxley, whose books still hold their own in print, though she excuses European seizure of the Kenyan Highlands on the grounds that whites ‘instinctively’ select cooler country and ‘make for the mountain tops’, whereas ‘natives, on the whole, thrive better in hotter, lower, wetter places.’ The still more seductive witterings of Karen Blixen get even shorter shrift. Out of Africa’s idealisation of well-pedigreed white settlers was the work of a ‘fabulist’ struggling to identify herself with aristocratic values.

It was dismaying, when I revisited Nairobi after many years, to find that the city’s numerous bookshops still displayed Blixen and Huxley with far greater prominence than they gave to such important local African writers as Ngugi and Okot. Their settler ‘classics’ sat beside the disgusting array of glossy volumes glorifying the wild African animals which people like Speke and Selous slaughtered, and equally wild African ‘tribesmen’ in their exotic spear-waving poses. It was some relief to see the paperback of James Fox’s excellent White Mischief with its measured exposure of the shallow callous daftness of settler society circa 1940, popping cheekily up among them.

Nairobi is still Africa’s safari capital, where the lucky tourist is offered all kinds of trips to places where such ‘big game’ as survives can he safely observed at its trumpeting or flesh-munching. I once knew a rather implausible character who taught history at Nairobi University and gave me a scholarly paper which substantiated one of his more unlikely stories. He had spent some time in a game reserve observing predators with a zoologist and concluded that lions were less brave and efficient than hyenas. The ones I saw in East Africa looked like overgrown, lazy pussycats, but in 1898, as the railway advanced from the Indian Ocean through Tsavo, two man-eating lions with a taste for ‘coolies’ virtually halted work for several weeks, till the intrepid engineer J.H. Patterson hunted them down. The railway climbed on, created a little town of corrugated iron and green canvas in an insect-ridden swamp fed by a little river called, in Masai, ‘Nairobi’, meaning ‘cold water’, and drove on to Lake Victoria. As Kenneth Cameron puts it, ‘East Africa had become safariland.’

I was disappointed not to see Cameron’s book on sale in Nairobi. East African safari is a topic designed to produce jaunty reading for expats and tourists. But, while Cameron’s treatment is extremely readable, he is scholarly, very thoughtful, well-informed about African points of view, and devastating in his analysis of the ‘white hunter’ mythology which derived from Selous and Haggard and was given specious appeal by Hemingway. The word ‘safari’ means, in Swahili, ‘a journey’. Hence one rings up a black African publisher’s salesman in present-day Nairobi and is told he is ‘on safari’ by his black secretary. This does not mean that he is stalking beasts on the Masai steppe, but that he is touring shops and schools. Cameron suggests that the word ‘came into popular use through officialdom – “safari” reports were a regular part of a young Assistant Commissioner’s paperwork – so that by 1905 or so it was colloquial in tiny Nairobi but unknown in London.’ The word became world-famous after 1908 when Teddy Roosevelt, relinquishing his Presidency, decided to hunt in East Africa and put his arrangements in the hands of Newland and Tarlton, a Nairobi firm which had published its first catalogue and set up a London office in that year, offering the guidance to would-be sportsmen not only of ‘professional hunters’ but of ‘white hunters’.

Roosevelt took his expedition very seriously and fired 33 letters in 18 months at Frederick Selous. (Cameron spells his middle name ‘Courtney’.) That legendary hero had very little experience of East Africa, but when Roosevelt proposed a light tent of waterproof silk, Selous insisted that he must have a green canvas that would require three porters to carry it, with another to manage the poles: this was duly ordered in London. ‘I am no butcher,’ Roosevelt kept insisting – all he wanted was ‘specimens, male and female of each of the big game animals’. Leslie Tarlton himself would be Roosevelt’s ‘white hunter’. The terms of their agreement clarified the relationship between hunter and client. ‘The trophy was the client’s, and the client shot first. The white hunter protected the client in dangerous situations but, ideally, put no bullets into the trophy.’ Tarlton ‘fixed the type’ of the white hunter: ‘gentlemanly, skilled, socially equal’.

