Lumpers v. Splitters

Ferdinand Mount

  • British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t by Bernard Porter
    I.B. Tauris, 216 pp, £20.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 78453 445 5
  • Heroic Failure and the British by Stephanie Barczewski
    Yale, 267 pp, £20.00, February 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 18006 0

‘Those who make many species are the “splitters” and those who make few are the “lumpers”,’ Charles Darwin wrote in 1857 to his friend, the great botanist Joseph Hooker. This first recorded appearance of the handy distinction between those who bundle up the data into one big theory and those who prefer to lay out the exhibits on the table in carefully separated heaps has since spread from scientific classification into literary studies, philosophy, and above all, into historiography, most notably perhaps in J.H. Hexter’s attack on Christopher Hill for lumping together a biased selection of the evidence to fortify his thesis about the rise of capitalism and the English Civil War. The temperature always rises when the splitters take action against the lumpers (it’s seldom the other way round), because the suggestion of mere blindness to the diversity of the facts soon shades into an accusation of wilful distortion.

Bernard Porter is a lifelong splitter. His studies in the history of the British Empire are designed to unpack the bundles of accepted theory and to point out, in a manner which usually manages to be both pugnacious and good-humoured, what the actual facts were. As he says himself, British Imperial carries on the strand of thought from The Absent-Minded Imperialists (2004) and even from The Lion’s Share, which he published as far back as 1975, the year, as it happens, of Hexter’s celebrated onslaught in the pages of the TLS.

His harpoon is aimed at two opposing schools of lumper fish: the left-wingers who see the empire as a single ‘unconscionable evil – capitalist, racist, even genocidal’; and the right-wingers (these days a rather smaller fraternity, in academia at any rate) who regard it as the means by which Britain helped ‘civilise’ or ‘modernise’ the world. This, he claims, is ‘generally what the popular British debate about imperialism focuses on today’, and he regards both sides as mistaken, ‘because they get the whole nature of the phenomenon wrong’.

The language of ‘imperialism’ suggests a single driving force, to be compared with the force that fuelled the expansion of the Roman Empire. But the British version was created out of such a mixture of motives – the protection of trade, the migratory itch, strategic paranoia, unvarnished greed, missionary zeal, scientific inquiry, dishing the French (or the Russians) – and the forms it took were too hopelessly various to fit a single model.

The peopling of Australia with British emigrants, for example, had almost nothing in common with Britain’s rule – with a very small number of personnel – over countries like India and Nigeria, with different motives informing each of them, and very different outcomes. For Britain’s white Australian subjects, colonialism represented a liberation, with most of them (this of course excludes transported felons) becoming far more individually free than their sisters and brothers back in Britain, and at least as free as those – a majority, as it happens – who chose the US as their new home.

And even the felons in Australia were soon to enjoy more democratic rights than the most respectable merchants in India. Barely thirty years separates the landing of the last convict ship at Fremantle from the proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

‘Frustrating though this may be,’ Porter argues, ‘confusion and complexity are generally a truer way of looking at things than certainty and simplicity.’ He proposes as a fanciful discipline that ‘we imperial historians agree to a moratorium on the “e”, “i”, and “c” words – “empire”, “imperial”, “colonial” and so on – for, say, five years, forcing us to see if we couldn’t understand our subject more, or at least differently, without them’. He doesn’t take his own advice, and he clearly suggests that some of his colleagues, such as John Darwin, have already imbibed the message of complexity, though the popular debate remains stuck in the crude old ruts.

Even John Seeley’s notorious claim, borrowed by Porter for the title of his earlier book, that ‘we seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind’ contains both an ambiguity and a dichotomy. Did he mean that the whole process of empire-building was entirely unintentional or that the intentions were chaotic, mutable and conflicting (‘mind’ here meaning single driving purpose) – or a bit of both? The wisecrack certainly distinguishes between the conquered and the settled lands, between India and the African colonies on the one hand, and the old white dominions on the other. This fundamental distinction permeates almost every aspect of governance and culture. The settler territories were treated, by and large, as terra nullius, no-man’s-lands, thus open to legitimate settlement by all-comers. To make this assumption a reality, the original inhabitants had to be removed or exterminated, or at the very least expropriated by forced treaties.

