This trilogy of books about the British Empire was written thirty years ago, and the author’s methods and views are now completely unfashionable in academia and discredited by the resenters of post colonial (pseudo) theory.
Morris’s mission is to capture the aesthetic of empire, and this he certainly does. The whole conception of the book is deeply artistic, the three volumes standing in relation to one another as a triptych. The first volume describes in a vaguely chronological fashion the gaining of the Empire, from the dilettante beginnings of the East India Company to the increased professionalism and hardening of attitudes after the Indian Mutiny in 1857, to Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897. The second volume is an in-depth look at all aspects of the Empire at the climacteric of the Jubilee, taking in the structure, the life, the technology, the art, the wars and the attitudes towards Empire: a vertical slice right through the heart of Empire. The third volume takes us back to a chronology of the decline of the Empire, from the jubilee to Churchill’s death in 1965, a few years before the start of the writing.
Morris has no theory of history he is trying to work out, no ideological axe to grind, but is out to capture the sights and sounds and smells and fears and joys of Empire, told from the side of the Empire builders of course (History to the defeated may say alas, but cannot help nor pardon). His method is essentially that of the novelist. Each chapter is a snapshot of a particular moment. Consider the chapter on the board meeting of the Hudson Bay Company, for example, from which he weaves backwards and forwards from the history of the company, how they got to this ‘present’ moment, to the consequences for themselves and their place in the grand historical, imperial sweep of things. He describes with a novelistic eye for detail and feel for characterization the people involved; and the names of history really do come alive: Gordon’s vacillation at the siege of Khartoum, Rhodes’s unscrupulousness, Parnell’s childlike love for Katherine O’ Shea.
And yet this is not only top down history: we are given the poignancy of the homesick letters to his mum of a young unknown Empire builder on his voyage out, the songs and bawdy catchphrases of soldiers and sailors of the Empire; contemporary poetry, paintings and photos are quoted and meticulously ‘read’ to help us understand how the Victorians themselves perceived their Empire.
Morris knows, with Collingwood, that the essence of history is the inwardness of the actants, and he gives this to us in delicious dollops.
He is also alert to the influence of geography and climate on history, and his descriptions of place are marvelously, visually and sensuously evocative. The books are packed full of queer facts and wonderfully arcane information: the Indian Mutiny started because of a rumour that the new cartridges used in the Indian regiments were greased with pig and cow fat, and therefore deeply offensive to Muslim and Hindu belief; the Senior Judge’s house in Salisbury, Rhodesia, was prefabricated in England and then sent out to Africa- and that it was made of papiermache.
While his story is told from the Empire builders’ point of view, he is by no means blind to the plight of the natives. Although his attitudes and manner are now outdated, in spite of what the resenters would have us think, we cannot blame him for that. He describes the nobility of the Zulus and their battle technique; he is upfront about the Indians’ contribution to the construction of Empire as their Diaspora spread throughout the Imperial possessions: the West Indies, Fiji, South Africa; and tells us with shocked clarity about the vicious reprisals the British took after the Mutiny. And yet at the same time, he is alert to the fact that on the whole the Empire benefited the subject peoples perhaps more than it oppressed them: the railways opening up the dark heart of Africa to trade and civilization, for example, and the way there was a conscious policy to let vast tracts of the Empire govern themselves, if only to cut administration costs.
(I can hear the resenters in the back row gasping in horror at the way I am writing this, but let us not forget, oh you naïve and illogical descendents of Rousseau, that the British ruthlessly abolished many of the more revolting customs of your ‘noble and innocent savages’ such as foot binding, cliterodectomy, suttee, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery and head hunting, and that as a result of British engineering and British medical advances, famine and mass outbreaks of sickness were largely eradicated throughout the Empire.)
Morris’s language is ravishing: he is a real artist in the medium. His sentences have a beautiful rhythm, and he has an eye for the most haunting image and an ear for the most resonant metaphor. Over all, laced through and through, is a very delicate irony at the (often) sheer madness of the Victorians as they went about building and keeping their Empire, taking with them their collapsible canvass baths, their gin sundowners to keep off malaria, their solar topees, and their endless boring games of cricket under the tropical glare...