A History of the Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Hubert R. Catchpole

Delivered to The Chicago Literary Club
December 10, 2001

There seemed to be some good reasons for appropriating most of Gibbon's title. Edward Gibbon, England's greatest historian was a witness to events of his own 18th century when one of the earlier English or British empires was collapsing and a second and final British Empire was in the process of forming. Gibbon's years were 1732 to 1794. He went on the Grand Tour encompassing Paris and Rome and at the latter made the decision to become the historian of that city, then visibly in ruins. The first volume of the Decline and Fall, there would be five more, appeared on a memorable date, 1776. He was a good friend and supporter of Lord North who was carrying George III's side in Parliament. Gibbon had been elected to Parliament two years earlier and stayed nearly ten. He wrote in his memoirs that he took his seat at the beginning of the memorable contest between Great Britain and America and supported with many a sincere and silent vote the rights, though not perhaps the interest, of the mother country. This cryptic statement means, one supposes, a vote for the king, and a disinclination to defend it publicly. Gibbon's Decline and Fall, costing a guinea a volume, was praised both as History and Literature, was a best seller, and made his reputation. It dealt with the western Roman empire which fell in 476, when Rome was sacked by the Goths. For a quick answer as to what caused the decline and fall, Gibbon replied: Barbarians and Religion. What he had actually said about the latter was that the various forms of worship that prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful. This passage of Gibbonian wit naturally landed him in squabbles. In their Indian empire at least, British magistrates, whether they had read Gibbon or not, tended to stay aloof from the religions of their subjects, nor did they necessarily welcome missionaries with enthusiasm. Gibbon in spite of his votes for King George presumably in matters of taxation regarded the Atlantic colonists with favor and remarked that, if his other concern, the Barbarians, were to attack Europe, bringing slavery and desolation, then "ten thousand vessels could bring the remains of a civilized society to flourish in an American world." That society would evidently be British, since he also saw the English language diffused over an immense and populous continent.

Another part of the world also attracted his attention. In later volumes of the Decline he described Barbarians moving from their bases in Central Asia, first to Kabul and thence to Delhi and eventually conquering the whole of India. They became the Moguls. Now, he wrote, "The Mogul Empire is being attacked and the riches of their kingdom possessed by a company of Christian merchants of a remote island in the northern ocean," not exactly a subtle identification. Setting aside the remote possibility that the English East India Company was practicing any large amount of Christianity, Gibbon was aware of the activities of Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, who since 1750 had been successfully wresting India from the Moguls.

There was another sidelight on the India story. General Cornwallis, said to be sulking in his tent in October, 1781, had just surrendered the British Army at Yorktown to end the War of Independence, and was irritated that the Fleet had failed to rescue them. However, he does not fail to order a new uniform for every man, so that the final march-by shall be up to proper standards. One need not linger over the woes of General Cornwallis: five years later he was Governor General of India for a spell of seven years, returning as Viceroy to die in the new century. The British Empire had moved east. But still in Gibbon's century, Sierra Leone on the west African coast had been added to Britain's domains.

In 1768-1771, the Admiralty bark, Endeavour, Captain Cook, Master, took a party of British scientists to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. This apparently esoteric exercise was in the interests of naval navigation. This accomplished they explored the coasts of New Zealand. Also aboard besides the astronomers was an eminent botanist, a later President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks. Now heading south west, they fetched up with the south east corner of Australia. For such a large island, Australia had had a tendency to disappear from the charts. Coming up the coast and with no opposition in sight, Australia was claimed for the Empire. They landed at Botany Bay. Cook and Banks had also been charged to find, if possible, a new site for a penal colony. The previous site was in danger of disappearing in the American troubles. Banks thought that Botany Bay was just fine: a good port, the soil sufficiently fertile to support a considerable number of Europeans; as for the few aborigines observed loitering in the vicinity, he thought "they would no doubt speedily abandon the country to the newcomers."

