Towards Conquest in Africa
From palace to slum the British were also haunted by the Mutiny, which shaped the character of their empire in strange and contradictory ways. The Raj in particular became at once sterner and more emollient. This was a mode of government that Indian nationalists called “the knife of sugar”1—sharp but sweet, force made palatable. To adopt Theodore Roosevelt’s adage, John Bull spoke softly and carried a big stick. Or, in Kipling’s image, he wore knuckle-dusters under kid gloves. Queen Victoria herself came to espouse this twin strategy of imperial rule and even to embody it. One of her cardinal tenets was never to give up what she had, even if it was as hard to hold as Afghanistan. And she grew more belligerent with age. “If we are to maintain our position as a first-rate Power,” she told Disraeli with characteristic emphasis, “we must, with our Indian Empire and large Colonies, be Prepared for attacks and wars, somewhere or other CONTINUALLY.”2 On the other hand, the Queen cherished a quasi-mystical bond with her subjects, especially Indians. When the handsome young Sikh Maharajah Duleep Singh was exiled to England, for example, she made a pet of him, arranging to have his portrait painted by “our dear Winterhalter” and urging him to wear warm woollen underclothes. (The two royalties shared a passion for Indian gems—the Queen possessed three portmanteaux full of them—but Duleep Singh could not forgive her for receiving the Koh-i-noor Diamond, that supreme emblem of might which he had once worn on his sleeve, and he later nicknamed her “Mrs. Fagin.”)3 After the Mutiny the Queen continued to press for reconciliation in the subcontinent.
She also aspired to the sceptre which had been torn from the frail grasp of Bahadur Shah and in 1876 she became Empress of India. The new title, suggesting as it did both despotism and evanescence, was initially unpopular at home. Gladstone denounced it as “theatrical folly and bombast.”4 Benjamin Disraeli, the Tory Prime Minister, was happy to gratify his sovereign’s vanity, but he publicly maintained that the imperial style would please Indian princes whose ancestors had occupied their thrones “when England was a Roman province.”5 An incurable romantic, Disraeli sensed that the magic of monarchy could win fealty to the Empire and thus avert its decay. As his novels reveal, he too had meditated on the ruins of the Capitol; and “the image of Rome as the power which declined and fell haunts even the sunlit dreamworld of Tancred.”6 Loyalty to the Crown could sustain Britain’s Empire because it was an emotional bond stronger than the trembling allegiance given to the Caesars or the federal link uniting the states of America. Equally important, it disguised the true nature of the imperial relationship. As a means of government, to paraphrase Lord Salisbury, bamboozle was better than bamboo. The royal cult, with its rituals and fripperies, insignia and regalia, multi-gun salutes and intricate table of ranks, would fascinate the rajah class. And it would hide even from educated Indians, as Salisbury put it, “the nakedness of the sword upon which we really rely.”7
Certainly the imperial diadem became a symbol of unity to millions of British subjects divided by creed, colour, race and space. This did not happen by chance. Sterling efforts were made to promote the sovereign as an imperial fetish. She was acclaimed in prayers, anthems, ceremonies and toasts. Her majesty was hailed at parades, festivals and pageants. There were jubilees embellished with every kind of theatrical display, from dazzling pyrotechnics to patent musical bustles which played “God Save the Queen” when the wearer sat down. There were durbars such as that held in Delhi to mark the Royal Titles Act, disparaged by its painter, Val Prinsep, as a “gigantic circus” full of gimcrack ornamentation which “outdoes the Crystal Palace in ‘hideosity.’”8 Huntley & Palmer produced “Royal Sovereign” biscuits, decorated with apricot jam crowns. The Queen’s birthday, 24 May, which became Empire Day in 1904, was marked with celebrations and salutes, levees and soirées. The name Victoria became geographically ubiquitous, despite occasional worries that it would be insulted by association with barbarous places such as Africa. It was bestowed on mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, harbours, beaches, provinces, districts, towns, hotels, hospitals, railway stations, botanical gardens, even cemeteries. Also called after her were several fabrics, a huge lily, a plum, a carriage, a pigeon, a medal and a heavenly body. The Queen’s face was everywhere, appearing not only in portraits, photographs, lantern slides, advertisements and stained-glass windows, but on stamps, coins, badges, plaques, china, even condoms. Many abroad swore that they had seen her in the flesh. Some were doubtless inspired by the kind of semi-allegorical school-room picture entitled The Jewel in Her Crownwhich Paul Scott described in his famous novel, part of The Raj Quartet: the Queen was represented sitting on a golden throne under a crimson canopy, heralded by angels above and receiving glittering princely tribute below. Others may have been impressed by the large portrait of the Queen conspicuously displayed in one of Bombay’s best-known brothels. Just as people in remote parts of the British Isles rubbed her image on gold sovereigns to ward off sickness, Indians bowed before her likeness and sacrificed goats in front of her effigy (though goats were also sacrificed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council). Bishop Welldon of Calcutta could not understand why Queen Victoria appealed more to the natives than did Jesus Christ.
In Africa the Great White Mother was also idolised. Henry Morton Stanley worshipped her and in his dreams John Hanning Speke confused the sovereign with his real mother. The Bantu races felt the same respect for Victoria as they did “for their own departed chiefs.”9 One Basuto king told the Queen that “my country is your blanket, and my people the lice upon it.”10 Zulus called gin “the Queen’s tears.”11 After attacking the Royal Niger Company at Akassa in 1895 the Brass people wrote to the Prince of Wales, saying that they were “now very very sorry indeed, particularly in the killing and eating of parts of its employees” they threw themselves on “the mercy of the good old Queen… a most kind, tender hearted, and sympathetic old mother.”12 True, the few Africans who actually met the monarch were disappointed to find that she was so short and stout. But art added cubits to her stature. Larger-than-life-sized sculptures of the Queen took pride of place in every imperial city from Accra to Adelaide, from Toronto to Calcutta—where Lord Curzon later designed the Victoria Memorial to reinforce the “overpowering effect” that the Queen-Empress had on “the imagination of the Asiatic.”13 These manifestations of the monarch in marble and bronze were “as essential to civic self-respect as figures of equestrian Romans had been in antiquity.”14 They were not always flattering: the statue opposite Leinster House in Dublin was known as “Ireland’s Revenge.”
Yet even after her death Queen Victoria remained an icon. When rioters broke off a finger of her statue at Amritsar before the massacre in 1919, someone in the mob averted further damage by shouting, “Do not attack her. She was a good Queen.”15 An army officer drumming up support in Assam during the Second World War found that his interpreter was saying persuasively, “the British are of the same race as the great Queen…and Japan is therefore sure to be defeated.”16 After the war, during which the Japanese looted royal statues from Hong Kong, the only one to be re-erected was that of Queen Victoria (though earlier party-goers had often committed sacrilege, “with someone putting a straw hat or a bowler on her crown”).17 Well into the twentieth century black Barbadians revered her “as a good queen because she freed us.”18 As late as the 1950s chiefs in Nyasaland regretted that “Queen Victoria did not come herself to make the treaties.”19 Some Victorians, though, feared that as democracy blossomed the mystique of monarchy might wither. They did their utmost to prevent a loss of faith. Throughout the Empire children learned their history as a succession of English kings and queens, but in Nigeria Sir Frederick Lugard discouraged schools from teaching about the Stuarts since this might “foster disrespect for authority.”20 At the coronation durbar of Edward VII in Delhi, Lord Curzon banned the singing of “Onward! Christian Soldiers” because it contained the lines “Crowns and thrones may perish/Kingdoms rise and wane.”
The crusading strain of imperialism after the Mutiny, which many saw as “a challenge to Christianity itself,”21 was perhaps best conjured up by this parody of the popular hymn:
Onward Christian soldiers, on to heathen lands,
Prayer-books in your pockets, rifles in your hands,
Take the glorious tidings where trade can be done,
Spread the peaceful gospel—with the Maxim gun.22
Actually the Maxim was not patented until 1884, but its predecessor, the Gatling gun, was used during the American Civil War and, despite its notorious propensity to jam, in some of Britain’s colonial conflicts. Like other instruments designed to bring scientific efficiency to death, such as the guillotine and poison gas, the Gatling was intended as a humanitarian device. If one soldier could fire as many shots as a hundred, its eponymous inventor reckoned, armies would be smaller and battlefield casualties fewer. In practice, of course, this weapon was the first serious attempt to mechanise mass murder. The machine gun cut down men by the bushel, being to the musket what the McCormick reaper was to the sickle. It was notably effective against Zulu assegais, Ashanti spears and Dervish*9 lances. And it was better still, according to The Times, if a British general were lucky enough “to catch a good mob of savages in the open.” Much as that newspaper liked the idea of treating the Ashanti to “a little Gatling music,” it thought that wholesale killing was less desirable than inducing “a regular ‘skedaddle’ among a set of savages.”23 Cecil Rhodes was more ruthless. Describing how each wave of Matabele (Ndebele) warriors “left a thick deposit of corpses on the ground,” he remarked happily: “There is no waste with the Maxims.”24
Similarly, new breech-loading rifles developed in the 1860s were more of an advance over the Brown Bess flintlock than it had been over the bow and arrow. They gave imperial troops an overwhelming further advantage in the “little wars” of Queen Victoria’s reign, wars so frequent that anti-imperialists denounced the term Pax Britannica as “a grotesque monster of hypocrisy.”25 In 1869 the British army began to adopt the tough, accurate Martini-Henry, though its mule-like kick gave men nosebleeds as well as bruised shoulders. This rifle, which could fire six shots a minute and had an effective range of a thousand yards, turned colonial fighting into hunting. Soldiers actually referred to the “nigger” as “game” and Robert Baden-Powell thought that pursuing those “laughing black fiends” the Matabele was the finest “sport” in the world. The chase was all the more thrilling because the quarry also had guns, though these were usually European cast-offs or cheap trade flintlocks known as “Birmingham gas-pipes.” Baden-Powell himself was hit on the thigh by a lead-covered stone bullet fired from a large-bore Matabele musket: it left a bruise. Empire-builders who enjoyed such superiority in arms were more inclined to coerce than to conciliate. Africans, to quote Baden-Powell again, had to “be ruled with an iron hand in a velvet glove” and if they failed to understand the force of it “you must take off the glove.”26
Iron and later steel, its mass production made possible by the invention of the Bessemer converter (1850) and the development of open-hearth furnaces during the 1860s, were the sinews of imperialism. Manufacturing with these metals on a giant scale, Britons considered themselves the “titans of technology.”27 It was technology that enhanced their power to dominate huge regions of the globe, particularly at a time when major competitors were grappling with internal problems, Germany with unification, America with civil war. Commercially it gave them an iron grip and an unparalleled reach. They exported cutlery to Timbuktu, metal dwellings (known as “iron pots”) to Melbourne and Kimberley, foundries to Chile, barracks to the Crimea. They forged a new mid-Victorian Montevideo: “over forty miles in iron pipes, with all the iron-work, machinery, rolling stock of railways, tramways, gasworks, and waterworks being English, as well as the iron work in the construction of houses, and stores, as also of two commodious iron built market-places.”28 They sent abroad prefabricated iron lighthouses, customs offices, hotels with verandahs and churches with steeples (known as “tin tabernacles”). Britain provided portable government residences from Simla to Fernando Po, the latter described by Sir Richard Burton as a “corrugated iron coffin or plank-lined morgue, containing a dead consul once a year.”29
Metal technology also enhanced Britain’s marine power. “Peacock’s iron chickens,”30 as gunboats were nicknamed, after their novelist-protagonist at the East India Company, had proved their worth in China and would open up other continents, notably Africa, to the British. This did not prevent the Royal Navy, which had learned little or nothing since Trafalgar, from declaring in 1851 that “iron does not appear to be applicable to ships of war.”31 As late as 1859 it launched a three-decker wooden battleship, named Victoria—though admittedly this was the last of its kind and it was steam-assisted. The Royal Mail was almost equally obscurantist, insisting until 1855 that the post must sail in wood. Indeed, from the mid-1830s, when Dr. Dionysius Lardner offered to eat the vessel that could cross the Atlantic entirely under its own steam (as the Sirius did in 1838), to the 1880s, when steamers overtook sailing ships in terms of tonnage, the revolution made haste slowly. Yet the Great Britain, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1843, provided an irresistible model of strength and speed. It was made of iron and its screw propeller was driven by steam generated from fossil fuel. “Coal, the stored-up sunlight of a million years, is the grand agent,” wrote a Victorian enthusiast. “Liberty lights the fire and Christian civilisation is the engine which is taking the whole world in its train.”32 It was evidently the fulfilment of a plan whereby Providence (in the opinion of William Buckland, Professor of Mineralogy at Oxford) had wisely placed coal and iron deposits together near Birmingham in order to make England the richest country on earth. Leviathans constructed on the principles of the Great Britain secured the nation’s rule over the waves, reinforced by a global accumulation of harbours and coaling stations. They also tightened its grip on the terrestrial empire. In 1830 an East Indiaman might take from five to eight months to reach Bombay, a voyage so long that it seemed “to turn seconds into centuries.”33By 1869, when the Suez Canal halved the maritime distance between London and Bombay, Peninsular & Oriental Line steamers could do the journey in four weeks, giving Britain the power of rapid response in the event of another Mutiny.
