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When the sun never set...
on 13 July 2011
Few subjects could be less fashionable than the British Empire, and Stephanie Williams deserves our thanks for this original and illuminating book. She has consulted reams of original material, and assembled the stories of some of the more memorable governors whose influence--for better or worse--shaped our former colonies at the height of Britain's global power. Sensibly, she eliminated India from her enquiries: the governance of the sub-continent occupied thousands of administrators, many of whom were specifically trained for the job at Haileybury College.
By contrast, the rest of the empire was administered by governors who lacked any noticeable qualifications for the job other than the right contacts and enough money to compensate for the meagre salaries on offer. In most cases, they had to accept that malaria went with the job, and that mortality rates were alarmingly high. This applied to your family, should they decide to accompany you (most of them did).
Many of the governors Williams writes about were capable administrators--until the telegraph linked most parts of the empire, they had to be. They had no choice but to make it up as they went along. Although some were dolts, and a few were bigots, most of them had a surprising amount of sympathy for the natives that Britain was dragging into the modern world. Some of them virtually went native, and many of them worked tirelessly to protect native populations from exploitation by white settlers and European commercial interests.
Williams doesn't do too much theorising, but she makes it clear that the Colonial secretaries that these governors answered to were very keen to protect the rights and even the cultures of subject peoples. Behind this was the belief in our civilising mission. As much as we decry the 'hypocrisy' of our Victorian ancestors, their writings brim with improving zeal. And whatever damage was done to native cultures by missionaries and commercial exploitation, it's easy to forget that slavery, warfare, disease and famine were rife before we intruded.
Colonial secretaries were also keen to save money. Neither Gladstone nor Disraeli were anxious to expand the empire--the commericial benefits to Britain seldom extended to balancing their budgets. Were it not for the popular belief that the empire was a virtuous enterprise, it is doubtful that the press could have whipped up so much popular enthusiasm for painting the globe red.
Governors almost always tried to respect native customs and law--except as applied to slavery. Colonialism may have involved the occasional gunboat and even an even-more-occasional regiment of Redcoats, but for the most part their authority rested upon their ability to work with native rulers, who had to be convinced that the protection of the Queen was worth having.
Williams does not gloss over the ugly side of empire, especially the working conditions of native populations who worked on European-owned plantations and mines--often in conditions which virtually amounted to slavery. But every colony was different, and each of the governors she writes about had different responses to the situations they found themselves in.
Altogether, a great book. Inevitably, it's a bit scrappy, because so many different governors and colonies are covered. But it reads well, and it reminds us that the British Empire was a many-faceted enterprise that deserves our serious attention, if for no other reason than its effects are still evident and obvious around the world.