Although excellent for Banks' beloved plants, for which he became celebrated worldwide, Botany Bay proved unsuitable as a penal colony. The Bay was actually a shoal, the felons came down with scurvy, and the natives were far more numerous than supposed and showed no signs of speedily abandoning their own country. Later expeditions sent out to explore the vast hinterland and to find cultivable lands were harassed and their leaders frequently murdered, high-lighting the abysmal and permanent state of relations between the Australian newcomers and their native brethren. The situation with respect to the Polynesian inhabitants of Tasmania was solved by genocide.

By the beginning of the new nineteenth century, with the exception of Africa and the middle east, which were to bedevil it later on, the British Empire had reached much of its extensive presence in the world. Dozens of smaller bits, all the way down to coral atolls, remained to be added. As a piece of exotica, an important piece of India had been acquired a hundred years before Clive: Bombay was the dowry of the Portuguese wife of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza. And another piece of dry land, Gibraltar, had been snatched from Spain in the times of Queen Anne.

Representation in the mother country now shifts definitively to London's Colonial and separate India Offices and to a century of British rule which with the remarkable stabilization of the monarchy led to an identification of Victorian with Empire. For all the colonies, political, economic and cultural goals were Britain-friendly. And while it hardly makes for gripping reading, the constant drift of British colonists into those colonies which were largely white was the story of them all, as was the shift of their institutions from British rule to self government.

For the grade school-goer of the early twentieth century, knowledge of the empire into which they had been born came around age ten. The classroom now arrived at, would bear on its rear wall an enormous map of the world, Mercator style, and famously out of scale in its upper regions, but with the British Empire properly colored red. Canada with its numerous islands circling the North Pole made a big splash. A broad red stripe down the east coast of Africa meant a Cape to Cairo railway, should it every get built. India and the antipodes completed and confirmed the theme, "The sun never sets", a claim not originally intended for the British Empire. This was a class whose education ceased at fourteen. In another sense, it was the class that had contributed the vast bulk of the colonists.

The Victorian age was not short on criticisms of Empire, and largely on account of India. Its size and population and the intrinsic difference between the rulers and the ruled guaranteed that. From the start, Governor Generals and Viceroys had been taken exclusively from the upper ranks of Britain's classes. They stayed no more than four years as a gesture to the impossible climate they would suffer, and salaries and pensions alike were high. John Bright, a mid-nineteenth century politician likened the empire to a gigantic system of poor-relief for the upper classes. The remaining colonies from Australia to Malta were usually served in the roles of Governors by the squirearchy, the knights and the baronets, ensuring bounty to the middle classes.

R.H. Tawney writing in the twentieth century went after Britain's class system directly. He wrote that Britain's governance is based on inequality, encased in an apparatus of class distinctions. This is evident in income, housing, education, health, manners, and physical appearance of the different classes. Almost as different as though the minority were alien settlers established amid the rude civilization of a race of impoverished aborigines. Actually Tawney missed almost the most important distinction, the speech that identifies the class.

It is often said that the Victorian century carried over into twentieth by at least a decade in letters and culture. Then Lytton Strachey in 1918 struck with Eminent Victorians. It took gentle but lethal ridicule to lay low four Victorian, indeed Empire ikons, never to recover: Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, General Gordon and Cardinal Manning. For a post-war generation, fed up with an interminable-seeming war they suspected their elders did little to avoid, ideas of Empire swiftly took a new direction. In some ways, Thomas Arnold was a more significant victim. By his radical improvement of the Public School system, he ensured its rapid expansion into Victorian society so that the middle classes could now educate their sons to become an engine of Empire. Education became class ridden on an even larger scale.

For a look at the empire in mid-stream Victorian times, I choose the writer Anthony Trollope, with fifty novels to his name. He went with his wife to Australia to visit their younger son, who had gone out to become a sheep farmer. One never hears much about the sheep ranch, except that it was losing money, according to father Trollope. In 1873 they took steamer in Liverpool for the two-month's journey. Not one for wasting time (he also had a peculiar method of composing) Trollope started a new novel on the day of departure and finished it as they sailed into Sydney Harbor; this was his Lady Anna. They visited all six Australian colonies including Western Australia, which the colonists then avoided like the plague, as well as Tasmania and New Zealand. Altogether they stayed a year and a half. Not letting anybody off lightly, Trollope produced three volumes of five hundred pages each as a record of his investigations.