Although obsessed by that peril, British governments had failed to take a proprietorial interest in the Canal. Indeed, they long opposed Ferdinand de Lesseps’s colossal undertaking, which was built with French money and Egyptian muscle. As well as making Britain’s Cape route to India redundant, Suez might have become a source of rivalry between the two great powers. So Palmerston dismissed the Canal as a “hoax”34 and Punch derided it as an “impossible trench.”35 Their countrymen concluded that the project was as practical as steam balloons on the moon and that capital sunk in it would drain away like water in sand. But its value became obvious on the completion of the ninety-eight-mile channel, then the world’s greatest engineering feat, involving the removal of nearly 100 million cubic feet of earth, enough to fill the Champs-Elysées to the top of its trees fifty times over. Furthermore, its triumphant opening by the Empress Eugénie of France was a humiliation to Britain, where Queen Victoria was opening Holborn Viaduct. Led by the imperial yacht L’Aigle, a flotilla of ships made the short passage from Europe to Asia. With elaborate ceremonial and amid Arabian Nights entertainments, Africa was declared an island. Religious leaders of various persuasions blessed the Canal as a passage to prosperity and a channel of grace. Finally the fireworks dump at Port Said blew up and “nearly demolished the town.”36 All told, the inauguration was felt to be the most spectacular event the region had witnessed since Moses parted the Red Sea. The Canal itself captured the contemporary imagination. It was a modern wonder of the world, grander than the pyramids. It stimulated new feats of travel, from Jules Verne’s fictional round-the-world journey to Thomas Cook’s real one. It encouraged the construction of further waterways, including the one at Panama. Apparently it even inspired the “discovery” of canals on Mars.
From London’s viewpoint, though, the Suez opening looked like another Napoleonic expedition to the Middle East and thus a threat to India. So when the bankruptcy of Ismail, Khedive (ruler) of Egypt, forced him to sell his shares in the Canal Company in 1875, Disraeli snapped them up. To Queen Victoria he famously wrote, “You have it, Madam.”37 The purchase was extolled as a brilliant coup and the English press “joined in a shout of triumph as if the world were conquered.”38 Certainly Britain now had a large stake in what promised to be the greatest commercial artery in the world and the jugular vein of the Empire. Port Said was, a contemporary wrote, “our nexus—our nerve-centre—at which our lines of empire meet.”39 But from end to end the Canal was actually in the grip of Egypt, itself nominally subject to Turkey. So Britain, fearful of a strategic challenge, became increasingly concerned with the Land of the Pharaohs and what Victorians called the “Dark Continent.” Newspapers intoned, “Egypt for the English.”40 Actually Disraeli seemed to take little interest in Egypt: his only reference to the country in discussion with one of its financial commissioners, Evelyn Baring, was to ask if there were many pelicans on the banks of the Nile. However, Gladstone rightly reckoned the Canal shares would lead Britain to colonise other parts of Africa, all in the name of defence. Others, even more far-sighted, prophesied that the national obsession with this vulnerable waterway would prove disastrous to British interests. John Bull was bent on “Suez-cide!”41
Meanwhile, the sea link to India was as secure as the iron hulls of the Royal Navy and the iron bands which riveted together imperial land masses. Victorians often compared the railways to Roman roads, whose chief object, as Gibbon had said, was “to facilitate the marches of the legions.”42 This was especially true in India. Here the lines, though built for profit and sometimes ill-planned, had a “primarily strategic”43 purpose. They were intended, as Lord Dalhousie had written, to avert “the perpetual risk” of hostile attack and to enable the tiny British garrison to bring its “strength to bear upon any given point.” Thus the narrow gauge was rejected for trunk routes because it did not permit cavalry horses to travel two abreast. “No line should be constructed in India,” it was said, “which will not bear the transport of an Armstrong gun.”44 Bridges and tunnels had turrets with loopholes and gun ports. Military cantonments had separate stations and many stations were fortified to “stand a siege.”45 The most spectacular, admittedly, were soaring temples to the fire-breathing “iron cow”46 or steam cathedrals, such as Bombay’s fantastic Victoria Terminus, with its domes and spires, gargoyles and rose windows, marble columns and tesselated pavements. But in general, after the Mutiny, railway stations were to the British “what the motte and bailey and great stone keeps were to the Normans.”47 The red-brick edifice at Lahore resembled a medieval castle, complete with towers, machicolations, arrow slits, portcullises and drawbridge. The Charbagh Station at Lucknow incorporated a fort, an arsenal and a barracks. As happened elsewhere, passengers were treated like prisoners.
India’s permanent way, which used rails, spikes, sleepers, trucks, carriages, locomotives and even coal brought from England, benefiting British investors and producers at the expense of Indian taxpayers and manufacturers, was the largest and costliest project of the colonial era. During the 1860s Britain sent 600 tons of material, a complete shipload, for each mile of track completed. Between 1850 and 1947 more than 40,000 miles were laid, involving heroic feats of embanking, tunnelling and bridging. To span the Indus at Sukkur, for example, took 3,300 tons of “awkwardly designed steelwork,”48 riveted together in a latticework of girders, struts, ties, beams and trusses. By the 1890s a Scottish engineer could claim that England had stamped “more enduring material monuments” on a dependent land than any nation in history, not excluding “ancient Rome.”49 Of course many people shared Blake’s hatred of England’s “dark satanic mills” and sympathised with Ruskin, who deplored “the ferruginous temper”50 of the time. Others pointed out that the permanent way was not much use in famine relief—it actually allowed merchants to transport grain from drought-stricken, riot-menaced districts “to central depots for hoarding.”51 But imperialists swelled with pride at the whole railway enterprise. Kipling said that “if a Briton wished to swagger—and at times this duty is incumbent upon him—he might challenge the world to match our achievements in this line.”52 The achievements were global in scope: by 1914 British investors owned 113 railways in twenty-nine countries. This gave their government indirect influence from Argentina to Mozambique, from China to Peru. Iron and steam unified immense dominions such as Canada, famously said to be “a railway in search of a state.”53And because of its ability to concentrate its power in colonies of conquest, Britain could calm Victorian fears that “every extension of the empire diminished its stability and hastened its dissolution.”54
That modern technology might save Britain from the fate of Rome was the central argument in J. R. Seeley’s widely read book The Expansion of England (1881). Not just steamships and railways, he argued, but the electric telegraph (which played a vital role in defeating the sepoys) and the submarine cable (which reached India in 1870 and enabled Britain to manage the news) would tighten the bonds and widen the bounds of empire. Vitalised by this network of veins, nerves and fibres, it could grow in size yet not outgrow its strength. Britain could exert control even though, unlike Rome, it was not at the geographical heart of its empire. Seeley was alarmed by the rise of super-states such as America and Russia, which dwarfed the British Isles. But steam and electricity made it possible, in his optimistic assessment, to “realise the old utopia of a Greater Britain.”55 Other scientific advances would help too. Medical improvements gave Europeans a better chance of survival in the tropics. Particularly effective was the control of malaria by means of quinine, or “Peruvian bark,”56 derived from the cinchona tree, seeds of which botanists at Kew Gardens distributed from Jamaica to Ceylon. High explosive shaped alien landscapes and barbed wire tamed them. Tinned food, telescopes, lucifer matches, magic lanterns—all assisted empire-building in their different ways. Mechanised book-binding, paper-making and printing presses helped to colonise native minds. The camera, “the pencil of the sun,”57 captured images of the Empire all round the earth. Photographs were carefully selected, cropped (sometimes even retouched) and captioned to show their subjects in a suitably imperial light, whether commanding in topees or backward in beads. Many of these sepia scenes represented savagery being subjugated by civilisation. Framed and mounted, they were the pictorial equivalent of the stuffed animal trophies which testified to the prowess of white hunters in their conquest of the wild. Photographs celebrated shooting of every kind. One fanatic of the lens, Colonel W. W. Hooper, even snapped Burmese robbers (dacoits) as they were shot by a British firing squad. He delayed the execution several times while preparing his apparatus to capture the prisoners’ attitudes and expressions at “the moment the bullets struck them.”58
Yet even the most callous illustration of Britain’s power could not obscure the fact that it had no monopoly of technology. Other races could share in it. Indians made bombs, Zulus used modern rifles, Dervishes acquired artillery. Nationalists of all sorts travelled by train—including Gandhi, despite his hatred of modern machinery. Most colonial people embraced scientific progress, just as ancient Britons had embraced the baths, aqueducts and hypocausts of Rome. Tacitus wrote that this conquered race called such novelties “civilisation” when really they were a feature of its enslavement. In due course, however, technical novelties did afford a means of emancipation from the British Empire. They not only shifted the balance of power but transformed the temper of the time. As Karl Marx said, the locomotive was the engine of social as well as industrial revolution in Britain’s colonies. The steam-breathing express and its mechanical cohorts girdled the globe at such speed that they rapidly diffused the secrets of their magic. In fact, the British Empire provided the tools that helped foes to finish it.
That outcome was dimly perceived during the mid-Victorian period, when most Britons still thought that their country’s duty was to ripen colonial “communities to the earliest possible maturity—social, political and commercial—to qualify them, by all appliances within reach of a parent state, for present self-government and eventual independence.”59 However, technological ascendancy boosted British pride as well as power. It seemed to afford gleaming proof of the pre-eminence of the Anglo-Saxon breed. When Mary Kingsley returned home from exploring West Africa she felt like embracing “the first magnificent bit of machinery” she saw, since it was a “manifestation of the superiority of my race.”60 The corollary was that peoples with few mechanical achievements to their credit were inferior. Ironically, at the very time when Darwin’s disquisition On the Origin of Species (1859) was teaching his contemporaries that Homo sapiens had evolved, anthropologists were asserting that “rigid and permanent differences in mental and physical capacity between the races could be scientifically demonstrated.”61
Actually they did little more than codify the racial prejudices that had been accumulating since the eighteenth century and had intensified during the Mutiny. In his account of The Negro’s Place in Nature (1863), for example, John Hunt stated that, apart from a crude knowledge of metallurgy, Africans possessed “no art.” Mentally dormant and morally undeveloped, they were also “indolent, careless, sensual, tyrannical, predatory, sullen, boisterous, and jovial.” To sustain these stale and contradictory stereotypes, Hunt provided a gross physiological description of the Negro—his small brain had a “smoky tint” and his “unusually large” penis had “mammilated eminences”—which identified him with the “monkey tribe.”62 The case did not go unchallenged. A West African doctor, J. A. B. Horton, attacked the “grave errors” and “false theories” of the anthropologists in his Vindication of the African Race (1868). Stating that Africans had been for ages isolated from civilising influences, he compared their progress favourably to that of ancient Britons after the landing of Julius Caesar. In particular Horton recalled that Cicero had advised his friend Atticus not to buy slaves from Britain because these scantily clothed barbarians were “the ugliest and most stupid” creatures, quite incapable of learning “music and other accomplishments.”63 Nevertheless, Hunt’s views remained eminently convincing to all who agreed with them. At best, it seemed, the black man must be a servitor if not actually a slave—slavery, wrote an Alabaman contributor to a London journal of anthropology, was “the normal condition of the Negro, the most advantageous to him.”64 At worst, he and his kind were doomed.