By contrast, in India and some of the African colonies, the tenures of the existing inhabitants were, on the whole, respected, although this did not preclude meddlesome revisions by the so-called ‘modernisers’ in the colonial service. In these territories, settlement by Europeans was on a very modest scale, except for example in Kenya. As the 19th century wore on, colonial enthusiasts bemoaned the unwillingness of the British to come out and ‘make a go’ of India, except in the secure careers of the army and the civil service, where most of the time they showed impressive dedication to their task. The British bankers and tea and indigo planters were always a minority. At the same time, Indian bankers and entrepreneurs like the Tagores and the Tatas were prominent at the beginning of Indian industrialisation. Indian agriculture too was supported by a sophisticated indigenous commercial system which the British never quite got the hang of, although they found themselves borrowing from the banias, even in the middle of the Great Mutiny.

And if the British in India didn’t take over the land, nor did they attempt to foist their belief systems on the Indians. As Porter points out, the East India Company banned Christian missionaries from operating in the subcontinent. All the same, millions of Indians continued to believe that Christianisation and the destruction of their caste were part of the long-term plan. That fatal misunderstanding was among the underlying causes of the mutinies, great and small. At least the British really did set out to practise what they called ‘non-interference’, not very different from what Ranajit Guha calls ‘domination without hegemony’.

By contrast, in the settler dominions, now largely if still sparsely populated by Europeans, the Christian religion sprouted in every known form. So did the English traditions of the common law, and soon enough, of parliamentary democracy. Again, there is a sharp contrast between the latitude allowed in the white dominions for the free formation of democratic institutions and the authoritarian, centralised rule that continued in India until well into the 20th century, despite repeated proposals for reform. The more enlightened proconsuls recognised the superior antiquity of Indian civilisation or civilisations. But they did not accept that this fitted the Indian people in their current state for anything approaching self-government. After the Mutiny, with the enormous strengthening of the British regiments, India became an undisguised military dictatorship, and one which was in the end prohibitively expensive to maintain.

Nor should we exaggerate the role played by red-blooded capitalism in the development even of the white dominions. Andro Linklater’s literally trailblazing history of land ownership, Owning the Earth, shows the extent to which it was the government that led the way in opening up the West and the outback in North America and Australia. The process was more like a feudal one, comparable to the way in which William the Conqueror handed out estates to his troops and his favourites.

Conversely, if a colony didn’t need capitalism to flourish, nor did capitalism need an overarching colonial structure. All over South America, British entrepreneurs built railways and banks and ranches, often on a vast scale, without being sheltered under any colonial umbrella. Porter points out too that we should not exaggerate the extent to which the empire provided Britain with either its consumer goods or its raw materials. Until the later 19th century, most of its tea came from China, its coffee from Brazil, its timber from Russia and Finland (as it had in Pepys’s day), and its cotton from the US (until the Civil War).

And if the British Empire turns out to be different from what we thought it was, or rather to be several different things, so too does what the British themselves thought about their empire. Porter argues that ‘imperialism’ as a conscious ideology is scarcely visible until the late 19th century, the pink splodges not appearing on those vainglorious maps until around 1900. To Seeley’s chagrin, the public schools taught almost no imperial history. Nor was the empire conspicuous in high culture. The canvases of heroic last stands might draw crowds at the Royal Academy, but they were soon relegated to provincial regimental museums and their painters seldom became RAs. Such empire-boosting as we do come across looks like official propaganda, hardly necessary if the people were already reliably imperialistic.

As for the empire being a usable political cause, neither Disraeli’s fancies about the ‘jewel in the crown’ nor the programme of the Liberal Imperialists really had the ring of authenticity. Besides, all this coincided with the irruption of the opposite tendency: anti-imperialism, the classic text being J.A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study, which came out in 1902. The Boer War was the prime provocation, pricked on by Britain’s shameful actions in China and Sudan. Suspicions of imperial expansion and protests against the subjugation of other races date back to Castlereagh and Burke, but now they were poisonously linked to the greed of the Randlords and the opium traders. Innocent free trade, which Porter points out Hobson supported as a good Liberal, had morphed into evil monopoly capitalism. Thus at its zenith in terms of territory, the empire was already suffering a loss of confidence and moral zeal.

When it finally melted away after 1945, the British people didn’t seem to care very much. The League of Empire Loyalists was a bad joke. The withdrawal left few visible scars on the popular psyche, and for the British everything went smoothly. The establishment successfully covered up for a generation and more just how brutal the process of decolonisation had been for the people of Malaya and Kenya. Today when the media list the heroic moments of our island story, they focus on the defence of the homeland: the Armada, Trafalgar, Waterloo, Dunkirk, D-Day. The battles fought to acquire and preserve the empire, once known to every British schoolboy, are no longer part of our sustaining myth.

