The ramshackle British Empire

In two houses on Downing Street, with a staff of just 62, the Colonial Office ran nearly a quarter of the world in the late nineteenth century. How?

James Heartfield

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By 1909 the British Empire covered nearly a quarter of the Earth’s land, with colonies in all continents over which the ‘sun never set’. Stephanie Williams has written a lively and remarkable history of the colony from the point of view of its governors.

Originally from Canada, the popular historian Williams tells a compelling tale that shows just what a shoestring operation the British Empire was, and how its small cadre of officers managed to seize hold of so much of the world. In 1857 the Colonial Office was in two ramshackle houses in Nos. 13 and 14 Downing Street, with just 62 employees, including nine copyists, five messengers and four porters.

The 50 colonies were run by post: everything was written down in instructions to the colonies, and the reports back to the Colonial Office were also written down and published in what were known as the Blue Books. Many historians since have been grateful for the diligent, and waspish, report-writing followed by colonial governors, district officers and, it seems, every employee of the Colonial Service. No other Empire left a better record of its subjugation of others.

The careers of the governors, especially in the early nineteenth century, were far from easy. They were employed ‘at the pleasure of the Crown’, which Williams points out meant that their livelihoods were entirely up to the secretary of state for the colonies. Many men, who perhaps had failed to make the right impression, mouldered in dead-end jobs in far-off places, like chief magistrate of the Windward Isles, without any chance of moving on.

The ideal governors were former explorers, military men, naturalists, politicians or administrators. The job could be hard – the prevalence of tropical diseases in the early century meant that many postings were outright dangerous, and a surprising number of governors and lesser officers spent their lives fending off the recurring fevers of malaria (the parasite Plasmodium, carried by the mosquito, was first identified in blood in 1880). On the other hand, the pay could be very generous, especially later in the century, when governors were recruited from a more august circle of senior officers and minor nobility. Sir Bartle Frere earned £10,000 – around £600,000 today – as Cape governor.

Williams tells the story of the governors through a number of excellent setpieces drawn mostly from contemporary memoirs – there is remarkably little from recent times in her sources, which in some ways leaves her to tell a good story without being bogged down in the curious etiquette of current theories of history and identity.

Still, Williams’ governor-centric views leave a lot out. Her telling of the governor Arthur Hamilton-Gordon’s creation of the native administration headed by the Great Council of Chiefs in Fiji does not do justice to the sheer pomposity of the man (otherwise known as Lord Stanmore), or how much he loved the adoring crowds of bowing natives. Elsewhere, Williams’ version of the humiliation of Sir Bartle Frere in South Africa following a conflict with the Basotho tribespeople in 1880 seems a bit too generous, too. It does not feature in Williams’ account, but it was Frere’s insistence on disarming the Basotho under Moshoeshoe, prompting the Basotho to take up arms against him, that surely prompted the Gladstone government to have Frere recalled to London. And Frere’s warnings of a ‘general rising of Kaffirdom’ under the leadership of the Zulus, repeated by Williams here, were simply wrong: the Zulus’ struggle never did find any echo among other races, and the fear of such an event tells us more about Frere than the Zulus.

Williams’ version of the Hong Kong governorship of John Pope Hennesy repeats many of the attacks on him from angry settlers, even to the point of arguing that he was wrong to give Chinamen civil rights. Williams’ account of the partnership between Flora Shaw at The Times and Lord Lugard, who developed the theory of ‘indirect rule’ – rule, that is, through native chiefs – is particularly fascinating, though here, for a contrast, it would be good to read Terence Ranger’s paper ‘The Tribalisation of Africa’, where he shows just how degrading the application of the indirect rule policy was.

The chapter on Sydney Oliver’s governorship in Jamaica is full of remarkable backstories, like the appearance of the printer Marcus Garvey, as well as the young Claude Mackay. But one could not help thinking that there must have been more critics of Empire than this Fabian sir.

James Heartfield’s history The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909 is published by Hurst in London on 22 July and by Columbia University Press in October.

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