The theory of evolution itself, which gained swift acceptance during the 1860s, seemed to support that conclusion. The struggle for life, said Alfred Russel Wallace, co-formulator of the theory with Charles Darwin, would lead to “the inevitable extinction of all those low and mentally undeveloped populations with which Europeans come into contact.”65 The popular champion of what came to be called Social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer, stated that weeding out the weak was a “beneficent, though severe discipline”66to which humanity must be subjected for its own good. His view was echoed from Queensland to Florida. As late as 1883 one colonial Governor told Gladstone that he had heard Queenslanders
of culture and refinement, of the greatest humanity and kindness to their fellow whites…talk, not only of the wholesale butchery (for the iniquity of that may sometimes be disguised from themselves) but of the individual murder of natives, exactly as they would talk of a day’s sport, or of having to kill some troublesome animal.67
After meeting a Deep Southerner who favoured hunting Seminole Indians with bloodhounds (“sarves the pesky sarpints right, sah!”), Sir Charles Dilke declared that the “gradual extinction of the inferior races is not only a law of nature, but a blessing to mankind.”68
The author-explorer Winwood Reade was more blunt still: “The law of murder is the law of growth.”69 Reade concluded his book Savage Africa (1864) by urging readers to look with composure on the benign extermination of the native inhabitants, picturing an idyllic white future for the dark colony.
When the cockneys of Timbuctoo have their tea-gardens in the Oases of the Sahara; when hotels and guide-books are established at the Sources of the Nile; when it becomes fashionable to go yachting on the Lakes of the Great Plateau; when noblemen, building seats in Central Africa, will have their elephant-parks and their hippopotami waters; young ladies on camp-stools under palm trees will read with tears The Last of the Negroes; and the Niger will become as romantic as the Rhine.70
Aggressive imperialism was therefore justified on the grounds that it was working with the evolutionary grain. But some anthropologists were unhappy about the axiom that “to colonize and to extirpate are synonymous terms.” They deplored that “thirst for blood which seems so mysteriously to come over civilised man when he is placed in contact with inferior tribes.”71
Many other Victorians rejected altogether the tenets of both Darwinism and Social Darwinism. Like Disraeli, they preferred to believe that men were not risen apes but fallen angels. Or when, like the geologist Charles Lyell, they found Darwin’s arguments persuasive, they hesitated to “go the whole orang.”72 They were still more reluctant to accept that biological progress depended on the heartless mechanism of natural selection. Even if it did, they said, morality remained the same and man’s highest duty was to love his neighbour as himself. Like T. H. Huxley, they concluded that there was nothing ethical about the “cosmic process,”73 which should be resisted, not assisted. Only thus could England’s mission be civilised as well as civilising. So the humanitarianism of Wilberforce and Wedgwood survived into a harsher age. Ultimately the philosophy of racism on which the more aggressive forms of imperialism were based was indefensible—even among scientists. As Winwood Reade recorded sardonically, when the President of the Anthropological Society told a meeting of members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science that they were more intellectual than Negroes, his audience “endeavoured to prove the contrary by hisses.”74
Nevertheless, in the years after the Mutiny Britain’s knife of sugar gained a sharper cutting edge. The iron fist of empire struck harder blows. A notorious instance occurred in 1865 when a small-scale uprising occurred in Jamaica. Impoverished and unemployed ex-slaves in Morant Bay, wanting land as well as freedom, killed a score of whites. According to The Times, happily disillusioned about the civilising effects of emancipation, the blacks had reverted to barbarism:
Like the old Gauls hewing down the Patres Conscripti [senators], the sable mob fired into the Court-house, and…revelled in blood, and in still more outrageous insult to the survivors; for days they indulged in a drunken dream of negro mastery and white slavery. It was Africa, hitherto dormant, that had broken out in their natures…They desired the extermination of their emancipators.75
Racked by memories of the Indian Mutiny and by fears of a general massacre, Governor Edward Eyre declared martial law. He then hanged and flogged many hundreds of black people, and burned over a thousand dwellings. He also accused a Baptist preacher, G. W. Gordon, of being responsible for the insurrection and had him executed. This was done on the principle that “although he might not be guilty, it served him right.”76 So said T. H. Huxley, who professed himself to be no negrophile but who regarded this as the worst case of political murder since the time of Judge Jeffreys.
At home, controversy about Eyre’s actions flared “into white heat.” Victorians, including the most eminent, divided into hostile camps. Each fortified itself with Roman analogues. The Governor’s apologists, for example, were said to have been “drilled after classical models”77 and only to know the brutal ways of Rome. Carlyle led the defence, calling Eyre “a brave, gentle, chivalrous and clear man, whom I would make dictator of Jamaica for the next twenty-five years.”78 As such, reckoned Carlyle, anticipating the language of fascism, Eyre could discipline the “idle Black gentleman, with his rum bottle in his hand…no breeches on his body, pumpkin at discretion, and the fruitfulest region of the earth going back to the jungle round him.”79 John Stuart Mill headed the opposition. The philosopher did not succeed in getting the Governor convicted; but Eyre was recalled and Jamaica came under direct rule as a crown colony, a significant early instance of white settlers being curbed by imperial authority. For his pains Mill was deluged with abusive letters, graduating from “coarse jokes, verbal and pictorial, up to threats of assassination.”80 The whole episode revealed what one contemporary called that hatred for the Negro which had sprung up in the space of a single generation and was “now so curiously characteristic of almost all Anglo-Saxons but the professional or sectarian philanthropists.”81 Coercion grew in the mire of racial prejudice. “We are too tender to our savages,” Tennyson told Gladstone, “niggers are tigers, niggers are tigers.”82 Prejudice also fostered an insular arrogance, wrote Goldwin Smith, which was unfortunate in an imperial people. For it precluded “not only fusion but sympathy and almost intercourse with the subject races.” Where Romans had rubbed shoulders with persons from all corners of the known world, the British shunned “lesser breeds.” Whereas the Latin poet Claudian had written “we are all one people,”83 Smith said that the gulf between the races “now yawns wider than ever.”84
Many Victorian explorers, harbingers of empire who beat new paths through jungles, over mountains and across deserts, widened the gulf. They had “no idea of a naked savage being ‘a man and a brother’”85 and no intention of treating him as such. On the contrary, their efforts to subdue indigenous people were as ruthless as their struggles to overcome nature. But white pioneers were mavericks to a man. Not all were conquistadors, though even the gentlest of them had a disruptive effect on native cultures ill equipped to resist European incursions. Furthermore, discovery was not necessarily carried out with conquest in mind. Those who filled the blank spaces on contemporary maps were often freebooters, sportsmen, traders, missionaries, prospectors for gold or fame. Still, pushing out geographical frontiers did open up new spheres of influence, where the gospel, the market and the flag might eventually be established. The Royal Geographical Society, founded in 1830, became “virtually an arm of the imperial state.”86When “America is filled up,” wrote Henry Morton Stanley, there would be plenty of Anglo-Saxon “Hengists and Horsas”87 eager to follow his trail into Africa. The Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson wanted his epitaph to record how he had pegged out “claims on the Dark Continent.”88 David Livingstone believed that Britain could introduce Africa to a golden age.
Exploration certainly opened fresh fields to the European imagination, flinging wide, as Rider Haggard said, the “gate of ivory and pearl which leads to the blessed Kingdom of Romance.” Romance also shaped reality. When writing King Solomon’s Mines(1885), Haggard drew on accounts of African landscape penned by Thomson, and the novel in turn supplied Britain’s Foreign Office with the archaic language deemed suitable for treating with the Matabele monarch, Lobengula. Like many authors who set their stories on the margins of empire, Haggard believed “in the divine right of a great civilising people—that is, in their divine mission.”89 Better writers were less sure. Joseph Conrad’s classic evocation of Africa’s barely penetrated Heart of Darkness (1899) is highly ambivalent. On the one hand it portrays a green nightmare peopled by black barbarians in need of white civilisation. On the other, Conrad exposes the fragility of civilisation and asserts that imperialism is mostly “just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale.” Significantly, he begins the tale with a striking picture of empire-builders facing death and demoralisation in alien and incomprehensible wastes: “Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland port feel the savagery, the utter savagery…all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.” What Conrad describes here, though, is not Victorian explorers on the Congo but Roman legionaries on the Thames. This sketch of the conquest of Britain is an ambiguous prelude to the horror he unfolds in central Africa. It affirms both the power and the transience of empire. Conrad, who seldom let his prejudices narrow his perspectives, viewed imperial pioneers from an unusual angle. The farms and cottages of Kent would soon empty, he wrote, “if a lot of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them.”90 It was a vivid insight into the impact of contemporary exploration on Africa.
Such a relative way of thinking was quite foreign to Samuel White Baker. He was the prototypical explorer who in 1864 discovered Lake Albert, a “sea of quicksilver” in the high savannah, one of the gigantic reservoirs that nourished Egypt. Baker had inherited a fortune derived from his family’s sugar plantations and he was correspondingly brutal in his attempts to dominate nature and “natives.” A great bear of a man, with a gruff, bluff manner and a shaggy black beard, he was primarily a hunter and an adventurer. No one was more dedicated to the massacre of game (unless it was John Hanning Speke, discoverer of Lake Victoria, who liked to eat the foetuses of pregnant animals he killed). No one knew better how to mend a gun stock with fish, crocodile or iguana skin; to thrash his boat captain (reis) for laziness; to quell fever with doses of potato whisky; to live off boiled hippo head (which, when served with chopped onions, salt and cayenne pepper, “throws brawn completely in the shade”); and to keep clean in the bush with the aid of a portable “sponging-bath, that emblem of civilisation.”91 During the 1850s Baker had tried to bring civilisation to Ceylon. He had set up an experimental village in the hills, with himself as squire, importing English craftsmen and labourers, plants and animals, among them a pedigree Durham cow and a pack of foxhounds. After many setbacks it flourished and Baker concluded that Ceylon, despite its contagiously lethargic colonial government and its bearded, petticoated natives, was a “Paradise of the East.”92
During the 1860s he determined to win the source of the Nile for England. This he accomplished, partially and metaphorically at least, after an appalling journey south from Khartoum. It took him through the Sudd, the world’s most stupendous morass, a product of the Nile’s transcontinental incontinence. Clogged with reeds, papyrus and rotting vegetation, it was a Sargasso Sea in the desert. Alive with crocodiles, hippopotamuses and mosquitoes, it was a slimy, noxious spawning ground of pestilence and death. Baker and his beautiful, blonde Hungarian wife endured sickness, encountered cannibals and fought against mutiny and desertion among their porters. They were victimised by Arab slave-traders and despoiled by Bunyoro tribesmen. Baker raged against the humiliations inflicted on them by “these almighty niggers,”93 whom he thought more brutish than monkeys and less noble than dogs. Attempting to Christianise them was futile, he believed. “You may as well try to turn pitch into snow as to eradicate the dark stain of heathenism.”94 Yet some advance could be made, as his experience in Ceylon had shown, through commerce and colonisation. Britain was “the natural coloniser of the world,” Baker wrote, uniquely qualified “to wrest from utter savagedom those mighty tracts of the earth’s surface wasted from the creation.”95 Nevertheless, a hint of doubt did creep into his paean to the nation whose standard “floated on the strongholds of the universe.” For Britons themselves had once been Druid-ridden primitives. Might not Destiny decree “that as from dust we rose, so to dust we shall return”?96
Richard Burton, who discovered Lake Tanganyika (with Speke) in 1858, had even less faith in European efforts to better the lot of Africans. He was profoundly sceptical about their capacity for improvement and, like other misanthropists, Burton could find reasons to justify cynicism. For example, when the Royal Navy returned freedmen to Sierra Leone they were apt to enslave one another. The campaign to stop trade in slaves increased the number of human sacrifices in Ashanti. In Zanzibar many of those released from Arab dhows were sent to the Seychelles as indentured labourers, a fate worse than bondage. Burton was also sceptical about the value of Christian missions, which undermined tribal systems based on fetishes, witchcraft, polygamy and divine kingship. He thought Islam better suited to the needs of Africans, who were invariably demoralised by “intercourse with white men.”97 On the question of clothing indigenous people, Burton was a confirmed sans-culotte. Trousers became the defining article in the debate between Victorians eager to civilise Africans and those who favoured cultural laissez-faire, usually for the purpose of “keeping the native down.” Missionaries were particularly shocked by the “frightful nudity”98 of Africans and David Livingstone urged, to their amusement, that in lieu of more formal garb they should wear “grass.”99 Ideally, of course, the looms of Lancashire should cover their nakedness. Sartorial imperialism would overcome heathen depravity. Not only must Africans be “decently clad,” intoned the Daily Telegraph, but English authority should be exercised to ensure that they did not “revert to their old terrible habits.”100
On the contrary, romantics argued, the descendants of Ham were children of nature. They were essentially innocent, well adapted to tropical conditions and unfettered by artificial conventions. “There is a tendency to regard natives in the light of beauty spots,” wrote Elspeth Huxley later, “and European clothes as paper bags and orange peel.”101 Furthermore, conservatives maintained, the white man’s costume gave the black man ideas above his station. Maoris decked out in European apparel looked “snobbish,” reported Burton. He himself, particularly when among nubile African women, always took care to secure “a seat in the undress circle.” Nothing should hide or alter the character of these “beautiful domestic animals.”102 As for the males, the “quasi-gorillahood of the real ‘nigger’” should be evident, to use a phrase he liked to repeat, “from scalp to scrotum.”103 (He was indignant when prudes secured the removal of the penises of the first stuffed gorillas exhibited in London, an absurdity on a par with the African custom of eating their brains as an aphrodisiac. Perhaps he felt it appropriate that the first live gorilla brought to London, named Mr. Pongo, turned its back on Charles Darwin.) At any rate, Burton thought that Africa, a scene “of bleared misery by day, and animated filth by night,”104 could not embrace progress. Plainly the continent was best treated, preserved and run like an enormous zoo.