But then there is something decidedly peculiar about the style in which the British commemorated the battles of the empire in its heyday. The mourning and the monuments were reserved for those heroes who had suffered conspicuous deaths in lost battles. In Heroic Failure and the British, Stephanie Barczewski, with all the postcolonial detachment that comes naturally to an American academic, gives a long and stirring list: from that feisty Ulsterman, Rollo Gillespie, strutting alone to a hero’s death against the Gurkhas at Kalunga (his men had refused to follow him), and Ned Pakenham and Samuel Gibbs falling one after the other in the disaster at New Orleans (the British had more than two thousand casualties, the Americans a mere 22), through to the insane Charge of the Light Brigade and the Last Stand at Isandlwana to the death of Gordon at Khartoum before the relief column got there. Where these stories do not end in death, they end in the relief of a starving garrison: at Lucknow (relieved three times during the Mutiny of 1857), at Ladysmith, at Mafeking – who now remembers the word ‘mafficking’ or the boisterous rejoicing that gave rise to it?

Whether in mourning or pent-up relief, the message was clear: only death or near starvation could justify the cause. If the British were to convince themselves that their empire was just, benevolent and moral, Barczewski argues, they needed ‘to occlude Britain’s military might and to shift attention away from extremely lopsided battles that were more akin to slaughter’. For the sake of our self-respect, we had to forget that we had the Maxim gun and they had not. Gillespie is commemorated by no fewer than five monuments: at Kalunga itself, in his native County Down, in Calcutta and Meerut and in St Paul’s Cathedral in the same transept as Pakenham and Gibbs. He is remembered not for his bloody victories in the West Indies and in India, still less for his massacre of hundreds of unarmed prisoners when quelling the mutiny at Vellore, but rather for the manner of his glorious ultimate sacrifice.

I find it hard to disagree with the main thrust of Barczewski’s argument, though she herself qualifies it a bit. There is, she admits, nothing exclusively British about this memorial strategy. The Americans still honour the dead of the Alamo and Little Big Horn as a distraction from the one-sided massacres that disfigured the westward march of the United States. Barczewski also includes several non-military deaths in lost causes: that of Sir John Franklin in his vain search for the North-West Passage, David Livingstone’s fruitless missions to the Zambesi, and Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed mission to the South Pole. All these deaths were indeed flawed: Franklin’s by the large number of people who died looking for him and by the cannibalism to which his desperate companions resorted at the last, Livingstone’s by his brutal treatment of so many Africans, and Scott’s by his arrogant mistakes. But none of them had set out to subjugate other human beings or to kill anyone. I confess to being a little moved by their stories, just as I was moved at the recent exhibition at Tate Britain, Artist and Empire, by the roomful of huge, and not very good, canvases depicting last stands and heroic deaths from Wolfe at Quebec to Gordon at Khartoum.[*]

All the same, the contrast with the non-imperial battles of the 20th century does tend to support Barczewski’s thesis. After the two world wars, it was the sacrifice not of individuals but of whole regiments, in battles won as well as battles lost, which tended to be commemorated. The thousands of deaths on both sides were scrupulously recorded. There was no need of obfuscation, because national survival was seen to be at stake, and after 1916 the whole nation was conscripted into the struggle. So the memorials, whether local or national, tend to be simple and sombre and above all communal. On town and village memorials there are often no distinctions of rank. The names are given in bare alphabetical order.

Barczewski retells the old heroic tales with a narrative touch and a delicate irony which avoids condescension. All the same, her placing the explorers alongside the soldiers does lead me to a slightly different conclusion (though one which is not incompatible with hers). The conscription to the national cause seems to me not merely military but also a conscription of the imagination. These brave or foolhardy ventures – whether military, scientific or even in Livingstone’s case religious – were often financed by private individuals (by Lady Franklin, for example) or by societies, but they were increasingly presented in the media as undertaken for the glory of the nation. In the crudest sense, it has to be a British expedition that gets to the Pole first or discovers the North-West Passage. But in a loftier sense, even being first doesn’t matter so much (nobody remembers who actually discovered the North-West Passage while looking for Franklin – it was either Commander Robert McClure or a fur trader called William Kennedy). The ultimate purpose of these exemplary hardships and deaths is to demonstrate the unrivalled nobility of the British race, to proclaim and establish a moral Imperium. These public parables are designed to tighten the grip of nationhood and to intensify the moral reach of the state that embodies that nationhood.


