A Magnificent Empire Under the British Flag

Cape to Cairo

Since the time of the American and French revolutions, when the Royal Navy came to dominate the oceans of the world, Britain had seen the Cape of Good Hope as the barbican of Africa. The blue granite walls of Table Mountain, first rampart of the great escarpment which rises in giant steps towards the arid veldt of the Karoo and the snowy crests of the Drakensberg, guarded the sea route to India, Australasia and the Far East. Seized from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars, the Cape was retained in 1815 as a strategic and commercial stronghold. To secure it Lord Liverpool’s government assisted the emigration of five thousand settlers in 1820. Disembarking on the sands of Algoa Bay, with their tents, tools and boxes, they were a motley group, some elegant gentlefolk, more respectable farmers and tradesmen, most pale-faced artisans, weather-beaten labourers and ragged paupers plucked from the workhouse. Here was the nucleus of another British colony, though its development remained problematic. This was not just because Africans greatly outnumbered Britons, but because the new arrivals made up only an eighth of South Africa’s European population.

The rest were Boers (farmers), descendants of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Dutch pioneers. They had gradually pushed eastwards along the green coastal plain. They fought for possession of the land, demoralised the Hottentots (Khoikhoi) with brandy and smallpox, killed the Bushmen (San) like snakes, hunted the abundant game, and established tiny settlements and scattered homesteads. Many of the Afrikaners were nomads—“trekboers”—Calvinist patriarchs who packed their families into ox wagons and followed their flocks and herds. They relied on their rifles and Bibles, ate biltong (jerked venison) and bokkems (salted fish), made their own clothes from the pelts of animals and were self-sufficient in almost everything except ammunition. In fact their way of life differed little from that of the Hottentots, who existed in symbiosis with their cattle and anointed themselves with their fat and guts. The Boers greased their bodies to ward off fleas and covered their floors with cow dung to discourage other vermin. They slept communally under buckskin karosses, like Africans in their kraals. And the men made free with “slave and Hottentot women.” Thus the Boers created a new coloured race (one group adopting the name Baastards) while insisting on the purity and superiority of their own. They were correspondingly cruel. The first British reform was to abolish torture and breaking on the wheel. As the new rulers would find, however, the most recalcitrant community on the continent was the white tribe of South Africa.

The British also believed in white supremacy, but not on terms that would satisfy Afrikanerdom. They permitted an influx of missionaries and promoted humanitarian ideals. They rejected Dutch criminal law, made English the official language and gave limited rights to Africans. Finally, in 1833, the Empire emancipated its slaves, of whom there were nearly forty thousand in the Cape, paying compensation only in London. This attack on what Boers deemed the natural order prompted thousands of them to migrate across the Orange River, an odyssey later dramatised as the Great Trek. The Voortrekkers naturally asserted that theirs was a march to win freedom not to maintain bondage. Indeed, by casting off the British yoke they claimed to be acting “under a divine impulse.”1 The Great Trek was the exodus of a new chosen people in search of the Promised Land. It thus became enshrined at the heart of Boer mythology. Here was a faith powerful enough to bind together the impoverished, straggling, quarrelsome Voortrekkers on their prolonged venture into the interior, a journey in time whereby they sought to make their future in the past. They were also united against the Bantu, waves of whom had been rolling southwards for generations. The Boers damned them as Kaffirs (the Arab name for infidels) and smote them like Amalekites. No Bantu were more redoubtable than the Zulus, forged into a mighty war machine by their most ferocious ruler Shaka, who had drilled his barefoot warriors on a carpet of three-pronged devil-thorns, executing anyone who flinched.

Yet the Boer advance was remorseless, as a British officer later wrote:

One thing is clear, that the white man wanted the black man’s land—that he got leave from the black to graze his cattle in the first instance, then came over and put up a shanty, then a house. Then more Boers came, and so on, until, as the Zulus told us, the Boers were like a toad that comes hopping and hopping until it hops right into the middle of the house.2

In the lush grasslands of Natal massacres occurred on both sides. But Zulus armed with stabbing assegais and protected by ox-hide shields could make little impression on circles of lashed ox wagons defended by Boer rifles. Thousands fell before these laagers, their black bodies “heaped like pumpkins on rich soil.”3 Anxious to keep the peace and to land-lock the Boers, Britain annexed Natal in 1843. The British expanded to the Vaal and the Tugela, while the Boers retreated across the Drakensberg. There they seemed to pose no threat (except to their black neighbours, whose children they kidnapped and enslaved as “apprentices”)4 and conventions were signed giving them the right to run their own affairs in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The Cape itself acquired an elected assembly in 1853, voters being qualified by cash not race. And the British concentrated on engorging and exploiting what they had got. None suffered more from this policy than the Xhosa people in what had become British Kaffraria, north-east of the Great Fish River. Having seen their independence lost, their culture subverted and their labour extorted, they succumbed to a millenarian cult preached by their own soothsayers. In 1856–7, expecting to achieve national salvation through a stupendous sacrifice, they killed their cattle. Following this unexampled hecatomb, “an act of consummate despair,”5 tens of thousands of Xhosas starved to death.

Native disarray seemed to be matched by Boer backwardness but British ministers concluded that South Africa should develop along the lines of Canada rather than India. In other words, it should not be a martial raj with a white garrison under orders from London but a “confederate and self-governed…dominion.” The Boers would inevitably dominate it, wrote J. A. Froude, an emissary of Disraeli’s Colonial Secretary Lord Carnarvon, as they dominated the Cape parliament. But, he reckoned, these shaggy farmers who had grown over two centuries “into the dimensions of Patagonians” would choose to remain under the British flag. There was just one condition, he concluded. They must be allowed “to extend to the whole country the more severe system [of native management] which they find to succeed excellently in the Orange Free State.”6 Sacrificing black interests for the sake of white unity had a perennial appeal. But British liberals opposed the attempt to “improve [Africans] off the face of the earth.”7 And Boer conservatives resented British incursions. They were particularly bitter about the loss of the diamond-rich blue ground around Kimberley, to which the Orange Free State had a fair claim. More galling still was the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877, when it was too weak to resist British pressure. The Boer republic was on the brink of bankruptcy: it had 12s 6d in its exchequer and was obliged to pay its Postmaster General in stamps. Moreover the Transvaal was beleaguered by hostile Bantu.

So Sir Theophilus Shepstone, Natal’s minister for native affairs, marched into Pretoria, a raw frontier dorp enclosed by ancient rocky hills and new forests of eucalyptus and oleander, at the head of twenty-five blue-uniformed, spike-helmeted Natal Mounted Police. And on Queen Victoria’s birthday, 24 May, the youngest member of Shepstone’s staff, Rider Haggard, raised the Union Jack over the Transvaal for the first time. In the market square, where cattle grazed under the oak trees and cricket was played between the thatched church and the thatched parliament (Volksraad), Boers looked on sullenly. But they needed British protection, especially against the Zulus, whom Haggard dubbed “the Romans of Africa.”8 The new British High Commissioner in Cape Town, Sir Bartle Frere, was determined to protect them into subservience. The Boers, he informed Queen Victoria, were a “most interesting and very primitive people” who could be made “as loyal subjects to Your Majesty as the French Canadians.”9 It was an apt but inept comparison, since both communities fiercely resisted assimilation. Frere’s policy, moreover, contained a fundamental flaw. Shepstone had gained Afrikaner acquiescence, but not allegiance, because the republic was in danger. Once Frere had kept his promise to give the Transvaal secure frontiers, the Boers would have no reason to remain under the Crown.

