Imperialism: New and Old

I make no excuse and offer no apology for selecting Imperialism as my subject, since no one will deny that there is no question more important at the present moment in the history of the world. Even so long ago as the end of last century imperialism was described by one of our great statesmen - the late Lord Salisbury - as "the most powerful movement in the current polities of the Western World". Yet there can be few subjects about which there are so many misunderstandings, or on which many conflicting opinions are held.

There are some people, more especially those on the extreme left wing in politics, to whom the very word is anathema. To these it calls up instantly visions of tyranny and rapacity, and it evokes in them feelings of the bitterest hostility. In their minds it is inseparable from, greed, ruthless and selfish domination, arrogance, the exploitation and enslavement of the weak and defenceless in the sole interests of greedy and unscrupulous financiers, and the denial of all individual liberty. A writer, a well-known student of economics and social science, in a well reasoned and well balanced book published some years ago, described as being "a depraved choice of national life", and attributed it "to a kind of throwback to man's savage, semi-animal existence in pre-historic ages." There are many, on the other hand, to whom Imperialism, so far from being vicious, is the embodiment of the highest virtues of which a State is capable. To them it is the noblest form of self-sacrifice which a nation can make in the interest of the people less favoured than themselves, or indeed of mankind as a whole. It includes the assumption and continued bearing of the "White Man's Burden", which a great Imperialist, now dead, once wrote to me was a duty similar to the duty which the rich owe to the poor of our race."

And between these two extremes - Imperialism as the "depraved choice of national life", Imperialism as "one of the noblest and most self-sacrificing ideals that can stir a nation" - there lies every grade of opinion, some favourable, some hostile. So that it is hardly to be wondered at if the plain man in the street, when he hears the word used on the political platform or reads it in his newspaper finds himself in a state of hopeless perplexity and wonders which way his duty lies; whether this "Imperialism" represents an ugly and unclean monster which he ought to use all his efforts and influence to crush and destroy; or a noble Ideal which he ought to support, even to his own and his country's detriment, in order to bring prosperity to the world at large, more especially the down-trodden races, less fortunately situated than himself.

Well Imperialism is not a commodity, like a motor car or sewing machine or a brand of soap, which can be labelled definitely good or bad. It is a conception, a form of activity, which depends for its quality on the motives which lie behind it and the principles and ideals on which it is based and by which it is conditioned. There are in fact various kinds of Imperialism, some almost as evil as its most bitter detractors would have us believe, and others almost as worthy of support and respect as its most ardent supporters hold that it is.

Imperialism was until quite recently a term held in general respect. Its misuse seems to have begun with the Marxist Theory that the prime cause of war is capitalist exploitation and the pressure of the exploiters on the government to seize the territories of backward peoples in order to protect their operations. All history cries out against this base interpretation of human motives, and the visible policy of the two greatest imperial powers; Great Britain and France, gives it the lie.

The sharp distinction that these mediaevalists drew between imperialism and Marxism or ownership is valid today. It is the key to the very essence of Empire which is not the authority of a slave owner but a trusteeship for the bodies and souls of men.

The great historian Lord Bryce declared the soul and essence of true imperialism to be "the love of peace, the sense of furtherment of mankind, the recognition of the sacredness and supremacy of the spiritual life."

The power that has broken this peace is the one that admittedly claims not the manifold and onerous responsibilities of trusteeship but the right of ownership to exploit subject peoples for the profit of a ruling class.

My purpose today is to endeavour to show that a new kind of Imperialism is stirring which differs fundamentally from that of even a generation ago, and which contains within it the germs, already dimly visible, of a great hope for the future of civilization.