Roosevelt had a wonderful time in 1909. He endeared himself to the white settlers by praising their reincarnation, as he saw it, of the values of the American West and its ‘spirit of daring adventure’. His own ‘adventure’ cost a colossal £15,000. His vast complement of porters swept through Kenya like an army, with Roosevelt riding at its head, followed by a man with a huge US flag. He and his son Kermit sent home, not a modest set of ‘specimens’, but 512 trophies, including nine white rhino (already rare), seven cheetahs, 17 lions and 11 elephants. Even in those days, this tally provoked international uproar. Less remarkable hunters were not exempted from heavy costs, after Roosevelt had established safari as high fashion. Most expeditions used porters, between thirty and a hundred of them. Even at £1 a month per man, that was not cheap. A typical safari entailed two months in British East Africa, and the ‘white hunter’ cost £1 a day.

In 1891, long before the railway, an American woman named May Sheldon had spent £4000 on a safari out of Mombasa to Mt Kilimanjaro. She impressed Africans by encouraging the idea that she was a visiting queen, but she wasn’t there to slaughter animals: she wanted to meet the people, especially women. With one ‘woman of Taveta’ she spied on an all-male celebration. Sheldon suffered a bad accident, falling into a river from a rope bridge in German Tanganyika, but ‘proved that East Africa was a woman’s country too’. She was followed by Mary Hall, who insisted on being called ‘Miss’, and emulated Grogan’s Cape-to-Cairo safari. She had taken up travel for her health years before and was now in her late forties. Without servants or companion, scantly guarded by two askaris, but employing about 35 porters, she proceeded by boat and on foot over and between the great lakes which had lured Burton, Speke, Livingstone and Baker. In Tanganyika her askaris left her and for eight or nine days she had no protection from firearms. Still she reached Lake Victoria.

Many other women, including Karen Blixen, made long safaris alone in the early settler days. Like Hall’s, their success raises doubts about the heroic nature of the exploits of the Great Explorers. If Hall could travel un-armed, if Blixen could lead a train of ox-carts to Lake Magadi in 1914 through the land of the allegedly fierce Masai, had Stanley really needed 35 loads of powder and arms on his trip through Tanganyika to find Livingstone in 1871, provoking a battle in which he and his Arab allies mustered 1500 guns between them? Had Stanley been right to recommend a thousand rifles to anyone penetrating Masai country? Not surprisingly, the mythology of safari occluded the exploits of women.

‘The whole subject of sex and safari is complicated,’ Cameron observes, ‘and complicated even further by the ways in which white and black are seen.’ African and Arab travellers had used female porters: one Indian trader was seen with an all-female safari. ‘Sex seems to have been a normal aspect of safari life until the Europeans showed up. Then a shift was made: women were eased out of their working role and were made furtive about their sexual role (into which they were now driven by lack of employment?).’ As the safari became an institution, the idea that African women were ‘fair game’ for white hunters and their clients prevailed. This was one reason why white women were unwelcome. ‘No trip for a woman’ was the bluff cliché. ‘A devil of a nuisance,’ one man said sagely to another. They were acceptable only if they behaved exactly like men – or, better still, like high-spirited but amenable boys. If they went out like women who were interested in seeing fine scenes and meeting Africans, they undermined not only macho posturing but the rationale of colonialism itself.

By the time, between the wars, when Hollywood had the resources to perfect the myth of the white hunter, the East African safari was spectacular but no more heroic than a boat trip to Iceland. Well-to-do businessmen provided the bulk of the clients, seeking the glamour given to safari by such celebrities as the Duke and Duchess of York (1925), the Prince of Wales (1928 and 1930) and Hemingway (1934). Porters were made redundant by the motor-car, so that even the pseudo-feudal contact with Africans sustained in the old days was superseded by distant incomprehension and contempt. The few Africans still retained were thoroughly ‘colonised’ professional servants. Attempts, not very successful, were made to prevent soi-disant ‘sportsmen’ from driving to within twenty-five yards of a lion and shooting it in complete safety. Aeroplanes could be used to spot elephants so that white hunters knew where to find them.

The Second World War quenched a safari industry already hit by the economic depression of the Thirties. But in the Fifties, mass air travel and the effect of such films as King Solomon’s Mines (where Stewart Granger, aristocratically handsome, acted as the perfect white hunter) revived safari, and it became such big business that the old élite of crafty white hunters were swamped in their own professional association by opportunistic tyros.

