You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Class Acts

Ornamentalism by David Cannadine Oxford University Press, 240 pp., $25)

When Hitler wished to relax after a hard day at the office, he liked to watch films in his private screening room. Nazi propaganda movies were not his favorite entertainment; they felt too much like work. Hitler liked swashbuckling Hollywood films, and one picture in particular: Lives of a Bengal Lancer, starring Gary Cooper and C. Aubrey Smith. It was propaganda for the British Empire, of course, with its gallant British heroes cutting a swath through the lesser breeds. But the Führer rather admired the British Empire.

Like many Germans, Hitler envied the way the British exercised their power. He approved of an enterprise in which white men ruled much of the world. He would have liked nothing better than to carve up the globe between his own Herrenvolk and purebred Englishmen. Just imagine: a world dominated by SS men and Bengal Lancers. Hitler, and some of his supporters, also had a curious admiration for Benjamin Disraeli, the first and only British prime minister of Jewish descent, whose phrase "race is all" was much quoted in Germany. Carl Schmitt, the prominent Nazi jurist, is said to have had a portrait of der alte Jude above his desk.

If David Cannadine is to be believed, Hitler got the wrong end of the stick about the British Empire. And so did (and still do, in fact) the armies of diligent toilers in the mines of postcolonial discourse and other narratives of Orientalism: according to Cannadine, race was not everything in the British Raj. It was not even the main point. Class was the main point. Class, status, and rank were more important than skin color, the shape of one's eyes, or the dimensions of one's skull. A Sultan, a Nizam, or a Pasha was equal to Britishroyalty, even if the Queen-Empress or King-Emperor residing in Windsor was perched securely at the top of the imperial tree. In Queen Victoria's eyes, King Kalakaua of Hawaii was one of us, so to speak, while a respectable tradesman from Birmingham, though blessed with the pinkest complexion, most decidedly was not.

When King Kalakaua attended a grand "do" at Lady Spencer's in 1881, the Prince of Wales insisted that the Hawaiian monarch should take precedence over the German crown prince, who was later to become Kaiser Wilhelm II. When the touchy German protested, the prince held firm. "Either the brute is a king, or he is a common or garden nigger; and if the latter, what's he doing here?" It was not a particularly charming remark; but, as Cannadine rightly says, it was not primarily a racist one either, for "the freemasonry" of rank trumped "the alternative and more recent freemasonry based on the unifying characteristic of shared skin color."

Class in Britain is David Cannadine's favorite subject. His analysis of class in the imperial periphery is an expansion of his writings on class in the British homelands. Indeed, he sees both as parts of the same phenomenon: the ordering of society along hierarchical and "organic" principles, as though society in Britain and its overseas possessions were not constructed through human agency, but had grown naturally, like trees in native soil. Societies are seen by Cannadine as organisms rooted in history. It is true, of course, that all societies are rooted in history; but organic conservatives tend to argue against social or political change by claiming that such changes would not accord with the natural order, in which every person knows his or her place. It is a quasi-agrarian view, often held by those with landed interests. Aristocrats of all kinds, whether they are the Prince of Wales or the King of Tonga, like to believe that their superior status is a natural blessing, which is often literally true, since they are usually born to it. It is a view that the Americans rejected in 1776. It might not be a complete coincidence that racial hierarchy has cast a long shadow instead.

Organic politics gained in strength in Britain after the French Revolution. Napoleon—who tried to establish a common legal system and administration all over Europe, who emancipated the Jews and other persecuted minorities, and who did all this in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity—was the antithesis of Britishessentialism. To counter such dangerous foreign notions, the British were told that their liberties were ancient and natural, and that deference to social hierarchies was in the British nature of things. French ideas about liberty and equality were said to be the opposite: rationalistic, mechanistic, unnatural. Many Britons, though by no means all, went along with this. The same was not always true in the Empire. Napoleon was a hero to many Indian intellectuals who grew up under the British Raj.

Cannadine cites Thackeray's view of England in the 1850s as "that Gothic society with its ranks and hierarchies, its cumbrous ceremonies, its glittering antique paraphernalia." Still, as Cannadine points out, much of this paraphernalia was recently invented, including the ceremonies of Empire: the splendid Durbars in Delhi; the hundreds of glittering orders of this and that; the bejeweled Nawabs, Nabobs, and Rajahs, and the viceroys in ermine and silk; the thousands of statues of kings and queens; the construction of Kingsways, Queensways, and monuments to lords, viscounts, and marquesses; the state visits and the royal birthdays—all these were meant to enhance the authority of British rule through a network of native proxies, and as a prophylactic against change abroad and at home.

