Late Beauties of the British Empire

From the Archive - first published in Empire and the Future World Order (2005) after the Engelsberg Seminar. The late beauties of empire represented all that was best in the British imperial idea - its romance, its glamour and its sense of humour.

british empire drawing
british empire drawing

Late Beauties of the British Empire! I dare say some may think my essay would be better entitled Late Beauties of the Brutish Empire, as the Egyptians used to say. In New York once I gave a talk about the pax britannica, and somebody in the audience said it should be called the pox britannica. And at Gothenberg in 2004 I took part in a panel discussion on something like the Celtic influence on European culture. My mind wandered, as it does on these occasions, and I found myself suddenly swept away into a lyrical defence of British imperialism. The Scot on the panel was austerely amused, I think, the Irishman was of course appalled, and even the Welsh chairman, an old friend of mine, felt obliged to disassociate himself from my views.

But they misunderstood me. I am a Welsh dissident myself. I stand for a sovereign Welsh republic within a confederal Europe. But our little country has been ruled from England since the year 1284, and is only now beginning to loosen the shackles. We’re almost certain to be the last colony of the British Empire! How could I possibly approve of the right of one people to impose its authority by force upon another? But if I have always disliked the principle of empire, I have often found beauties in the practice, so I call myself an aesthetic imperialist.

It’s only quite lately, I think, that academics have come to analyse the aesthetic techniques of British imperialism – using ostentation, display, honorifics, baubles of snobbery and so on as instruments of control, or self-esteem, or brain-washing. The scholars are generally too young to have been at the receiving end of such practices. It was David Cannadine, for example, who analysed them in a brilliant book, and gave them the generic name of ‘ornamentalism’. Professor Cannadine was born in 1950, when the empire was on its last legs, so he could hardly have experienced them for himself. I, on the other hand, was born in 1926, when the empire was still at its flamboyant height. I grew up during World War II, when it was at its most figuratively heroic, and I spent long years of my maturity observing, recording, thinking about and participating in its allegorical decline. Eye-witnesses, in my view, are seldom the best historians, but when it comes to considering aesthetic influences of empire you can rely upon me. I am a living example of the effects of ornamentalism.

I don’t interpret the word, ornamentalism, in quite the way Cannadine did. I am susceptible to a bit of swank and swagger, but for me ornamentalism embraces all those aspects of British imperialism which appealed directly to my particular sensibility – late beauties of empire, in fact. I don’t come from an imperial family. My people weren’t in the least interested in the empire, and this was partly because their generation had emerged from World War I disillusioned with the very idea of glory. By the time I was old enough to experience the seductions of empire, times had changed and I responded eagerly.

I didn’t set foot in London, the powerhouse of the whole enterprise, until 1944, when I was 18 and we were in the middle of World War II. I went there with a friend on a weekend leave from the military college at Sandhurst, and I found the great city dingy, dark, bashed about by bombs, depressed by blackouts and shortages, slung about with gas-masks and knapsacks, grumbling, joking, drunk, tearful, hilarious and in short, to my impressionable young mind, decidedly epic. It was full of soldiers of course, assembled there from half the world, and I was struck by the vast numbers of them who wore the very uniform I was wearing myself, give or take a turban or a bush hat – the King’s uniform, whether of the Royal Australian Air Force, the King’s East African Rifles, the Royal Ontario Rifles, the Royal Gurkhas, or scores of other proud military bodies upon which, as the poet had it, the sun never set.

As my friend and I roistered and revelled our brief leave away, it felt to me that we truly were part of a band of brothers – thousands upon thousands of us, from the four corners of the world, united in allegiance and in loyalty under the leadership of the most charismatically ornamental imperial chieftain of them all, Winston Churchill. Of course my sensations were manipulated by official propaganda, orchestrated by the patriotic songs of the time and fuelled perhaps by the usual excesses of a weekend leave; but they seemed beautiful to me then, and they remain beautiful in my memory still.

I never had quite such a vision of the imperial meaning again. It was the feeling of immense scale that had excited me, and even when, so soon afterwards, the empire unmistakably entered its decline, its reach around the globe still gave me a thrill.

This was most obviously exemplified by the trade routes. Books of the time about ‘the Romance of the Empire’, with a capital R, nearly always had emblazened on their covers pictures of white liners sailing towards tropical horizons, or flying-boats of the Imperial Airways alighting magisterially in azure seas – and always flying above them, it appeared, wherever they were on their voyages, was the ever-billowing Union Jack.

