The British Empire Library

Heroes and Villains of the British Empire: Their Lives and Legends

by Stephen Basdeo

One has to be a little careful of the title of this book as it certainly could fool the unwary. That is unless one looks more carefully at the subtitle: Their Lives and Legends. This is definitely not a book offering a series of mini biographies of the main characters who influenced the British Empire for better or worse. Rather, Stephen Basdeo has written a book that looks at how these household names have been portrayed over the centuries both during the time of the Empire and after. It examines how perceptions changed or how competing ideas fought over their reputations through time. This cultural overview approach definitely has much to offer especially to those who may not have read key writers’ and thinkers’ original texts and who were undoubtedly influential in their hey day but may have largely disappeared from current reading lists or are hard to locate.

Given the accelerated politicisation of colonial themes in recent years, I confess that I was a little wary that the author may have decided to present too much of an agenda to this topic. Far too many academics, and many who should know better, seem all too keen to judge people in the past by modern standards. I am happy to report though that Stephen Basdeo has passed this test with flying colours. In fact, if anything he offers a model on how to remain objective and provide evidence, explanations and that key ingredient of ‘nuance’ to a subject that definitely requires it. Although I did not agree with everything the author presented, I could not fault his honesty and integrity and laying out convincing cases for his theses throughout the book. If I did diverge from the author it was generally because of brevity or omission of facts or events. Having said that, I can also stand back and appreciate that his simplifying of many of the themes also makes this book highly accessible to a more general audience who may not be as familiar with the topics and details as someone like me might be. This was a very easy to read book despite the potential complexity of the subject matter. I think this would make for a great introductory text to someone wanting to understand the cultural sweep of Empire and how it was portrayed over the centuries from the time of Sir Francis Drake to the Twenty First Century.

I should say that I was very taken with the author’s own motivations for writing this book. His father was born in Guyana when it was still a colony. His explanation was refreshingly candid and concurs very much with my own interaction with so many people who were effectively the children of Empire in one way or another. The Empire was enormous, it lasted for centuries and people could move around it with an ease that would stagger the modern traveller - at least as far as bureaucracy (or lack of it) is concerned. The author understands that the Empire had an effect on where he was born and the culture his parents grew up in and passed down to him. Therefore, examining the cultural history of this important institution that shaped so much of the world makes perfect sense and he is to be applauded for undertaking such a task.

The author explains how historians have long debated the extent of influence that the Empire had on British culture. I agree with the author that the Empire suffused itself throughout British culture. It seeped in through stories, literature, tall tales, art, clothing and of course language. Journalists and novelists alike had a global canvas to draw stories from. Having some of those characters being British or au fait with British culture could create a connection and would make them identifiable or downright sympathetic to any domestic audience. Furthermore, Britons abroad could undertake tasks or adventures that were fantastical and beyond anything that might be imagined on these shores alone. In fact, this book provides perfect evidence of just how enduring that influence could be. In fact, many of the writers discussed from Robert Louis Stevenson to Rudyard Kipling to Rider Haggard are still well known and are still read by many or whose influence has since transferred to the silver screen.

The coverage of India as an example shows that the author provides plenty of nuance and how racial sensibilities could ebb and flow over time. There was never a simple move from more racist to less racist attitudes by the colonisers by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed as the author explains some of the earliest Europeans in India were some of the most integrated and culturally relaxed people that ever left these shores. Furthermore, the author explains that the motivations and cultural reactions of the local people could be every bit as complex and complicated as those of the colonisers. Perhaps few people epitomise the complexities of colonial rule as that of Warren Hastings who was demonised by many when he was impeached. This was the same person who so adored and admired Indian culture. He helped set up the Bengal Asiatick Society and sponsored the first English translation of the Bhagavid Gita - hardly the most rapacious of colonialists. And yet his guilt was by association with those who had undoubtedly become fabulously wealthy via the East India Company and the he so-called ‘Nabobs’ who became almost caricature capitalist villains. Even later in the book the author explains how even the most sainted of Indian Nationalist figures like Gandhi could and did undergo serious criticism for some of their beliefs and ideas. This is evidence of a well balanced approach by this author.

The author explains how Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley would play a pivotal role in so much subsequent imperial literature with its trope of having a young lad accompany a historical figure (in this case Sir Francis Drake) in real events but from an obviously heroic and invariably hagiographic portrayal. Much of the subsequent boys’ own literature by authors like G.A. Henty and C.S. Forester (whose Hornblower character at least grows to an adult through the series of 12 books) follows Kingsley’s model. There is also a fascinating explanation of the Penny Dreadful magazines with their often less than wholesome subject matter which caused the creation of far more patriotic and wholesome Penny literature to try and re-orientate the moral compass of the young. Undoubtedly the patriotic fervour of late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century literature appears to have had an influence on many who would later enthusiastically sign up for The Great War. Of those who survived that war, many explained in their own memoirs how they had devoured the patriotic stories before the war. The First World War certainly appears to have provided a pivotal turning point in attitudes as well as in fortunes for the Empire.

