Editor’s Note: The British Empire once spanned the globe so that, as a proud boast went, the sun never set upon it. So what happened? Economic scholar Kwasi Kwarteng sets out to explain the empire’s dissolution — and its legacy today — in “Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World” (PublicAffairs: 467 pp., $29.99). Though born in London and educated at Cambridge, Kwarteng has felt the influence of that empire through his parents, immigrants from what was once one of those former colonies, Ghana. In the following excerpt, taken from the introduction to the U.S. edition of his book, Kwarteng explains his personal connections to the subject while suggesting that a key to the empire’s dissolution can be found in too much authority resting upon the idiosyncrasies of its leaders.
The British Empire has always been with me. My parents were born in what was then called the Gold Coast in the 1940s and had experienced the empire firsthand. My father entered secondary school in January 1956, less than fifteen months before the Gold Coast became independent as Ghana in March 1957. My father’s secondary school was designed on traditional Anglican lines, and although the school had been founded in 1910, it imitated more traditional, older English establishments. The headmaster of the school was an Englishman, of a type familiar in the colonies; he was a product of Winchester, England’s oldest boarding, or “public,” school and Cambridge University.
I visited the school, Adisadel College, in 2001 for the first time. I was struck by the grace and tranquillity of its environment, as the school stands high on a hill in Cape Coast, Ghana’s oldest town, which had been colonized by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. I realized that very few schools in Britain enjoyed such a pleasant setting. And yet the story of the school since independence in 1957 reflected the turbulent, unsettled history of the country since that time. In 1960 there had been 600 boys at the school; there were now over 2,000, and yet the facilities and infrastructure had remained the same. The shortage of money had not really changed the ethos of the place — even though the school tried to shake off its imperial past, and had done this successfully by abolishing, for example, the teaching of Ancient Greek in 1963, there were still many of the traces of the old order. The school had been transformed, but many vestiges of the empire could still be seen; the house system, favored in British boarding schools, and the honors boards in the dining room were still all there. The empire in a certain sense still existed, although it now clung on only in a twilit afterlife that conveyed but an eerie echo of its original character.
This book tries to describe some of that afterlife through an account of an aspect of a country’s experience before independence and afterward. The character of the British Empire is portrayed through the forgotten officials and governors, without whom the empire would not have survived a few weeks. I have not tried to write one of those endless number of books that tries to show whether the empire was a good or a bad thing. Instead, I have tried to transcend what I believe to be a rather sterile debate as to its merits and demerits. I have simply tried to enter into the mentality, as best as I could, of the empire’s rulers, to describe their thoughts and the character of their ideals and values. I argue that individual officials wielded immense power and it was this unrestrained power that ultimately led to instability, disorder and chaos.
Officials, as I hope to show, often developed one line of policy, only for their successors to overturn that policy and pursue a completely different approach. This was the source of chronic instability in many parts of the empire. In many ways, the British Empire was too individualistic, and the vagaries of democratic politics meant that a consistent line was seldom adopted. This type of individualism I have called “anarchic individualism,” in that there was often nothing to stop the “man on the spot,” as he was called by the Colonial Office civil servants, from pursuing the course of action he thought best. It is often forgotten how important the idea of individualism was to Victorian Britons. As Lord Cromer, who administered Egypt as the British Consul-General under the nominal government of the Khedive, or later King, of Egypt, observed, “Our habits of thought, our past history, and our national character all, therefore, point in the direction of allowing individualism as wide a scope as possible in the work of national expansion.”
From Nigeria, where Lord Lugard dominated the scene, to Hong Kong, where Sir Alexander Grantham successfully ended any move to more democratic institutions in the 1950s, powerful individuals directed imperial policy with little supervision from London. Such a system was ultimately “anarchic” and self-defeating, since in Nigeria, Sudan, Hong Kong and elsewhere, policies developed over years were simply put aside as a new governor took his place.
Excerpted with permission from “Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World,” by Kwasi Kwarteng (PublicAffairs, 2012).