A lasting legacy

2009-09-23 00:00

MUCH that is familiar in the modern world is a legacy of the British Empire. This is the controversial and challenging view of Ashley Jackson in a lavishly illustrated, recently published book that draws particularly heavily on the imperial imprint upon India and Africa. Curiously, and disappointingly, this book has virtually nothing to say about South Africa.

The impact of globalisation on the 21st century, driven by free trade, computers and the Internet, is a persistent theme of contemporary news and analysis. But it had a hugely successful forerunner in the British Empire connected by sea lanes, the telegraph and later air links and the wireless. For its time, it was as revolutionary a development as today’s global village. Driven initially by trade, it was secured by naval and military power, backed up by a variety of administrative arrangements and widespread missionary activity. There was no master plan; but Prime Minister Henry John Temple Palmerston’s idea that the empire was acquired in a “fit of absence of mind” is undoubtedly classic British understatement.

Government officials and settlers created in faraway, exotic and sometimes dangerous places a home from home. A racecourse or cricket ground was often one of the first signs, after the trading store and garrison, of an imperial presence. Some historians go as far as to say that a significant part of British identity, in what is essentially a mongrel nation, was forged by its empire.

Jackson shows that its influence is still found everywhere. A great deal of international law and many current-day nations (including South Africa) owe their existence to the empire. International team sport — particularly cricket, rugby and association football — has unmistakable imperial origins; and the monarchy continues to exert a hold on the global imagination. Buildings, place names, trade links, war graves and monuments, voluntary movements such as the Boy Scouts, private schools, and even the BBC are all a reminder that while empire has disappeared, something of its ethos has endured.

This was no one-way street. The empire had a profound effect on every­day British life. The English language is heavily populated by borrowed words, particularly from Hindi, Urdu and Swahili, and many of Britain’s older public buildings show exotic architectural influence. Today, of course, the British population is a lesson in the demography of empire, 7 000 members of its armed forces are from the Commonwealth, and even small towns have a curry restaurant.

Jackson’s book is particularly interesting for its emphasis on, and illustration of, the influence of empire on mundane aspects of life. Imperial themes cropped up everywhere — cigarette and tea cards, advertisements for the most banal products, biscuit tins, tea caddies and jigsaw puzzles.

Much of the globe’s initial mapping, land and sea, was for imperial purposes and Jackson tells again the story of the pundits of northern India trained to walk at exactly 2 000 paces to the mile recording secretly their progress on prayer wheels. The Mercator projection, which gave a comfortingly expansive impression of the extent of empire (40% of the world’s surface), still has a firm grip on popular perception; and the Greenwich meridian remains the standard for time measurement.

The Victorians with their passion for exploration, recording and classifying were the quintessential imperialists. Museums, botanical gardens and societies dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge continue to flourish today. An enormous literature grew up around the experiences of settlers and colonial administrators and fed into popular fiction, much of it based on military adventure. The collection of stamps from obscure corners of the Empire gave several generations a rudimentary education in geography.

Mad dogs they may have been, but in Jackson’s view the builders of empire left “giant footprints” and legacies that “have simply become part of the furniture of the modern world,” even though only tiny fragments like Bermuda and St Helena remain. He makes a good case and backs it up with excellent pictorial content. But his book is essentially non-critical of the purpose and outcome of imperialism: in a sense its urbane presentation is fittingly symbolic of the self- confidence and aplomb that covered up the many warts of empire at its height.

Mad dogs and Englishmen: A Grand Tour of the British Empire at its Height, 1850–1945, by Ashley Jackson, is published by Quercus.

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