Trollope readily diagnosed the major problem in New Zealand: the native Maoris. The Maori, he wrote, are more than ordinarily savage, and more than ordinarily intelligent. They were strongly attached to their land, and perfectly acquainted with the principles of buying and selling. They were also fierce warriors and had fought the Maori wars to a standstill, but with the settlers still, of course, in control. By Trollope's day, Maoris were already in the legislature and Maori women would have the vote fifty years before the British.

For Australia, the sense of loyalty was strong, with no thought of future separation from Britain. Trollope, although now wealthy from his writings, had known even destitution in his youth, when his father had died. The family was rescued by the remarkable mother, also a writer, with her best seller on The Domestic Manners of the Americans. He knew that England, amid its overwhelming wealth from the industrial Revolution, had experienced a "Hungry Forties" and a near revolutionary fifties. His advice to the colonists was by way of reminding them what they had accomplished: Parliaments? you already have them; Revenues? you are collecting and spending them; Lands? technically they belong to the Crown, but you actually own them; Federation? (at that point the states were separate and independent) no official in England would risk his neck to oppose you, if you wish it. By 1901 Australia was a Commonwealth. Incidentally the Trollopes returned to England via California and Salt Lake City. This was a traveller's must, to get a glimpse of Brigham Young, and if possible, an interview.

Trollope thought England should think only of the welfare of its colonies, and as little as possible of the power and glory. In fact, that drum was beaten until beyond the end of the century.

In 1866, a bit ahead of the Trollopes, Sir Charles Dilke, man-about-town, Member of Parliament, radical politician and temporarily out of office determined to "follow England around the world, English speaking and England governed", sounding decidedly Empire-minded, he would publish Greater Britain on his return. He will take the opposite route, the Yankee steamer "Saratoga" to Chesapeake Bay. Here he is immediately confronted with Williamsburg, Jamestown and Saratoga, tombstones of the earlier empire. Dilke wrote that he had the conception, however imperfect, of the grandeur of our race, already girdling the earth, which it is destined, perhaps, to overspread; he almost appears to include America in this vision. He praised America as being fused in the same mould with Alfred's laws, and Chaucer's tongue.

Dilke visits lower Canada. The inhabitants are more French than the French, and he saw no reason why Canada should not be free of the British Empire, and one supposes vice versa. Next to Salt Lake City and California. He missed the completion of the Pacific railroad by four years. Down the coast to Panama where he sets passage to Wellington, New Zealand, the world's longest steam voyage. En route they keep a sharp lookout for a new guano island. Guano Island? Well, the United States had recently annexed Baker and Howland Islands, on the equator, specifically for that product, thus creating another empire, of sorts.

Reaching New Zealand he is naturally confronted by the presence of a powerful and warlike native race which he considered dangerous, but likely to disappear, for reasons unclear. Many considered New Zealand as the Britain of the South. Dilke, having just crossed the States, mostly by horse and mule knew how big it was and felt that with Australia it held the key to the future of the South Pacific. But that the New Zealanders were pro-British there was no doubt. Christchurch in the South Island imported rooks from England to caw in their Cathedral's precincts.

Crossing by mail steamer to Australia he was impressed with the actual size of the inhabitants, especially the rising generation, and concluded that they were finally getting enough to eat, as compared with the situation in the old country. The "felon" streak had disappeared from the streets of Sydney. There was freehold tenure and the crop was changing from wool to meat which was vastly more profitable. This is a white colony and asiatics, meaning Chinese, are excluded. Into the next century, in the wake of the great war, orphans and bastards, I suspect by a system of bounty, were being talked into seeking their fortunes "down under".

Dilke now pushes on to India, perhaps more the tourist in an ancient country. But he observes the so-called colonization of India by Englishmen and finds it to be fraudulent: rather, it is the acquisition of property by Anglo-Indians to establish, in both India, Ceylon and Assam the immense plantations of tea and indigo. By the end of his journey, there is a hint in Greater Britain that the Empire theme was weakening. Unfortunately the man-about-town part of Dilke now involved him in a divorce case which reached scandalous Victorian proportions and ruined his influence and political career.