The animals were vanishing, and so was the patience of the black rulers of East African countries which became independent in the Sixties. First Tanzania, then Kenya banned hunting safaris in the following decade. A cynic might conclude that this left the elephants and rhinos at the mercy of poachers protected by corrupt African ‘big men’. Anyway, safaris now are pleasant scenic trips to parks with extremely comfortable lodges from which large beasts may be sighted and photographed. Cameron notes very neatly: ‘White visitors sit in zebra-striped vans, making game runs in the great reserves, and when they look at their driver – now their mentor, shepherd and guide – they see a black man and perhaps understand the symbolism of “sitting in the driver’s seat”.’

The regime of President Moi in Kenya has been detestable. It has involved massive corruption on the part of ministers and officials who have syphoned foreign aid into bank accounts abroad. Opponents have been murdered, tortured and detained without trial. Talking in Nairobi last November to old friends and former students, I found them disinclined to blame their nation’s problems on ‘white neo-colonialism’. Perhaps excessively so: the US and Thatcher supported Molis ‘model African democracy’ until the end of the Cold War meant that Kenya was no longer strategically necessary. Moi’s paranoid denunciations of the Americans now they’ve turned against him are like the tirades of a discarded lover. But the need to render plausible the fiction of Kenyan ‘democracy’ did at least preserve a trouble-making ‘free press’ – not altogether free, but remarkably outspoken. The Nairobi Daily Nation was stalking Moi while I was there as cunningly as a brave hunter moving in on a man-eating lion. And – to return to that symbolism of ‘sitting in the driver’s seat’ – I was aware of a huge contrast with the Nairobi I lived in around 1970. In those days one still saw white settlers abusing blacks loudly, with impunity: a farmer shouting at his Somali servants in the bar of the Norfolk Hotel, a tea planter skippering a team from Kericho at cricket on the only grass pitch in Kenya at Limuru who gabbled with rage in kitchen Swahili as African women and children calmly processed across a corer of the outfield and finally spluttered: ‘Can’t anyone speak their bloody language?’ White men were visibly in charge in offices and shops (and there were more whites in Nairobi than there had been before independence). Now whites, and even Asians, are relatively inconspicuous among Nairobi’s teeming denizens. Kenya’s black population has multiplied two and a half times in two decades: and black men, furthermore, can be seen in the driver’s seat.

This is not the case in Harare. The proportion of remaining white ‘Rhodies’ is higher than the settler or settler-plus-expat ratio ever was in Kenya. Weeks before Christmas, a big department store decking itself with holly and Santas has a window where all the dummies modelling clothes are white. Yet the whites – effectively beaten, after all, in a long and bloody war by the blacks whose leaders now rule them – don’t flaunt whatever arrogance they can still muster in Harare’s quiet, tidy centre, though the place looks like a tropical Croydon, bearing the same sort of relation to the inter-war suburban ideal as Tidrick detects between the White Highland milieu and the Cotswolds. This is Croydon with jacarandas, flame trees and, even now, cheap black labour. But here one does find an impressive bookshop – in Speke Avenue itself – which parades local black authors in its window. Rightly: the novelists Hove, Chinodya and Dangarembga, and the poet Zimunya, have been winning awards and acclaim.

Best of all is that a young poet writing in Shona, Chirikure Chirikure, was commended by the Noma Award judges a year or two back for the first volume of verse ever published in that language, spoken by the people whose very existence on the plateau Selous was prepared to deny. Singing in that language, the extraordinary Thomas Maphumo has established a world-wide reputation with a musical style that melds a traditional Shona instrument, the mbira, and its bubbling rhythm with influences from rock, soul and reggae – and with political protest. Zimbabwe has horrendous economic problems, and those who hoped for socialist revolution are now sharply disappointed. But culturally Harare is a very exciting place, alive with the sort of excitement that feeds on, and inspires, hope.