THE ORIGINAL ARCHITECT of all this sorcery was none other than Benjamin Disraeli, the man who bewitched his queen with eloquent flattery and dazzled his peers with fables of Jews as the most ancient of aristocratic races, which would save old England from falling apart in a frightening new age of industry, urban disobedience, and foreign egalitarianism. It was Disraeli who made Queen Victoria the Empress of India, who oversaw the creation of all kinds of new honors and baubles, and who said that "it is only by the amplification of titles that you can often touch and satisfy the imagination of nations." The fact that he, the grandson of an Italian Jew, managed to become Lord Beaconsfield would seem to prove Cannadine's point about status trumping race. But it is not so simple. The fact that Disraeli felt the need to convince English squires that Jews were an aristocratic race, and as such by nature bound to the English, complicates our picture of Victorian racial geography. Some races were clearly thought to be superior to others.

Cannadine does not deny this, but in his effort to make his case for class over color he does not give it enough attention. The fetish made in the British Empire of the so-called "warrior races" needs explaining.Cannadine does allude to this. He writes that some British (or, more usually, English) conservatives had romantic views of native ruling classes overseas who were deemed to be superior to the softened citizens of the old metropole, or indeed to the white trash that populated the New World. Lord Curzon, for example, lauded the princes in India, who, "amid the levelling tendencies of the age," kept "alive the traditions and customs, sustain[ed] the virility, and sav[ed] from extinction, the picturesqueness of ancient and noble races."

A more recent admirer of noble races was Wilfred Thesiger, the writer who projected the virtues of an older (and to some degree imaginary) England onto tall, handsome tribesmen in Africa and the Middle East. The common disdain among upper-class British "Arabists" for Jewish settlers in Palestine, and later in Israel, was linked to this idea of pure and vigorous warrior races. Zionism, with its egalitarian, socialist, and modernist tendencies, was seen as a wrecker of ancient and noble ways. (Certain German conservatives after World War II admired Israelis for the opposite reason: they found the image of the Jews as a warrior race rather congenial.But that is another story.) Bookish Bengalis, who were often better versed in European culture than theirBritish masters, were commonly despised, while the strapping Pathans of the Northwest Frontier were lauded as fine specimens. It might not be so fruitful to apply class analysis to such distinctions, for although it is true that Bengali intellectuals represented the city, while Pathans and other "warrior races" were associated more with rural life, the Calcutta elite also formed an aristocracy of sorts.

IT IS A SHAME that Cannadine does not compare the British Empire more thoroughly to other European (or American) colonial enterprises, for this would have enriched his analysis considerably. He is on to something, I think, when he claims that class distinctions tended to blur racial differences. Upper-class Indians were treated with a degree of equality by the British. They joined colonial clubs, they played cricket with English teams, and their sons attended English schools. Both Nehru, a product of Harrow School, and Jinnah, the first prime minister of Pakistan, were English-style gentlemen as well as nationalist politicians.

But society in the Dutch East Indies was rather different. In that empire, minute racial distinctions were strictly observed, and even during World War II, after the Japanese invasion, members of the Indonesian elite who had chosen to escape to Australia with the Dutch colonial government were not allowed into the Dutch Club in Sydney. Class was, to a large extent, racial. The "pure" Dutch were on top; then came the "Indos," who had native blood, but were educated in Dutch; then the half-breeds who were raised as natives; and, at the bottom of the pile, the natives. The Indonesian nobility was paid some respect, but it enjoyed less political power than the Indian princes, who did not have much. Holland was more egalitarian than Britain. Dutch aristocracy hardly counted in politics, so there was never a question of exporting metropolitan hierarchies to the colonies, or using exotic Asian hierarchies as models for the metropole. So, to paraphrase Cannadine, one might say that in the Dutch overseas possessions, race trumped class.

The French example also shows that class was not all. Unlike the British or the Dutch, who were content to leave native culture alone if it did not gravely offend Christian prejudices, the French had a universalistic view of their civilization. Instead of French political hierarchy, they exported French culture. This was an arrogant thing to do, perhaps, and it was much criticized by nineteenth-century German idealists, who saw the French mission civilisatrice as the worst kind of imperialism; but it did allow people from other races to become part of the francophone elite. If you were well versed in Racine and Voltaire, and knew how to drink a fine claret, and were civilized in the French manner, you were accepted as "one of us." In French Indochina or French Africa, then, culture was the trump card that could transcend racial distinctions.