Many would agree that the Empire was at its highest point of power and extent at around the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee of 1897. Never were crowds larger than at that final procession. It featured a platoon of Dyaks from New Guinea: they had recently been weaned from head hunting and were a major attraction as the last of the cannibals. There were exotic animals galore, gnus and zebras; unfortunately elephants had to be excluded from a tendency to stampede at the sound of gunfire. Somehow all this seemed to be more of a Roman Triumph than the celebration of a long and generally peaceful reign of an aged Queen. Even the peace was about to be broken, through the machinations of empire-builder Cecil Rhodes.

Then there were the Durbars, like the one of 1911 to crown the king, George V, Emperor of India. He had already been crowned king of England, with its explicit religious overtones.

Now he is being crowned all over again in a ceremony named for the Moguls. A couple of new thrones were built, of solid silver, gold plated, and a new crown fabricated, when it was found that the regular one could not legally leave Britain. The wearer complained that both were far too heavy. The British people could not be expected to go wild over this purely Indian affair, at a vast distance and monumental cost. Meanwhile Indians continued to be regarded as unfit to rule themselves. All these relationships were due to be tested in the coming great war, in which the entire Empire helped immeasureably. But promises were made about the future, not to be kept.

By the twenties the old white colonies were coming closer as a British Commonwealth: a proxy for Empire? India was not a part of it. They had served in their tens of thousands on the western front. Back home, members of the Indian Congress, a forty year old association were being gaoled on charges of sedition. Gaol was curiously informal. Wives could visit daily, and servants could bring in meals. Government was not anxious to create martyrs. Gandhi was active, indifferent to gaol. What determined the attitude of the rulers? Historians have pointed at the bottle of Camp Coffee, my exhibit 1, as typifying British arrogance, insensitivity, racism, or all three. The picture shows an officer of the Indian army, obviously a Scot, in kilt and sporran, holding his morning cup of Camp Coffee. His batman, a Sikh, stands by. What is the message? The bottle says Camp Coffee is an extract of coffee and chicory. I must say that to prepare, add a teaspoonful of the thick, black contents to a cup of boiling water or milk, the latter strictly for children at bedtime. Now coffee is an expensive item, while chicory is a rank weed, and no mention is made of their relative proportions. I suspect that the only brainstorm of Camp Coffee has been to sell chicory as coffee for the last hundred years with the help of a military vignette culled from the reaches of Empire.

It appears that one's notions of empire as one grows up can sometimes be best related in the manner of such an account as Tom Brown's Schooldays, a popular and now considered philistine Victorian novel of life at Rugby, the public school at which Thomas Arnold, then the headmaster, and already mentioned, presided. In my case, the school was the City of Norwich Secondary School, designed for male youths 14 to 18, a prep school, erected by the local Education Authority in 1912, after decades of resistance to this concept. Curiously, no expense seemed to have been spared. The school, in neo-Jacobean, was ornate and resembled a very large stately home, backed by its own park, which in our case was a vast playing area with eight football fields. The school was modern, implying that science had replaced Latin and Greek. Two handball courts for Eton Fives faithfully reproduced the chapel walls and buttresses of that ancient institution where it was first played. There was inevitably a Tuck shop, to be stormed at breaks.

The time was the late 1924's, a post war year when the British situation was parlous, with unemployment, depression and labor unrest. Not the promised country for heroes to return to. A notice was bruited around, these things traveled fast, that the king would be stopping by the school on his way from the city to his Norfolk residence. Was he here to encourage the city fathers? There had been no mention of a public appearance. We now assembled four hundred strong on the flanking roadway with the headmaster in his customary cap and gown. I must now further particularize some of our now quaint practices. The headmaster was no remote figure. He actively ran the school, staff and students and could appear, unexpectedly at any moment, usually an embarrassing one. On this occasion he was closely attended by his prefects, seniors one might say, seventeen-year-olds who would be leaving the next year. Prefects were appointed academically. We were expected to maintain order and decorum with limited powers of compulsion. Our elevated status was marked by white stripes on our otherwise red caps which identified our school. There were eight of us and guaranteed a clear view.