Frere made another miscalculation, imposing his own policy rather than that of his political masters, which would bring his illustrious public life to an inglorious conclusion. Able, energetic, cultured and punctilious to the tips of his exquisitely groomed moustache, he had distinguished himself in India. He had acquired several languages (learning en route to the subcontinent enough Arabic “to scold his way across Egypt”)10 and taken a sternly paternalistic line in “dealing with barbarous folk.”11 As Governor of Bombay he had also gained a sublime faith in his own judgement. At the Cape he bubbled with self-confidence, expelling an uncooperative ministry and earning Wolseley’s nickname “Sir Bottle Beer.” Actually Wolseley had mixed feelings about Frere, reckoning that he had “marked out for himself a great career of conquest to end in a magnificent African empire under the British flag…I have a great admiration for Frere, who under an oily, Peck-sniff, almost old womanly manner and appearance has the heart of a man.”12 At any rate the new High Commissioner was bold enough to ignore the new Colonial Secretary, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, who told him in November 1878 that “we are most anxious not to have a Zulu war on our hands just now.”13 Frere insisted that King Cetewayo, Shaka’s nephew, was an “aggressive despot” and that the history of his reign was “written in characters of blood.”14

Without Beach’s knowledge or approval, the High Commissioner issued an ultimatum demanding Zulu disarmament. The irascible Colonial Secretary complained that he could not control Frere without a telegraph—the submarine cable only reached Cape Town in December 1879—and that he probably could not control him with one. So a British army set off from Pietermaritzburg, white-helmeted redcoats, straw-boatered blue-jackets and slouch-hatted colonials, as well as nine thousand African levies, about half the total force. Wheels creaked, sjamboks cracked and the band played “I’m Leaving Thee in Sorrow, Annie,” the tune that had sent Confederate troops off to fight in the American Civil War. General Lord Chelmsford’s array, which advanced in three long columns and a vast plume of dust, made pitifully slow progress. The Zulus, whose impis could move three times as fast as British infantry, nicknamed them “pack-oxen.”15 But it was the 27,000 four-legged oxen needed to pull his 2,500 supply wagons which really encumbered Chelmsford and he found it too time-consuming to form a laager each evening, as Boer leaders like Paul Kruger advised. The general, whom other senior officers thought unfit to be a corporal, believed in the invincibility of British firepower and worried only that the Zulus would avoid a pitched battle. He even divided his central column. With half his command he pursued detached war parties over the high plateau, a landscape of grass, bush and boulder, broken by kloofs (ravines) and kopjes (hills). The rest he left in an exposed camp beneath a sphinx-shaped crag called Isandhlwana.

Here, on 22 January 1879, twenty thousand warriors who had hidden throughout the cold, dewy night in a nearby valley with little to sustain them but snuff, which they carried in gourds attached to their pierced ear lobes, launched the main attack. Frere called Zulus “celibate man-destroying gladiators”16 but they were not animated by sexual deprivation, only by the impulse to defend their land, kraals and cattle. They swept forward, a dark wave breaking over the grey-green veldt. At a distance, said one trooper, the Zulu impi was “black as Hell and thick as grass.”17Soon details appeared. The Zulus were big men, bigger on average than their British foes. Depending on their rank and regiment, they wore red feathers or white ostrich plumes in headbands of otter or leopard skin, earflaps of green monkey skin, necklaces containing charms wrapped in snake-or lizard-skin pouches, white oxtails around their necks, wrists, knees and arms, fur kilts or tasselled capes. They loped forward hissing like so many mambas, drumming assegais against black or white shields, firing muskets wildly. Far more deadly were the volleys of the Martini-Henrys, their heavy, soft-nosed 45-calibre slugs “cutting roads”18 through the ranks of the charging throng. But the Zulus adopted their usual taurine tactic, bearing the brunt of punishment on the “chest” of their impi while flinging out two “horns” to envelop the enemy.

Within minutes they were able to exploit gaps in the British line and shortages of ammunition. The battle disintegrated into scattered hand-to-hand encounters, bayonets against iklwas—razor-sharp blades, so named in imitation of the sucking sound they made when pulled from human flesh. Some of Chelmsford’s men escaped. But in the growing darkness, caused by a partial eclipse of the sun, the Zulus “washed their spears” in the blood of more than seven hundred Europeans and nearly five hundred Africans, disembowelling their bodies to release spirits which would otherwise have haunted the killers. At least 1,500 Zulus also lost their lives, so theirs was a Pyrrhic victory. “An assegai has been thrust into the belly of the nation,” cried Cetewayo. “There are not enough tears to mourn the dead.”19 Chelmsford waxed less eloquent, though he was said to be “awfully cut up”20 by the defeat. Disraeli was prostrated, though he voiced reluctant admiration for the Zulus, who not only defeated British generals but converted British bishops—he referred to John Colenso of Natal, known as “Pen” because of the unorthodox views about the Pentateuch that he had adopted as a result of persistent Zulu questioning. Disraeli’s government publicly censured Frere, who was soon recalled, and British newspapers expressed horror at the worst disaster inflicted on a British army by “savages” since the retreat from Kabul. The Boers, however, took heart from Isandhlwana, inferring that Britain’s martial spirit was on the wane and that its Empire was in decline.

The British partially vindicated themselves at Rorke’s Drift, though the eleven Victoria Crosses won in its defence were awarded not just for valour but for propaganda. And after further setbacks, both sides murdering and pillaging freely, they brought more organised firepower to bear on the foe. In July 1879 the Zulus, whose peace overtures had been ignored, suffered a crushing defeat at Ulundi. Wolseley, who replaced Chelmsford, then divided Cetewayo’s realm into thirteen separate chiefdoms, nominally answerable to a British Resident, which led to civil strife and the disintegration of Zulu power. Cetewayo himself was imprisoned in Cape Town Castle, where he donned western clothes in place of his leopard skins and his necklace of lions’ claws—this Wolseley claimed as his prize, having the claws individually mounted and engraved and sent to influential ladies in Britain. Even in a grey flannel suit Cetewayo retained his “regal bearing”21 and he apparently sought to retain his royal prerogatives, offering fifty head of cattle for the attractive wife of the new High Commissioner, Sir Hercules Robinson. The offer was said to be “neither appropriate nor, probably, sufficient.”22 In due course Cetewayo visited England where he was feted by the public, received by Queen Victoria and welcomed by Mr. Gladstone, who invited him to stay in his house in Harley Street. By contrast, Paul Kruger, soon to be President of the Transvaal, had to put up at the Albermarle Hotel. Here, in his bushy whiskers and baggy trousers, his black hat and short Dopper (Baptist) jacket stinking of the pungent Magaliesberg tobacco from his Meerschaum pipe, he cut as incongruous a figure as the Zulu king.

