Memories of Empire: The White Man’s World, by Bill Schwarz, Oxford University Press, 600 pp, £22.50, ISBN: 978-0199686032
WG Sebald starts a section of his novel The Rings of Saturn with his unnamed narrator falling asleep while watching a BBC television programme on Roger Casement. He wakes up with a vague memory of hearing that Casement had met Joseph Conrad in the Congo, a sense of disappointment at what he had missed and with his imagination fired to pursue the matter further.
He discovers that the two had met in Matadi about 1890, liked and admired each other. Though very different in temperament, they shared a common hatred of the greed and brutality which characterised Leopold’s personal commercial fiefdom. Conrad’s anti-colonial fable Heart of Darkness was serialised in three parts in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 and published separately in 1902. Casement, now a British consular officer, was commissioned to report on the Congo in 1903. His report was published as a white paper in London in February 1904; it, and the effective lobbying he helped to organise, turned out to be slow-burning fuses which eventually forced Leopold’s abdication as sovereign ruler of his African state.
Casement’s report was well received by his colleagues and by his political masters in the Foreign Office, as regards both style and substance. It was considered “free from all traces of exaggeration” and “terse, full of matter and written in quite a dispassionate style”. The wording perhaps reflects the general view of Casement within the consular service ‑ that he was hard-working and effective, but eccentrically idealistic and overemotional on issues in which he had a strong personal investment. By this time, he did have strong views on the exploitation of underdeveloped societies, the iniquities of colonial systems and the need to protect indigenous peoples. He also had clear views on the evil of allowing less developed peoples to be “civilised” for profit, personal or commercial, and believed that laissez-faire capitalism could lead to de facto slavery, especially where political and economic control was combined with monopoly land ownership. The moderate tone of his report, and its evident veracity, objectivity and balance, together with the passion and conviction that underlay its words, made it a serviceable instrument.
Sebald shares Conrad’s bleak view of human nature and human history. He is obsessed with the dominance of exploitation and destruction in the human story and appears fascinated by the negative weight of fractured historical experience. I introduce Casement and Conrad here, and Sebald as their chronicler, because they both encapsulate, if in a tentative and necessarily incomplete way, a countersensibility to the prevailing ideologies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially as regards empire and race, economic exploitation and development, and the right to independence of small nations.
The title of this first volume in a planned trilogy is somewhat misleading in that it deals only with the British Empire. The other books will be called The Caribbean Comes to England and Postcolonial England. The White Man’s World starts with an interview the author had with Enoch Powell in spring 1988, together with a series of wide-ranging reflections on it. Next comes a prologue with an account of Powell’s “River of Blood” speech of April 1968 on immigration and race, and its reverberations and significance. Schwarz’s view is that its importance lies in the upsurge of support Powell received and the way in which his views framed the debate on these issues in the UK, then and later.
The succeeding chapters deal successively with ethnic populism and especially its ideological beginnings; the frontier, Australia and the formation of the Australian nation; an abstract discussion of race issues, whiteness and national memory and forgetting; the romance of the veld; an analysis of the life and philosophy of Jan Christian Smuts; and to finish, separate chapters on the Central African Federation and Roy Welensky, and Rhodesia and Ian Smith. A theme throughout is the reverse impact of colonial race and colour problems within the United Kingdom proper, (“the metropole”), both popularly and politically. This has the appearance of a strange, hodge-podge mixture, and to an extent it is. But the overall impact is more coherent and persuasive than a summary suggests; the whole is better than the sum of its parts.
Schwarz sees whiteness (racial whiteness) in the empire as the medium through which the colonial order was thought and lived. His overall vision of the importance of whiteness is inclusive, complex and fluid. In the colonies, colour was the key touchstone and the culture of whiteness was based on powerful strains of hierarchy, militarism, administrative rationality and masculine civic virtue of the traditional type. The belief in the unique civilising power of male white Britons on the frontier, anchored in the notion of a nation chosen by God and endowed with special talents to rule inferior peoples, was of course a fantasy. In the conceptual framework, some deference was paid to white female Britons, but not very much; and in lauding the success of empire-building, practically no account was taken at the time of the roles of capital, modern communications or superior armaments.