Ideas such as fair play, being physically active and having firm moral principles (set by Christian ideals of course) were very much by-products of the Nineteenth Century Public School ethos. These ideas slowly permeated through wider society and out into the Empire itself. The leap from sports fields to hunting game to fighting wars was easier and easier to make. Additionally it would not be too long before pseudo-scientific views mis-applied from Charles Darwin’s writings took a darker turn with various writers beginning to believe that Anglo-Saxons were innately superior and the larger the Empire became the more it seemed to confirm these beliefs to many. However, the author explains that not everyone believed in this cultural supremacy and even those who did often had the worst excesses tempered by a belief in standing up for the oppressed or by one’s allies. The prevalence of literature showing young boys standing up to bullies during their school days before strutting the imperial stage and standing up for local oppressed people’s against rapacious rivals or interlopers was remarkable. It is interesting indeed that this reputation for fairness has long survived the fall of Empire and is still seen as a key attribute of British culture.

The book in no way ignores the villains of Empire nor its critics whose influence was long apparent but only slowly grew in confidence and vehemence. The author explains that even the villains like Ned Kelly were often cast in an at least semi-sympathetic light to help explain away their motivations and temper their nefarious deeds. Even fictional baddies like Long John Silver have crises of conscience and finish the story on the side of chivalry even if it takes some time to reach that point of redemption. In fact, the author makes the case that Treasure Island itself is a critique of greedy imperialists off on an adventure to plunder someone else’s wealth and appropriate it to themselves. Stevenson was not the only author to subvert Henty’s imperial playground to turn it into something darker and more menacing. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s stories such as The Secret Garden often portrayed the Empire as the source of separation, suffering and death. Critics of Empire came from a variety of intellectual strands. Radicals and democrats tended to see the Empire as a source whereby aristocratic privilege could be extended to a global stage. From this viewpoint they did however often sympathise with the plight of the poor soldiers and sailors who had to defend and expand the Empire on behalf of their betters. Marx and Lenin would later put an additional economic spin into their criticisms of Imperialism. Socialist writers might vacillate between criticising Empire and the belief that it could be used as a vehicle to improve the lives of its inhabitants. Rising Nationalist identities amongst imperial peoples acted as a catalyst in the break up of Empire but offered a frustrating contradiction to left wing critics of Empire in particular who were loathe to encourage nationalist identity over economic and class identities. The Boer War provided a particularly tough call for critics of Empire who were forced to choose between the British and imperial expansion against the Boers who had an even more dreadful reputation of treatment of Africans than the British and whose ideas seemed to hark back to the Old Testament. The author contends that it was probably Lytton Strachey’s book on Eminent Victorians published in 1918 that did as much to pop imperial hubris as any book. His criticism of Florence Nightingale and Charles Gordon removed the pedestal for many in the influential elites who had survived the killing fields of World War One. Lytton Strachey himself was a leading light in the Bloomsbury Group whose members were increasingly deeply critical of imperialism. As Lytton Strachey pulled some of the best known imperial heroes down, E.M. Foster laid into the lower unseen bureaucrats of Empire portraying them as increasingly divorced and functional approach to ruling over their charges. The swagger and self-confidence of the Victorian Empire builders was being chipped away by those living in a more painful world scarred by war and racked by alien ideologies which no longer appreciated British imperial notions like fair play and support for the underdog. You could argue that imperialism required hubris to be successful and once that hubris had been lost there was only managing decline and eventual decolonisation as an endpoint. Eventually the critics found their mark although it took several centuries before they got there.

One other very positive aspect of this book is the prevalence of well selected and highly informative illustrations. Not only do they break up the text, but they invariably illustrate the kind of imagery or strap-lines used by contemporary publications or artists. They really do help to evoke the imperial mindset through the various stages that it undergoes.

I think that the author hits the nail on the head when he quotes Henry Fielding’s Eighteenth Century criticism of the Classical World which was held up as some mystical ideal that Britain should aspire too. Fielding believed that all those stories of brave heroes and great exploits should be taken with more than a pinch of salt and a dose of cynicism. Basically he is explaining the idea that history is usually written by the winners and it is a good lesson for the students of any Empire throughout history. In short, Stephen Basdeo’s book takes us on a well informed and interesting journey through centuries of opinion on Empire. Ideas on Empire evolved, mutated, changed and diverged throughout that period. There has never been an agreed history on Empire nor on its Empire builders. There have been views of Empire that helped shape and were shaped by the imperial experience. This is what makes it so fascinating. The Empire may have come and gone but views and arguments about it have long outlived the institution itself - and long may they continue to do so.

British Empire Book
Stephen Basdeo
Pen and Sword


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