Cetewayo won leave to return to Zululand (dying soon afterwards) whereas Kruger could not gain freedom for the Transvaal. Hicks Beach refused to give up anything on which the British Lion “had set his paw.”23 Gladstone, whose government was bitterly divided over other issues, notably the coercion of Ireland, went back on his word over the annexation he had so fiercely denounced. He was swayed by Wolseley’s warning that the Boers were incapable of self-government and that an independent Transvaal might collapse. This could “reverse the relative positions occupied by the white man and the native generally throughout Africa, a result that may prove fatal to British interests.” Wolseley tried to reconcile the Boers to their colonial fate, suppressing other Bantu and holding out the promise of a railway. But he was adamant about sovereignty. The Vaal would flow backwards, he declared, and the sun would cease to shine before the British flag was lowered. Frere had also said that the Union Jack would continue to fly over the land, to which the Boer leader Piet Joubert riposted: “Over the land possibly; over the people never.”24

So, convinced that they must resort to force, the Boers raised their own banner, the Vierkleur, which had a green vertical stripe nearest the pole and three horizontal stripes of red, white and blue. The first shots were fired in December 1880. The British expected a prompt victory, regarding the Boers as cowardly peasants, little better than savages. But the “nation of deerstalkers”25 was fighting for a cause, acknowledged Sir Robert Herbert, Under-Secretary for the Colonies, that “stimulates their ‘Dutch courage.’”26 And redcoats, obedient to “the dogmatic teachings of the barrack square,”27 where bayonet drill ranked higher than marksmanship, were no match for these “mountain devils.”28 Wolseley’s successor, General Sir George Colley, suffered two reverses in quick succession. In London the War Office plaintively asked how long the conflict would last, to which the Colonial Office wittily replied that it had not been endowed with the gift of second sight. Colley was confident that he could finish the Boers by occupying Majuba Hill, a volcanic peak (its name meant “hill of doves” in Zulu) overlooking their key position at Laing’s Nek. Once at the top, seeing the enemy fires twinkling below him, Colley exclaimed: “We could stay here for ever.”29 However, he had failed to bring up Gatlings or rockets and he did not order trenches to be dug on the rim of the saucer-shaped summit. The Boers resolved to attack. About 180 volunteers crept up the steep, scrubby, boulder-strewn slopes, making skilful use of the cover and directing a deadly fire at the defenders. Finally, they stormed the heights. They shot Colley in the forehead. They also killed, wounded or captured 284 of his 350-strong force (looting everything, right down to Colley’s shoes) at hardly any cost to themselves. Majuba was hailed as the Boer Bunker Hill.

It was more a skirmish than a battle, but it compounded Gladstone’s Irish and other travails, and he exclaimed in his diary: “Is it the Hand of Judgement?”30 Whatever the truth of that, the reverse persuaded him that he should have trusted his conciliatory instincts towards the Transvaal. Majuba had stimulated pan-Afrikaner nationalism and the Cape Dutch seemed ready to make common cause with their rough cousins in the north. So the GOM showed what the press called “Majubanimity.” Rejecting calls for revenge, enduring charges of surrender, swallowing pills of humiliation, Gladstone liberated the Transvaal. The Boers got partial independence at first and, in return for agreeing to stabilise their frontiers, complete Home Rule in 1884. But Britain, while leaving the Bantu at the mercy of the Boers, still claimed “suzerainty” over the Republic. This was a vague and contested term, implying that London retained control of Pretoria’s foreign affairs. Actually it was designed to conceal Britain’s loss of power and to obscure Gladstone’s acknowledgement that President Brand of the Orange Free State was right when he said, “You cannot rule a people with bayonets.”31 Indeed, the Boers would probably have been left to their own devices had not Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” suddenly changed his mind about colonies. Prince Bismarck had always maintained that they were an expensive luxury for poor Germany, “exactly like the silks and sables of the Polish nobleman who had no shirt to wear under them.”32 But now, for reasons of national prestige and economic protection, he decided to seek a place in the sun.

In 1884, taking advantage of the GOM’s Egyptian embarrassment, Bismarck established a protectorate over South-West Africa. At first the British were unperturbed. They wanted profitable markets not more costly territory and Bismarck was welcome to this “sterile sand hole.” If Germany became a colonising power, declared Gladstone, “all I can say is ‘God speed her.’”33 However, the German occupation gave the Transvaal a possible western outlet to the sea, through Bechuanaland. This barren region, embracing the Kalahari Desert, was also the “Missionaries’ Road”34north, once trodden by Livingstone, and “the Suez Canal” of the Cape, which wanted the freedom to expand towards the Zambesi. Already, wrote Gladstone’s secretary, the Transvaal Boers had been “boorish beyond measure,” supporting murderous frontier freebooters and “encroaching onto Bechuanaland.”35 So in 1885 Gladstone once again resorted to force. He won the support of his ablest minister “Radical Joe” Chamberlain, who was now becoming “Jingo Joe,” in part because he refused to be “cheeked”36 by Bismarck, let alone by Kruger. General Sir Charles Warren travelled north with a small force (its transport organised at considerable cost by some of the very frontier freebooters who were causing the trouble) and annexed Bechuanaland to the Crown. Its acquisition was a classic exercise in defensive and reluctant imperialism, extending Britain’s reach while straining its resources.

A year later the discovery at Witwatersrand of a gold reef so rich that it eclipsed even the diamond fields of Kimberley transformed the position of the Transvaal. Suddenly, from being a needy, rustic backwater, Kruger’s republic became El Dorado. Johannesburg sprang up like a mushroom on the bare plateau, where even anthills yielded yellow dust. Prospecting and speculating made this canvas and tin shantytown, scarred by excavations and latrine trenches, bloated with saloons and brothels, “the biggest gambling hell on earth.” But within ten years the focus for the greatest gold rush in history had become the largest city in South Africa—though until the arrival of the railway in 1892 every nail, plank and brick had to be hauled in by ox-wagon. By the end of the century over a quarter of the world’s gold was being dug from Johannesburg’s mines. The metal tilted the balance of power across half the continent, for by 1889 the Transvaal’s revenue, £1.5 million, was equal to the Cape’s. As a result, said one Cape politician, John X. Merriman, “The idea of a British Empire in South Africa is at an end, and that of the United States of South Africa, under the friendly protection and possibly in some undefined connection with Great Britain, takes its place.”37 Anything short of untrammelled independence was precisely what President Kruger could never accept. He used the Transvaal’s new wealth to build a railway through Portuguese East Africa to the sea, at Delagoa Bay, and to angle for German help to challenge British supremacy. However, Kruger’s position was undermined by the influx of foreigners, Uitlanders, many of them British. They were unruly and uncouth: the Times journalist Flora Shaw said that not one man in a dozen knew the difference between a violin and a vegetable. They were also multifarious, as the writer Olive Schreiner noted:

Your household servant may be a Kafir, your washer-woman is a Half-caste, your butcher is a Hungarian, your baker English, the man who soles your boots a German; you buy your vegetables and fruit from an Indian Coolie, your coals from the Chinaman round the corner, your grocer is a Russian Jew, your dearest friend an American.

The pick of the prostitutes, known as “continental women,”38 came from Paris and Chicago. The President regarded Johannesburg as the City of the Plain, evil in itself and wicked in its implications. He called the Uitlanders “assvoels” (vultures) and clipped their political wings to retain Boer control of the Republic. But he could not stop Britain from continuing to fence in the Transvaal. Moreover, he met his match in the champion of aggressive imperialism and the Colossus of the diamond fields, Cecil Rhodes.

Kruger compared himself to an ox and Rhodes to a racehorse, hoping that strength would vanquish speed. The President was indeed a powerful figure, gruff, ugly, stubborn and brutal. In youth he could lift a laden wagon on his shoulders and when much of his left thumb was blown off in a gun explosion and the stump became infected with gangrene he cut it off with a jackknife, drawing out the poison by plunging his hand into the stomach of a newly slaughtered goat. But Kruger belonged to the era of the Great Trek, which he had taken part in as a boy. As President he wore an archaic uniform—top hat, frock coat, green sash and throat whiskers. Although capable of bestial rages, he usually played the bucolic Nestor, uttering gobs of folk wisdom and spittle in equal measure. He clung to the Old Testament, once assuring the round-the-world sailor Joshua Slocum that the earth was flat. Rhodes, by contrast, wished to annex the planets if possible. Certainly he believed that “we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” He dreamed of bringing all its “uncivilised” territories, including Palestine, Japan, South America, and Africa from Cape to Cairo, under the Union Jack. He even envisaged recovering the United States and thus securing global peace “for all eternity.”39 At a time when the British were beginning to conjure with the special transatlantic relationship in order to compensate for their country’s relative decline, he was willing to have the Empire “annexed to the American Republic” if that would secure a “union of the English-speaking peoples.”40