Burton himself reminded people of a caged black leopard. He had a muscular frame, a barrel chest and, wrote Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, “a countenance the most sinister I have ever seen, dark, cruel, treacherous, with eyes like a wild beast’s.”105 Burton liked to boast that he had indulged in every vice and committed every crime. His traveller’s tales grew ever taller: mocking them, an Argentinian newspaper reported that he had set out to explore the pampas armed with a cannon and torpedoes. Certainly, though, he was a ferocious character and his exploits matched his nickname, “Ruffian Dick.” At Oxford, already an expert swordsman, he challenged another undergraduate to a duel for laughing at his moustache (which matured into the most prodigious walrus of the age). In India, where he won favour with the equally daemonic General Charles Napier, Burton rode alligators, charmed snakes and became the army’s most brilliant linguist. He eventually mastered more than two dozen languages and many dialects, even trying to learn simian speech from a troupe of monkeys he installed in his house. Disguising himself as a Muslim, complete with circumcision, he made a forbidden pilgrimage to the holy places of Mecca. So comprehensive was his knowledge of the East that “he was able to become an Oriental.”106
Burton was insatiably curious, studying mesmerism, mysticism, spiritualism, cannibalism and eroticism. His important ethnological research caused offence by its sexual frankness and his unexpurgated translation of the Arabian Nights included a dissertation on the Sotadic Zone, those sultry regions of the earth where sensuality flourished and sodomy was “popular and endemic.”107 Vindictive and self-destructive, Burton spent much of his life engaged in feuds, the most bitter of them with his fellow explorer Speke, who stole a march on him in 1858 by discovering the main source of the Nile. Ironically, Burton, the least diplomatic of men, was rewarded for his explorations with a billet in the consular service. Exiled to outposts such as Fernando Po, he behaved like a “caged hawk” and compared himself to “a Prometheus with the Demon Despair gnawing at my heart.” Burton admitted that he was unusually well endowed with the Englishman’s “eccentricities, his bizarreries, his hobby-horses, his whimsy-whamsies.”108Increasingly he indulged rancorous prejudices that embraced most of the human race, Jews, Americans, Irishmen and so on. Although seldom consistent, he reserved his most poisonous invective for Africans. Like orientals, they had to be ruled by fear. For them the only effective form of government was “an iron-handed and lion-hearted despotism.”109
Yet even Burton disapproved of the tyrannical methods employed in Africa by Henry Morton Stanley. He “shoots negroes as if they were monkeys,”110 Burton complained. Stanley’s most recent biographer denies this, pointing out that his hero was less racist than Burton and less bloodstained than Baker, and that he tended to “exaggerate the casualty figures”111 for journalistic effect. Certainly Stanley’s reports did severe damage to his reputation. He described his acts of violence with a callous insouciance which rendered them doubly odious. He praised the “virtue of a good whip,” which restored lazy bearers “to a sound—sometimes to an extravagant activity.”112 Burning the villages of hostile tribesmen had, by contrast, a remarkably “sedative influence on their nerves.”113 Liberal opinion in England was outraged. The Saturday Review protested that Stanley had engaged in “wholesale and wanton homicide.” Worse still, this Yankee newspaperman who made “war like a Napoleon,” using long-range rifles and explosive bullets against frightened savages, flew the Union Jack as well as the Stars and Stripes.114 Of course, Stanley was only a naturalised American. He began life, his many enemies insisted, as a Welsh bastard and was brought up in the workhouse at St. Asaph. But he always shrank from being publicly “branded with the hideous stigma” of his “parentless and abject condition.”115 Aged seventeen, in 1858, he escaped to a roving transatlantic life, managing to serve on both sides during the American Civil War. Afterwards he became a tramp reporter and eventually secured employment on the most jaundiced organ of New York’s yellow press, the Herald. Its owner, James Gordon Bennett Jr., was the gaudiest beast in the newspaper jungle and he appreciated the tigerish qualities that were to make Stanley the greatest of all African explorers. Not that the young reporter was much to look at, being stocky, ugly and uncouth. But he gave “the impression of overwhelming and concentrated force” and his eyes, “pools of grey fire…, seemed to scorch and shrivel”116 everything they lighted on. Before sending Stanley on the quest that would win him fame, Bennett ordered him to cover another British venture in Africa. It provided a perfect illustration of the way technology could be used to realise the increasingly aggressive ambitions of mid-Victorian imperialists.
In 1868 General Sir Robert Napier, a grizzled veteran of many wars, was sent to invade Ethiopia. The purpose of his expedition was to rescue some sixty European prisoners incarcerated by the Emperor Theodore. But it was also a parade of power. It was designed to uphold British prestige in Africa, to buttress the Raj in India and to show possible rivals elsewhere that Britannia’s reach extended well beyond the waves. As America began to rebuild in the wake of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, as Germany moved towards unification after Bismarck’s Prussia defeated Austria at Sadowa (1866), as Napoleon III’s France, which had just acquired part of Cochin China, looked set to exploit the Suez Canal, Queen Victoria’s subjects were painfully reminded of “the ephemeral nature of Britain’s supremacy overseas.”117 Anxiety about decline, in the economic as well as the political sphere, was a root cause of British participation in the scramble for Africa—for which the Abyssinian adventure was a rehearsal. What immediately prompted Napier’s mission, though, was the repeated cry of “Civis Romanus sum,” uttered by a public stirred over the plight of white captives in the hands of a “horrible barbarian.”118 This characterisation of the Emperor did not just stem from prejudice since Theodore, who had waded through blood to the throne, was an Ethiopian Caligula. He presided cruelly and capriciously over an isolated realm whose people had (as Gibbon said) “slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten.”119
Little had changed, indeed, since Augustus withdrew his legions. Ethiopians wearing white cotton shammas (togas) and dressing their hair in rancid butter continued to feast on tej (mead) and raw steaks cut from live cattle. Corpses swung from gallows trees and every cluster of dung-coloured conical huts (tukuls) had its quota of mutilated beggars. Civil war was as much a part of Ethiopian life as the translucent atmosphere, the majestic horizons and the primeval wilderness. Yet in some ways Theodore was a progressive ruler. He opposed slavery, defended the Coptic faith and made overtures to other Christian states—it was the Foreign Office’s failure to answer his letter to Queen Victoria, who had earlier sent him a brace of silver pistols, that provoked his hostage taking. The Emperor also tried to modernise his feudal host, equipping his men with muskets and mortars, drilling them in European fashion, and going so far as to pay them. On Lake Tana he even constructed a large imitation paddle steamer from papyrus grass, “with a couple of wheels affixed to the sides…to be turned by a handle like that attached to a common grindstone.”120 It sank. Meanwhile, Napier mustered a formidable armada to supply his army, which consisted of thirteen thousand troops (mostly Indian) and fifty thousand camp followers, as well as eighteen thousand mules, seventeen thousand camels and forty-four elephants. This was an array that Hannibal would have recognised but it was sustained by machinery that would have staggered him.
Napier was an engineer—he had not only relieved Lucknow but radically redesigned the city to make it more defensible in case of another mutiny—and his Ethiopian campaign was an industrial enterprise. At Zula on the Red Sea he created a harbour complete with prefabricated lighthouses and tramways along the piers. On shore a new town sprang up with a railway track and locomotives, telegraph lines, an arsenal, warehouses for medical and other stores, meteorological apparatus, ice-making equipment, Norton tube wells, Bastier chain pumps, condensers to distil salt water into fresh and reservoirs to hold it. All this helped Napier to master his chief foe, geography. Ethiopia is a natural fortress, a mountainous plateau guarded by thickets of juniper, oak, tamarisk, acacia, sycamore and euphorbia. It is a chaos of crag, scarp and gorge, a tumult of basalt peaks and granite troughs like a vitrified sea in a storm. Sappers had to blast rocks and clear tracks up such formidable ascents as “the Devil’s Staircase.”121 And, for much of its four-hundred-mile march, Napier’s seven-mile-long column advanced in single file. Like an immense python it inched through precipitous defiles and slithered over boulder-strewn steeps. The sun gleamed on its scales, multi-coloured uniforms topped variously by crimson caps, silver helmets, red fezzes, white turbans, scarlet tarbooshes and emerald puggarees. One “young lordling,” Stanley noted disdainfully, “wore kid gloves and a green veil.”122 (British officers returned the journalist’s contempt, reckoning Stanley a howling cad and nicknaming him Jefferson Brick, after the Rowdy Journal ’s brash war correspondent in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit.) In the thin, cold air, progress was slow. Hailstones fell, as big as marbles. The camels’ roaring stampeded the mules. The beasts were additionally burdened with bottles of claret and casks of porter, which left “men drunk all over the place, and no end of stragglers.” One miscreant got “50 lashes, and his back was well mauled.”123
Eventually, on 10 April 1868, Napier encountered the Ethiopian horde below Theodore’s volcanic stronghold of Magdala. When the yelling, red-clad warriors hurled themselves at the invaders, during a terrific thunderstorm, the result was not a battle but a massacre. Stanley exclaimed: “Against shell-vomiting cannon, and against a very wall of fire, discharging bullets by the hundred to their one, what could matchlocks and spears effect?” The British Army, itself scarcely touched, killed seven hundred Ethiopians. Theodore shot himself with one of Queen Victoria’s silver pistols. British troops released the prisoners. Before burning down the palace they looted it, seizing the royal treasures in an “extempore pandemonium.” Among them were gold crowns and mitres, jewelled crosses and goblets,
robes of fur; war capes of lion, leopard, and wolf skins; saddles, magnificently decorated with filigree gold and silver; numerous shields covered with silver plates; state umbrellas of gorgeous hues, adorned with all the barbaric magnificence that the genius of Bejemder and Gondar could fashion; swords and claymores; rapiers, scimitars, yataghans, tulwars, and bilboes; daggers of Persia, of Damascus, and of Ind, in scabbards of crimson morocco and purple velvet, studded with gold buttons.124
Queen Victoria received her usual share of the booty, including priceless illuminated religious manuscripts and “Theodore’s crown.”125 Disraeli announced that the standard of St. George was flying on the mountains of Rasselas. Perhaps that triumph justified the £9 million bill. One Tory minister said that Magdala was to Britain what Sadowa had been to Prussia—whereas Italy’s defeat at Adowa in 1896 seriously damaged European prestige, preserving Ethiopia as Africa’s last bastion against colonial rule and proving that black men too could win an “engineer’s war.”126 Like the politicians, the British people received news of Napier’s victory from the New York Herald. After the demolition of Magdala, Stanley had raced back to Suez (encumbered only by a bloodstained piece of Theodore’s coat, a souvenir for his mother) and gained his scoop by the simple expedient of bribing the chief telegraphist to send his dispatches first.
