A hundred years ago, the British Empire reached its zenith. At least it did in pomp and circumstance, even as its foundations were beginning to crumble. The defining event was the Great Durbar in Delhi, when, on Dec. 12, 1911, King George V was crowned Emperor of India.
It was a brilliantly choreographed ceremony, designed to give visible expression to the British conception of India as an enduring hierarchy of loyal subjects. As magnificently dressed maharajas, nawabs and other notables paid homage to their Emperor King, the emergent force of Indian nationalism – and India’s dire economic problems – could be temporarily disregarded.
But despite its historical importance, the Great Durbar’s centenary is passing virtually unnoticed. There’s a reason for that: Anything that smacks of enthusiasm for empire evokes a furious reaction. Ask historian Niall Ferguson. In his provocatively titled book Civilization: The West and the Rest, he can’t disguise his admiration for the Western empires, and he laments the loss of faith that brought about their decline.
In response, Pankaj Mishra, writing in the London Review of Books, condemns Mr. Ferguson as a “retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past,” placing him in the same ideological camp as the notorious American race theorist Theodore Lothrop Stoddard. Mr. Ferguson is demanding that Mr. Mishra apologize for the “vile accusation of racism” and is threatening legal action unless he does so.
The spat suggests that any discussion about the merits of empire is likely to spiral out of control. Does this mean that empire is now a taboo subject? No. What it does mean is that enlightening conversation about empire has shifted from what empire means in terms of ideology to the more neutral ground of what it means in terms of communal and personal experience.
Admittedly, attempts to recover the experience of empire can founder in a slough of nostalgia. The Brits lapped up the TV series The Jewel in the Crown (about the last days of the British Raj), as they now lap up Downton Abbey. Both offer an escape into a magical kingdom of hierarchy at a time of social disintegration and declining national prestige.
But beyond empire’s legacy of dramatic kitsch, there are some persuasive examples of an authentic recovery of the colonial experience. Michael Ondaatje’s fascinating novel The Cat’s Table has a distinguished place on that list.
The story’s mise en scène is a ship bound for England from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during the twilight of empire. Nominally, the ship has its own microcosmic imperial hierarchy reflected in its dining privileges – from the ship’s bombastic, racist captain at the top to the humble denizens of the “cat’s table” at the bottom. Yet, through the eyes of the 11-year-old protagonist, we witness not hierarchy, but a glorious social anarchy in which race, gender and class are secondary to personality. All in different ways are touched by the imperial experience, yet it’s those supposedly in command (policemen, naval officers) who are most confined by it.
Recovering the imperial experience from the vantage point of Britain brings with it special challenges. For those like myself, brought up in what historian David Cannadine calls “the afterglow of empire,” the material legacy of Britain’s metropolitan status was everywhere. What it signified is less apparent.
A product known as Camp Coffee sticks in my mind, perhaps because it used to stick in my gullet. It was an ersatz syrupy concoction, compared to which Marmite was a gourmet delight. I remember every detail of the product’s label, which depicted a kilted sahib in front of his tent, receiving a cup of the vile brew from a native servant.
My family had a personal connection to empire. In the 1930s, my father served in the RAF in Iraq and on India’s North-West Frontier. But his experience was not a happy one, and he rarely spoke about it. He occasionally voiced admiration for Pashtun tribal culture, but of Iraq he said nothing. I still wonder whether he had witnessed something unspeakable there. In any event, he was left with a loathing for British imperialism (as well as an extreme fear of flying).
As a consequence, my childhood enthusiasm for empire was covert and illicit. I pored with guilty pleasure over out-of-date atlases, marvelling at the extent of red on world maps. And I soaked up stories in The Boy’s Own Paper about intrepid district commissioners.
My days as an avid imperialist did not long survive my childhood, and I later recoiled with embarrassment from them. I convince myself that, in maturity, I have achieved a balanced view.
But for balanced views of empire, it’s to India we need to go. India’s comfortable assimilation of its colonial heritage is a remarkable story. An eloquent statement is the condition of Coronation Park, where the Durbar was held a hundred years ago. It has been neither destroyed nor maintained. Instead, its monuments to British rule are simply being left to crumble. Shelley’s poetic reverie on the monstrous, ruined statue of a long-forgotten emperor comes irresistibly to mind: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.