NONE OF THIS is to say that Cannadine's description of the British Empire is wrong, only that its focus is narrow, which is perhaps inevitable in a thin and little-nuanced book. He makes his case about class, and he bangs it home long after the reader has got the point. The clarity of his "message" does not allow for many complications. He is quite right to say that the organic view of class politics is essentially conservative, and he quotes the architect of imperial Delhi, Sir Edwin Lutyens, to good effect. India, like Africa, made Sir Edwin feel "very Tory and pre-Tory feudal." And it may well be true that many British builders of empire shared the sentiments of Charles Temple, who lived in Nigeria before the Great War, and "admired aristocracy, despised individualism and regarded European capitalism as a decadent form of society." The "duty of colonial trusteeship," in his view, lay in "protecting the virtues of northern aristocratic life and its communal economy from the 'barbarizing' effects of European capitalism, democracy and individualism."

And yet the British, on the whole, have left a more successful legacy of capitalism, rule of law, and democracy than most former colonial trustees. This would suggest that there was more to the white man's burden than reactionary romanticism. Cannadine acknowledges the growth in imperial possessions of an educated, urban, nationalist, often rebellious native elite, infused with democratic ideals. But they must have gotten this from somewhere. He puts it all down to "technological transformations." I do not believe that this is an entirely adequate explanation.

Is it not the case, after all, that British imperialism carried various projects, not all of which were conservative?Especially in India, but also in Southeast Asia, and even in Africa, the British mission civilisatrice was political, and sometimes, if perhaps late in the day, rather progressive. The same was true, by the way, of Disraelian Tory politics in Britain: traditionalist flimflam often served as a colorful smokescreen to mask quite radical changes.What is left in such places as Malaysia, Zimbabwe, or Hong Kong of an independent judiciary is still largely due to the imperial legacy. Indian democracy—which, despite is glaring flaws, is still a modern miracle—owes something to the British, too.

British colonialism planted the seeds of anti-colonialism, through education as much as through technological advances. Even technology was not politically neutral. The railroad system that opened India up to trade, for example, was designed to expand British industrial interests, to be sure, but it hardly fits the agrarian model of organic, aristocratic society. Once people can move easily from place to place, this kind of arcadia is bound to collapse.

THE OTHER THING that deserves to complicate Cannadine's picture is the role of the native elites. By this I do not refer to princes in golden carriages. And even in their case Cannadine is too simplistic. He contrasts the radical nationalists who came to prominence in urban Singapore in the 1950s to the reactionary sultans in Malaya. In fact, however, the Malayan prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, scion of an old noble line (who would have been astonished to note that Cannadine identifies him as a black African), was more democratic than the urban "progressive" Lee Kuan Yew.

In some places, the local elite had such strong interests in colonial status that it became more conservative than the imperial governors. In the Philippines before World War II, for example, the land-owning mestizos, some of whose children and grandchildren still rule the country, wanted to prolong American colonial rule years after the American government wanted to bring the whole thing to an end. The Cantonese tycoons who managed Hong Kong under British colonial rule would have been happy to pick up their baubles and fancy titles at Buckingham Palace forever, if Beijing had not insisted on the handover in 1997. And it was they, not the British, who slapped down any suggestion of democratic reform when it was quietly mooted by British colonial officers in the 1950s. When Chris Patten tried to introduce democratic reforms at the last minute, his main adversaries were from that same local Chinese elite (apart, of course, from the comrades themselves).

But this is all water under the bridge now. The last vestiges of the world described by Cannadine only barely live on in the old country. Aristocrats and privately educated gentlemen no longer govern England, and the House of Windsor is fast becoming a vulgar soap opera, still revered by some but treated with indifference by many. The baubles and the titles and the rituals of deference are still there, though: in recent months the British nation has been transfixed by the story of the best-selling author and popular fantasist Jeffrey Archer, who always pretended to be grander than he was, collected friends in high places, climbed his way into the upper ranks of the Tory Party, made it into the House of Lords, gave absurdly lavish parties, almost became mayor of London, and was finally unmasked as a fraud. Baron Archer of Weston-Super-Mare would have made a splendid governor of Bombay.

This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.