- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

By David Cannadine

Oxford University Press, $25, 264 pages, illus.

Was it racism or snobbery that was most influential in the creation of the British empire? This sounds a bit like that famous complex question, "When did you stop beating your wife?" Edward Said, in "Ornamentalism," one of the most influential books of the last quarter century, and most of those in the field of "post-colonial" studies which it has so largely inspired, think that the answer is racism. Now comes the British historian David Cannadine, in a book whose witty title obviously plays on Mr. Said's, who ripostes with a resounding argument in favor of snobbery. I hope the shades of the great Victorians are properly grateful for his defense of them against what is clearly the worse of these two pejoratives.
Here, in brief, is what Mr. Cannadine believes. Those who built and sustained the British Empire for the most part did not do so with the idea that the native population belonged to inferior races. In the early 19th century there was a certain vogue for this kind of thinking, but it soon gave way to a variation on the earlier, Romantic idea of the "noble savage." The romanticism of the 18th century had been revolutionary, but the new romanticism which Mr. Cannadine associates with the names of Sir Henry Maine, Sir William Wilson Hunter and Sir Alfred Lyall was Burkean and idealized the "healthy agricultural communities" of the Indian subcontinent as "ancient," "organic," and "traditional."
Especially significant in the view of the British was their hierarchical social structure. To the "empire builders" of the high Victorian age, particularly in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, not all natives were equal, as they are to the typical racist. In India, as later in Africa and Malaya and the Middle East (though to a much lesser extent in the "Dominions of settlement" in North America, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa) there was a serious attempt to superimpose British class distinctions upon the native populations, so that those at the top of the hierarchy the nizams and maharajahs and sultans and tribal chieftains were considered a sort of honorary British aristocrats.
The native elites were showered with honors and decorations (hence the book's title) by the empress in London as a way of reinforcing this identity. As the social distinctions of the metropolitan center were repeated on the imperial periphery, so the naturalness and rightness of the hierarchical ordering of society was reinforced. Both the aristocracy and the lower orders at home and on the imperial periphery were seen as equivalents. Mr. Cannadine quotes the wife of Arthur Hamilton Gordon, the first British governor of Fiji, who praises the "perfectly easy and well bred" manners but comments: "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!"
Obviously, the attempt to rule by reinforcing native social hierarchies worked better in some places than in others. It was an approach particularly well suited to India, with its elaborate caste divisions though as Mr. Cannadine believes, quoting Philip Mason, "British India was as much infected by caste as Indian India." But in parts of Africa these hierarchies had almost to be invented from scratch. Yet even there, writes Mr. Cannadine, the British imperial elites "shared similar social vision of their homeland, which they thought they had found reproduced and confirmed in Africa.
Their preferred society was paternalistic, hierarchical and rural, with individual layers and gradations of status, such as survived in Britain on great landed estates although even there it was being eroded."
In fact it was the erosion of social hierarchies in Britain itself by the rising tide of democratic egalitarianism which did more than anything to prolong the imperial project by romanticizing it for the British ruling class.
The less progressive peoples of the empire came to be seen as actually better than those of Britain, which they saw as declining into decadence, democracy and capitalism. By contrast, said Lord Curzon, viceroy of India at the turn of the century, the native aristocracy could be said "amid the leveling tendencies of the age" to keep "alive the traditions and customs, sustain the virility, and save from extinction, the picturesqueness of ancient and noble races."
After World War I, the British mandates in the former Ottoman provinces of the Middle East, along with the writings of T.E. Lawrence, helped to create a new wave of romanticism about the wild Bedouin tribesmen.
"When confronted by agricultural depression, mass politics in the cities, anti-landlord agitation in Ireland and attacks on the House of Lords itself," writes Mr. Cannadine, "many anxious and disenchanted patricians came to admire (and to envy) the magnificent Bedouin chiefs and their remote, unspoilt deserts where it seemed the established social order endured and traditional deference still prevailed, where the ancient values of chivalry and honour were preserved."
It all fell apart of course under the combined pressures of social change as rural and hierarchical communities were in decline everywhere nationalism and the democratic and egalitarian impulse that accompanied it. Accordingly, notes Mr. Cannadine, "when it happened, the achievement of autonomy and the independence meant the rejection of Britain's empire and the rejection of Britain's transoceanically extended social order … In most countries, sometimes rapidly, sometimes more slowly, independence was thus simultaneously a political and social revolution, as empire and hierarchy, indeed as empire as hierarchy, were rejected."
It is helpful to look at Mr. Cannadine's book as part of an academic dialogue. In a way he is putting such obvious propositions as that class and caste and hierarchy and tradition used to be important to people (and not just British people either) into terms that will be comprehensible in an intellectual milieu accustomed to making theoretical rather than historical assumptions. It might almost be thought heretical in university English departments to suggest so blatantly that people used to be different from what they are today.
Also as a gesture in the direction of postmodern history Mr. Cannadine gives us an autobiographical appendix, of little interest to non-family members, telling how it was that he came to be interested in the Empire.
It might have been nice instead to see him tackle such interesting questions as that of the connection, if any, between the ending of the imperial and other sorts of hierarchy?
Was there a corresponding loss of other things that now we like pretend we can do without or, indeed are better off without things like honor, manners, the literary canon, ideas of taste and beauty and "greatness" in a work of art? All of these things are also class-related, and all are under assault by many of the same people who dominate the field of post-colonial studies. Perhaps Mr. Cannadine thinks he's upset enough apple carts as it is. But though he may have a point to make about which sin against the spirit of our times the makers of the British empire were more guilty of, the academic believers in orientalism are still firmly in control.

James Bowman, American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London and film critic of the American Spectator, is writing a book about honor.

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