In his view expansion abroad would avert revolution at home and, ever alive to Roman precedents, Rhodes read Gibbon rather than the Bible. Secretly he even paid impoverished scholars to translate all the original authorities which the historian had used, collecting them in two hundred morocco-bound volumes, with supplementary biographies of the Roman emperors. Rhodes believed that he himself resembled Titus physically, Hadrian intellectually. His favourite quotation was “Remember always that you are a Roman.”41 “Rhodes was more Roman than any Englishman had ever been,” said the writer Emil Ludwig, “a romanticist of distinction, a genius as a colonizer, an imperialist to the point of madness.”42 Relaxing in the shabby tweeds or flannels he liked to wear, Rhodes would sit in bright moonlight on the stoep of his low, white, gabled mansion, Groote Schuur (Great Granary), beneath the Devil’s Peak of Table Mountain, talking about the grandeur that was Rome. (The house even contained a huge neo-Roman bath hollowed out of a single block of granite, in which its owner took a cold plunge every day.) Whereas Kruger, whose republic rested on gold, was the prophet of Boer survival, Rhodes, who became king of diamonds, was the visionary of British expansion. Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West (1918), considered him a modern Caesar, “the first man of a new age.”43

Born in 1853, Cecil Rhodes was the son of the vicar of Bishop’s Stortford and he early proposed to found a secret society on Jesuit lines to promote Greater Britain. A tall, leonine figure with fair hair, blue eyes, cleft chin and weak lungs, he came to South Africa in search of health and found a fortune large enough to realise even his ambitions. In Rhodes’s view diamonds were merely crystallised power. Once back from belated studies at Oxford, which his first prospecting had paid for, he spent hours gazing into the stupendous open-cast mine at Kimberley. It was the largest man-made hole in the world, carved into an extinct volcano which had secreted a cornucopia of diamonds in its throat. Twelve acres in area at the top and descending several hundred feet, the pit contained thousands of naked Africans filling one-ton iron buckets with blue earth. These were pulled to the surface on wires crisscrossing the crater like the web of a “Titanic spider”44 or “the strings of some wonderful harp.”45 Offered a penny for his thoughts, Rhodes replied that he was calculating “the power that this blue ground would confer on the man who obtained control of it all.”46 Deploying his silver tongue, the spellbinding charm of his personality and every technique from cajolery to bribery, Rhodes consolidated rival companies into the virtual monopoly of De Beers. The last major entrepreneur to resist the amalgamation was Barney Barnato, a very rough diamond indeed—when, later, an aristocratic lady invited him to see her Watteau he assumed she was referring to part of her anatomy. But, after eighteen hours of Rhodes’s shrill wheedling, at four o’clock in the morning Barnato said: “You have a fancy for making an empire. Well, I suppose I must give in to you.”47 Two years later, in 1890, Rhodes claimed that the wealth of De Beers was “equal to a quarter of that of the whole of the Cape colony.”48 But he was only interested in imperial dividends and milked De Beers accordingly. This provoked anguished but ineffective protests from its capitalist backers, who wanted profit before power—contradicting the thesis of J. A. Hobson and others that finance was “the governor of the imperial engine.”49 Lord Rothschild himself, who said that the history of De Beers was “simply a fairy tale,” failed to prevent Rhodes from using the company to pay for “the dream of your life.”

Rothschild considered Rhodes “an adventurer”50 and there is no doubt that he was often ruthless, sometimes reckless. A sentimental cynic as soft as the Graces and as hard as Fate, Rhodes believed that the ends justified the means, that philanthropists deserved 5 per cent, and that every man had his price. As well as manipulating politicians, peers and Prime Ministers, he proposed to square the Mahdi over the Sudan and to “square the Pope”51 over Ireland. In his drive to occupy the land that would bear his name, it was even said that Rhodes would “find means of squaring the tsetse fly.”52 His first major deal as a Cape politician was with Jan Hofmeyr, farmers’ champion and leader of the Afrikaner Bond (League), who supported his imperial venture north of the Limpopo in return for Rhodes’s promotion of dear bread, cheap brandy and African helotry. In 1888 Rhodes paid in guns for mining concessions from King Lobengula, whose gout his confidential agent, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, treated with injections of morphine. When the Bishop of Bloemfontein protested about the devilry of arming the Matabele he was silenced by a contribution to his missions—Rhodes told a friend that the Bishop had repented. As a result of his tenuous, even bogus, agreement with Lobengula, Rhodes was able to secure a royal charter for his British South Africa Company (its board packed with venal functionaries and dim patricians) to exploit mineral resources north of the Transvaal. In 1890, playing up the prospect of gold discoveries that would beggar those of the Rand, he sent a Pioneer Column from Kimberley to Mashonaland. A mixed band ranging from peers to lumpenproletarians, it was seen off by General Methuen who told it to go to Siboutsi, though, he confessed nonchalantly, “I do not know whether Siboutsi is a man or a mountain.”53

Transported by 117 ox wagons, which carried searchlights and Maxim guns, the Pioneers inched over the veldt, through dense bush, past bloated baobab trees, across sandy river beds and up into the rocky Shona plateau. This was an invasion masquerading as a mining expedition. It was a private enterprise, soon to extend across the Zambesi, blessed by the British government, which hoped for power without responsibility or cost. Rhodes, who became Prime Minister of the Cape in 1890, now aimed to form a huge political confederation, a British union of South Africa stretching from the Cape to the Belgian Congo. He pushed so aggressively into Mozambique that the Foreign Office thought he proposed to make war on Portugal. He gave Jameson his head in Matabeleland and the doctor duly mowed down Lobengula’s impis in 1893—when the Company’s town rose on the site of his kraal at Bulawayo its hotel was named “The Maxim.”54

Kruger, who had refused even to join a customs union and who damned Rhodes as “one of the most unscrupulous characters that have ever existed,”55 remained the stumbling block. Rhodes, who had enclosed the Transvaal from the north, now determined to subvert it from within, using the Uitlanders as his Trojan horse. By 1895 they outnumbered the Boers (of whom there were fifteen thousand adult males) by about four to one and they paid nine-tenths of the Transvaal’s taxes, yet they were denied the vote. They had other grievances, too. For example, Kruger tried to draft them to fight in his war against the Bagananwa, who took refuge in caves which the Boers blew up with dynamite. This was not only an “extravagant waste”56 of state-controlled explosives needed in the gold mines but a threat to the Randlords’ labour supply. Rhodes had long believed that the “diggers will never endure a purely Boer Government.”57 So, spurred on by an “innate Caesarism,”58 he plotted an armed coup against Kruger’s regime. Acting with the secret connivance of the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, who had deserted Gladstone over his policy of giving Home Rule to Ireland and was now the staunchest empire-builder in Salisbury’s cabinet, Rhodes masterminded a fiasco so spectacular that it threatened to undermine the whole imperial enterprise.