Empires, we all know, have existed since the very dawn of history. They have waxed and waned, risen and declined, been built up and dissolved, in almost endless succession. Some have owed their origin to the ambitions and genius of some great conqueror; some have resulted from the commercial expansion of an enterprising nation hungry for fresh markets. There have been Egyptian Empires, Chinese, Assyrian, Persian, Roman Spanish, Indian - even an Abyssinian Empire. They have been of every conceivable type, with manifold differences from one another. But all have possessed one feature in common - there has been a Central Government or Authority to which all individuals comprised within the frontiers of the Empire have been subordinate and to which they have owed obedience. It matters not whether this central authority consisted of an individual, or a council, or a priesthood, or a caste, or a clique or any other form of authority; in all cases its writ ran throughout the area over which it held sway. Revolts in any part were met by force of arms, as were attacks from outside. Where the revolutionaries proved too strong for the central government the particular area or tribe revolting detached itself from the Empire and set up as an independent state. And when this occurred on a large scale, the Empire lost its cohesion altogether and became disintegrated; but so long as the central authority was strong enough to suppress any disruptive element in its midst, the Empire continued to exist.

Now our own Empire, which has been in existence itself for little over 300 years, was built up on exactly the same principle - a strong central government exercising control and jurisdiction over a scattered area. It developed gradually, by colonization, by conquest, by treaty, and in other ways, receiving continuous accretions of territory in various parts of the world. But no matter what additions were made to it from time to time, or what changes were introduced, one feature remained constant - the domination and sovereignty of the central authority, and the submission to its authority by all the outlying parts.

The first shock to the existing system came towards the end of the 18th century, when the 13 American Colonies revolted against the Mother Country - that is to say, the Central Authority and successfully set up as an independent sovereign State. This event had a profound influence on the Mother Country in its relationship to its Dominions overseas. It certainly modified its policy towards these and was never forgotten by the British people or its statesmen. But it did not alter the basic element of cohesion nor the prevailing and historic conception of Empire - I mean, the supremacy and domination throughout of the Central Authority. This conception in fact lay at the very root of what I call the "Old Imperialism."

It was towards the close of the Nineteenth Century that the British Empire may be said to have attained the highest point in its status as a World Power - the highest point, that is, from the material aspect. There was, be it said, at that period of its history a certain grandeur, a somewhat dazzling and fascinating splendour, not altogether unlike that which clings round the legendary accounts of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, or the Crusades. Earnest men and women saw in the British a chosen people, destined to lead the world, and to whom other nations would always look for inspiration, advice and help. And they saw Britain as a pioneer of peace and prosperity, and its institutions as models of competent and just administration which other less favoured nations might copy if they so willed, but could not improve upon. Their country was to them indeed a "Land of Hope and Glory", and with all the enthusiasm of an almost religious fervour they sang:-

Wider yet and wider shall thy bounds be set,
God who made thee mighty make thee mightier yet."

To recapture the atmosphere of that old Imperialism I have only to let my memory stray back to the brilliant sunny day of early summer when, as a very young subaltern home on a few weeks leave from abroad, I watched from the pavement of Pall Mall the triumphal procession of the old Queen at the celebration of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. I remember the white plumes of the escort of Life Guards, the sparkle in the sunlight of their brass helmets end steel cuirasses; the resplendent uniforms of the various members of the Royal houses of Europe who rode beside the carriage drawn by its six cream horses; the figure of the dignified little old lady in her dress of sombre black, the shouts and cheers of the crowds that lined and thronged the streets. And I recall very clearly how I caught my breath and how my breast swelled with pride at the thought that I was a member and a servant of so mighty and powerful an Empire, whose flag flew in every quarter of the globe, and which held sway over millions of people of every creed, colour and race.

Looking back on it all now one sees plainly enough how much arrogance and self-satisfaction were mingled with that pride in the Empire. It was singularly like the doctrine of "Herrenvolk" of which we hear so much elsewhere today. But it was not only young subalterns who were intoxicated with this heady wine of racial supremacy. The conviction that the British were a people set apart by some Higher power to lead the world after their own pattern, and indeed to rule the world, was shared by the great majority of the citizens of the Empire. "The British Empire," said that great Liberal statesman, the late Lord Rosebery, on a memorable occasion, "is the greatest secular agency for good that the world has ever seen." "The Anglo-Saxon race," said Mr Joseph Chamberlain, "is infallibly destined to be the predominant force in the history and civilization of the world." and when someone said ironically to a young politician who was declaring that the British were the only people in the world who knew how to govern, "I suppose you imagine that we could undertake to govern France better than Frenchmen can govern her?" "Why of course I do," was the prompt and entirely sincere reply. The old Imperialism was in fact based on a genuine belief that British ideas of right and wrong, justice and injustice, straight and crooked dealing, were infallibly correct and those of all other nations and peoples were wrong if they differed from them. We believed that we had more than a message to carry round the world and preach; we had a duty to take the lead and impose British ideals and institutions on the peoples of the world, if need be, by force and we set about our forcible missionarizing without a qualm or a doubt. Here was the ethical basis of the Nineteenth century Imperialism.