Porter now and then confides to us that he is at heart an old leftie, and towards the end of his unfailingly enjoyable and arresting essay he offers us a little evidence of this when he asserts that ‘there can be no doubt that the development of capitalism has been the dominant factor in human history over the last two hundred years, easily outranking “imperialism”.’ This is indeed the sturdiest, if somewhat charred beam supporting what’s left of the Marxist edifice. It is the assertion which remains the most striking and persuasive in the Communist Manifesto, that from its modest beginnings capitalism has grown to engulf all other social structures and traditions. Capitalism is deeply ‘imbricated’ in imperialism only because it is imbricated in everything.

Yet seen from the perspective of imperial history, this isn’t exactly how it all looks. Yes, the colonies did often start off with state-sponsored companies of merchant venturers, but these had frequently to be rescued and reconstituted by the government. Far from capitalism buttressing, let alone driving on the expansion of empire, the crashes of banks and trading houses repeatedly undermined the whole enterprise and bankrupted the empire’s most loyal servants (see Thackeray passim). To pay for their wars of conquest, successive governor-generals had to squeeze vast loans out of the richer rajas, themselves scarcely exemplars of dynamic capitalism.

As time went by, the imperial state fashioned its own far-flung statelets, with only glancing regard for commercial interests. Most spectacularly, the East India Company had its monopoly privileges removed, then after the Mutiny was abolished altogether. Thereafter what strikes one most forcibly is not the growth of capitalism but the build-up of state institutions: in India, the unification of an enormous army, whose cantonments still sprawl on the edge of every city today; the introduction of a national system of taxation; the establishment of a high-quality national bureaucracy (the Raj had always been a pioneer of bureaucracy, and the office blocks of Calcutta are even today its most impressive monument). Capitalism appears at best a laggard and fitful accomplice in the accumulation and consolidation of state power.

In the white dominions it was the state which doled out land, on the basis of official surveys. Untamed prairies, ‘owned’ in our sense by nobody, became vast chequerboards of private landholdings with title guaranteed by the state, which were then grouped into counties and provinces and taxed accordingly. In time, democratic constitutions, readily granted to their co-racials by the imperial Parliament, created a formidable demos, and a national spirit was forged on Vimy Ridge and the beaches of Gallipoli. Capitalism, though a pervasive presence in all this, scarcely seems a decisive one. Would it be helpful if Porter were to propose a moratorium on this ‘c’ word too, to see if we cannot understand the rise and fall of empire better, or at least differently, without it?

Is there anything so different about the process which turns peasants owing vague allegiance to the local raja into, first, subjects of Queen Victoria, and then into Indian citizens, from the process that turns Breton peasants into Frenchmen and Scottish Highlanders into Britishers? The same routes are opened to membership of the new nation: the army, the civil service, educational qualifications, a national lingua franca. The same calls to loyalty and solidarity gradually generate a new allegiance.

The Marxist narrative – the rude capitalism of the ‘early modern’ period leading to the Industrial Revolution and then on to ‘late’ capitalism, which, rather surprisingly, then segues into ‘neoliberalism’ – appears not so much mistaken as inadequate to describe what has happened. There seems to be a curious if unwitting alliance between the rival schools of lumpers: both left and right proclaiming that global capitalism is eroding the powers of the state. The multinational corporation, we are told, laughs at mere government ministers.

This new consensus seems both to underrate the creative destruction which is inherent in capitalism – where now are ICI and GEC? Who had to rescue the big banks, and what happened to their shareholders? Will BHP or BP exist in ten years time? – and to undervalue the resilience of the state. In Britain, after all these years of Thatcherism and neoliberalism, the state still controls and distributes as much of the nation’s GDP as it did in the last years of the Attlee government. In addition, today the state exercises fresh and unprecedented powers over education, the health service, local government and banking, not to mention the wonderful new powers of surveillance and enforcement conferred by the digital revolution. ‘Compliance’ with government regulations now provides a comfortable living for legions of lawyers.

The empire has gone away, but the state, for good and ill, has not. The history of modern empires, of the British Empire in particular, can be seen simply as a geographically extended version of a general process: the advancement of state power, not always clear in its intentions, sometimes hesitant and backtracking, sometimes brutal in its methods, sometimes surprisingly adept at caring for and cherishing its citizens, but usually if not invariably with the outcome of making its writ run everywhere. If this too sounds like a bit of lumping, that is because it is.

[*] The exhibition was reviewed by Inigo Thomas in the LRB of 21 January.