The royal Daimler arrives, marked by the coat of arms above the windshield. Two chauffeurs, since they also manage the doors. Two gentlemen occupy the rear and one now steps out. The king advances closely between our ranks. He is wearing a bowler hat which he now removes with his left hand. The headmaster performs the considerable feat of simultaneously advancing, removing his square, bowing and advancing his hand. The king is slight and short. I had rather expected that. Five feet six, I learned later. A stray thought: did he get his proper allowance of cod liver oil and malt, as we all did? Look, pay attention. This man is King George the Fifth, Emperor of India. You will never see this again. A short conversation between headmaster and king has now terminated. We had been cheering and waving our caps all this time. Now the headmaster raises his hand for the really important announcement we had been expecting: His Gracious Majesty has asked that next Saturday morning will be a school holiday. More frantic applause as the king rejoins his private secretary in the Daimler and proceeds to his home base at Sandringham. Sandringham is an estate with a string of mis-matched houses joined together and known to be his favorite residence, adequate for the extended family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, recently renamed Windsor.

Less than twenty five years were to elapse between this incident and the date commonly regarded as the end of Empire. Another brutal world war and a British election brought in a government indifferent to the claims of empire and convinced that Britain could no longer hold India by force. In early 1947 a new, and last, Viceroy, Earl Mountbatten, member of the Royal family and victor of the war in Burma set a date for departure, 15 August 1947. It was held to. For Churchill the empire was scuttled. Scuttled is dictionary perfect to describe the event: the act or the policy, on the part of a government, of withdrawing with undignified haste from the occupation or control of a country.

Other withdrawals followed, in Africa where situations more comparable to those in India existed. The pace slower but as sure. A war was fought over the actual retention of the Falklands. A Commonwealth implying almost the absence of bonds replaced Empire.

While the Empire has effectively vanished, visions have appeared both with historians and sometimes more powerfully with their critics dealing with concepts of the late Empire. Was it a great, undiluted evil of history, or a relatively benign inevitability of the times. Could another Gibbon announce "Class" and "Race" as hallmark of its rule and cause of its demise?

Historian Cannadine goes with class and assigns a package of characteristics, which he calls "ornamentalism" and which go along with it. To quote a few: glory and chivalry, horses and elephants, knights and peers, processions and ceremonies, plumed hats and ermine robes, viceroys and consuls, thrones and crowns; the Indian drift of this list is apparent. Cannadine's Manchester Guardian critic, one William Gott, unfurls a very different banner:

"We now know that the British Empire was essentially a Hitlerian project on a grand scale, involving military conquest and dictatorship, extermination and genocide, martial law and special' courts, slavery and forced labor, concentration camps and the transoceanic migration of peoples. Whichever way we look at Empire, this vision must remain dominant." Among writers of the thirties, George Orwell comes across as a severe critic of Empire he worked for it as a police official and seemed to agree with some of the items on that list. Looking around for a possible counter statement I happened on a Chicago Tribune Almanac item.

What happened on the 17 November, 1939?

In 1939 Nazi occupation forces in Czechoslovakia
closed universities, executed nine graduate students
and sent 1,200 others to concentration camps.

The British Empire can probably be left safely to take its chances.

With Cannadine's list in mind I imagined the following scenario when, in 1997, the colony of Hong Kong was, after a hundred and fifty years, handed over to China. The scene is set a couple of days before the final ceremony, and is at the British Embassy in Hong Kong.

"Hey, it says here that we are going to need a plumed hat!"
"What the bloody hell is a plumed hat?"
"Don't ask me. I suppose it's some kind of a funny hat, with feathers."
"Well, maybe the Hong Kong opera has one they could lend us."

I am happy to report that pictures a couple of days later show a high British official, in a plumed hat, delivering the deeds of Hong Kong to his Chinese counterpart. As with General Cornwallis's uniforms, things are better done properly, when you are winding up an Empire.


Details of General Lord Cornwallis' surrender at Yorkville I owe to Paul Smith's A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 2, McGraw Hill Book Co., New York, New York, 1976.