It was the Boer War, perhaps, that presented the first shock to our self-complacency; and it was Kipling's Recessional that struck the right note:-

"The tumult and the shouting dies; the Captains and the Kings
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice, a humble and a contrite heart"

When a handful of Boer farmers held up the whole embattled might of the British Empire for nearly three years we began to suspect that there was something amiss, and to wonder if our arrogant self-complacency was altogether justified. And there was also an uneasy feeling amongst many in the country and a searching of conscience. Had our treatment of those small Dutch republics in South Africa during the months and years prior to the outbreak of actual hostilities been altogether beyond reproach and entirely worthy of the generosity expected from the most powerful and we wealthy nation in the world in its dealings with a small people?

And there was something else which tended to rouse us from the easy-going complacency which seemed to have settled down on the country. We found ourselves confronted with a stupendous task in the development of vast newly acquired areas in Tropical Africa and elsewhere, presenting endless problems of administration.

Hitherto Britain had looked upon her overseas Dependencies in the tropics mainly as a source of supply for various raw materials and a market for our manufactured goods. As for the inhabitants of these regions, their welfare could, it was thought, be trusted mainly to the missionaries, through whose selfless zeal and devotion schools were in many places provided. The Government felt that it had done its duty when it provided for law and order inside these areas, and for security from outside aggression. But those engaged in the actual work of administration in the areas themselves saw matters from a very different angle. They recognised the folly of trying to foist a European civilization on the primitive African, with traditions of his own stretching back in to the dim past and a mentality wholly different from that of his new and alien overlords. Where, they asked themselves, was the sense of de-tribalizing and de-naturalizing him, and imagining that we had conferred an immense benefit on him when we had dressed him in a straw hat and college blazer and taught him the syntax of the English language?

A new method of dealing with the African native in his own land was introduced, mainly owing to the vision and genius of one great Administrator, Sir Frederick Lugard (now Lord Lugard) who created the system known as Indirect Rule, and explained its aims in a book of world-wide reputation, to which he gave the suggestive title of The Dual Mandate Briefly, the new method of dealing with the inhabitants of these regions was to leave the administration mainly in the hands of the existing Chiefs and leaders and encourage them to rule and guide their people along their old familiar lines, so long as these did not contravene modern and civilized ideas of liberty and mercy. No attempt to enforce an alien civilization on them was made, but advisers were appointed to see that cruelty and injustice were not practised, and that the welfare of the people was made the sole criterion of good administration by the Chiefs and leaders. Slowly, then, the idea of "Service" has been substituted for that of "Domination." No longer were these territories looked upon merely as convenient reservoirs and markets for the benefit of merchants and financiers in the country which claimed dominion over them. Both the people of Britain and successive governments had been won over to a different view. It was announced officially that Britain's position was that of Trustee for these backwards communities, and that the first consideration, which took precedence over everything else was, the welfare of people composing these communities, even if it conflicted with the interests of the home country. It need hardly be pointed out what an immense advance this signifies in the policy of Britain, viewed from a moral standpoint - an advance comparable only to that entailed by the abolition of the slave trade in the early years of the nineteenth century some hundred years previously.

Now let us turn to an equally significant challenge in another aspect of British Imperial policy.

