History of the Decline and Fall of the British Empire
Hubert R. Catchpole
Delivered to The Chicago
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"Well, maybe the Hong Kong opera has one they could lend us."
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.
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.