The empire strikes back: how colonial subjects beat the British at their own game

A review by Paul Lay for London’s Telegraph.

There is a clip on YouTube from a 1982 BBC documentary in which the Trinidadian Marxist and acclaimed cricket writer C L R James discusses English literature with the Jamaican poet Mikey Smith. James declares his love for Wordsworth and Shakespeare, whom Smith mockingly pronounces “Shaka-spear”. James understands the younger man’s desire to escape English dominance, but is adamant that it was the literature and culture of Britain that had enabled his own critique of its empire.

Smith would be murdered soon after, during a febrile moment in Jamaican politics. James would spend his final days in the same small Brixton flat in which their encounter took place, reading Shakespeare and listening to Mozart’s operas, much to the bafflement of his younger ­comrades.

Such tensions, ambiguities and unintended consequences are ­resonant in John M MacKenzie’s synoptic history of British imperial culture, which explores ceremony, sport, art, architecture and the mediums of print, radio and film from all sides of the imperial divide. There is little here that will be new to historians, but it is a useful and knowledgable primer.

“Empires cannot be self-effacing,” MacKenzie claims, but must broadcast their majesty, hence the ­importance of ceremony. In the early days of the British presence in India, it was common for employees of the East India Company to adopt native dress and customs, but such practices were slowly abandoned as the development of “­scientific racism” during the 19th century led to a “hardening of racial distinctions”, a need to impose ­hierarchy. The Imperial Durbar, inspired by the Mogul court gathering of the same name, was the result. 

The first, held on January 1 1877 to proclaim Victoria Empress of India, played out over 20 square miles on a ridge above Delhi. ­Disraeli thought of it as a means of incorporating India’s many princedoms under one empress. But it was criticised as “tomfoolery” in India and at home. Two more were held, in 1903 and 1911, one more was planned – for 1937. By then, the game was all but up.

George V and Queen Mary watching Delhi Durbar from the Red Fort, accompanied by the Indian princes acting as pages in 1911
George V and Queen Mary watching Delhi Durbar from the Red Fort, accompanied by the Indian princes acting as pages in 1911

Other cultural adaptations and innovations proved more enduring. Sport above all. Polo, derived like the durbar from Persia, exclusive and expensive, found a passionate enthusiast in Winston Churchill, who proclaimed it “the serious ­purpose of life”. The polo field was, he claimed, where the “English and Indian gentlemen… met on equal terms”.

It was cricket, however, born of the bucolic English Weald, that had the “greatest imperial resonance”. One colonial administrator claimed that the benefits bestowed upon the world by the British Empire were “the abolition of slavery… the example of justice and fair play… and the introduction of cricket”.

But this quintessentially English sport became a means of resistance, not least in the Caribbean, where “native peoples and former Black slaves”, as MacKenzie puts it, took cricket up with enthusiasm and mastered it, “beating at their own game” their imperial masters and revolutionising their society, not least when the Barbadian Frank Worrell (his name misspelt in the book) became the first black player to captain the West Indies for an entire series – the thrilling 1960-61 tour of Australia. Tragically short-lived, Worrell would become the first sportsman to be granted a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. Empire works both ways.

MacKenzie does not dwell on the current controversies over statues – wisely, given the rabbit hole of identity politics – but he displays a formidable knowledge of their political importance and aesthetic worth, as well as a keen eye for absurdity: a statue of Mahatma ­Gandhi unveiled at the University of Ghana in 2016 became the focus of almost immediate controversy when it was “revealed” that the father of independent India had less than progressive views on ­Africans. In 2018, the statue was torn down. But Indian cash proved to be a balm to sensitivities, and in 2020 the Ghanaian government promised to re-erect it.

Iconoclasm is not new, of course. Images of George III were torn down by supporters of American independence, though the loss of America only served to increase the importance of empire elsewhere. The Boer War, an existential moment for empire, saw the raising of numerous war memorials – 40 in New Zealand alone – which became ubiquitous after the First World War. They were symbols not only of sacrifice but of the trans­ition of men from cannon fodder, easily ­discarded, to citizens of a more democratic age, one of ­imperial withdrawal.

Empire was ultimately a dynamic process. As MacKenzie points out, “Almost all aspects of a supposed imperial culture were taken over by indigenous people, modified and bent to their own purposes,” even the English language itself. Nearly a century after Kipling, that incisive imperial observer, became Nobel Laureate in 1907, the Trinidadian V S Naipaul achieved the same honour, for turning a cold and withering eye on the “mother ­country”. MacKenzie gives voice to these rich, multiple perspectives in his capacious study. As Kipling mused, “what should they know of England who only England know?” 


A Cultural History of the British Empire by John M. MacKenzie is published by Yale.

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