Bennett rewarded Stanley by instructing him to find Livingstone. The Scottish missionary explorer, widely regarded as the moral suzerain of Africa and “the greatest of England’s heroes,”127 had not been seen by a white man since 1866. Tracking him down would give Stanley the story of the century. He started in Zanzibar, the island gateway to East Africa. This was a ruined Eden with an oily blue lagoon crowded with exotic craft, a steamy green jungle suffused with the scent of cloves, seafront mansions “whitewashed like sepulchres,” and noisome slums, “a foul dense mass of dwelling-places, where the poor and the slaves pig together.”128 Stanley assembled a powerful and well-equipped caravan. Then he marched west, blazing a new trail a third of the way across the continent. It was a hellish journey through forest, swamp and sierra, punctuated by assaults from bellicose tribes, rebellious retainers, intermittent fevers and pestiferous insects, whose bites and stings produced festering sores and purulent ulcers. “Fatal Africa,” Stanley later wrote,
the torrid heat, the miasma exhaled from the soil, the noisome vapours enveloping every path, the giant cane-grass suffocating the wayfarer, the rabid fury of the native guarding every entry and exit, the unspeakable misery of life within the wild continent, the utter absence of every comfort, the bitterness which every day heaps upon the white man’s head, in that land of blackness.129
Eventually, on 10 November 1871, Stanley’s robed and turbaned train reached the straggling little port of Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika. Here he met his man and spoke the immortal words: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
It was an absurdly stilted formula, often mocked by others and always regretted by Stanley, who uttered it from “cowardice and false pride”130 in order to ward off an expected rebuff. But instead of the prickly personage he had anticipated, Stanley encountered a benign father figure. Brought up in a crowded one-room tenement just outside Glasgow and sent to work in a cotton mill at ten (in 1823), Livingstone had endured juvenile hardships to match those of his visitor. Now in dire straits, his body “a mere ruckle of bones,”131 he desperately needed Stanley’s help. They established an immediate bond of sympathy. As Stanley poured out the news—the Suez Canal, the Pacific railroad, the transatlantic cable, Bismarck’s armies around Paris, Napoleon III a fugitive—he began to study his listener. He noticed the worn bearded countenance, the keen hazel eyes and the gappy teeth which, Livingstone himself said, made his smile resemble that of a hippopotamus. Stanley observed Livingstone’s heavy, stooping gait, his voracious appetite, his clothes—consular blue cap with faded gold band, red-sleeved waistcoat and grey tweed trousers. In due course the journalist perceived that the missionary had a tough, unforgiving disposition and an abrasive Carlylean wit—he was especially caustic about Glaswegian Freemasons who wanted to enrol him because membership of their order would do him so much good in Africa. Nevertheless, Stanley concluded that Livingstone was “a Christian gentleman” as nearly angelic as the fallen condition of humanity would allow. Stanley contrasted Livingstone’s habitual (though not invariable) gentleness towards Africans with his own instinctive violence. He even recorded his servants’ verdict: the Doctor was “a very good man” whereas their American master was “sharp—hot as fire.”132
Despite his epic journeys, Livingstone’s methods had not got him far in Africa. He gained only a single convert (who later lapsed) and his congregations lampooned his preaching and psalm singing by bellowing like bulls. His medical nostrums, which included pills called “Livingstone’s rousers,”133 were scarcely an improvement on those of local witch doctors. On his explorations, which had proved a killing ordeal for his young family, he certainly exhibited the Roman fortitude that Stanley admired. But he broke surprisingly little new ground and he made grave mistakes, notably when trying to navigate the Zambesi in 1858. This river, which he had dubbed “God’s Highway”134 to a commercial paradise in the interior, was blocked by cataracts and fatally fever-ridden. Livingstone blamed the steamer, “a wretched sham vessel” with an engine “evidently made to grind coffee.” He claimed (absurdly) that “the rapids”135 could be passed at high water. He fell out with other members of the expedition, advising dissidents to take aperients. One hurled his copy of Livingstone’s inspiring but misleading Missionary Travels (1857) into the “turbid muddy weedcovered Zambesi” with the imprecation, “So perish all that is false in myself and others.”136 Livingstone’s colonising ambitions in the Shire Highlands, south of Lake Nyasa, were also thwarted. He asked the Foreign Secretary, “Is it any part of my duty to take possession of new discoveries as of Her Majesty?” Lord John Russell’s answer was more than usually arctic: “No.”137
Nevertheless, as the herald of Africa’s salvation Livingstone was without peer. No one dramatised the work of bringing light to the continent with such sublime conviction. This was not just a matter of preaching the Word. As well as the Gospel, he wrote, trade would save Africa. For the “fairy fabrications” of Manchester’s cotton mills were as wonderful to the natives as the “silken robes of the East” had been to “our rude forefathers.”138 The flag would follow trade, Livingstone believed. In short, here was another trinity—Christianity, commerce and colonisation. It became an article of Victorian faith, a new Athanasianism. Recited like an incantation, Joseph Thomson said, it concealed the fact that European benevolence to Africa was “little better than an unmitigated curse.”139 But in Livingstone’s eyes the supreme merit of this triple alliance was that it could rid Africa of its greatest evil, slavery. Stanley himself had seen slavers ravaging the land like locusts and driving off their captives in chains so heavy that they might have shackled elephants, the blood-red bunting of the Sultan of Zanzibar flying at the head of their caravans. And he helped Livingstone to pen an eloquent call for the suppression of the traffic. Citing the achievement of President Lincoln (after whom Livingstone had named a lake), they declared that freeing Africa from this scourge was far more important than the discovery of all the Nile sources. Bennett, to whom the appeal was addressed, gave it wide publicity. Some were sceptical about what Dickens had called in Bleak House “telescopic philanthropy”140—good work in Borrioboola-Gha matched by neglect at home. They dismissed Livingstone as a negrophile crank, his “poor naked mind bedaubed with the chalk and red ochre of Scotch theology, and with a threadbare, tattered waistcloth of education hanging round him.”141
Livingstone strengthened this impression by the obsessive and ultimately suicidal wanderings which he undertook once he had bade farewell to Stanley, now a surrogate son, in March 1872. But in his famous account of finding Livingstone, Stanley canonised him. The Doctor’s death on his knees in 1873 placed him in (what Samuel Baker called) “the noble army of martyrs who have devoted their lives to the holy cause of freedom.”142 The return of Livingstone’s embalmed body, thanks to the heroic efforts of his African retainers Abdullah Susi and James Chuma, was deemed supernatural. At his lying in state, embowered by palms and lilies, in the Savile Row council rooms of the Royal Geographical Society, and at his funeral in Westminster Abbey, the whole nation mourned. Livingstone seemed to enshrine all the idealism of the imperial enterprise, all its nobility of purpose, all its evangelical zeal. As the British Quarterly Review wrote, “his death has bequeathed the work of African exploration and civilisation as a sacred legacy to his country…The life which Livingstone offered for the salvation of Africa, like a greater life, is a pledge and a prophecy of its redemption.”143
He further inspired Victorians through his carefully bowdlerised Last Journals. Some followed him into the mission field. A few suffered martyrdom, among them James Hannington, Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, whose own Last Journals were not bowdlerised and told how he gave his porters “hearty thrashings.”144 Nothing was recovered of him except a “skull without the lower jaw, the soles of his boots, a rubber hot-water bottle, and the basin-lid of an Army and Navy canteen.”145 Many missionaries promoted Queen Victoria’s empire as well as preaching the kingdom of Christ. At the manse in Blantyre, the settlement in the Shire Highlands named after Livingstone’s birthplace, several sewing machines were kept busy producing Union Jacks to present to local chiefs. Most Britons thrilled to his words about the slave trade, which were incorporated into his Abbey epitaph, calling down “heaven’s rich blessing” on everyone who would “help to heal this open sore of the world.”146
However, Livingstone’s vision of the Empire as a humanitarian crusade was hard to reconcile with Stanley’s demonstration that it was a brutal adventure. Despite his veneration for Livingstone, who had advised him to treat the African as a “thorough gentleman,”147 Stanley was convinced that the world required mastery as well as charity. So, at least by his own account, he turned exploration into a species of warfare. When setting out in 1874 on his most daring odyssey, a voyage through Africa’s virgin core along its central waterway, he imposed military discipline on his own men, flogging and chaining (later even hanging) at will. He also armed them with Snider breech-loading rifles, which enabled his little fleet to run the gauntlet of riverine tribes on his descent of the Congo. They evidently took his followers for slavers or raiders and Stanley seldom tried to persuade them otherwise. Force was quicker than diplomacy. In any case, the canoe-borne attacks of “cannibal butchers,” parrot feathers in their hair, ivory bracelets on their arms, poisoned darts in their hands, stimulated his blood lust. Their “wild rancour” convinced him that, despite its equatorial allure, he was traversing “a murderous world.”148 Gliding downstream, past spicy islands and vernal shores, he saw a spell-binding panorama of teak, cottonwood and feathery palm,
the bushy and many rooted mangrove which flourishes by the water side, here and there a low grassy bank from which the crocodile plunges into the brown depths, [while] the snorting and watchful Behemoth whose roar, echoed between tall banks of woods, has its volume redoubled. The terrors are rocks and rapids, the roaring, plunging, dreadful cataract, the sudden storms which wrinkle the river’s face into a dangerous aspect, the savages which howled after us and required us for meat.
Among the trees birds screeched, baboons howled, elephants trumpeted and the very insects seemed to drum for war: the humming of myriad mosquitoes “sounded to our half awakened senses like the noise of advancing savages.”149 After an epic final push, Stanley reached the Atlantic with 108 followers—he had started the expedition with 228, some of whom had deserted. All three of his white companions were among the dead.
Stanley had proved that Lake Tanganyika was the source of the Congo not the Nile. He had drained Africa of its essential mystery. He had dissolved its prodigies, ridding it of unicorns and manticores just as Columbus had emptied the Atlantic of the kraken and the sea serpent. He had consigned the land of Ophir and the kingdom of Prester John to the realm of fable. He had dispelled legends about Ethiopians feasting with the gods and about dawn battles between the pygmies and the cranes. He had become chief among the “conquerors of truth,”150 as Conrad called explorers who both revealed unknown landscapes and wove heroic myths around themselves. But Stanley was the bridge between the golden age of exploration and the iron age of exploitation. He had established enough of the physical geography to invite political cartography, himself championing the new imperialism whereby European powers drew bold new lines on the map and coloured the areas they enclosed red (Britain), purple (France), brown (Germany), green (Portugal) or yellow (Belgium). Partition did not occur at once since most statesmen feared that the costs would outweigh the benefits. In fact, the most eager participant in the scramble for Africa was King Leopold of the Belgians. He employed Stanley, who earned his African nickname “Breaker of Rocks,”151 to help build what became the most bloodthirsty colonial enclave in history. This was named, grotesquely, the Congo Free State. A “vampire growth, intended to suck the country dry,”152 it was, of course, the setting for Heart of Darkness.153 British territories in Africa were also won and run along lines evidently pioneered by Stanley. But their animating spirit was invariably that of Livingstone, whose life had been a sermon on the duty of “a superior race…to elevate the more degraded portions of the human family.”154 The two men, though portrayed respectively as the evil genius and the patron saint of empire, were not wholly antithetical. But they conveniently summed up vital conflicting elements in the imperial enterprise. In the long term the Snider was at odds with the Bible. To rule the British Empire with a rod of iron was to destroy it as a civilising mission. In short, the Empire was undermined by its own internal contradictions.
There was also a contradiction, as Queen Victoria’s reign passed its halfway mark, between Britain’s continuing reluctance to acquire overseas dependencies and its increasing colonial expansion. Successive governments echoed Sir James Stephen’s view that even if, for example, the whole of Africa could be taken, it would be a worthless possession. Politicians were sceptical about the accounts of explorers, who conjured up visions of African wealth that might have dazzled the Queen of Sheba. Until its mineral riches were uncovered, Africa clearly had little to offer save palm oil, slaves and ivory. And by the 1870s hunters had slaughtered most elephants outside the tsetse fly belt to provide tusks for fans, piano keys, cutlery, bangles, statuary, chessmen, billiard balls, crucifixes, false teeth and dildoes. As late as 1884 the Edinburgh Review pronounced:
No rational English statesman desires to extend the territorial limits of Empire, and we are well aware that the acquisition of new territories not only brings with it no increase in power and wealth, but on the contrary adds to the duties we have to perform and to the burdens which already overtask the strength of our Government.155
On the other hand, Britain enjoyed a paramount position in Africa, thanks to the Royal Navy, and sometimes responded to challenges, first from Boers in the south, later from Frenchmen and Germans further north. There were other reasons for intervention, which the Liberals themselves acknowledged. Gladstone’s government annexed Basutoland in 1868 to protect it from the Afrikaners and Griqualand West in 1871 to control its newly discovered diamond fields. As Prime Minister from 1874 to 1880, Disraeli prosecuted a similar imperial policy, being equally reluctant to accumulate costly encumbrances, especially in the tropics. He was furious when “prancing proconsuls”156 dragged Britain into wars with Zulus and Afghans. However, Disraeli would add to the Empire if he could thereby augment British greatness. Moreover, he sometimes responded to local circumstances, such as native disorders which threatened British merchants, missionaries or settlers. Thus in 1874 he extended British authority in Malaya and took control of Fiji—Queen Victoria was horrified by the prospect of admitting cannibals to the Empire but Disraeli assured her that “these Fijians were all Methodists.”157 The fidgety Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon, known as “Twitters,” considered applying a Monroe Doctrine to much of Africa but contented himself with making the Gold Coast a protectorate (in 1874) and annexing the Transvaal (in 1877). In 1878 Britain occupied Cyprus. The following year it got the Sultan to depose the spendthrift Khedive Ismail, who went into exile with his yacht, £150,000 in gold for immediate necessities, thirty large chests of jewels, twenty-two of the best dinner services from the Abdin Palace and the seventy most attractive members of his harem, and eventually died as extravagantly as he had lived, after trying to drink two bottles of champagne in a single draught. Britain then established, with France as a junior partner, Dual Control over Egypt’s finances. The rhetoric of imperial aggrandisement remained muted, even among Tories, but the work of empire-building carried on apace.