Burton Road in Harare is short and not very central. Perhaps it isn’t named after the Great Explorer at all. Unlike Livingstone, who would have found the spectacle of hordes of black people in shirts and trousers and skirts and suits extremely pleasing, Burton would be disgusted by present-day Mashonaland. He despised black Africans in general, and in particular those who ‘aped’ European speech and dress. A visit to creole Sierra Leone in 1861 provoked frenzies of racist nonsense. His new biographer, Frank McLynn, says that ‘Burton regarded the Sierra Leone black intellectual’s refusal to admit his own biological inferiority as in itself evidence of his mental crassness – “as if there could be brotherhood between crown and clown”.’ Burton’s African was ‘prognathous ... with retreating forehead, more scalp than face; calfless, cucumber-skinned, lark-heeled with large broad feet; his smell is rank, his hair crisp and curly.’

Consider that date: 1861. It is generally forgotten that, in terms of colour, the rulers of the British Empire in the middle decades of the 19th century were quite enlightened. A black man with a native American wife, James Douglas, later Sir James, son of a Scots planter by a Guyanese woman, had been appointed first Governor of British Columbia (1858). A black nurse, Mary Seacole, vied in fame and national popularity with Florence Nightingale. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a Yoruba sold to Portuguese slave traders at the age of about fifteen in 1822, released by the British on Sierra Leonean soil, was consecrated Bishop of the Niger in 1864. In Sierra Leone, Burton found a black professional élite which included such men of distinction as the medical scientist Dr James Africanus Horton. This colony of black settlers had had a black Governor, and Burton was stupefied to find white men condemned by all-black juries. This promising situation derived from the conviction of British Christians that converted Africans were fine and equal souls, a conviction that arose from the race-free rationalism of the Utilitarians and from the obvious competence of the black people who rose to office and honours. Reason and good feeling were threatened by crazy prophets who were acquiring disastrously wide influence – by Robert Knox, the anatomist who published in 1850 a book. The Races of Man, which identified black people as natural slaves, and by Thomas Carlyle, whose ravings about ‘the Nigger Question’ came out around the same time. The Indian Mutiny of 1857, as presented to the British public, inspired fantasies about the proneness of dusky persons to rape and murder.

And now Burton, famed ‘explorer’ in Arabia and Africa, master eventually of 40 different languages, including certain African ones, helps found, in 1863, the Anthropological Society of London and lends his prestige and apparent authority to that association’s attempts to prove ‘scientifically’ that non-Europeans are inferior. Burton’s violent prejudices, masquerading as ‘science’, were not the harmless eccentricities of an otherwise admirable man: they contributed powerfully to the dominance of anti-African racism in Britain which made future Douglases and Crowthers unthinkable for generations.

Frank McLynn finds Burton fascinating. Besides his full biography and From Sierras to the Pampas, which goes into more detail on Burton’s forgotten travels in North and South America, he has recently edited a selection of the man’s writings. Nevertheless, his portrait is much less sympathetic than that provided by Fawn Brodie in her biography The Devil drives (1967). Burton emerges from McLynn’s account as a chronic truant and malingerer. He drew pay as an East India Company army officer for 12 years, after 1849, during which time he never visited the sub-continent and acquired celebrity for ‘explorations’ conducted during a series of sick leaves and furloughs. Taken into the Consular Service, he deserted his posts in West Africa (Fernando Po) and Brazil (Santos) for lengthy periods while he roved about seeking not only ‘anthropological’ data but also precious minerals from which he might profit.

Unlike Brodie, who presents Burton’s strange, asexual relationship with his devoutly Catholic wife Isabel as a remarkable ‘romance’, McLynn prompts the thought again and again that Isabel’s social connections in high political places commended her to him as a shield against the consequences of his own arrogance and dishonesty. She was a good-hearted and very courageous person, who could probably have emulated Miss Mary Hall’s African feats had she put her mind to it: but her obsession with the grim-visaged hero of her dreams made her easy to exploit. Burton was a great deal more intelligent than the likes of Selous and Speke and Grogan, and was capable of scientific detachment and scholarly impartiality where his bigoted racism didn’t interfere. Whatever the truth was about his own sexuality (it is as likely that he was undersexed, even impotent, as that he was AC-DC), his readiness to research and write about erotic behaviour without inhibition gave value to his vast outpouring of travel books and translations. I suppose the many signs that under his posturing machismo, his barbaric misogyny, and his inability to accept any kind of authority, lay a sensitive, tortured personality will always draw biographers towards him. McLynn’s judgment that an unsettled childhood and irregular education left him unsure of who he was and prone to extreme depression may well be as sound as we will get. Deliberately and systematically, he made himself appear the opposite of Tom Brown in every way – utterly lacking in modesty and team spirit, ready to tell outrageous lies if they shocked the bourgeois and gulled fools. The myth of ‘English character’ associated with benevolent empire could barely accommodate this half-Irish, part-Scottish sadist, with a surname which, coincidentally, was one of those favoured by Romany gypsies. Nevertheless, he had his part in the Epic of African Exploration and was eventually knighted.