The new, developed complex of colour, race and empire, so different in thrust and effects from the anti-slavery campaigns of a generation earlier, began with Carlyle, Dilke, Seeley and Froude, grew rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s, and reached an apogee in popular support and theoretical justification in the early twentieth century. Significant challenges began to present themselves during the post-World War I disillusionment, and this countertrend established itself in the following decades before what seemed like a final crumbling of the imperial dream after World War II. Its ghost, however, lived on, as is shown by the support for Powellism and for the Falklands War in our own day. British anti-European feeling is also built in a significant way on foundations of nostalgia. “What is a ghost?” asked Salman Rushdie; “unfinished business, is what.”
In his section on Australia Professor Schwarz deals with land rights and in the chapter on race he has interesting things to say about Irish colouring. He includes some peripheral but important sub-themes: for example, national memory, popular literature at the turn of the nineteenth century and what Northern Ireland meant to supporters of empire. He does not unfortunately deal in a developed fashion with the overall experience within the empire of the Irish, rebels but complicit, colonised but also colonisers.
From the 1830s on, numerous memorandums from the Colonial Office were to emphasise that Australian Aborigines were British subjects and entitled to full common law protection. But on questions of land ownership and law and order the imperial government was inevitably and consistently on the side of the white settler. Schwarz writes: “When it proved necessary to protect land, the Colonial Office sanctioned war against those whom the settler had dispossessed. Equivocation of this sort went to the heart of the colonial project.” A less generous judgement might substitute “contradiction” or “hypocrisy” for “equivocation”. The insight of James Stephen, under-secretary at the Colonial Office, is apposite: “The hatred with which the white man regarded the Black resulted from fear … from the consciousness of having done them great wrongs, and from the desire to escape this painful reproach by laying the blame on the injured party.”
This is a view which resonates more strongly now than then, and especially in Ireland. It recalls Casement’s observation sixty years later that he viewed the Congo with “the eyes of another race” and that his understanding of Leopold’s system was based in part on his reading of Davitt. It also calls to mind Christopher Weeramantry’s hint ( in his book The Lord’s Prayer: Bridge to a Better World) that the legal establishment in the United Kingdom which was so proud of its record in defending human and civil rights at home had very little to say about the same rights, including the right to property, when they pertained to British subjects of a different colour and race overseas. The young Wordsworth put these words into the mouth of the Scots rebel and outlaw Rob Roy; they were later to become the prime operational philosophy of empire and colony:
..The good old rule… the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can.
In the event, benign impulses did not stop London handing over responsibility for Aboriginal affairs to Sydney and Brisbane in the 1850s; by 1861 steps were already under way in the Queensland parliament to deprive native Australians of their status as British subjects. The White Australia policy remained operative until 1966; when questioned on the subject on British television, long-time prime minister Robert Menzies answered “Oh, we don’t call it that now”; Aborigines were included in the Australian census for the first time in 1967.
In discussing different degrees and notions of racial whiteness, Schwarz stresses fluidity between social groups and in time. The same group could be considered white one day and non-white the next as circumstances changed. Some white communities were whiter than others. Afrikaners were not really white when compared with the British but they were necessarily white when set against the Blacks. On the Irish, he comments that through much of the nineteenth century, they occupied a peculiarly contingent position as white. He notes the characteristic distemper of Carlyle’s view that Irish whiteness was an inconvenience because “having a white skin and European features” the Irish “cannot be prevented from circulating among us at discretion, and to all manner of lengths and breadths”.
Similar points were made more obliquely by Henry Parkes, premier of New South Wales. Without implying that the Irish were close in the racial hierarchy to black, he deprecated their “coming here in excessive numbers”, and appealed for “only the best sort of immigrant”, since immigration of the wrong sort could “unbalance the country”. This went along with an emphasis on “the crimson thread of kinship”. Even in the nineteenth century, the poetics of blood made for a less controversial rhetorical mode than the politics of race.
As the quotation from Parkes suggests, the defence of the white British role did not always need to be clothed in racist language. The point was to be not too crude ‑ but not too subtle either. Schwarz cites an advertisement for British Imperial Airways in 1936: in five lines, there are references to a snow-white tablecloth, Englishwomen smart and cool in white frocks, the cool, clean and civilised station, and everyone doing their bit to make the tropics better and brighter. Is it exaggerated to see in this a parallel to demonstrators in London, Birmingham or Selma, Alabama chanting “Bye, bye blackbird” and “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”?