It accelerated at the very time when Britain seemed in danger of losing economic supremacy. Foreign competition had been increasing since the 1860s but with the onset of the “Great Depression” in 1873 it was clear that France, Germany and the United States were catching up with Britain. Whereas the first industrial nation produced nearly a third of the world’s manufactured goods in 1870, the figure had shrunk to less than a quarter ten years later and by 1913 it was only 14 per cent. Why? Some historians blame a deep-seated cultural malaise caused by the microbe of gentility. In class-ridden Britain, their argument goes, captains of industry and merchant princes aspired not to beat the aristocracy but to join it. They sent their sons to public schools where boys acquired the character of gentlemen and empire-builders, learned to “play the game,” to despise “trade”158 and to value Latin and Greek above science. “Stinks” was taught at Rugby in the Town Hall cloakroom one hundred yards from the school and, T. H. Huxley discovered, an Oxford undergraduate could gain the highest honours without having “heard that the earth went round the sun.”159 When war broke out in 1914 the Rugby-educated Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence was reading Gibbon, whose account of the eighth-century defence of Constantinople suggested to him “the idea of recreating Greek Fire”160 in the form of flame-throwers. But Germany had long been experimenting with the Flammenwerfer and first used it to surprise effect near Verdun in 1915. In short, classical learning sapped present enterprise and snobbery militated against industry. Yet this seductive explanation is not altogether satisfactory. Many members of the elite succumbed to “the romance of technology.”161 The sports-and-spats worldview of effete patricians by no means drove out the muck-and-brass attitudes of hard-faced businessmen, as Victorians often lamented. A. C. Benson, an Eton housemaster, said that the public schools had a vulgar goal—the “glorification of…self-interest.”162 When Tom Brown left Rugby for university he found that “the worship of the golden calf was verily and indeed rampant in Oxford.”163
The fact is that in the long run economic rather than social forces caused Britain to lose its position as the workshop of the world. Britain had invested heavily in traditional industries while rivals inevitably made the most of new techniques and inventions. Germany’s chemical industry pulled so far ahead, for example, that in 1914 the British Army discovered that all the khaki dye for its uniforms came from Stuttgart. Similarly, Germany’s electrical generating plant soon eclipsed that of Britain, where it was initially assumed that “each parish should have its own power station.”164 America was still more dynamic, mass-producing Remington typewriters, Singer sewing machines and Yale cylinder locks. It also pioneered the construction of automatic tools. The island that had made steam engines by hand was bound to fall behind the continent that manufactured motor cars on assembly lines. America’s economy overtook Britain’s between 1870, when it was roughly equal in size, and 1914, when it was nearly three times larger. It is true that Britain’s decline was both relative, and relatively slow. British capitalism remained resilient and innovative, assisted by good performances in shipping and textiles.
Still more vital were financial services and overseas investments. In the half-century before the Great War Britain supplied two-fifths of all exported capital. Its invisible empire stretched round the world, reflected in the names of banks, as one Chancellor of the Exchequer observed:
There is the Anglo-Austrian Bank, the Anglo-Italian Bank, the Anglo-Egyptian Bank. There is the English and Swedish Bank; there is the London and Hamburg Continental Exchange Bank; there is the London and Brazilian Bank, the London, Buenos Aires and River Plate Bank, and even a London and South American Bank.165
As for the Imperial Bank of Persia, it was a company registered in London. So in absolute terms John Bull prospered. But this was little comfort to Britons accustomed to effortless superiority. Indeed, prophecies of economic doom strengthened intimations of imperial nemesis. As Henry James wrote to an American friend in 1877, “the ‘decline’ of England seems to me a tremendous and even, almost, an inspiring spectacle, and if the British Empire is once more to shrink up into that plethoric little island, the process will be the greatest drama in history!”166 In the opinion of increasing numbers of Queen Victoria’s subjects during the last two decades of her reign, imperial protection, consolidation and even expansion were essential to keep decadence at bay. The Empire must wax in power to compensate for its relative waning in pelf. It must rise to avert decline.
These were not the views of Mr. Gladstone, though he was characteristically ambivalent on the subject. Unlike Disraeli, who discerned the possibility of making royalty, empire and paternalism into a platform from which he could appeal to the enlarged electorate, the Liberal leader was wedded to peace, retrenchment and reform. This did not mean, as Disraeli claimed in his famous speech at the Crystal Palace in 1872, that the Grand Old Man (GOM) favoured imperial disintegration. On the contrary, Gladstone in office almost invariably kept territories—Fiji and Cyprus, for instance—whose acquirement he had condemned in opposition. Indeed, he was sometimes prepared to augment British sovereignty, notably to protect “the rights of the savage, as we call him.”167Moreover, he later became “an active aggressor”168 in Egypt, concerned about England’s major economic interests there and perhaps mindful of the fact that 37 per cent of his personal portfolio consisted of Egyptian stock, which rose enormously after the British occupation. But Gladstone did believe, as his opponents did not, in the transcendent virtue of self-rule and he favoured ending British tutelage as soon as possible. He was profoundly suspicious of empire, fearing that Britain, like Rome, would be corrupted by holding sway in Asia. He could find nothing to say in favour of India except as a destination for Cook’s tourists. And he forecast the deplorable implications of Britain’s expanding its stake in Suez:
our first site in Egypt, be it by larceny or be it by emption, will be the almost certain egg of a North African Empire, that will grow and grow until another Victoria and another Albert, titles of the Lake-sources of the White Nile, come within our borders; and till we finally join hands across the Equator with Natal and Cape Town, to say nothing of the Transvaal and the Orange River on the south, or of Abyssinia or Zanzibar to be swallowed by way of viaticum on our journey.169
Critics dismissed this prognostication as “a mirage of the desert.”170 But even Lord Derby, Disraeli’s Foreign Secretary, who resigned in 1878, described his chief’s policy as “occupy, fortify, grab & brag.”171
Gladstone excoriated Tory flag-wagging and drum-beating with all the fervour of one who as a young man had wondered whether to become Archbishop of Canterbury or Prime Minister. The anti-imperial rhetoric that erupted from the deep craters of his personality was never more incandescent than during the campaign which won the Liberals victory in the 1880 election. On the stump in his Midlothian constituency, the People’s William declaimed like a hell-fire preacher. He denounced aggression in pursuit of “false phantoms of glory.”172 He condemned conquest sustained by a spirit of jingoism, which the radical journalist W. T. Stead defined as “imperialism sodden with gin.”173 Gladstone called the Afghan War a crime against God. He attacked the annexation of the Transvaal. He inveighed against “the policy of denying to others the rights that we claim ourselves.”174 He censured Disraeli’s habit of using Roman analogies as a guide to British policies, notably his conjuring with the slogan “Imperium et libertas.” What this meant in a Roman mouth, said the GOM, was “Liberty for ourselves, Empire over the rest of mankind.”175Disraeli famously thought Gladstone inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity and Queen Victoria threatened to abdicate rather than allow this “half-mad fire-brand” to become Prime Minister once again. But she could neither stop his advent nor predict its result. Ironically, Gladstone’s crusade for international righteousness both sapped the moral foundations of the Empire and justified its extension into Egypt.
Admittedly the GOM strove to escape that bondage. At first he even sympathised with the nationalist revolt of Colonel Ahmed Arabi in 1881, which itself prompted such rapture in Cairo that strangers hugged one another in the streets. The rebellion was directed against the corrupt Ottoman elite, against remorseless officials of the Anglo-French Dual Control, who dominated the country’s feeble new ruler, Khedive Tewfik, and against some ninety thousand “foreign adventurers,”176 financiers, entrepreneurs and concessionaires, protected by privileges and immune to taxation, who were bleeding the inhabitants dry. “Egypt for the Egyptians,” intoned Gladstone, champion of peoples oppressed by “the unspeakable Turk.”177 But in June 1882 riots broke out in Alexandria which caused the death of fifty Europeans. At Westminster, as one Liberal imperialist wrote, “Our side…badly want to kill somebody. They don’t know who.”178 A month later the ironclads of Admiral Beauchamp Seymour, known as “the Ocean Swell,”179bombarded Alexandria. This was a thriving port of 250,000 people, noted for an exotic cosmopolitanism. Its harbour was full of propeller-driven steamers from Liverpool, paddle wheelers from Marseilles, two-masted schooners from Genoa, long-prowed xebecs from Barcelona, lateen-rigged tartans from Constantinople, white light caïques from Limassol, streamlined feluccas from Cairo. The city itself, according to Sir Charles Dilke, surpassed “Cologne for smells, Benares for pests, Saratoga for gaming, Paris itself for vice.”180
The shelling caused considerable damage to life and property, especially in the smart consular area. But it was predictably “ineffective against forts,”181 as Jackie Fisher, whose battleship Inflexible blasted them with her 16-inch guns, should have remembered at the time of the Dardanelles. It also failed to quell Arabi. Britain’s representatives in Cairo told London that he and his party were “a set of fanatical incendiaries who would burn down the Stock Exchange if they could get the chance, and who had already succeeded in lowering the price of securities.”182 Aggressive imperialists in Gladstone’s cabinet heard that Egypt was sliding into anarchy, which would harm British creditors and investors. Among them were the newly jingoistic Joseph Chamberlain and the Whig magnate Lord Hartington, whose vigour was all the more impressive since he had raised somnolence to a political art, yawning during his maiden speech and later dreaming that he was addressing his peers, only to wake up and find that it was true. Already demanding coercion in Ireland, “Harty-Tarty” and his allies insisted that Britain should fill the vacuum left by ailing Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. In Egypt it should restore political stability, impose financial probity and secure the Suez Canal. So Gladstone, like others before and since, went to war in the name of peace.
General Sir Garnet Wolseley was sent to Egypt with a force of forty thousand men. He arrived wearing a blue tunic, brown boots, gauntlets, a solar topee and large smoked goggles, an outfit that did not prevent his nose blossoming, in a climate “hotter than the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar,”183 into “a sort of half fungus, half cauliflower.” Nothing daunted, he promised his wife to obtain for their daughter the tip of Arabi’s nose. He added that “Caesar has great confidence in his future.”184 Although some of his officers thought him a self-promoting “snob,”185his confidence was justified. Combining guile, audacity and speed, Wolseley conducted a brilliant series of manoeuvres. They culminated, on 13 September 1882, in a hazardous night march across the desert to Arabi’s fortified position at Tel-el-Kebir. That nearly went wrong because of the unexpected appearance of the Great Comet, which one staff officer, William Butler, described as “a flaming broom sent to sweep the stars out from the threshold of the sun.”186 Despite this false dawn Wolseley surprised and routed Arabi’s raw militia. Many of the wounded were shot on the battlefield and British troops quickly occupied Cairo. As their commander observed smugly, it was the tidiest little war ever fought by a British army.