Chamberlain himself warned that a “fiasco would be most disastrous.” But he urged Rhodes to “hurry up”59 (on account of Britain’s impending dispute with the United States over Venezuela) and trusted that “The Napoleon of South Africa”60 would live up to his popular title. In fact the conspiracy was worse than a crime, it was a series of blunders inspired by personal and imperial hubris. Rhodes kept changing his timetable: the insurrection was postponed because of Johannesburg race week and halfhearted efforts were made to call it off at the last minute. He let too many people into the secret: Sir Hercules Robinson “knew and did not want to be told” the London Times knew and urged Rhodes not to commence action on a Saturday since it did not appear on Sundays. The Colossus entrusted command of the invasion to Jameson, the rashest of the male cronies on whom he doted with an apparently chaste passion. The poker-playing “Dr. Jim,” who dismissed regular officers as machines evolved from an amalgam of red tape and sealing wax, was confident that he could defeat the Boers with a force of five hundred men armed with bull-whips. The arrangements he made in December 1895 reflected this boast. Jameson’s private army, consisting mainly of a “harum-scarum regiment”61 of grey-uniformed, smasher-hatted Mashonaland Mounted Police, was drunken, ill trained and badly equipped. The planned uprising of the Uitlanders in Johannesburg, as Rhodes said, “fizzled out like a damp squib.” Dr. Jim carried on regardless, although unfit for a long ride since he was suffering acutely from piles. After a brief, bloody clash twenty miles from Johannesburg, he surrendered to the Boers who had been tracking him nearly all the way from the Bechuanaland border. As one of Jameson’s men wrote, “we were simply caught like rats in a trap…and in a short time the whole of the gallant little band were marched off to Krugersdorp.”62

Kruger was not only gross but also slim—cunning. Before the Jameson Raid he had said, “You must give the tortoise time to put out its head before you can cut it off.”63 Now, content with the moral and political harvest of victory, he showed mercy to the insurgents. But Kruger’s magnanimity was nullified by the Kaiser’s impetuosity. Having just proclaimed Germany a world empire, its Emperor sent a telegram on 3 January 1896 congratulating Kruger on maintaining the Transvaal’s independence without calling on the aid of friendly powers. The British public reacted with an outburst of xenophobia and the government sent a naval squadron to Delagoa Bay, which encouraged Germany to build its battle fleet. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt deplored the furore: “The gangrene of colonial rowdyism is infecting us, and the habit of repressing liberty in weak nations is endangering our own.”64 But the press made Jameson a national paladin and he was greeted in London by a band playing “See the Conquering Hero Comes.” He was hymned not only by the artless Poet Laureate Alfred Austin but by Kipling, who apparently based If on Jameson’s character and called him “the noblest Roman of them all.”65 Briefly incarcerated in Holloway Prison, London, he also occupied a place of honour in the national pantheon at Madame Tussaud’s.

Rhodes, though forced to resign as Cape Prime Minister, escaped everything but censure. He was too powerful to gaol and, said Olive Schreiner, too big a man to go through the gates of hell. In fact, Rhodes was soon being hailed as “the Abraham Lincoln of South Africa.”66 “When he stands on the Cape,” wrote Mark Twain, “his shadow falls to the Zambesi.” He was “the only unroyal outsider whose arrival in London can compete for attention with an eclipse.”67 Such was the effervescence that Chamberlain, who repudiated Jameson and cursed “amateur belligerents,”68managed to cover up his own complicity in the affair. Rhodes helped, suppressing the cables which showed that the Colonial Secretary was in “up to his neck”69 in the conspiracy. Jameson “played the game loyally…and deceived the Committee”70 of Inquiry, which earned its famous nickname, the “Lying in State at Westminster.”71 Treachery compounded by hypocrisy outraged the Boers and helped to unify them against the British. Kruger said that they had punished the dogs and let the masters go free. He began importing arms on a large scale, among them thousands of Mauser rifles from Germany, which shared his hostility to Britain. In The World Crisis Winston Churchill dated the “growth of the great antagonisms abroad”72 to the Jameson Raid. This ignominious episode was a prelude to the Boer War and a foreshadowing of the Great War, the first damaging, the second almost fatal, to the British Empire.

The scramble for tropical Africa was also an expression of European rivalries. North and South Africa had their obvious value but the core of the continent hardly seemed to merit the cost of conquest—before 1914 its annual trade with Britain was worth only £14 million. As the British Foreign Secretary told the French ambassador in 1895, these vast areas were nothing more than “barren deserts or places where white men cannot live, dotted with thinly scattered tribes who cannot be made to work.”73 This was also the view of the Marquess of Salisbury, Prime Minister for most of the time between 1885 and 1902, who joked that Europeans were haggling over bits of central Africa which they could neither pronounce nor locate on the map. However, these remote regions were useful make-weights in the international balance of power. They sustained Britain’s political position at a time when its economic weakness was becoming palpable, helping to preserve an equilibrium from which John Bull was the chief beneficiary. Salisbury, who as Prime Minister added two and a half million square miles to the British Empire, saw the partition of Africa as a means of keeping the peace in Europe. And since no major war took place between 1870 and 1914, it is arguable that his policy succeeded, that national animosities were diverted into imperial channels, that European poisons drained away in the swamps, sands and jungles of tropical Africa.

On the other hand, colonies became such a focus of antagonism, especially after Britain’s occupation of Egypt, that they often increased European tensions. France sought revenge in the Sahara for the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, and tried to emulate its maritime neighbour by seizing Madagascar, “an Australia all of our own.”74 Germany, unable to expand any more at home but confronted and affronted by Britain everywhere abroad, acquired territory three times larger than the Reich—from the Cameroons to East Africa. Lesser powers tried to prove that they were greater by staking claims in the heart of the continent. Italy craved an African empire “in a spirit of imitation…for pure snobisme.75 King Leopold of the Belgians was equally keen to demonstrate his people’s virility and to enhance his country’s prestige: as early as 1861 he inscribed on a paperweight made of marble taken from the Parthenon the motto, “Il faut à la Belgique une colonie.” 76 The British themselves reacted sharply to the European challenge in Africa. In 1884 Salisbury observed that the public took no notice of imperial matters unless “some startling question appealing to their humanity arises.”77 But the following year excitement about Gordon and Africa had risen to fever pitch—it prompted Frederic Harrison to repudiate with his whole soul “the code of buccaneer patriotism.”78 And by 1890, in answer to alien advances, it was possible to talk of a “popular outcry for extending our Empire into Central Africa.”79 Flag-wagging and drum-beating so increased that by 1893 Gladstone could exclaim, “Jingoism is stronger than ever. It is no longer war fever, but earth hunger.”80 The national mood was erratic. It responded most fiercely to issues near at hand, such as Home Rule for Ireland. But it could also react to a small Cossack incursion at Buzai Gumbaz: although the Foreign Office had to cable India to ask where this was (in fact, just inside Afghanistan) the Foreign Secretary soon stated that Buzai Gumbaz was “the Gibraltar of the Hindu Kush.”81 People recognised that distant friction could spark a conflagration on their doorstep. And they were particularly fearful that “by sowing dragon’s teeth in Africa we may reap a most bloody crop of armed men in Europe.”82

Salisbury tried to avert that catastrophe by hard-headed calculations about where Britain’s true interests lay. Although he was as keen a High Churchman as Gladstone, Salisbury had none of the imperial idealism espoused by the GOM—initials that at Hatfield stood for “God’s Only Mistake.”83 A thick-skinned, short-sighted, cross-grained reactionary, known as “the Buffalo,” Salisbury was as cynical about high-minded justifications of empire as he was about all schemes of political improvement. He was invariably sceptical and sometimes ribald about philanthropic endeavours, such as the organised emigration of “distressed Needlewomen”—they were seduced on board ship to the Cape, there consigned to the Church’s care, and then known as “the Bishop’s women.”84Salisbury denounced missionaries as vulgar radicals. He dismissed phrases like “advance of civilisation” as humbug. “If our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people,” he declared, “the British Empire would not have been made.”85 Its purpose was not to spread sweetness and light but to increase Britain’s wealth and power. Exploitation involved computation: “as India must be bled, the bleeding should be done judiciously.”86