Schwarz points out that the articulations of memory and forgetting on a national level are connected and complex. He quotes Ernest Renan’s observation in 1882 that “forgetting … is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation” and observes that what is forgotten does not disappear but is invested in other, more acceptable stories or myths. He also discusses national memory in terms of Freudian psychology, screening, “acting out” and “working through”.
He applies his analysis to the history of violence and bloodshed in Australia. Although it is considered more a colony of settlement than of conquest, its first hundred years were in fact lived in a state of almost continuous war. Then and thereafter, imposing white order necessitated repeated acts of brutality and cruelty, of which some of the mildest were collective punishments, displacements and beatings of men, women and children, imposed routinely. Extermination as a policy was openly discussed; Arthur Gordon reported to Gladstone of men of culture and refinement in Australia discussing the wholesale slaughter and individual murder of natives, exactly as they would talk of a day’s sport. Yet within a generation, the “profane, grisly mechanics” of white supremacy were not so readily recalled. Popular memory of oppression and slaughter faded; school history books were rewritten; in 1901, the modern federated state moved on to celebrate the new century with a properly sanitised past.
But the opposite dynamic operates also. The nineteenth century Irish preoccupation with the story, false to the point of travesty, that The Times of London had openly rejoiced in an editorial that the Celt was disappearing from Ireland and would soon be as rare as the Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan, is a case in point.
Schwarz is persuasive in his argument that the Boer War was the first modern one in terms of publicity and propaganda. Technology was changing, and the full range of new implements was used successfully by the state and by private enterprise to increase and maintain public support for the campaign. Harmsworth’s new populist newspapers, stereoscopic photographs, early films, postcards, memorial knick-knacks of various kinds, even board games (“Boer or Britain”) all served the cause. Accounts of the war were written or edited almost immediately by Churchill, Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace and Baden-Powell (all on the spot) and by Kipling, Leo Amery, GA Henty and Erskine Childers in England. Churchill wrote himself up as a Stevensonian hero; Baden-Powell became something of a media star. The link from politics to populist journalism to myth creation to fiction was almost seamless. The new velocity of transmission, combined with a higher degree of mediation, provided far greater resources for collective “memories”, which resulted, unsurprisingly, in a more intense and focussed imperial nationalism.
John Buchan, Schwarz notes, appears to be still widely accepted as representing a benign imperialism; most of his novels are still in print and reprints and new film versions continue to appear. His reputation did take a dip in the 1950s, when he was criticised for racism and anti-Semitism, but very little that is critical of his views has been published since. Schwarz rejects the idea that there were “decent” imperialists on one side and bigots and racists on the other. Buchan’s first job in administration in South Africa was in connection with the army-run concentration camps, where the wives and children of Boer fighters were imprisoned, in order to persuade the combatants to lay down their arms, and where many thousands died of disease and hunger.
Schwarz cites the theory that around the turn of the century, the genre of the historical novel/frontier adventure story split into the frontier novel proper, where the values of virtue and open landscape were mutually associated, and its darker counterpoint, the urban detective story (and the related spy story), with its milieu of vice and “mean streets”. Ralph Furse, who was chief recruiting officer for the colonial service from 1910 to 1948, believed that straight speaking, an open countenance, a firm handshake and an ability to look people straight in the eye were the truest signs of character. One might wonder if administrative practice influenced schoolboy fiction or vice versa. Are we dealing with heroic simplicity or something close to simple-mindedness?
This kind of fiction, and indeed some of the same books, was popular as late as the 1950s. In it the heroes were white men, villains most frequently dark-skinned foreigners, “half-breeds” or “half-castes”. The cluster of views, images and ideas implicit in these stories became popular in these islands in the 1890s and began to disappear only in the 1960s. Continuities however remained; the first Bond story appeared in 1953, and Ian Fleming later confessed that Bond was “Sapper from the waist up and Mickey Spillane below”.