I was always a sucker for this imagery, and nothing excited me more, when I came to wander the imperial territories myself, than the spectacle of one of the great Indian expresses, in the last days of steam, racing across the plains from Calcutta, slap across the subcontinent to Bombay, say, with a plume of smoke streaming behind it, sparks too if it were dusk, jam-packed to the very rooftops with passengers and possibly driven, even then, by an expatriate British engineer.

It was childish, I know, but I liked to think of such a train making connections with all the other imperial railways – enormous black locomotives sprayed by the water of the Victoria Falls, transcontinental trains thundering through the Canadian Rockies, desert trains lonely in the Australian Nullabore, rack railways of the Himalaya, luxurious sleepers of the Blue train sliding into Johannesburg, all interconnecting in my mind – and met too, when they were confronted by some impertinent ocean, by the steamers of the imperial shipping lines, P&O, Cunard, the Anchor Line, supported by the empire’s ports across all the seas, protected by the empire’s mesh of naval bases, secured by the empire’s lighthouses, informed by the empire’s cables and wireless stations, until they reached some inconceivably distant destination to find the flag flying there just as it had been flying in Calcutta so long before – the whole vast apparatus, the whole network, laid down, organized, administered, navigated and even driven on the footplate by people from that small island kingdom somewhere southwest of Sweden.

That facet of ornamentalism was the beauty of scale. Another that intoxicated me when I was young was the beauty of history. Come with me now to, well, let’s say the ramparts of Valetta in Malta, one day in the later 1940s. We stand up there looking over the Grand Harbour, and all around us are the glorious fortifications built by the Knights of Malta in the seventeenth century. Behind us, though, one baroque palace houses the Royal Navy’s Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, for since the year 1800 Malta has been a British fortress, and in the 1940s it’s still a Crown Colony. Its people had behaved with such loyal gallantry in the recent war that alone among British possessions, anywhere, ever, they were communally honoured by King George VI with the George Cross, making Malta, GC, the only British equivalent to the Hero Cities of the Soviet Union, or those Spanish municipalities that used to be officially called Most Heroic, Most Magnificent or Most Invincible.

Malta might have been dubbed Most Knocked About, because it had been more intensely bombed by the enemies of the British Empire than anywhere else. Much of the city around us is in rubble, huge mounds of grey stone everywhere, skeletonic ruins, roads blocked, bomb sites unavoidable still. And down there in the harbour below us, in the midst of it all, a couple of British warships lie. They look a bit knocked about themselves, for the Royal Navy has not yet recovered its prewar spick and span, but for romantics like us that makes them look all the more glorious, and the huge white ensigns fly at their sterns with a decidedly laundered pride. Their name-plates are polished, too, and, if we could only read them from our distance, what names they are likely to be, at least in our imaginations – Warspite or Thunderer, Redoubtable, Revenge, Hannibal or Ajax or Valiant or Victory – names which take us in fantasy to Nelsonic blockades or Arctic patrols, convoys of sail or steam, gun battles in fogs of the North Sea or under blistering southern suns.

I mustn’t overdo the sentiment, but still, listen, and perhaps even as we stand here, a Royal Marine bugler sounds a command, and the silvery sound of it echoes around the harbour and lingers among those terrific fortress walls, and seems to be coming down to us, fainter and fainter as it fades, out of all the generations of the British presence in all the oceans of the world.

Time for tea. We turn and wipe away a tear or two. Well I do, anyway.

By the nature of things, my British Empire was an empire nearing extinction. But I was often touched by the beauty of its pride in decline – not martial pride, not exactly defiance, but more often a homelier mixture, somewhere between satisfaction, resignation and regret.

Sometimes it was hardly more than a general conviction that what was British was still best, and that whatever came after the British Empire was sure to be worse than it had been. For instance there was a purser on a ship of the British India Line that was taking me up the Persian Gulf to Bahrein. He was a Yorkshireman, bluff, cheerful and burly – almost a John Bull in fact. I wanted to pay my bill, before I disembarked, with an American dollar travellers’ cheque. The dollar then was unquestionably the supreme currency of the world, but he looked at the cheque with suspicion. A thin flicker of superiority crossed his face, like an ancestral memory. He put on his spectacles, fingered the rich texture of the thing, held it up to examine the watermark, turned it over once or twice, took off his spectacles, handed the cheque back to me and said in a gloriously condescending voice: ‘Oh no, no, no – no, no, no, no – on the ships of this line, we prefer the pound sterling.’