However, its outcome, many Britons feared, would be an infernal muddle. For as Lord Randolph Churchill said (in a speech that his grandson would gleefully reprint with reference to Anthony Eden after the 1956 Suez invasion), the British people had been systematically deceived into thinking that Arabi had led a military rebellion. Yet it was clear that “he was the leader of a nation, the exponent of a nation’s woes, and that the military rebellion was the desperate struggle of a race.”187 Egyptian nationalism could not be frustrated for long. Although Arabi was only exiled (Gladstone wanted him executed after a fair trial), he would “live for centuries in the people; they will never be ‘your obedient servants’ again.”188 So, at least, forecast General Charles Gordon, who elaborated his criticisms of imperialism in a characteristically shrewd and breathless letter to Sir Samuel Baker:
pity is it, that our Govt. always goes agst liberty of peoples…Agitators are fruits of existing seeds, does not Parnell represent Irish N[ationalist] feeling. These things are not chance they are the uprisings of peoples. This is my idea, and one sees the same thing here with the Basutos. They pretend only Musapha is resisting, whereas the whole nation is backing him up. Put your energetic mind and pluck into an Agyptian’s body, would you have been content to be quiet, no, you would have been far more bitter than Arabi, and you know it. What right have we to make ourselves guardians of Egypt with our pauper office seekers 397000 to year salaries. The people do not want us.189
Baker disagreed but General Sir William Butler, as Wolseley’s staff officer became, shared Gordon’s radical views. According to Butler, the heavens had warned against hubris at Tel-el-Kebir. He saw the comet as a sinister portent of future British miscalculations and fatal conflicts in the shadow of the pyramids, for Egypt “has ever played a strange part in the destiny of empires.”190
Gladstone wanted to let the Egyptians go, but he let the British stay. Caught on the horns of the liberal dilemma, he was keen to confer independence on the land of the Nile while at the same time affording it a stable, honest and friendly government. But as Sir Evelyn Baring pointed out, withdrawal and reform were mutually exclusive. So in 1883 Baring himself was appointed Consul-General and British Agent in Egypt. Gladstone reiterated that the British occupation was temporary, believing with sublime faith exactly what he wanted to believe. The Grand Old Man could persuade most men of most things, said his colleague W. E. Forster, but he could persuade himself of anything. Others noticed his marvellous ability to improvise convictions, to play fast and loose with his intellect. Like Cardinal Newman, wrote the contemporary historian William Lecky, Gladstone was “an honest man with a dishonest mind.”191 Yet the Prime Minister faced genuine difficulties in extricating Britain from Egypt, which were compounded by the difficulties of extricating Egypt from the Sudan.
Even its inhabitants regarded this vast, parched wasteland of scrub, sand, shale and stone as a cosmic sick joke for, according to the Arab proverb, “When God made the Sudan he laughed.” But Egypt, which had conquered this territory in the 1820s, valued it as a source of prestige, water and slaves. Paradoxically the Khedive Ismail appointed both Samuel Baker and Charles Gordon Governors during the 1870s to root out the slave trade. But Ismail thereby aimed only to win international respectability and, being himself a huge slave-owner, he did little to assist their efforts. These were the stuff of legend. Baker’s rule resembled “a prolonged Balaclava charge. It was magnificent, but it could hardly be called government.”192 Gordon characteristically bit the hand that fed him. “I am at war with nearly every one in Cairo,” he wrote, “and my crest is the thistle.”193However, Gordon showed all the brilliance as a leader of irregular forces that had won him distinction during the Taiping rebellion in China, where the government’s “Ever Victorious Army” had been an oft-defeated rabble until he took command. In the Sahara he would appear like a mirage after prodigious camel rides, a small, umbrella’d figure dressed in a gold-braided marshal’s uniform, his red fez contrasting with the “steel-like”194 blue of his piercing, hypnotic, colour-blind eyes. “I shoot and do not hang,” he wrote, “it is shorter work.”195 But Gordon could no more eradicate the slave trade than satisfy his appetite for oysters in the desert, or quench his thirst by pouring the Nile down his throat, or cure his fever with Werburgh’s tincture, despite its capacity to “make a sack of sawdust sweat.”196 Indeed, he brought further turmoil to a region that had never really been subdued. One English visitor said that control of the Sudan “must be measured by the length of Charlie Gordon’s sword.”197
When he sheathed it Egyptian oppression increased and in 1881 a self-proclaimed messiah known as the Mahdi arose to lead a holy war against the infidels and foreigners who plagued his land. Gordon felt some sympathy for the rebels since, as he said, no people could like being governed by aliens in race or religion. Gladstone agreed, declaring that the Sudanese were “struggling rightly to be free.”198 So when the Mahdi’s Dervishes wiped out an Egyptian army led by General Hicks in 1883, the GOM decided that Egypt must abandon the Sudan. No one seemed better qualified to withdraw the garrison, despite his cranky reputation, than General Gordon. His appointment was noisily puffed by W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who was as eccentric as Gordon himself. Admittedly Stead took an interest in virgin girls (an interest so keen that he was nicknamed “Bed-Stead” and said to sweat sperm) whereas Gordon, though evidently chaste, was fond of urchin boys, whom he washed in the horse trough at Gravesend. But the two men shared many theological preoccupations—about the exact site of the Garden of Eden, for example, which the general had finally located in the Seychelles because of the striking similarity between the ripe fruit of its giant palms and Eve’s pudenda and the no less singular resemblance between the breadfruit and Adam’s sexual organ. The Pall Mall Gazette’s support for Gordon may have been crucial. Certainly Stead was one of the first journalists to appreciate the circulation-building possibilities of imperial campaigns and he himself claimed, with his usual modesty, to be “running the Empire.”199 But he could hardly have been more wrong about Gordon, whose wild telegrams soon convinced ministers and officials in London that he was “quite mad,”200 a “Christian lunatic.”201 In Cairo Sir Evelyn Baring, his official superior, arrived at the same conclusion, saying that “a man who habitually consults the Prophet Isaiah when he is in a difficulty is not apt to obey the orders of any one.”202 Far from obeying orders, especially the hurried and imprecise orders he had been given, Gordon resolved to defend Khartoum and smash the Mahdi. He thus helped to ensure that Britain remained in Egypt for seventy years.
With comical insouciance Gordon acknowledged that he was inconsistent and insubordinate: “I know that if I was chief, I would never employ myself, for I am incorrigible.”203 Nevertheless he was hailed in Khartoum as the “Saviour of the Sudan”204 and feasted on turkey and Bass’s Pale Ale. Having made a bonfire of tax records and instruments of torture, he proceeded to fortify the fifty-thousand-strong town, a warren of mud-brick huts clinging to the “elephant’s trunk,” the spit of land between the White and Blue Niles. Even Lytton Strachey’s caricature of the general as a God-intoxicated charlatan with Bible in one hand and brandy bottle in the other cannot obscure his courageous and chivalric character—Wolseley said that he himself was “not worthy to pipe-clay Gordon’s belt.”205 As the Dervish grip tightened around the city, Gordon drew on all his resources. He mounted aggressive sorties. He turned his steamers into warships, which got pock-marked with bullets and stank like badgers. He printed his own currency. He encouraged deserters by giving them a dollar each and showing them their “black pug faces” in a mirror. He inspired defenders with a charismatic gaze, a voice said to be as vibrant as a golden Burmese bell, and a personality that seemed to glow with the beauty of holiness. Gordon matched the Mahdi in claiming divine support for his cause—the Christian general said that he was just the chisel in the hands of the Carpenter. He also invoked secular support by cultivating the press. Frank Power, The Times’s correspondent in Khartoum, sent home telegrams which fired the public imagination and helped to make imperialism his newspaper’s dominant theme for half a century.
By the spring of 1884 the government faced mounting pressure to assist Gordon, much to the exasperation of Gladstone. He believed that the mutinous man on the spot, a genie out of his jar, was trying to force Britain to annex the Sudan. The Prime Minister resisted, employing his unrivalled powers of procrastination and equivocation. He argued that Gordon was not so much surrounded as hemmed in. The general’s admirers held mass meetings, offered prayers, raised funds and even proposed to send out a private army of big-game hunters, financed by Baroness Burdett-Coutts. They also hissed the GOM in the streets and sent him white feathers on cards, known as “Gladstone primroses.” According to a pamphlet entitled The History of the Decline and Fall of the British Empire, purportedly written by Edwarda Gibbon from Auckland in 1984, Gladstone’s “fatal supineness” began “the decay of what was once the cream of nations.” (Other causes of rot were Indian revolt, European aggression, America’s liberation of Ireland, temperance, spiritualism, the Salvation Army, the abolition of military flogging, the exhaustion of the coal mines and an Ice Age caused by a shift in the Gulf Stream. So the Empire’s ancient centre became a haunt of polar bears while the new Gibbon was inspired to pen his elegy by contemplating the ruins of St. Paul’s and “a broken arch of London Bridge.”)206 Eventually, to return from futuristic fantasy, Queen Victoria and Lord Hartington remonstrated and the Prime Minister capitulated. He agreed to dispatch a “Gordon Relief Expedition” led, inevitably, by Wolseley. Its blue-eyed beneficiary, scanning the desert through the £5 telescope he had set up on the roof of his palace in Khartoum, rejected the name. The purpose of this force was not to relieve him but to “SAVE OUR NATIONAL HONOUR.”207
This echoed popular sentiment at home and the Sudan campaign became one of the epics of empire, all the more poignant for ending in tragedy. As usual Wolseley’s preparations were meticulous, but circumstances conspired to thwart him. The eight hundred open boats called “whalers,” which had been built to transport his fifteen thousand troops up the Nile, proved sturdy and manoeuvrable in the hands of the Canadian voyageurs and West African Krumen who were recruited to skipper them. But their advance from Assiout was delayed because the stout, “fizz”-drinking, lobster-pink Chief of Staff, General Sir Redvers Buller, had failed to order enough coal for Thomas Cook’s steamers, which towed them up river. The cataracts also proved a serious obstacle, though the whalers were light enough to be portaged round the worst of them. Sometimes the boats carried the expedition, it was said, and sometimes the expedition carried the boats. Wolseley established a tented base at Wadi Halfa, known to the soldiers as “Bloody Halfway.”
Soldiers, sailors, black men and yellow men, horses, camels, steam-engines, heads of departments, piles of food and forage, newspaper correspondents, sick men, Arabs and generals, seemed to be all thrown together, as though the goods station of a London terminus, a couple of battalions of infantry, the War Office, and a considerable portion of Woolwich Arsenal had been all thoroughly shaken together, and then cast forth upon the desert.208
It was so hot and the insects were such a torment that Wolseley thought Wadi Halfa a foretaste of Hades.
As soon as possible he drove forward his spearhead of “camelry.” It seemed an impressive array, the men in white helmets, red serge jumpers, ochre breeches and blue puttees. But English soldiers, while regarding the horse as a gentleman, thought the camel a boor—the “Devil’s Steed.”209Moreover, the camels, morose and refractory, emitting strange groans and ghastly smells, proved to be anything but indestructible ships of the desert. Their riders seemed to take that metaphor at face value. They treated these beasts as engines and used oakum to caulk the fist-sized, maggot-filled holes made in their flesh by ill-fitting saddles. Many camels died. Dervish sharpshooters and skirmishers also held up Wolseley’s vanguard as it trudged across the desert south of Korti to avoid a huge loop in the Nile. The bloodiest attack occurred at Abu Klea where a mass of Dervishes charged into the British square, killing nine officers and sixty-five men before being repulsed. Kipling toasted their courage in his inimitable fashion, at once admiring and condescending:
So ’ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ’ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ’eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
An ’ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ’ayrick ’ead of ’air—
You big black boundin’ beggar—for you broke a British square!210
As a result of the setbacks Wolseley’s men did not reach Khartoum until 28 January 1885, two days after the Mahdi’s forces had overwhelmed its famished garrison and killed Gordon.
How he met his end has never been definitely established, though it seems probable that he went down fighting. Victorians preferred to visualise him as the peerless hero in a scarlet tunic, staring with sublime disdain at his savage foes just before they hacked him to pieces, as pictured in George Joy’s celebrated icon. Although the tragic news did not cause him to postpone a planned fancy dress ball, Sir Evelyn Baring expressed the view of his countrymen: “No Christian martyr tied to the stake or thrown to the beasts of Ancient Rome, ever faced death with more unconcern than General Gordon.”211 Britain gave way to mob grief, a jingoism of lamentation instead of jubilation. It was expressed in tributes, threnodies, memorials, statues, books, poems dedicated to the warrior of God whose life was England’s glory and whose death was England’s pride. From Queen Victoria downwards, people blamed Gladstone for a disastrous blow to the prestige of the Empire that would echo down the years. The GOM became the MOG, the Murderer of Gordon. In his journal Wolseley wrote that the Prime Minister could not, “self-illusionist though he be, disguise from himself the fact that he is directly responsible for the fall of Khartoum & all the bloodshed it entails.”212 Wolseley turned his bust of the MOG to the wall and taught his dog to growl at the name of Gladstone.