As Kathleen Tidrick shows, the ‘evangelical cult of personal example’ developed by the Lawrence brothers in the Punjab, with whom her study starts, was from its earliest phase capable of expansion to accommodate successful oddball adventurers. Of the young men who ‘pacified’ the Punjab in the late 1840s, John Nicholson, for instance, was a ‘brute’ (Tidrick’s word) who hated Indians. If one spat in his presence, he would have the man held down till he licked up his spittle. He nevertheless revelled in leading a private army of Pathans on punitive expeditions. ‘In the Punjab, where the administration of a turbulent frontier required incessant but rather informal military activity ... evangelical ideas of government through benign personal influence revealed their affinity with more ancient and aristocratic, and thus inevitably military, conceptions of leadership.’ The detestable Grogan defending the ‘honour’ of a white woman against an imaginary slight no doubt saw himself, as others saw Nicholson, as a perfect, gentle knight. The myth that the ‘Punjab held’ when mutiny threatened Britain’s control of India in 1857 because of the knightly virtues of a few good men who had dispensed informal personal justice, survived the spectacle of such Arthurian types blowing mutineers away from guns and slaughtering prisoners wholesale. ‘The general impression was left of a band of heroes who had ruled so wisely and well that millions of Indians had decided that they would rather continue to be ruled by them than seize the opportunity to regain the independence so recently theirs.’

Rajah James Brooke, who seized Sarawak, massacred a thousand ‘pirates’ in 1847 at Batang Maru (where there were no British casualties) and set head-hunting Dayaks onto other ethnic groups, could be presented as a Boy’s Own Christian hero. So, too, could mad General Gordon of China and Khartoum, who went into battle armed only with a small cane (but supported by well-deployed heavy artillery). ‘Sarawak the Sudan!’ exclaimed W.T. Stead in a famous editorial which inspired the clamour, in 1884, for Gordon’s appointment to put things straight in Khartoum, and so forwarded his sublime and Christ-like martyrdom.

Gordon was indifferent to worldly gain. This can hardly be said of Cecil Rhodes, but by 1902, when, none too soon, that man expired, he, too, was surrounded by an odour of sanctity: 2500 Africans are said to have attended his funeral – his ‘personal’ touch had not, it seemed, been lost on them. Even after the Great War had failed to throw up an English hero with apparently decisive influence on events – apart from the worryingly deviant T.E. Lawrence – Tidrick believes that the evangelical-chivalric myth of English character had perverse life left in it. Edward Wood, as Lord Irwin, Viceroy of India, was a devout Christian and a genuinely virtuous man. In 1931, he released Gandhi and other jailed Congress leaders, paid tribute to the Mahatma’s sincerity, and asked him to recognise his own. Gandhi was attracted enough to ask for an interview. Irwin got everything he wanted from Gandhi in exchange for insignificant concessions. Nehru wept when he saw the terms of the agreement. ‘I succumbed,’ Gandhi averred later, ‘not to Lord Irwin but to the honesty in him.’