Sometimes elderly imperialists decided to embrace the gradual dissolution of the empire, and to stay on, as the saying was, in the newly independent parts of it. Two such old people, man and wife, decided not to leave India, where they had lived all their working lives, and they found themselves quarters for their retirement among the stables of the Meerut racecourse – Meerut, where the Indian Mutiny had begun a century before. They weren’t very mobile in their old age, so they spent much of their time sitting on chairs outside their quarters, occasionally being served tea in enamel mugs by a not very cheerful bearer, and watching the horses go by. Horses were everywhere, horse smells, horse sounds, horse functions of every variety. It was a bit like being a horse, I thought.

The heat was awful, the bearer was grumpy, the mugs were chipped and everywhere you looked, you saw a horse. ‘Aren’t we lucky to be living here,’ the old memsahib said to me. ‘Just think, we might be living in England.’

There was an Englishman I knew in Cairo who had spent his whole working life in the Egyptian ministry of finance, first when it was an adjunct of the so-called British Protectorate there, later when it was a department of a more or less independent Egyptian Government, and so on until, in the end, the British had left altogether. Through it all he continued with his duties as though nothing had happened, living and working to the imperial ethos he had been brought up to. He lived on a houseboat on the Nile, he wore a tarboosh always, and regular as clockwork, well into his seventies I would imagine, he would climb aboard the dirty, jam-packed, clanging, swaying downtown tram, hanging on the outside often because there wasn’t an empty seat, his well-brushed tarboosh firmly on his head, his briefcase under his arm, to go and do his job, as the empire had taught him, down at the dusty ministry.

And here at an opposite extreme is an Englishman who was still fighting for what he thought was the empire’s truest ideology, the idea of fair play. He was a former member of the Indian Civil Service, living then in what was still formally the British Dominion of South Africa. It was during the early days of the Afrikaner Nationalist Government and its apartheid system; and he thought it the duty the empire had taught him to oppose, if only as a private citizen, the cruelties of that very unfair and essentially vulgar concept.

He was a tireless agitator against the Nationalist Government, and was anathema to the regime, but he didn’t give a damn. And this was only partly because, as it happened, he spent almost all his time in an iron lung. He’d been crippled by polio in India, and most of his campaigning was done flat on his back, with one arm in a sling above his head. It didn’t deter him in the least. He knew exactly where he stood on the matter of apartheid, and he made sure that everyone else did too.

‘Let me put you straight about these bloody Nats,’ he would say, and away he would go, talking with tremendous energy, witty, outrageous, caustic, irrepressible, swearing, laughing, shouting, in a most extraordinary flood of stimulation and conviction.

Slowly, though, his damaged physique would run down. His breathing became heavier, his conversation more spasmodic, his face more strained with effort, and the gusto visibly drained from his body, like the symbolisms of a Gothic painting, or for that matter like the fading energies of the empire itself. But he won his battle in the end, and his fight for what I also thought was best in the British imperial idea seemed to me unquestionably a beauty.

Of course not everything was beautiful, in those last years of the pax britannica. It was not always a peaceful withdrawal. Some of the British overseas settlers could be horribly reactionary, and the last of the little colonial campaigns were often messy. They were generally fought by soldiers who had no heart for the empire, and in the rank and file of the British Army, as in all armies I think, bigoted racial attitudes died hard. But among the professionals of empire, the men who actually ran it in its last years, on the ground, things were different. Most of them, in my experience, well knew it was time for the empire to end. They believed it was their duty not to try to prolong its life, but to see that it was brought to an honourable conclusion. Nearly all of them, after all, had joined the imperial administrations knowing full well that the empire would not outlive them, and they had long lost the arrogantly gung-ho spirit of imperialism – which, I have to admit, did slightly blunt the old glamour for me.

The very first colonial officer I met, in 1946, was a district commissioner in Palestine, which was then still a British Mandatory Territory in a state of vicious internecine conflict. He wasn’t exactly ornamental. He was just a youngish, patently decent man from the English middle classes, well-educated but not brilliant, tough enough but not in the least macho.

