British empire

Diary – 3 March 2016

Just as the presidential race in America started to get really crazy, I left for India. On the morning of the South Carolina primary, I interviewed Donald Trump from a restaurant near the state capitol. By the next afternoon I was dodging mopeds in a traffic circle in Mumbai. I’d imagined the trip as a respite from the campaign, much needed after weeks of immersion in a world where Bernie Sanders is considered charming and Hillary Clinton is regarded as an intellectual. Yet I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about the race. If you’re brooding about the future of your country, a former British colony is the wrong place

Beautiful losers

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

What to do with Syria?

From ‘The future of Syria’, The Spectator, 5 February 1916: We say with all the emphasis at our command, and without the slightest fear of contradiction, official or otherwise, not only that we do not want Syria for ourselves, but that nothing would induce us to take it. Englishmen of all parties; or political schools of thought — as we ought now perhaps to call them — are agreed that the British Empire is quite big enough already, and that at the close of the war the danger will be, not of our getting too little, but of our getting too much — of getting, that is, more territory than we

Artistic taste is inversely proportional to political nous

‘Wherever the British settle, wherever they colonize,’ observed the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, ‘they carry and will ever carry trial by jury, horse-racing and portrait-painting.’ This doesn’t sound like a bad set of cultural baggage, even for those who don’t care for the races. There is clearly a lot to be said for trial by jury, and portraits make up the most enjoyable — in fact, downright humorous — section of Artist & Empire, a curious new exhibition at Tate Britain. Not, of course, that Tate approaches this subject in a playful spirit. At the entrance, a hand-wringing text declares that the British empire’s ‘history of war, conquest and appropriation

Divide and quit

In 1929, when Edwin Lutyens handed over the newly completed building site of New Delhi to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, many believed he had created a capital for a British empire in India that would last if not 1,000, then at least 100 years. It was, as Lord Stamfordham wrote, ‘a symbol of the might and permanence of the British empire’ that had been commissioned specifically so that ‘the Indian will see for the first time the power of western civilisation’. The plan of New Delhi was deliberately intended to express the limitless power of the Viceroy. In the words of Sir Herbert Baker: ‘Hurrah for despotism!’ Every detail of New Delhi

Rhodes to nowhere

‘Rhodes must fall!’ shouted angry black students at the University of Cape Town. The problem is — and it is the profoundest problem of race relations — they were also demonstrating by their every action and desire that they want Rhodes to rise even higher. Last month a black 30-year-old student, Chumani Maxwele, in a great blaze of publicity, threw ‘human excrement’ over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the steps to the university’s upper campus. It was followed by similar acts and protests across South Africa against symbols of white imperialism and colonialism. At UCT itself, black students stormed into a council meeting chanting, ‘One settler, one bullet!’

The Irish Times: read by the smug denizens of Dublin 4 and responsible for the Celtic Tiger property bubble

The most successful newspapers have a distinct personality of their own with which their readers connect. In Britain, the Daily Mail and the Guardian are perhaps the best examplars of that. In Ireland, the decent, if slightly smug, denizens of Dublin 4 know exactly where they are with the Irish Times, and that it will connect with them and reflect their values. Sometimes a newspaper’s personality even defies its actual content, and change encompasses an unexpected continuity. The Guardian moved seamlessly from being the organ of non-conformist opponents of horse-racing to the first newspaper in Britain to print the word ‘cunt’. And yet the personality remains intact — priggishness being

British colonialism is once again under attack in Aatish Taseer’s sprawling Indian epic

Early in the second section of Aatish Taseer’s The Way Things Were we are presented with a striking description of Delhi. The city’s bright bazaars and bald communal gardens, among them ‘the occasional tomb of a forgotten medieval official’, are ‘stitched together with the radial sprawl of Lutyens’s city’. Taseer acknowledges the landscape’s beauty, but buried in his description, with its reference to the British architect who designed much of Delhi during the empire, is the painful and stifling legacy of history. For Taseer, it is an atmosphere that infects Delhi — simultaneously a ‘submerged necropolis’ and a city where ‘the dense cold air, sulphurous and full of particles, closes

Britain’s educational empire

Late last year Britain’s independent schools received a wake-up call. Andrew Halls, headmaster of King’s College School in Wimbledon, delivered it. Far too many of them, he said, have become the ‘finishing schools for the children of oligarchs’ because of an ‘apparently endless queue’ of wealthy foreigners who have pushed fees sky-high; there’s a ‘fees time bomb ticking away’ and one day, when it explodes, a lot of these schools are going to be screwed. It really was that blunt. Cue cheers from struggling parents all over the country, and squeals from school governors, who’d rather no one asked too many questions about the £30,000 price tag on a child’s yearly education.

