The Empire Strikes Back : The Nostalgia for British Imperialism

The British still have a decoration called the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. In 1965 the Beatles received a degree of it (the lowest, MBE--Member of the Order), to the disgust of mayors and district nurses who had won the same degree by less flamboyant service to the nation.

Not much else remains of the British Empire, but it lives on in such feature films as “Gandhi” and “A Passage to India” and in such television series as “The Far Pavilions,” “The Jewel in the Crown” and “Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy.” (The film “Out of Africa,” though based on a Danish settler’s memoirs, contains British settlers, too.)

One can understand the appeal of the imperial films and television series in Britain, where some nostalgia for the days of glory that are within living memory is to be expected. But why should they have been received so well in America, which takes pride in having freed itself from the British yoke more than two centuries ago?

Well, first, the films are by no means public-relations handouts for the British Empire. In most of them the dark side of imperialism is shown: the snobbery, the beatings, the exploitation. In some cases the expose of imperialist morals is flaying enough to pass a Russian censor.


Then there is the element of royalty, which seems to go down well among most Americans, always excepting Irish Republican Army sympathizers. One of the mysteries about royalty is why a populace will give its allegiance and love to a person who just happens to have plopped into his or her throne by an accident of birth. The British imperialists fascinate for a similar reason: Many of them, too, subscribed to a code of honor that was in the highest degree artificial but that was supported by society, militaristic pomps and an almost-religious mystique.

A new book, “Out in the Noonday Sun” by Valerie Pakenham (Random House, $19.95) shows what the British imperialists of the Edwardian era were really like. The book’s title, of course, comes from Noel Coward’s 1931 song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen (Go Out in the Noonday Sun),” which contains the Cole Porterish rhyme: “But Englishmen detest a / Siesta.” Valerie Pakenham lives in a 19th-Century Gothic castle in Ireland, and she became interested in the mad Englishmen by reading the sporting and travel books amassed there by her husband’s Uncle Bingo--such works as “Days in the Torrid Sudan,” “A Picnic Party in Wildest Africa” and “Rifle and Romance in the Indian Jungle.”

Like Uncle Bingo, Valerie Pakenham began as a fireside traveler. The autobiographies she read were often more self-revelatory than perhaps their authors intended. They revealed the tensions that are the stuff of drama. Edwardian imperialism was full of tensions--between colonists and colonized, aristocrats and traders, traders and missionaries, and missionaries and missionaries scrambling for souls.

Imperialism was a kind of theater. “We were always consciously or subconsciously playing a part, acting on a stage,” wrote Leonard Woolf (Virginia Woolf’s husband), who served as an administrator in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In the imperial drama, certain characters recurred. One was the black-sheep younger son of aristocrats--the “bounder” or “cad.” The White Man’s Burden was the Black Sheep’s Punishment--for gambling, getting a housemaid with child, or other misdeeds.


Pakenham analyzes the other groups of imperialists. The traders were out to exploit the mineral and vegetable products. The missionaries had usually arrived before them and were prepared to stay in a place until it became profitable. They spread the English language and Christianity. Then there were the big-game hunters, professional and amateur. In one year alone, Lord Delamere sent a consignment of 30 lion skins from Somaliland (Somali Republic) to British taxidermist Rowland Ward.

By 1930, you could go round the world by the new British Imperial Airways without setting foot on anything but British soil. But the decline of the Empire had begun; Pakenham estimates that 1923 was the Empire’s apogee. “Oddly,” she writes, “the last place to provide the old kind of imperial thrills was Hollywood. Early in the 1930s the movie moguls had realized that the retreat from the Khyber Pass and Livingstone’s death made splendid colorful alternatives to Custer’s last stand or the Alamo.”