British rule must be imposed by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary. The carrot was usually more effective than the stick, Salisbury thought, for most colonial people were easily led and quite incapable of governing themselves. Irishmen, he declared, were no more fitted for self-rule than Hottentots. Equally unfit for government were leaders such as Kruger, a “frock-coated Neanderthal.”87 Indeed, a prime function of alien potentates was apparently to provide amusement at Hatfield: nothing delighted Salisbury more than hearing that the uxorious Sultan of Turkey had awarded one of his wives the Order of Chastity (Third Class), or that the ailing Emperor of Ethiopia, fed pages of the Bible by his doctors, had expired eating Kings. However, he was as fearful of sedition in the Empire as he was of insurrection at home. This hulking, hirsute figure suffered from “nerve storms”88 which invaded even his dreams; he was once discovered sleepwalking in front of an open second-storey window preparing to repulse a revolutionary mob. In an article entitled “Disintegration” he dwelt on the danger of losing “large branches and limbs of our Empire”89 such as Ireland, Egypt and India. Elsewhere, he warned, white settlers were too prone to “nigger-despising” and in due course native peoples would revolt effectively instead of just “testing our Armstrong guns.”90 Thus Salisbury was reluctant to get sucked into tropical Africa, except to counter other great powers or to buttress Britain’s key positions in the north and south. Even here he was wary of prodigal proconsuls keen to annex places with “unrememberable”91 names or ambitious generals equipped with small-scale maps and large appetites for conquest.

The most compelling of the consular scramblers for Africa, in Salisbury’s view, was Harry Johnston. Beginning his career as a painter, explorer, philologist and naturalist, Johnston became a freelance agent of imperial expansion. A colourful little adventurer of rare wit and ability, he always exuded a whiff of charlatanism. And he sent the Foreign Office voluminous reports of his exploits which might have been penned by Rider Haggard or G. A. Henty. In Old Calabar, for example, he described a palaver with “inveterate cannibals”:

Almost over my head, hanging from the smoke-blackened rafters of the house, was a smoked human ham, and about a hundred skulls were ranged round the upper part of the clay walls in a ghastly frieze…the old chief presented me with a necklace of human knucklebones from off his own neck.

However, Salisbury was amused by this sort of thing and he invited Johnston to Hatfield, where the consul in turn enjoyed the charades—Lady Gwendolen Cecil (the marquess’s daughter), wearing an enormous moustache, played Lord Randolph Churchill (Winston’s father). Salisbury was unconvinced by Johnston’s high-pitched schemes for exploiting tropical Africa along the lines of India or treating it as a New World, the modern equivalent of what America had been to Europe in the sixteenth century. But he favoured the consolidation of British interests and he used Johnston to limit Portuguese pretensions, notably by making treaties with local rulers in the Shire Highlands and establishing a protectorate over Nyasaland (modern Malawi) in 1890. Rhodes paid for this undertaking though Johnston, appointed British Commissioner for South Central Africa in 1891, had a stormy relationship with him.

They agreed over painting the African map red and at their first meeting they stayed up all night discussing the project. They also agreed over methods. Johnston thought nothing of burning native villages and confiscating grain and livestock, marching into battle under a white umbrella that was never furled. And around his sailor’s straw hat he sported a white, yellow and black ribbon, a tricolour replicated in the specially designed uniforms of his few Sikh troops and symbolising his faith that Africa would be governed by Europeans, developed by Indians and worked by Africans. However, Johnston resented Rhodes’s ruthless exercise of power through the purse strings: “I can scream and write frantic articles, but you move on with your armies and your gold with all the quick, majestic, resistless advance of an elephant through brushwood.”92 In 1894, when Rhodes’s demands for land and mineral rights became exorbitant, Johnston persuaded the British Treasury, whose Scrooge-like functionaries he wanted to hunt from room to room at bayonet point, to substitute a grant (£28,000 for 1895–6) in place of the British South Africa Company’s subvention. All told, the colonisation of Nyasaland was a characteristic imperial enterprise. A Prime Minister concerned to counter European rivals gave free rein to an amateur empire-builder who was subsidised by a private company, supported by a tiny imperial force and sustained by agreements with client headmen, and the haphazard arrangement was eventually put on an official footing. Johnston himself was sanguine about the process but he feared that a white despotism might not long remain benevolent. The time would therefore come when the Negro, “a man with man’s rights” despite his almost “ape-like” existence, “will rise against us and expel us” from the land he originally owned.93

Elsewhere in Africa, a continent “created to be a burden to Foreign Offices” in Salisbury’s opinion, commercial companies were encouraged to take on responsibilities of colonisation that successive British governments refused to accept. In 1886 Sir George Goldie’s Royal Niger Company gained a charter to administer the vast hinterland north of the delta. Economic advantage was always a factor in imperial reckoning and no one pursued it more ruthlessly than Goldie, who had a mind like a calculating machine. It was matched by a personality which he himself compared to “a gunpowder magazine.” Gaunt to the point of emaciation, he was fierce in his rages and uncompromising in his rationalism—he left England to escape the sound of church bells. Goldie was also “rapid and violent in his movements, his nervous force extraordinary, the nose the beak of an eagle, the eyes blue rapiers.”94 In London he rented a room off the Strand, where he set up a Gatling gun, teaching himself how it worked and aiming it across the Thames. On the Niger he amalgamated rival concerns (including French ones), excluded African middlemen and established an unauthorised but effective monopoly. Trading firearms and firewater for palm oil, used in soap, proved profitable to an efficient company “free from gas and bunkum.”95 But Goldie, like Rhodes, aimed at empire.

It was here that the new companies differed from the old, which had put trade before the flag. They thus attracted radical attacks on “stock-jobbing Imperialism.”96 Goldie paid no heed, envisaging a British dominion that stretched from the Niger to the Nile. He pushed northwards through the thick rainforest of Yoruba and Ibo pagans into the scrubby savannah of Fulani and Hausa Muslims. The Islamic states contained walled red cities, thriving mosques, crowded bazaars, well-tilled fields, literate mullahs, learned jurists, cosmopolitan merchants, craftsmen in leather and metal, and a cavalry out of medieval romance. Its indigo-turbaned, chain-mailed warriors rode long-tailed ponies with silver bridles, embroidered trappings, high double-pommelled saddles, and enormous moon-shaped brass and iron stirrups. They galloped into battle “waving their swords or spears in the air, with their white robes flying in the wind…[encouraged] by the clamour of their small drums and deep bassed horns.”97 Of course, they were no match for Sniders, let alone Maxims. But Goldie’s aim was diplomacy rather than conquest and he tried to persuade local rulers to sign treaties ceding jurisdiction in return for protection. The treaties were often spurious and the protection was usually nebulous. For the British relied on water transport—on Sanders of the River—and whites always remained thin on the ground. Indeed, the Emir of Kontagara asserted that Europeans were a species of fish and would die if they strayed far from the Niger.