The regions colonized overland from these islands in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had long witnessed the development of prosperous communities which gradually, as the years went by, attained the full stature of Colonies with Local Self Government, and eventually became recognised as "Self-Governing Dominions." The Mother Country had, of her own free will, granted them first complete liberty in their own local concerns, and then complete fiscal and economic freedom. The Great War of 1914-1918 came, and these Self-Governing Dominions emerged in due course as sovereign independent states, independent of the Mother Country, not only in respect of their internal affairs but of their external relations as well. The Great Dominion of Canada established Ministries at Washington and at Tokyo, and other Dominions established ministries in other countries; and finally, after the matter had been freely discussed between the Dominions and the Mother country at Imperial Conferences held from time to time in London to confer on matters of interest and concern to all, the position which had gradually evolved by process of friendly agreement was crystallized in an Imperial Act of Parliament, entitled The Statute of Westminster, passed in 1931. Henceforth the old Self Governing Dominions became "autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs... and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth Of Nations."

Here we have an entirely new phenomenon, unlike anything that has been seen in the world since primitive cavemen began to form themselves into groups and tribes. You may search the pages of history, and you will find nothing approaching this new conception. The familiar feature of which I spoke earlier - the supreme central government - has vanished from the picture. Each unit is free to develop its own individuality as it thinks best; its foreign affairs, as well as its internal affairs are in its own hands, it makes its own decisions and shapes its own destiny untrammelled by any authority from a central government, for there is no central government.

But the units, free and independent as they are, are nevertheless linked together by tradition, by sentiment, by respect for law and for individual liberty, by common ideals of justice and freedom, and by a determination to resist by common action any attempt at attack from outside. Here we have in fact a practical example of a League of Nations, each member free to develop on its own lines, and yet all voluntarily agreed - though by no written compact - to settle any differences which may arise between any of them by consultation and compromise, and not by force.

I should like to quote from many statesmen of the Overseas Dominions to show what this evolution into a British Commonwealth of Nations means to them, but I must confine myself to two. First, listen to Colonel Denys Reitz, A Boer who fought against us throughout the Boer War, and then left his country after the Peace of Vereeniging rather than live under the British flag, but subsequently fought very gallantly with us in the Four Years' War and ended up in command of a British battalion. This is what he said in a public speech some years ago :-

"I speak as one who has not a single drop of English blood in my veins... I have a very firm and deep-rooted faith in the British Commonwealth of Nations. I consider it the nearest approach to the ideal of the League of Nations that we shall see in our time... I feel that we in South Africa are doing the right thing by remaining a voluntary partner in this great federation of Nations... "

And now to General Smuts, speaking during the last War to a meeting of representatives of both Houses of' Parliament in London:-

"We are not one nation or State or empire, but we are a whole world by ourselves, consisting of many nations and states - not a static system, a stationary system, but a dynamic system, growing, evolving all the time towards new destinies... All the nations that we have known in the past and that exist to-day are founded on the idea of assimilation, of trying to force different human material through one mould so as to form one nation. Your whole idea and basis is entirely different. You do not want to standardize the nations of the British Empire. You want to develop them into greater nationhood. These younger communities, the offspring of the Mother Country, or territories like that of my own people, which have been annexed after various vicissitudes of war - all these you want, not to be moulded to any common pattern, but to develop according to the principles of self government and freedom and liberty."

There you have the views expressed by Dominion Statesmen who look upon the Empire as an association of peoples, freely linked together by common ideals and common interests, based on the principle of individual liberty, and deliberately excluding force, and substituting reason in the settlement of any differences or difficulties that may arise between them. This voluntary association of independent and yet interdependent units or States is, as I have said, something entirely new in the history of civilization. It is still in an experimental stage, and we have reached a point when we have either to succeed in making it a reality, or acknowledge failure, and see the Empire break up into fragments. What this would mean for the world at large I leave to Colonel Reitz (whom I have already quoted) to say. "If the British Empire and the United States of America were to fall to pieces", he said a few years ago, "all would be darkness in the world."

