On the Game

Kathryn Tidrick

  • Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer by Patrick French
    HarperCollins, 440 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 00 215733 0

The British acquired their Empire in an untidy, un-coordinated fashion of which they became rather proud. This vast imperium, they said to themselves, exists almost entirely as the result of undirected individual enterprise – undirected yet tending mysteriously towards a common end. There was no master plan, indeed no conscious design. British activity across the globe had simply produced its natural and inevitable consequence.

From this view, two conclusions followed. One was that the British were a very fine race, possibly the finest. The other was that the Imperial enterprise was a virtuous one, if not wholly by intention, at least as a process fundamentally in harmony with the cosmos. Swept along on the tide of their inherent – God-bestowed? – initiative, the British appeared to function collectively at a level where blame, if not praise, was irrelevant. There were of course more positive notions of Imperial virtue; but this fundamentally amoral conception of Imperial destiny was important and served the British well. It provided a philosophical shield against moral insecurity.

So much for acquisition. Once the Empire was in hand it came in useful in many ways. It was a glamorous prop for British performances on the world stage. It was a source of strategical counters for moves in the diplomatic game (though these counters could also assume the form of liabilities). It was a supplier of soldiers to frighten other Europeans with, at first on the Empire’s borders; later, in 1914 and 1939, in world wars. Private fortunes were made from it, unwanted people exported to it.

The disposal of these assets was a far more considered affair than their acquisition – as it had to be, if it were to be done in a manner consistent with their moral significance. There was no mea culpa, no shamefaced bolt for the exit, but a series of firm announcements that all things were still working together for good, as Imperial control was steadily dismantled. Racial calibre and racial virtue were displayed to the end, and the British quit their Empire in fine and deliberate style, leaving behind a collection of territories hopefully christened the British Commonwealth of Nations.

The British never put much money or white manpower into running the Empire, a habit rooted in parsimony but consorting well with the appearance of having greatness thrust upon them. Their agents were spread thinly and enjoyed great autonomy, ruling and sometimes extending their bit of empire with remarkably little interference from above. By the 1850s, the man-on-the-spot, the lone Briton doing amazing deeds with no visible resources, was established as a cult figure, and served to the very end as an inspiration to recruits into the Imperial service. How many Viceroys of India does anyone now remember? The heroes of Empire were never the great proconsuls, but young men representatively on the loose – James Brooke of Sarawak, John and Henry Lawrence of the Punjab, Charles Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, William Sleeman who destroyed Thuggee, Frederick Lugard who conquered Northern Nigeria. If such men became proconsuls it often diminished rather than brightened their radiance. At that level, Imperial energy and Imperial virtue could not so easily appear to be held in balance.

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