Goldie’s most effective agent was Frederick Lugard, an army officer who had been jilted in India and had won his spurs in East Africa. Here, after freebooting in Nyasaland, he had done important work for another private concern. This was Sir William Mackinnon’s Imperial British East Africa Company, given its charter in 1888 to protect Britain’s position in what would become Kenya and Uganda. Mackinnon was a shipping magnate, devout, philanthropic and keen to spread civilisation to Africa. But although he had a heart of gold he lacked Goldie’s will of iron. Soon his “one horse Company”98 (Lord Rosebery’s term) collapsed. It found too little trade and accepted too many responsibilities, notably that of commanding the headwaters of the Nile. Germany was the rival here and in 1890 Salisbury bought off the Kaiser by renouncing the “red” Cape-to-Cairo corridor and ceding Heligoland, giving up that inhabited island, W. T. Stead complained, on the principle whereby “Russian grandees of olden times” paid their gambling debts with serf-populated estates.99 France complained about the flouting of its rights in Zanzibar (now made a British protectorate) and the Prime Minister replied airily that he and Bismarck had grown used to squeezing the Sultan “as though he were a rubber doll.”100 Gallic pressure continued and fear of France became “the mainspring of British policy in Africa.”101

Lugard imposed a measure of control on Uganda, which was lacerated by civil and religious strife, Catholic against Protestant and Muslim against both. And to secure the Upper Nile, Salisbury gave France ground from Algeria to Timbuktu; seldom able to resist a blazing indiscretion, particularly one to cause mortification across the Channel, he described this Saharan acquisition as “‘light’ land.”102 Having helped to ensure that the government took over from the Company in Uganda, which became a British protectorate in 1894, Lugard went on to oppose the French challenge in what would soon be Nigeria—refusing to emulate Rhodes, Goldie rejected the name Goldesia. With a tiny, ill-trained force, whose language he could not speak, Lugard marched north-west into Bornu country. He secured treaties from rulers who feared that signed papers might be used to cast evil spells on them, cured himself of fever with “10 grains antipyrine and 13 miles marching in a blazing sun,” and beat off attacks of hostile warriors firing poisoned arrows. One, tipped with iron, penetrated a quarter of an inch into Lugard’s skull. His hunter wrenched it out, putting his foot on his master’s head to get the necessary leverage, and Lugard swallowed various disgusting antidotes. In the spirit of the legendary British empire-builder whose wounds hurt only when he laughed, he continued throughout to bark orders. No wonder Sir Harry Johnston hailed him as the Clive of Uganda and the Warren Hastings of Nigeria.

Lugard was a small man with a large moustache who professed a “woman’s”103 aversion to violence—though he once broke a finger striking an Indian trader and he nearly knocked out the eye of an impertinent servant in the interest of maintaining white prestige. However, he did possess humane instincts and he exercised command chiefly through force of personality. Indeed, never having more than a handful of British subordinates, he adopted Goldie’s method of delegation. This had worked triumphantly during the Niger Company’s war against the people of Nupe and Ilorin in 1897, assisted by Maxims, flares, searchlights, tinned food and barbed wire. Goldie was so impressed by the performance of his black levies that he recommended that West Africa, rather than India, where nationalism was sapping loyalty, should provide “a reservoir of military manpower”104 on which the Empire could draw to forestall its decline. Paradoxically, further French incursions convinced Joseph Chamberlain, the first major politician whose mission it became to develop the nation’s great colonial estates, that Britain must no longer govern Nigeria by proxy. So the Company’s charter was revoked in 1899 and the Crown took over its rights for the sum of £850,000. Goldie protested that the Empire was buying a great province for “a mess of pottage.”105 He likened the government to a highwayman who not only robbed his victim but stole his clothes.

However, Lugard himself became High Commissioner for northern Nigeria in 1900. He was still devoted to Goldie (though their friendship faded after 1902, when Lugard married the journalist Flora Shaw, who had been in love with Goldie) and refined his methods, recruiting local chiefs as the “‘collaborators’ of colonialism.”106 This was the term which African nationalists later used, whereas Lugard himself understandably regarded the “dual mandate” as the quintessence of imperial wisdom. He also penned its classic justification:

As Roman imperialism laid the foundations of modern civilisation, and led the wild barbarians of these islands along the path of progress, so in Africa to-day we are repaying the debt and bringing to the dark places of the earth, the abode of barbarism and cruelty, the torch of culture and progress, while ministering to the material needs of our own civilisation…British rule has promoted the happiness and welfare of the primitive races…We hold these countries because it is the genius of our race to colonise, to trade, and to govern.

In fact, Lugard’s system, which seldom did more than scratch the surface of Nigerian life, was doomed by its complacent conservatism. He failed to grasp the logic of the progress he praised let alone the education he espoused, which produced westernised Africans who “would appeal successfully to the masses and lead them to independence across the ruins of chieftainship.” Furthermore, indirect rule only worked passably where distinct local authorities already existed, which was not the case among the fragmented Yoruba kingdoms and the autonomous Ibo forest dwellers of the south. Powerful, wealthy emirs among the supposedly virile races of the north made effective officers of state but, with British support, they often became more tyrannical than ever.

Lugard’s own dictatorial proclivities were checked by his need to delegate. But he frequently gave way to grim moods. He thought that education not only changed the mental outlook but damaged the physical health of the African, making him less fertile and more prone to “disabilities which have probably arisen from in-breeding among a very limited class, and to the adoption of European dress.”107 He also harped on the inveterate evils of “primitive people.” These could never be eradicated by “a negrophile kowtowing policy.”108 Instead Lugard tried to impose order with the whip, the stocks and the pillory. He also mounted “punitive expeditions” which soldiers seemed to take as a licence for lechery as well as butchery. “Bull Pup” Crozier, who later became a general, told in his memoirs how one young brother officer, Bellamy by name, carried off the under-age daughter of a Sokoto chieftain. But the British Resident, “such a sport,” hushed up the scandal for fear of what “psalm-singing——s at home” would make of it and a “topping new verse” caused mirth in the mess:

She was a Mallam’s daughter,

She lived at Sokoto,

She didn’t know what she ought to

Till Bellamy taught her to.

Crozier also recorded that British officers were apt to “‘finish off’ the wounded with sporting rifles” and to cut limbs from the dead for the sake of bracelets and anklets: “whack—whack—two strokes and it’s done.”109 As a young Liberal minister at the Colonial Office in 1906, Winston Churchill commented ironically on Lugard’s so-called “pacification” of northern Nigeria: “the whole enterprise is liable to be misrepresented by persons unacquainted with Imperial terminology as the murdering of natives and stealing their lands.”110

Lord Salisbury might have been more amused than shocked by this observation since he believed that living nations were destined to take the place of dying ones. But his Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, though hard and sharp as the screws he had once manufactured, took a more positive view of imperial endeavour. Its aim was to spread civilisation and commerce abroad in order to promote prosperity and social reform at home. Like Rhodes, Chamberlain believed that imperialism was “a bread and butter question.”111 By providing markets, raw materials and outlets for surplus population, colonies could alleviate hardship and take the sting out of socialism in Britain. No one advanced the commercial case for empire with more vigour and brilliance than Chamberlain. It became a revised version of the radical gospel he had preached and practised as mayor of Birmingham during the 1870s and it attracted corresponding brickbats. Punch memorably jibed, “The more the Empire expands, the more the Chamberlains contract.”112 The Liberal John Morley described Chamberlain’s imperialism as “killing people because it is good for trade.”113Others regarded Chamberlain as a political Lucifer and claimed to detect a whiff of sulphur whenever his name was mentioned. Tories, though, were glad to have as an ally the statesman who, as Winston Churchill said, made the weather. Blunt’s cousin, George Wyndham, appreciated him as “the grandest specimen of the courageous, unscrupulous schemer our politics have ever seen.”114 Salisbury’s nephew, Arthur Balfour, especially admired Chamberlain when he was “drawing blood with his back to the wall; then his bad taste is less conspicuous.”115

Persons of refinement disparaged Chamberlain, his parvenu origins imperfectly disguised by smart tailoring, monocle and orchid. H. H. Asquith, the future Prime Minister, said that he had the manners of a cad and the tongue of a bargee. Beatrice Potter (later Webb), who was in love with him, remarked on visiting Chamberlain’s house that “there was a good deal of taste, and all of it bad.”116 Vulgarity, too, was sensed in his expressionless face, his slicked black hair, his long questing nose. Salisbury dubbed his Colonial Secretary “the Cockney.”117 There was, indeed, a “patient subtle antagonism”118 between Hatfield House and Birmingham Town Hall. But the diehard patrician exploited the progressive tribune’s unique popular appeal. He made use of Chamberlain’s Svengali-like personality, vividly evoked by Lugard, who said that when he screwed in his eyeglass “you felt as if you were going to be sifted to the marrow.”119 Salisbury also tried to prevent him from dominating the government. This was not always possible. At the end of 1895, for example, Chamberlain took it upon himself to crush the Ashanti and stake a claim to the hinterland of the Gold Coast. The operation was swift and bloodless. It resulted in modest spoils for the victors, among them Baden-Powell, and the exile of King Prempeh, who eventually returned to become President of the local Boy Scouts Association. It also justified Chamberlain’s newspaper nickname, “Josephus Africanus,” and his sobriquet at the Colonial Office, where he replaced candles with electric light—“The Master.” According to Salisbury, Chamberlain “wants to go to war with every Power in the World, and has no thought but Imperialism.”120