Gymkhana is morally disgusting – and fortunately the food’s disgusting too

Gymkhana is a fashionable Indian restaurant in Albemarle Street. It was, according to its natty website, ‘inspired by Colonial Indian gymkhana clubs, set up by the British Raj, where members of high society came to socialise, dine, drink and play sport’. This is revolting, in the same way that eating in homage to apartheid South Africa or to commemorate the genocide of native Americans is revolting. Not that this is exceptional, of course; these days no crime is so calamitous it cannot be seconded into an entertainment experience or themed meal. There is, after all, a cafeteria at Auschwitz which received the following review online: ‘They have a range of

A Labour MP defends the Empire – and only quotes Lenin twice

In a grand history of the British empire — because that is what this book really is —  you might expect more hand-wringing from a historian and Labour MP who has previously written a life of Engels. But despite quoting Marx half a dozen times (and Lenin, twice!) there is something about the idea of empire that excites Tristram Hunt. And this is a book about ideas, for all that it is rich in architectural description, economic fact and colourful anecdote. It describes how — and indeed when and where — the imperial ideology shaped and reshaped itself. As such, it is a nuanced riposte to those historians of empire,

When Britain Burned the White House, by Peter Snow – review

Peter Snow explains that he decided to look into this extraordinary story when he realised how few people knew about it, and was inspired to write a book by the wealth and quality of eyewitness accounts from both sides. The result is superb. When Britain Burned the White House is an exemplary work of history — lucid, witty and humane, with terrific pace, and so even-handed that it will surely be received as well in America as here. Annoyed by what he regarded as the excesses of the British empire — its fight with Napoleon interfered with America’s trade, it was in the habit of pressing American citizens into the

Beyond the Malachite Hills, by Jonathan Lawley; Last Man In, by John Hare – review

In post when the curtain came down on Britain’s African empire, there survives today a generation of colonial officers whose numbers are dwindling fast. Many were fired by an idealism already out of fashion when they chose their career. Most came to love their adopted continent. Some can write. Two of these are Jonathan Lawley and John Hare. Each has an incredible tale to tell. Here is a pair of books that, placed with a decanter of whisky on the bedside table of any Spectator reader’s guest bedroom, will have the reading-light burning late into the night. Yet they are very different stories, quite differently written. Beyond the Malachite Hills

Hasty exit strategy

For years after the rug was pulled from under it, the British Empire — with a quarter of the globe, the largest the world has known — seemed an unfashionable subject for historians. Did they fear political incorrectness, or was it simply that they had to wait for sufficient archival material to emerge? Whichever, there is now some very welcome sprouting in this part of the historical garden, already well-watered by the Cambridge historian Ronald Hyam, and few shoots could be more welcome than Calder Walton’s important contribution. Walton draws on recently released MI5 files to reveal the role of intelligence in the transitions from colony to independent state. Decolonisation

Gunboat diplomacy

Britain’s links with the Continent were once  deeper and more extensive than those of any other European country. Paris, Rome and German universities played as vital a role in British culture as many native cities. Mediterranean connections were especially strong. Most cities on its shores contain an English church and cemetery. From Minorca to Cyprus, there are few Mediterranean islands that have not been occupied by British troops: the oldest company in Beirut is Heald and Co., the shipping agents (est.1837). Blue-Water Empire aims to tell the story of ‘the British in the Mediterranean since 1800’: 1800 is the year that Malta, soon to be the headquarters of the British

Voyages of discovery

Roger Louis is an American professor from the University of Texas at Austin who knows more about the history of the British Empire than any other two academics put together. When the Oxford University Press embarked on its mammoth history of the Empire the general editor they chose —to the chagrin of certain professors from the Commonwealth — was Roger Louis. Among his other responsibilities is the British Studies seminar, which was founded at Austin 36 years ago. But Professor Louis is not the university’s only attraction. The Harry Ransom Center houses one of the most, if not the most, important collection of modern literary manuscripts in the English-speaking world.

The empire strikes back

Something strange happened in New York on a cold November afternoon in 1783: the city effectively turned itself inside out. Mounted on a grey horse, George Washington marched down Manhattan at the head of the victorious US army. At the same time, British troops headed frantically in the opposite direction. When they reached the southernmost tip of the island, they clambered into longboats and rowed out to the Royal Navy ships waiting in the harbour. All this, of course, left the thousands of loyalists who had supported the British during the War of Independence in a very tricky position. It’s tempting to characterise them as a lot of 18th-century Bufton