As an aesthetic imperialist I particularly liked his hat. It was a grubby old trilby, worn negligently tilted over his eyes, and I admired it because it seemed to me so unassuming. He was the imperial satrap of all he surveyed, and I suppose on ceremonial occasions he still wore the ridiculous white plumed helmet of the Colonial Service, but that hat seemed to tell everyone that at heart he was really his own man, exerting his authority by his own lights and conscience.

He knew very well that his career could not last much longer. He knew, I’m sure, that the British would presently abandon Palestine to its destiny. His job was to try to maintain a balance in his district between the Arabs and the Jews and the beleaguered British themselves, and of course he hadn’t a hope of succeeding. Never mind. He stuck to it. His life was always at risk, he lived behind huge rolls of barbed wire with armed soldiers at his door, but that hat of his was endearingly worn, and I thought his earnest but throwaway style a sort of victory in itself.

Style, of course, was an essential element of ornamentalism, and another cool late practitioner of the 1950s or 1960s was the British Adviser to the Sultan of Mukalla, on the southern coast of Arabia. The title of Adviser was a euphemism. He really ran the place. The Mukalla governing council actually met in his house, and when I stayed there for a time myself, I sometimes used to walk into his drawing-room to find all its members, in their white gallabiyahs, sitting and arguing there on the sofas, sometimes very solemnly, sometimes laughing their heads off, sometimes banging the floor with their sticks or shouting imprecations at the Adviser – who, since he spoke perfect idiomatic Arabic, gave as good as he got.

His administrative style was not in the least authoritarian, or even paternalistic. In fact it was rather bohemian. If he wanted some coffee during those meetings he gave a piercing blast on a silver whistle; this didn’t seem to have any cataclysmic effect, but sooner or later a servant would shamble in with a pot on a silver dish, and as he served the Adviser he would give me a sly collusive smile, amounting almost to a wink.

Every afternoon the Adviser went for a long walk along the sands of the Indian Ocean, followed at a respectful distance by his driver in his somewhat ramshackle Land Rover. At a fast steady pace he would stride along, sometimes swerving to avoid a string of camels, or people digging holes for crabs, or small boys throwing sand at each other, or old men sitting on their haunches chewing. He had a word for them all, and they replied cheerfully in kind, or giggled, and as he disappeared into the distance, his car chugging hopefully along behind, he used to seem to me a summation of all I liked about the British Empire in its last years – for all its faults, generally kind, generally straight, well-intentioned, a bit too pleased with itself perhaps, a bit too slow to recognize realities, a bit lacking in the old splendour, but diligent, courageous and often rather funny.

And yes, there’s one last ingredient of the imperial ornamentalism that I haven’t touched upon – its humour. For my escapist tastes, humour was a saving grace of the British Empire, and I’d liked to end this resolutely escapist essay with a little cameo to illustrate it. The last of the great imperial adventures was the first ascent of Mount Everest, the top of the world, by a British expedition in 1953. This really was an exploit of empire. The climbing team included two New Zealanders, a Gurkha officer, a former officer of the Black Watch, a former Indian Army engineer, one or two Welshmen, from the final colony, and a Sherpa citizen of that archetypical imperial buffer state, Nepal. I went along to write about it for that old broadsheet of Empire, the London Times.

The most glamorous star of the adventure turned out to be the Sherpa, Tenzing Norkay, who actually reached the summit with the New Zealander Edmund Hillary. When we all got back to London we were treated to a very grand banquet by the British Government – the old imperial government. I found myself sitting next to the majordomo of the occasion, a delightful old-school courtier, while opposite me sat Tenzing, out of Asia for the very first time in his life, who could not then read or write, but who looked marvellous.

The old gentleman turned to me halfway through the meal and said he hoped I was enjoying the claret – what the British call red Bordeaux wine. He said it was the last of its vintage in the government cellars, and was probably the last anywhere in the world. Well, I was terribly impressed, of course, and I looked across at Tenzing – who most certainly was enjoying the claret. It was probably the first time he’d ever tasted any wine. The lackeys were filling and refilling his glass, and he was radiant with pride and pleasure. He was a marvellously confident and exotic figure – a prophetic figure, actually.

Presently the old boy turned to me again. ‘Ah’, he said, ‘how very good it is to see that Mr Tenzing knows a decent claret when he has one.’

Sic transit gloria!


Jan Morris