HENRY JAMES CALLED it “the great grabbed-up British Empire,” although on the whole he admired it. Historians, in the aftermath of its dissolution, have tended to treat it as a case for prosecution or defense, and, given the discrepancy between the materialistic and frequently brutal way it was acquired—traders followed by soldiers—and the idealistic inclinations of many of its administrators, there is plenty to argue about. Kwasi Kwarteng, in his vivid and stimulating book, takes a fresh approach, moving the argument on from the Empire in general to a sampling of its impact on our contemporary world. Kwarteng picks six territories which were once part of the British Empire and focuses on the way they were governed. Five of them—Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, and Nigeria—still suffer acute problems of governance, while the sixth and smallest, Hong Kong, handed back relatively recently from the British to the Chinese and generally regarded as the British Empire’s last colony, provides a telling example of Kwarteng’s argument.
Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, antagonized the Chinese government and many old “China hands” in Britain by attempting to introduce a greater element of democracy before handing the colony over. But “so far as [liberal democracy] was true for Britain,” writes Kwarteng, “it did not apply to any real extent to the administration of the British Empire, which was always a wholly different political organisation from Britain itself.” Ironically enough, “the traditions of British imperial rule were much more akin to Chinese, Confucian concepts of law and order, social hierarchy and deference than to any idea of liberal democracy.”
Acquired piecemeal, mostly in pursuit of trade, the Empire’s fifty-odd territories around the globe—Kwarteng does not touch on the “white dominions” such as Canada and Australia, or the “First British Empire,” with its American colonies—were also governed piecemeal, giving extraordinary power to the individual administrators on the ground. Of course most great empires in the past, from the Persian and Roman empires onwards, have had to be governed in this way because of the distances to be travelled by primitive transport and the absence of modern communications, but the similarity Kwarteng detects between British and Chinese imperial rule lies less in the clumsy circumstances than in the choice of administrators. They belonged in both cases to a particular class, privileged, highly educated, but not aristocratic. In China, they were scholars who had passed a series of exacting, competitive examinations in the Confucian classics. In the British Empire, they were mostly the products of “public schools” (the British term for fee-paying and usually boarding schools) and leading universities, chiefly Oxford or Cambridge, with a Classical education (Latin, Greek, Ancient History, and Philosophy) and preferably some sporting ability as well. (Kwarteng himself, educated at Eton and Cambridge, a Kennedy scholar at Harvard, with a doctorate in Economic History from Cambridge, might have been a prime candidate for a job running some remote part of the British Empire. But he arrived too late, having been born in 1975 to Ghanaian parents who had migrated to England soon after their country became independent, and so instead he joined the Conservative Party, and was elected in 2010 as a Member of Parliament.)
Since theirs was a global empire, sewn together for most of its history only by the sea and the superiority of their navy, the British found it expedient as far as possible to govern indirectly through local rulers, with British officials as advisors and overseers. This was the system widely used in India, and it was extended later to Egypt and the Sudan, Nigeria and Iraq. On the face of it, the system was sensible, especially in the early days of the acquisition of territories with such hugely varied cultures, and Kwarteng, in his analysis of its deficiencies, does not always allow for the brevity of the period between acquisition and independence. Nigeria, as a single united country, was part of the British Empire for only forty-six years, and Sudan for less than sixty; Burma was swallowed up in three gulps between 1824 and 1885 and disgorged again in 1948. In Iraq, where, after World War I and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the British installed an Arab king, Faisal I, the “mandate” given to Britain by the Allied Powers lasted a mere twelve years, while even the indirect influence of the British came to an end in 1958 with the revolution that overthrew the monarchy.
Kwarteng ascribes the deficiencies of British rule chiefly to what he calls the “anarchic individualism” of its administrators, who added further swerves or even U-turns of policy to orders from afar. He anatomizes the unfortunate decision, after the conquest of the Punjab in northern India, to sell the province of Kashmir to a Hindu ruler, the Maharajah Gulab Singh, in 1846, with the result that a century later, when India was partitioned, his heir chose to take Kashmir into Hindu India rather than Muslim Pakistan, in spite of the fact that 80 percent of his subjects were Muslims. The same mistake was made in Iraq: King Faisal was a Sunni Muslim and most of his subjects were Shia. In Burma, on the other hand, a reigning king was deposed and his kingdom summarily annexed by force—a decision taken in London by the new and “exuberant” Secretary of State for India, Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill. The eventual outcome, after Japanese occupation during World War II, was that with “no leaders, no real civic society, no institutions” and the assassination of the nationalist leader Aung San, there was a vacuum of power in Burma. It was filled, after independence and to this day, by a brutal army.
Sudan, after its conquest, was called a “condominium,” supposedly ruled and paid for jointly by Britain and Egypt. But Egypt itself was a British protectorate, with another puppet king, and most of the ruling as well as paying in Sudan was done by Britain through the Sudan Political Service, whose administrators were chosen not by examination but by interview. Public schoolboys who were also athletes were specially favoured, since the Sudan was not a land for “weaklings to master.” A third of all the men who joined the SPS were the sons of clergymen, 70 percent had graduated from Oxford or Cambridge, and none was permitted to bring a wife out until he had completed five years’ service or reached the age of twenty-eight. It was one of these men, Harold MacMichael, holding the important post of Civil Secretary, who, in 1930, initiated the so-called “Southern Policy,” the idea of developing the African portion of Sudan separately from the northern, Arab portion. But after World War II this policy was reversed by a successor, Sir James Robertson, leaving, when independence came in 1956, a fundamental divide and a long-lasting civil war between the people of the south and the Arab rulers in the north.
Nigeria’s endemic problem was and is similar, but tripartite: irreconcilable division between the Muslim north, with 50 percent of the population, and the Christian or pagan south, divided again between the Yorubas in the west and the Igbos in the east. As the British prime minister Lord Salisbury put it, after an agreement with the French in 1892 to partition West Africa, “we have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot has ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.”
Kwarteng’s critical analyses of his six territories’ histories are much lightened by his brief biographies of the “anarchic”—or at least eccentric—individualists themselves. Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, conqueror and Governor-General of the Sudan, is still a famous figure, if only for his World War I poster (“Your Country Needs You”), but it is perhaps not so well known that he suffered from a squint, was a very poor shot, and had a sense of humor. A regular guest at aristocratic country-houses where shooting birds and animals was one of the principal entertainments, he named his three gundogs Bang, Miss, and Damn.
There are also excellent sketches of many less famous or forgotten administrators, as well as of local rulers, from Kitchener’s adversary, the Khalifa, and King Thibaw of Burma, who massacred a large part of his very large family, to Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the leader of the Igbos in their attempt to break away from Nigeria during the Biafran War, who remembered his time as a student at Oxford University as “the happiest days of his life.” This is an absorbing, richly researched book, smoothly written with a light touch, and suggests, if its gifted Ghanaian/British author is anything to go by, that the Empire at least got something right.
John Spurling is a playwright and novelist. His play, The British Empire, Part One, was first performed on stage in 1980 and extended into a trilogy for BBC Radio 3. His latest novel, A Book of Liszts: Variations on the Theme of Franz Liszt, was published last year by Seagull Books.