Schwarz has little to say about Ireland except in relation to one point, Ulster as a rallying point for the defence of the traditional concept of empire, race and nation. This he illustrates by reference to Kipling and to the views of the returning proconsuls, Curzon, Cromer and Milner. As evidenced later by the activities of Enoch Powell, and the parallels with the Rhodesian Ian Smith, colonial views on the nature of empire and, by extension, on what it meant to be British, could easily tip over into sedition. Schwarz’s account is a valuable corrective to the idea that Randolph Churchill, Bonar Law and the other mainland political figures were only playing a crude game of opportunistic party politics in Belfast. The larger context includes a genuine perception, however mistaken, that corruption and betrayal were installed at the summit of the state, that the interest of the nation had to take precedence over government policy and that parliamentary, even legal, niceties could only ever be secondary to larger issues of ethnic and imperialist principle. This evidently is not Schwarz’s view, but he gives it due importance as a view sincerely held.
In May 1914, Kipling gave a fanatically ideological address on behalf of the League of British Covenanters to an audience of ten thousand at Tunbridge Wells in Kent; like Powell more than half a century later, he saw the loyalists of Northern Ireland as saviours of Britain and the British Empire. He accused the government of being outlaws and conspirators, prepared to break the pledged faith of generations. He hailed the Ulster agitation and actions of 1913 as the beginning of a counter-revolution, a “revolt of the English” against the “sale of our own flesh and blood to our enemies”. On majority opinion in Ireland, he offered only the confused and misleading assertion that “Ulster, and as much of Ireland as dares express itself, wishes to remain in the Union and under the flag of the Union”.
Curzon, Cromer and Milner, all out of office and unhappy at home, professed similar views. They saw the government as complicit in a collapse of will at the centre. Their world view encompassed not just antagonism to German militarism, to Home Rule for Ireland, and to women’s suffrage but also a suspicion of representative democracy and dissatisfaction with political control of (political interference, they called it) the armed forces. Milner was specifically involved in organising the British Covenant in support of radical unionism, as well as in fomenting mutiny in opposition to the Liberal government’s use of the military to enforce policy in Ireland by “coercing” Ulster.
The book does not offer an account of the conceptual basis for the racist sentiment which was widespread in the second half of the nineteenth century. Carlyle, Dilke, Seeley and Froude did not invent the so-called scientific racism that was used to justify imperial expansion; based on the theories and classifications of Blumenbach, Gobineau, Darwin, Spencer, Galton and others, it formed part of the common inheritance of nineteenth century Europe. Racial origin, it was argued, determined the quality of civilisation and therefore the capacity and status of national units. A ranking index of races could be established, an index in which Europeans and those of European descent came out on top and blacks at the bottom. Although there were sceptics, (among them, de Tocqueville, who told Gobineau that his views were “possibly wrong but certainly pernicious”), educated Europeans widely accepted racial and social Darwinism as a given.
It is not clear how much of this can be attributed to Darwin personally; his views also evolved over time. His half-cousin, Francis Galton, had the confidence to determine ratings historically within the European family. He ranked classical Athens first, followed, unsurprisingly, by the British and their descendants. On Darwin’s influence, Stephen Jay Gould notes that biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they significantly increased following the acceptance of evolutionary theory. We may now consider race in respect of humans as lacking any scientific utility, and the collectivist stereotyping associated with it about as valid as the theory of humours. But as a widespread and “modern” assumption in influential European circles from the mid-Victorian period onward, it constituted perhaps the major strand in those supremacist feelings which co-existed intimately with colonialism and imperialism.
Schwarz does not treat the origins and extent of organised dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy on race and colour in the United Kingdom; nor does he deal with how this came, over time, to incorporate an ever larger element of anti-imperialism. The anti-slavery movements of the first half of the nineteenth century never went away completely; church and missionary groups, individual philanthropists, radical political thinkers and movements (Bright, Cobden, the Chartists and early socialists and Marxists) continued to be active. Early in the new century, impetus was added when the Morels, perhaps at the suggestion of Casement, founded the Congo Reform Association; what it organised has been described as the biggest worldwide human rights agitation between the fight against slavery and the anti-apartheid campaign. Anti-racist and anti-imperialist sentiment quickly found a measure of support within the House of Commons; and support for it grew especially within the Independent Labour Party and the Labour Party, although it probably remained a minority viewpoint until the post-World War II period.
