The British Empire Library

Out in the Noonday Sun: Edwardians in the Tropics

by Valerie Pakenham

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
This is a truly delightful book. Competently written and excellently illustrated, it is a portrait of those Edwardians who set out for the tropics in the days when a quarter of the globe was coloured red and the sun never set on Britain's fabled dominion over palm and pine (and any other schoolchild cliche that most of us were brought up on!) That moment of the imperial high noon was, as Valerie Pakenham points out, comfortingly 'unclouded by doubts about their mission to rule the earth, or at least to sort out its dark untidy places into some kind of decent order'.

That Empire, too, meant many things to many people. There were, as the author rightly point out, losers as well as winners. Even though King George V is reputed to have died with the enquiry "How is the Empire?" on his lips, and proconsuls par excellence like Curzon, Lugard and Swettenham would have cared deeply about what the answer might have been, it could be argued that the British made their mark (and kept their cool) by not taking Africans and Asians seriously. What they did learn to take seriously - and this is one of the ironies of empire - was themselves. Along with this tendency often went the belief in their cultural superiority, pretensions a la Surbiton (wasn't it Curzon who once described the penalty of mixing with Simla society like having to dine daily with your butler in the housekeeper's room?) and a genuine affection for prince and peasant disastrously cancelled out by their hypocritical rejection of the educated elite produced from their very own schools. As Valerie Pakenham poignantly puts it, the trouble with the civilizing mission was that the young imperialist so often disliked its results! With all this, too, went what might be called the Briton's athletic evangelism, a feature totally alien to the French, German, Belgian or Portuguese colonial experience. Valerie Pakenham's chapter on the Edwardian imperialists as 'Players' represents a veritable highlight in this splendid colonial cavalcade, and it is fitting that her practised and felicitous eye should have picked out that jewel among the non-apologies for Empire uttered by Sir Ralph Furse, Director of Recruitment at the Colonial Office for forty years and high priest of the cricket-cum-cold baths cult of colonial administration: "We have no need to blush for the gesta del par Britannos: the abolition of slavery, the suppression of cannibalism and tribal warfare, the long campaign against disease and want, the example of justice and fair play, the introduction of cricket, and the rule of law".

Drawing skillfuly on the incredibly rich archive of contemporary diaries, letters and memoirs, Valerie Pakenham has given us an evocative picture of those British men - and many a positive woman, too, though no chapter is specifically devoted to them as one might have expected in a modern survey of this kind - who soldiered and settled, traded and taught, preached and played, built, hunted or governed, or otherwise went out and worked in the tropics at a time when the imperial sun was at its astonishing zenith. The Noonday Sun furnishes the perfect answer to many of our puzzled Christmas-present prayers.

British Empire Book
Valerie Pakenham
Random House Inc


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