What then can we say, are the characteristics of this "New Imperialism", and how does it differ from the old? It differs from the Old in that it takes a far wider view of its mission. It discards the notion that British ideas must necessarily fit every type of human being on this planet; it believes that every nation or group of people will progress best by governing itself along its own lines, but that problems common to all can best be settled by consultation and co-operation amongst those concerned; that a country dealing with less advanced races must resolutely avoid any temptation to exploit them or use their territories or resources for its own advantage but must on the contrary devote itself to assisting them to develop themselves until they reach the stage when they can manage their own affairs unaided. In a word, it aims at Service and Co-operation, and not domination.

These are not airy, impracticable ideals, dreams noble in themselves but incapable of being put into practice in this imperfect world, as some people calling themselves realists will tell you, adding that it is impossible to alter human nature and that man has always settled his quarrels by fighting and will continue so to do for all time. They are in practice at the present moment, in the British Commonwealth of Nations, and I personally am profoundly convinced that civilization will sooner or later find itself obliged to adopt some such method, or perish in the cataclysm of a World War.

But assuming for a moment that all I have said is true, how, some will ask, does it affect me? I submit that it affects every one of us most vitally. Look for a moment across the Channel at those countries which have adopted a totalitarian form of government under a Dictator. Dislike as we may the recoil from liberty which this form of government entails, detest as we may the methods by which it is carried out, we should be foolish to blind ourselves to the fact that these Dictatorships have had the effect of inspiring every man, woman and child in the country where they are established with a tremendous enthusiasm, a willingness to sacrifice everything, even their lives, for the State, to make it great and powerful. The leaders have in fact roused their people to an almost religious fervour and have thus created a potential and dynamic energy which is capable of producing the most astonishing results.

What have we in this country wherewith to match this national enthusiasm? - We as a nation have enjoyed great prosperity for many generations, and our main desire is to keep what we have, to live in peace with all men, and enjoy the wealth and comfort which we have inherited from our forefathers. These self-regarding notions of ease and comfort are scarcely calculated to inspire or touch the generous emotions of anyone, certainly not of the rising generation. I suggest that the ideas and ideals, which form the mainspring of what I have called (for want of a better name) the "New Imperialism" carry within them all the inspiration of a flaming torch or the music of an orchestra. Willingness to die for your country is indeed a noble thing. But surely a far nobler is to LIVE tor an ideal that will benefit, if attained, not only your own country, but the whole of mankind. The British Commonwealth of Nations, as I see it, is blazing a trail which may well lead to the discovery of a way of escape from the dark and tangled forest in which civilization seems at present to be groping its way.

The longer I live, the more I am convinced that the dragooning of people, whether individuals or nations, by material force, efficacious though it may appear for a brief space, is bound in the long run to end in failure; and indeed in disaster. Tolerance, respect for individual liberty, sympathy, understanding readiness at all times to see the other man's point of view, devotion to common, as opposed to selfish, interests - these, combined with resolute and inspired leadership, are the real forces which will decide the destiny of mankind. They will, I am convinced, Carry the human race forward and upward into a more ordered and better integrated society, where men can dwell in peace and friendship with their neighbours, no longer haunted by the hideous nightmare of war and mutual destruction. And that, I firmly believe is the goal towards which the New Imperialism is steadily and almost unconsciously directing its steps. Who will hesitate to join in such a Crusade?

Sir Charles Orr
These were original notes for a speech by Sir Charles Orr. It is unclear precisely when and where he may have delivered this speech, although it is likely to be during the 1930s given some of the content of the speech. Some of his handwritten notes are a little tricky to discern and so I have marked unclear words in the text. We have provided the full text for others to attempt to figure out his handwriting for themselves below. He served in the army before becoming British Resident in Northern Nigeria from 1903. He became Chief Secretary to the Government of Cyprus from 1911 to 1917. He was Colonial Secretary of Gibraltar from 1919 to 1926. He was made Governor of the Bahamas from 1927 to 1932. He passed away in 1945. The original document was kindly provided by Shena Hazell who is the granddaughter of Sir Charles Orr.
Sir Charles Orr
PDF of Original Document


Northern Nigeria

Further Reading
The Dual Mandate
by F. D. Lugard

The Making of Northern Nigeria
by Sir Charles Orr

Cyprus Under British Rule
by Sir Charles Orr

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