Irwin’s triumph was pyrrhic: in order to maintain his own authority within Congress, Gandhi had to revert to radicalism. Irwin’s successor, less saintly, brusquely jailed him again. Tidrick’s rich and incessantly intelligent book ends with the piquant and plausible suggestion that the cult of English character explains the outcome of appeasement in the Munich Agreement. Chamberlain, she believes, thought that his personal character was sufficient to overawe Hitler. His Foreign Secretary was none other than Irwin, now Lord Halifax. That pious peer was ‘the foremost exponent in the Cabinet of the usefulness of personal contact with the enemy’. The appeasers supposed that Hitler could be mesmerised into good behaviour, like an Indian troublemaker or an African chief. Tidrick’s conclusion is brilliantly paradoxical. Why, in a country as addicted as Britain to the cult of leadership did Fascism make so little progress? A twofold answer is needed. First, the lust to lead could be satisfied in an empire full of brown peoples: a British Goering, as it were, could preen himself in Nairobi or strut his hour on the stage in Malaya. ‘Second, the mechanisms which developed to ensure that the imperial demand for leadership met with an unfailing supply also operated to rivet upon the British political system a governing class through which the leadership ethos was thoroughly diffused. In a land where the public school system worked to produce Führers on the wholesale principle, there was no prospect of any one of them arriving with the consent of his countrymen at supreme power.’

At the Courtney Hotel, I was puzzled not to find one or other of the figures who would have presided over such an establishment in Nairobi in the late Sixties: The grizzled old buffer with a beer belly expecting anyone with a pale face to share his aversion to the new black government, or the yellow-faced consort with lined and discontented features barking curt orders at black ‘boys’ as old as herself. Pleasant youngish Africans were at the desks in foyer and restaurant. But at breakfast next morning the familiar yellow-faced lady was there. Her eyes flickered hither and thither, sending silent signals to the staff. Her mouth was clamped in an enigmatic sardonic smile. Memsahib still owned the place, but her dominance had dwindled to management. Does that image mean that the nightmare of British imperialism is over? Or is it the case that the imperial character vents itself as ever in the Cotswolds and Croydon, in contempt for immigrants, hatred of the poor, and nostalgia for the Thirties when servants could still be easily afforded by the Turtons and Burtons who worked in the City while their brothers ruled the Raj and their cousins planted rubber in Malaya, insulting the Chinese and Malays who would shed not one tear when the Japanese blew God’s own Englishmen away like chaff.

Meanwhile, in Singapore the name of Raffles, founder of the modern city, retains charisma. Lee Kuan Yew’s government has taken out a ‘sort of copyright’ on it, according to the Indian headmaster of the Raffles Institution, that model ‘public school’ where 84 per cent of the pupils are Chinese, 9 per cent Indian, 7 per cent Malay. The celebrated Raffles Hotel has been modernised but not renamed. Nigel Barley, who visited Singapore at the end of a long safari through East Indian places where Raffles governed and left his traces, is an assistant keeper (for North and West Africa) at the Museum of Mankind. With his ethnographic curiosity and his gift for languages, he is well equipped to present, in his own person, a new model of English Character, to be distinguished from beer-swilling Aussies and snap-taking Japs in the tourist centres to which his quest leads him. He writes about Indonesian people with affection, thus lending credibility to his attractive sketch of Raffles. This is a delightful book.

Sir Stamford, as he became, had been nicknamed ‘The Duke of Puddle Dock’ by an aunt teasing his aspirations to gentility in the poor area of Wapping where he grew up, son of an obscure seaman. The East India Company gave him a chance to satisfy his zeal for intellectual self-improvement as well as his social ambitions. He would boast that he had never watched a horse race or fixed a gun in his life. As Governor of Java (briefly captured from the Dutch), at Bencoolen, the EIC’s malarial and unprofitable base in Sumatra, and, finally, at Singapore, he applied himself to scholarly research, studying culture and history, collecting specimens. Before his death in Hendon in his mid-forties, apparently from a brain tumour, he became first president of the Zoological Society, and a bust honoured his memory in the Lion House at London Zoo.

Paradoxically, though an employee of the company whose monopoly Adam Smith had anathematised, Raffles was a devout free trader and Singapore, more than ever a thriving mart, is not perverse at all to respect its founder. Barley pleasantly suggests that Lee’s Big-Brotherishness follows on from Raffles’s ethos. ‘A school is not only Raffles’s memorial, it has become the model for the whole of Singapore. The entire nation is a vast school. The residents are orderly pupils to be insructed and led.’ Be that as it may, The Duke of Puddle Dock seems to prove that it was sometimes possible to be an Englishman at large in the tropics without descending to viciousness or plunder. Raffles really liked ‘natives’. He came home without a great fortune. He tried to live by the principles of the intellectual Enlightenment. So, I conclude with a sigh, should all of us.