Thursday, July 2, 2009

The British Empire

Death of the Imperial Dream Rule Britiania

The Death of the Imperial Dream by Edward Gireson & Rule Britannia by Dauphne du Maurier

I had really hoped to get this post done in time for Canada Day in honor of our neighbors to the north. Unfortunately I was not quite ready, so I hurried up and finished these books so I could post this morning.

I have always had a rather romantic view of the British Empire, in part due to these two books which I encountered for the first time at my local library as a teenager. However, now that I have re-read these books I realize how unromantic both of them are!

The Death of the Imperial Dream by Edward Gireson is a book written in the late sixties detailing the history of the so called “Second British Empire” (the first Empire having been lost in the American Revolution). Although not very scholarly it is a good introduction into the history of British Imperialism from Yorktown to Suez. The author is writing for a British audience and uses the 2nd person quite a bit (our this, we that) in what seems to be an attempt to make sense out of the UK’s sudden fall from preeminence after WWII. One of the major strengths of the book is the extensive use of primary source newspapers in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth to come to terms with what the people were really thinking and feeling about the events he describes.

I once heard a History professor describe history as either a sword or a mirror, depending on how we use it. In other words we either try and use precedents to make arguments against others or to examine our own ideas. If I have ever read a book that qualifies as a “mirror” this is it! The main things that I seemed to get out of the book were:

  • “Imperialism” and “Anti-Imperialism” are modern terms that don’t apply to Victorian or earlier times. In fact they often coexisted in the same movements and even in the same individuals.
  • The British Empire had Commercial, Ideological, Political and Practical aspects that cannot be readily separated from each other.
  • Britain was forced to renter Europe after the Victorian age; first militarily, then economically and even politically after the Imperial Project started to unravel around the beginning of the 20th century. Imagine what would have happened had Britain and her colonies remained aloof during WWI!
  • The real trend setters in the Empire were Canada and Ireland, who acted like the cool kids in a class and had their imitators to one degree or another in the rest of the Commonwealth. Indeed both of their examples (one gradual and commercially motivated, the other revolutionary and politically motivated) are clear throughout the independence movements within the empire during the 20th century.

Rule Britannia is an entirely different take on what it means to be a part of an Empire. It is a fictional story from the point of view of a young woman who lives in Cornwall with her grandmother, a retired actress nicknamed Mad (short for Madam), and her grandmother’s six adopted sons. Their peaceful, if eccentric, existence is shattered one morning by the sudden appearance of a large American military force which had been invited to Britain to pave the way for a political union between the US and UK. Apparently the UK had gotten itself kicked out of Europe and was on the verge of financial collapse and so turned to a post-Vietnam USA which was eager to regain some international prestige.

Things go sour between the locals and the occupying forces, and increasingly restrictive measures are put in place. Mad leads a local rebellion of sorts and eventually the who country follows suite and the Americans are forced to move on.

I really enjoyed this book, and aside from a couple of disturbing parts (a 10 year old boy ends up killing a Marine officer with a bow and arrow) I would recommend it to most readers. Of course it is kind of strange to see ones own countrymen as the villains, but that is part of the appeal of the book.

Only after reading both of these books did I realize that Maurier has masterfully transplanted the experience of the British Raj in India to her own homeland, and condensed it into a timeline of a few short weeks. I think that there are two points that the author is trying to make here: 1) Imperialism is bad for the governed, but even worse on those who try and govern, and 2)Britain herself needs to rediscover her National identity after having lost it in the Imperial Project. I think that the prominence of Mr. Willis, a Welsh Nationalist, underscores the latter point.

After all is said and done I am left with the mixed feelings towards the British Empire that I started with. One the one hand few political entities have done so much for the advancement of humanity. On the other, though, such advancement came at such as high cost to both rulers and ruled and came in such an indirect manner that I can’t be overly positive about it. I suppose I will have to leave judging it up to people who are far more experienced and much more mature than I am.