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Why the British make a virtue of defeat

The peculiarly British tendency to glorify disaster certainly doesn’t stem from guilt about the empire, as Stephanie Barczewski insists

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

Heroic Failure and the British Stephanie Barczewski

Yale, pp.266, £20

When Henry Worsley died last month attempting the first solo, unaided expedition across the Antarctic, he was 30 miles short of the finish line. He fits right in with a long British tradition of heroic failures: General Gordon killed at Khartoum; the defeat of the British by the Zulus at Isandlwana. And the most precise parallel with Worsley’s tragedy, Captain Scott, who also died in the Antarctic, just 11 miles short of the next food depot.

Stephanie Barczewski, Professor of History at Clemson University in South Carolina, is on to something when she identifies a peculiarly British propensity for glorifying disaster. Where she is crashingly wrong is in her interpretation of the reason why: that it’s all down to the desire to show the British empire in a good light.

According to the professor’s theory, Gordon’s heroic death gave a bene-volent face to the increasing aggression of British imperialism in late-19th-century Africa. Likewise, the glorification of the defeat at Isandlwana helped disguise the broader success of the brutal, violent expansion of the empire. And Captain Scott’s death was so celebrated because it apparently reassured us that the empire was still powerful, just as we were losing top dog status to America.

I’m afraid it’s all utter cobblers. Barczewski has become so brainwashed by life in the American academy that she projects the modern white man’s guilt on to historic figures who felt no such thing. When it came to their imperial mission, British soldiers and sailors in the 19th and early 20th centuries felt differently to 21st-century American history professors. There was no need for them to go in for elaborate displays of self-flagellation at their wickedness. Brutality and violence were neither here nor there; the British felt a duty to colonise much of the planet.

Nor did the officers involved feel any guilt at their elite status, as Barczewski
crazily claims. Her first example — the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 — is a case in point. She is right to describe the battle as a terrible British failure in the war of 1812 against America; her accounts of the various battles and expeditions are all perfectly fine, if workmanlike. But it is just plain wrong to say that Sir Edward Pakenham, the British leader at New Orleans, was turned into a hero to provide ‘a justification for continued upper-class domination of wealth, status and power in Britain’.

Pakenham happens to be my great-great-great-great uncle, so I’ve read up on the Battle of New Orleans and I’ve been to the battlefield where he died. The idea that his ‘sterling qualities and noble spirit’ were used to conceal ‘pragmatic motives of territorial expansion and economic gain’ is nonsense. Pakenham, his fellow officers and his brother-in-law, the Duke of Wellington, took it for granted that the army, and the government, were largely run by the upper classes. Just because that’s odious to Barczewski’s ears, it has no retroactive effect on those of Pakenham or his contemporaries.

Barczewski’s tin ears, I should have said. She has no real understanding of the British, and I don’t just mean their titles — though she wrongly calls Sir John Franklin’s wife ‘Lady Jane Franklin’, and the Earl of Uxbridge ‘the earl of Uxbridge’. Those mistakes on their own don’t mean much; but they are symptomatic of a greater misunderstanding of the British. When Stanley allegedly said, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’, galumphing Barczewski says it’s ‘comical by its obsequious politeness and its absurdity: the question was uttered… by one of the only two white men for thousands of miles to the other, and the answer was hardly in doubt.’ That, professor, is the point.

There is certainly something in the theory that the British value heroic failure. I put that down to the national cult of self-deprecation — the pride that apes humility — and the fact that strength in the face of failure is more admirable than strength buoyed by success. Strength in the face of death — as displayed by Captain Scott and Lieutenant-Colonel Worsley — is even more admirable.

I’m not saying my theory is definitely right; just that Professor Barczewski’s is definitely wrong.

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