The British Empire Library

Ghosts Of Empire: Britain's Legacies In The Modern World

by Kwasi Kwarteng

Courtesy of OSPA

John Smith (Nigeria 1951-70, Western Pacific 1971-78)
OSPA members should welcome this very readable book. It considers empire objectively, accepting it as a historical fact that had unintended consequences and affected Britain and not just the peoples governed. It reflects upon our service and comments on the part we played with considerable understanding, but, of course, the word 'empire' often conveys to others an image different to the one we cherish. Now that our average age is twice that in Britain and as much as four times that in the countries where we served, few share even the memory of empire and our direct experience of serving it must seem to belong to another world.

For Kwarteng, of Ghanaian parentage but born and educated in the UK, the empire Is indeed remote, with its workings 'even more obscure, as is the long roll of colonial governors and officials who administered it.' 'To show what the British Empire was really like, from the point of view of the rulers, the administrators who made it possible' he uses six case studies: Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong. Of these only Nigeria is mainstream empire. India was so much more than Kashmir and Hong Kong, although colonial service administered (demonstrating our versatility as city managers), was always sui generis. Nevertheless, Kwarteng, an able historian as well as Tory MP, effectively demonstrates how all six countries, even Iraq with a mere twelve years of direct British rule, have been affected by the legacy of empire, whose afterlife lingers on in an 'eerie echo of its original character'.

He argues that among those who governed empire. Individual officials wielded immense power and that this 'ultimately led to disorder and even chaos' There was never a clear cut, single, central, coherent colonial policy. So, for example, Britain deposed the ruling family in Burma in order to take it over while selling Muslim Kashmir to a Hindu prince. In the Sudan, Sir James Robertson reversed the Southern policy of his predecessor, Douglas Newbold. In Hong Kong, Mark Young's attempts to move towards democracy were reversed by Alexander Grantham. While most of us would agree with Kwarteng's comment that 'the man on the spot was often, quite literally, the master of all he surveyed' we would question his contention that this resulted in anarchic Individualism, certainly at district level where imperial rule had most impact on people. There were differences in style perhaps, but an underlying consistent aim for basic law and order, the key to peaceful progress economically, socially and, latterly, politically. He made me ponder whether our universal recollection of the renowned Creech-Jones local government despatch of 1947 and the effort that went into its implementation was indicative of effective central policy or of its rarity? I also doubt If any of us, asked to name a single hero of empire, would name Kitchener, Kwarteng's choice. But then who would we chose?

Kwarteng's Nigerian study is largely concerned with Lugard, indirect rule and the dual mandate. He suggests that the key to understanding empire is the idea of natural hierarchy, class and status integral to the policy of indirect rule. Any notion of democracy was far from anyone's mind. While his contention is true of the first centuries of empire (applying then in equally strong measure in Britain) and right up to its high noon, it has little bearing on empire after the Second World War.

British Empire Book
Kwasi Kwarteng
978 0 7475 9941 8


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