The political work of the anti-imperialist and anti-racist movement in Britain does not form part of Schwarz’s subject; but leaving it out of the account – the line from Mill and Gladstone in the 1850s and 1860s to George Orwell and Fenner Brockway in the 1930s and 1940s – is to render the treatment of colour and race in the metropole incomplete. The gap is all the more obvious since Schwarz brings his account up to the 1970s. Surely the views of for example Orwell, his personal knowledge of the “dirty work” of empire, his feeling that imperialism was essentially a money-making racket, his intuition that England was hiding a shameful secret about its finances, his belief that the kernel of racism lay in the pretence that the exploited were not real human beings, are also relevant to the overall picture.
There are also some minor blemishes of organisation. Although readable and packed with fascinating and significant detail, Professor Schwarz’s work is perhaps overlong and the summarising and repetition are overdone, in the American textbook manner. His index is incomplete and he does not provide a bibliography but this is less important as his notes are full, digressive and often intriguing.
Some years ago, AN Wilson claimed that the Victorians are still with us, because the world they created is still here, even if greatly changed. He instanced not only our inheritance of water mains, sewage systems and railways but a significant portion of our mental and cultural landscapes, including world political problems. Europe still has difficulties with Russia; the last forty years of British-Irish history are, at least in part, due to the failures of Gladstone and Parnell on Irish home rule; in the late twentieth century, Europe had to decide, again like Gladstone, whether or not to intervene in the Balkans. The Empire has gone but we are still living in Africa with problems the Victorians discovered, or created, there. In this context, it is less surprising that remnants of late Victorian ideas on colour, race and empire are still around and still causing controversy.
They do so however in different ways. Condemnation of discrimination based on colour, and race, and a general sensitivity regarding such discrimination, are now globally established, and not just as a matter of political correctness. Racial discrimination is outlawed by international law and by the domestic legislation of most states. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, supported by 176 state parties, says categorically that “any doctrine of racial superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere”. Whatever about inherited prejudice and flashpoints in many states on immigration and security issues, the intellectual battle on race and colour has been won. Implementation of the law is, of course, a separate and infinitely more difficult matter. The Stephen Lawrence case in the UK, the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case in Florida, the “blonde angel” incident in Greece, with its reverberations in Ireland, are only the tip of the iceberg; but in many ways, the issues raised by such cases are broader and deeper than racial discrimination per se, being also issues of violence in society, the need for gun control, and of law enforcement being ineffective as well as biased.
The intellectual battle on empire is in a different category. The historical record of imperialism, of “white civilisation” overseas, remains to an extent controversial. Within the United Kingdom, for example, judgements on the net value of the empire in its day still vary in accordance with social class, family background and professional interest. On one side it is still argued, as Kipling and Buchan maintained, that the imperialist ideal was not ignoble; it was humanitarian and international, involving ethical standards and a high conscientiousness, a brotherhood of races, consecrated to peace. “Binding sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need” was, for some imperialists, much of the time, a genuine commitment. As against this, the critic can charge that the elements in empire that weighed most heavily for the indigenous peoples involved were the greed and wholesale robbery which motivated it, the violence visited upon those who did not easily accept the loss of their property and livelihoods and the cruel treatment of those who refused to accept as self-evident British ideas on racial hierarchy and on the unique civilising properties of British rule
Certainly idealistic imperialists existed; but they knew little of human nature and their understanding of their fellow man in the metropole was as limited as their approach to native life and to the concept of race. Their belief was merely a particular form of the fantasy of the white man and the white man’s world. In essence, belief in a racial hierarchy and in the special position of whites on the racial ladder was self-serving romantic nonsense, a superstition, not that different from what whites called “black mumbo-jumbo” (or indeed from certain myths then being developed in Ireland).
One reason Schwarz’s footnotes are so beguiling is that he is as interested in other writing on his subject, in its historiography, as he is in the history proper. WG Sebald is also a historiographer; as a novelist of exile, death and memory, he is fascinated not only by the experiences of those living in the shadow of oppression, enslavement and exploitation, but by the witnesses of such evils, those who tell the story. His choice of Conrad and Casement as historical interlocutors is apt; in many respects, their judgements anticipated those of our author by more than a hundred years. In one of his last essays, Conrad wrote: “The conquest of the earth – which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than we have – is not a pretty thing, when you look at it too much.” And in his speech from the dock, after his condemnation and before his execution, Casement reflected on “that blessed word, Empire, which bears so paradoxical a relationship to charity. For if charity begins at home, Empire begins in other men’s homes, and both may cover a multitude of sins.”
John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as Ambassador to Cyprus, Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the UN (Geneva).