The Queen herself snapped at the Prime Minister, who seemed bound to avenge Gordon’s death. However, what he took to be a providential Russian incursion into Afghanistan gave Gladstone the excuse he wanted to withdraw from the Sudan. Eventually Gordon’s blood did become the seed of its reconquest. Meanwhile, the legend of his sacrifice was woven into the imperial tapestry in threads of scarlet and gold. His spirit quickened the martial mood of late Victorian Britain. And ironically, his old enemy Sir Evelyn Baring, the tall, impassive, moustached Consul-General, became one of the beneficiaries of Gordon’s imperialist legacy. For Baring, formerly something of a rake and a liberal, managed to ensure that Egypt was slowly and deviously incorporated into the Empire. His dialectical shifts were worthy of Gladstone. According to one estimate, Britain made sixty-six official declarations of intent to quit Egypt in the four decades after 1882, and no one repeated them with such ringing sincerity as the Consul-General. But his wish for withdrawal was as urgent as St. Augustine’s prayer for chastity. Somehow Baring’s arguments all came down on the side of long-term occupation.
First and foremost, Egypt had to be held against the Dervishes. Next, Baring maintained, British authority was “essential to the progress of orderly reform” in a land misgoverned for sixty centuries. Of course, he said, Egypt should be governed by the Egyptians—but for the insuperable difficulty of discovering who the Egyptians were. For their land was filled with a hotchpotch of Arabs, Copts, Bedouins, Turks, Syrians, Nubians, Circassians, Jews, Greeks, Maltese, Levantines “whose ethnological status defies diagnosis…[and] half-breeds of every description.”213 Baring also emphasised the strategic benefit of moving Britain’s centre of gravity in the Middle East from Constantinople to Cairo. Lord Salisbury, who superseded Gladstone as Prime Minister in 1885, might lament that a greedy Britain had tasted the Egyptian “fleshpots and will not let them go.” But Baring persuaded him to value the fleshpots. The financial and commercial advantages were huge. The capitalisation of the Cairo stock exchange rose from £7 million in 1890 to £100 million in 1901. Britain supplied nearly half Egypt’s imports and took four-fifths of its exports, notably cotton. The Suez Canal was becoming ever more important as an imperial lifeline. A cornucopia of goods flowed along it in British ships: wheat from the Punjab, cotton from the Deccan, jute from Bengal, indigo from Bihar, rice from Burma, tea from Assam and Ceylon, dates from Mesopotamia, tin from Malaya, hemp from the Philippines, sugar from Fiji and Java, frozen meat from Australasia. Egypt was anything but an “incubus.”214
So Baring established himself as master of what one of his officials, Alfred Milner, called a “veiled Protectorate.”215 Or as Kipling put it, “Here is a country which is not a country but a longish strip of market-garden, nominally in charge of a government which is not a government but the disconnected satrapy of a half-dead empire, controlled pecksniffingly by a Power which is not a Power but an Agency.”216 The Khedive remained a figurehead, theoretically subject to the Sultan of Turkey. But in practice he could not even leave Cairo without British permission and he was completely controlled by the “bearing-rein.”217 “Overbearing” and “Evelyn the First” were other nicknames given to the curt, aloof Consul-General, who lived in splendid state and regarded his subjects as naughty children steeped in mendacity. The Egyptian, he thought, was as intellectually remote from the European as “an inhabitant of Saturn.”218 Baring did not go so far as the future ambassador to Turkey, Sir Nicholas O’Conor, who told his wife that “semi-orientals certainly do not feel physically or mentally as we do—they are of a lower nervous organisation like fungi or fish.”219 But the Consul-General was quite clear that the people of the Nile must long remain in a state of inferiority. British heads could direct Egyptian hands to good effect though, and British hands could impose a necessary discipline. Baring’s attitude was less that of a pharaoh than a Roman prefect. In the words of a subordinate, he
was permeated by the heroic spirit of antiquity; its frankly avowed thirst for fame; its neglect of the insignificant; its belief in strength and power; its admiration for achievement; its contempt for weakness, whether in individuals or nations. Essentially Roman in his conception of things, [his] attitude in a crisis was certainly inspired by what he believed appropriate to a Proconsul.
Baring was “Roman even in recreation,”220 taking exercise for precisely two hours a day to obtain a healthy mind in a healthy body.
The rest of the time he exercised power behind the throne, like the British Resident in an Indian princely state. It was important, wrote Lord Salisbury, that “Baring’s position as ‘maire du palais’” should not be “too plainly revealed.”221 So he did not give commands but advice, which had to be taken. He governed by subterfuge, though his annual reports, said Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, were couched in the style of the first chapter of Genesis. The disguised autocracy had disadvantages. It fostered cynicism and alienation in the land of the Nile, where no political charade could conceal the impotence of khedives, beys, pashas, mudirs, sheikhs, omdas, effendis and bimbashis, let alone win the allegiance of five million fellaheen. To British critics, moreover, this Egyptian mummery typified the humbug at the heart of empire. Imperialism was a crime, said the economist J. A. Hobson, that dare not speak its name. It employed instead what Ruskin had called “masked words” such as “rectification of frontier” and “emissary of civilisation.” Worse than false, said Hobson, this kind of cant was what Plato had termed “the lie in the soul”—the lie that does not know it’s a lie.222 Deep-dyed hypocrisy was the prime target of Eminent Victorians and in the book’s final essay Lytton Strachey exploited the flaws in Gordon’s character to undermine both the era and the Empire. He concluded with a satirical swipe at Britain’s victory over the Mahdi’s successor at Omdurman in 1898, which conferred further benefits on the casuistical Consul-General: “it had all ended very happily—in a glorious slaughter of twenty thousand Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire, and a step in the Peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring.”223
Lord Cromer, to give him his new title, ruled in Egypt until 1907, becoming ever more haughty and gouty. His central endeavour was to modernise a land where, said Kipling, “time had stood still since the Ptolemies.”224 Cromer conceded that reform on European lines could only go so far, since it was impossible to make “a Western silk purse out of an Eastern sow’s ear.”225 Still, he increased prosperity, lowered taxes, improved the administrative and judicial systems, and lifted the tyranny of the kourbash and the corvée. He also claimed to have stiffened “the invertebrate ranks of the fellaheen soldiery”226 with English officers and sergeants, who miraculously (to quote Kipling again) “drilled a black man white and made a mummy fight.”227 However, the Consul-General’s achievement was patchy. He prided himself on the vast irrigation works which nearly doubled the crop area during his period of power. But they added to the workload of the fellaheen, saturated and exhausted the soil and spread waterborne plagues in Egypt such as malaria and bilharzia. As Cromer uneasily acknowledged, they also made “scandalous profits”228 for alien financiers such as Sir Ernest Cassel (whose closest business associate happened to be Lord Revelstoke, Cromer’s brother). The Consul-General made a show of improving Egyptian education. But English teachers were not employed if they spoke a word of Arabic and they were correspondingly unsympathetic to their charges. The Egyptian schoolboy was deemed “parrot-like in his unintelligence, incorrigible in his inaccuracy, hopelessly fatuous in his dishonesty.” In adolescence he would be claimed by “cafés and hashish and mistresses.”229 In adulthood he would become an Arab babu, useful as a clerk, dangerous as a nationalist, to be kept down at all costs. The “Egyptian has no mind,” said a typical Briton: “no coloured man imitates the collars of Englishmen so accurately; but in intellectual capacity…he is not a white man.”230 Fundamentally, Cromer’s paternalism was at odds with Egyptian nationalism. This emerged most clearly in 1906, when a number of people from the village of Denshawai were savagely punished for taking part in a fatal affray with British officers. Their sentences were condemned in Britain as well as Egypt, particularly as Cromer received the Order of Merit on the very day when four of the villagers were hanged. It was an Egyptian version of the Eyre controversy. Blunt claimed that the episode did “more towards shaking the British Empire in the East than anything that has happened for years.”231
Still, as early as 1889 Egypt was said to be modernising so fast that “a telephone line runs almost to the ear of the Sphinx.” One sign of progress was the boom in tourism, fostered by Thomas Cook, “Booking Clerk to the Empire,” whose travel agency was the largest British business in Egypt. Previously visitors had endured hotels full of fleas and cockroaches, and Nile boats swarming with rats and scorpions. Now they could enjoy lavish caravanserais, notably Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, which had lifts, electric lights and a sumptuous décor described as “Eighteenth Dynasty Edwardian.” Cook’s steamers, a miniature British fleet ruling the muddy waters of the Nile, were so luxurious that they “eclipsed Cleopatra’s barge of burnished gold.”232 There were even respectable brothels—those near Shepheard’s were owned by the Coptic Patriarch. By 1891, an Englishman remarked, Cairo resembled an English town which had retained oriental sights “much as the proprietor of a country place keeps a game preserve or a deer park for his own amusement.”233 But the picturesque had its limits. Certainly visitors were entranced by minarets and mosques, their domes rising like “great gilt and turquoise bubbles” above the palm trees and the house tops. They were charmed by Moorish arches and lattices, by carpet bazaars and spice markets, by street scenes filled with the “dramatis personae of the Arabian Nights.”234 They were dazzled by the abundant natural life and the kaleido-scope of colours in the Nile Valley.
However, Europeans were also horrified by the squalor and confusion that reigned in Egypt. They were assailed by touts, pimps and deformed beggars whining for baksheesh. They saw tattooed harlots and bastinadoed slaves, emaciated dogs and maltreated donkeys, garbage-strewn slums and fly-blown souks. They witnessed indigo Bedouin and blue-shirted fellaheen “living in filth and poverty unmatched even in India and China.”235 Still more shocking was the contrast between contemporary decadence and the stupendous relics of the first great civilisation. Living in the shadow of the Romantics, Victorians were awed by the Ozymandian ruins of Memphis and Thebes, by the majesty of the pyramids of Gizeh and the splendour of the temples of Luxor. Once “Mother of the World,”236 Cairo now had an ashen look, seeming “to have been buried in lava, and like Pompeii to have just been brought to light.”237 In the opinion of one traveller, Amelia Edwards, the Hall of Pillars at Karnak, known to the ancients as the forest of eternity, was “the noblest architectural work ever designed and executed by human hand.”238 Yet the Egyptians, who had once summoned giants from solid rock, were now “a nation of slaves.” Florence Nightingale thought it “good for British pride” to compare the titanic past with the present degradation and she wondered if England would “turn into Picts again…as Egypt has turned into Arabs.”239 Perhaps some violation of natural or divine law would cause this fall. At any rate, Egypt provided a memento mori of imperial greatness as sublime as the wreckage of classical Rome. It afforded an image of transient glory as brilliant as the opalescent sunsets over the Nile.
Cromer did not like to contemplate the decadence of Britain but he acknowledged that it could not govern Egypt indefinitely. For no benefits that he or his successors might confer on the inhabitants could stop the man in the turban or the tarboosh craving the departure of the man in the topee or the top hat. Cromer concluded the two-volume apologia for his stewardship, Modern Egypt (1908), by citing the experience of the Roman Emperor Theodosius, who found that “not even the wisest and most humane of princes, if he be alien in race, in customs, and religion, can ever win the hearts of the people.”240 He repeated the point in a book comparing the Roman and British empires, alike especially in being unsettled by expansionist proconsuls and native auxiliaries while searching for “defensible frontiers.”241 True, Cromer insisted that Britain should retain India for the foreseeable future since only the Raj gave unity amid religious, racial and linguistic diversity. But, he said, the slipshod Anglo-Saxon was always striving for two imperial ideals that were mutually destructive, “the ideal of good government, which connotes the continuance of his own supremacy, and the ideal of self-government, which connotes the whole or partial abdication of his supreme position.”242 In the long run this contradiction could hardly bode well for the Empire. Meanwhile, Gladstone’s acquisition of Egypt, which mortified France and offended Germany, helped to precipitate an international scramble for other African territories. John Bull would get the lion’s share. But the very fact that European rivals could mount a challenge in Africa indicated that Britain’s imperial ascendancy was under threat.