Soon afterwards Wilfrid Scawen Blunt made a similar charge from a different point of view, noting that in six months Britain had quarrelled with China, Turkey, Belgium, Ashanti, France, Venezuela, Germany and the United States. It was a record performance which, he hoped, would break up an empire that was “the great engine of evil for the weak races now existing in the world.”121 Actually the imperial temper, particularly as regards racial chauvinism, commercial rapacity and strategic aggression, had never been fiercer. In Africa British hostility was still mainly directed against the French. Their designs on Egypt’s lifeline were well known and it was feared that they might destroy the land of the Nile by damming it at Fashoda—a paranoid fantasy since there was no stone within miles of the place. Nevertheless, when Italy was defeated at Adowa in 1896 and the Ethiopians seemed poised to support France in Equatoria, the British government resolved to reconquer the Sudan, avenge Gordon and secure Egypt for good.

Two railway tracks were thrust towards Uganda, one from the east and one from the north. From Mombasa what became known to Europeans as the “Lunatic Line” and to Africans as the “Iron Snake” crossed deserts, mountains, valleys, ravines, forests, and quagmires on its six-hundred-mile journey to Lake Victoria. Sometimes the ground was so swampy that the train would rock like a ship in a choppy sea, “squirting liquid mud for ten feet each side of it, from under the sleepers, after the manner of a water cart.”122 The Line’s bridges were named after the likes of Salisbury, Chamberlain and Devonshire but, as Harry Johnston wrote, it “drove a wedge of India two miles broad right across East Africa.” Thirty thousand coolies from the subcontinent, aided by hundreds of clerks, draughtsmen, mechanics, surveyors and policemen, brought the Hindustani language and the Indian coinage, clothing, penal code and postal system to wastes hitherto tenanted by “native savages or wild beasts.”123 Meanwhile, southwards through the Sahara from Wadi Halfa, with Roman precision, General Kitchener (the Egyptian Sirdar, or Commander-in-Chief) pushed his single-track railway towards Khartoum at the rate of a kilometre a day. It had the same gauge as Rhodes’s South African lines and so penny-pinching was Kitchener that he used wood from Dervish gallows as sleepers. Imperious and impatient, the Sirdar drove his men hard in temperatures so high that thermometers burst. When no engineer could be found he even drove his locomotives (the best of them bought in America, to the chagrin of patriotic Britons), racing them down the track at more than the permitted twenty-five miles per hour. Kitchener made war with “rivets and spindle-glands.”124 In the words of Winston Churchill, who as an ambitious subaltern had inveigled himself into the Khartoum expedition against the Sirdar’s will, “Victory is the beautiful, bright-coloured flower. Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed.”125 The River War was won on the iron road.

Horatio Herbert Kitchener was the most ruthless technician of empire. This is not to say that he was the Sudan Machine of legend, the metalled titan who “rarely opened his mouth save to order an execution.” He did have finer feelings. He collected ceramics, though he was reluctant to pay for them. He possessed a “feminine sensitiveness to atmosphere.”126 He could ingratiate himself with the great: “Lord Cromer is a splendid man to serve under.”127 He won the approval of Wolseley, who admired his “pluck, energy and able leadership.”128 He enjoyed a roguish relationship with good-looking young men on his staff. Moreover, after a victory, it was said, he could be quite human for as much as a quarter of an hour. But Kitchener had little imagination and less education—his letters were illiterate where they were not illegible and as late as 1916 he had never heard of Wordsworth. He treated troops as mere cogs in a military machine. Indeed, he was “never seen to address or even notice a private soldier”129—though it was hard to tell what he noticed because his china-blue eyes, which glittered strangely between bulging forehead and brick-red cheeks, had a disconcerting squint. Towards most of his officers Kitchener was unbending, ungracious and uncouth. They were said to have the look of hunted animals.

He trusted so few of them that he could hardly bear to delegate. In North Africa he acted as his own Chief of Staff, writing telegrams from a stock of forms which he kept inside his helmet. In India, later, he had the files of the military department pounded into papier-mâché and used for mouldings on the ceiling of his new dining hall. Nursing “a profound contempt for every soldier except himself”130 (which inclined Arthur Balfour to think well of his brains but not his character), Kitchener seldom inspired loyalty. General Hunter, his right hand man in the Sudan, wrote:

I have plumbed to the bottom of Kitchener now—he is inhuman, heartless; with eccentric and freakish bursts of generosity specially when he is defeated: he is a vain egotistical and self-confident mass of pride and ambition, expecting and usurping all and giving nothing; he is a mixture of the fox, Jew, and snake and like all bullies is a dove when tackled.131

Despite quoting this, Kitchener’s most recent biographer reaches a surprisingly favourable verdict on his subject. Yet the weight of contemporary evidence is against Kitchener. Churchill said that he might be a general but would never be a gentleman. Francis Younghusband thought him “a coarse blob of a man.”132 T. E. Lawrence reckoned that he was “not honest according to ordinary men’s codes.”133 Lord Esher, who probably knew that Kitchener was seen cheating at billiards in Balmoral, surmised that he would “walk over the body of his best friend.”134 Kipling called him a “fatted Pharaoh in spurs” and hated his “butcherly arrogance.”135

This was gruesomely displayed when he encountered the Khalifa’s white-robed host at Omdurman on Friday 2 September 1898. With superhuman courage a vast array of “chocolate-coloured men on cream-coloured camels”136 charged Kitchener’s rifles, Maxims and artillery. They were cut down like chaff. Indeed, at one point Kitchener was reduced to repeating, “Cease fire! Cease fire! Cease fire! Oh, what a dreadful waste of ammunition!”137 At a cost of fewer than fifty British and Egyptian dead, eleven thousand Dervish corpses, perhaps a fifth of the Khalifa’s army, littered the battlefield, “spread evenly over acres and acres.”138 Worse still, many of the wounded were either shot or left to die. Winston Churchill condemned this “inhuman slaughter”139 and humanitarians at home denounced an empire won and run with such cruelty. The British in Africa, like the Romans in Britain according to Tacitus, had made a wilderness and called it peace. (In Berber, as if to confirm the analogy, Kitchener held something like “a Roman triumph,”140 riding in front of a vanquished emir who was shackled, yoked and scourged.) But Kitchener’s ADC and Salisbury’s son, Lord Edward Cecil, spoke for many when he declared that it was “rot” to sympathise with the Dervish “brutes.”141And war correspondents thought that Omdurman deserved a quasi-divine punishment: “The reek of its abomination steamed up to heaven to justify us our vengeance.”142 The Queen’s strictures, also appealing to piety, were less easy to dismiss. Herself the recipient of much Omdurman loot,143 she was shocked to hear that the Sirdar had demolished the tomb of the Mahdi, a religious leader, with lyddite shells and thrown his bones into the Nile. Kitchener explained these acts of desecration as attempts to purge a nationalist cult of its magic. But he was further excoriated for his plan to make a drinking bowl out of the Mahdi’s skull—something General Reginald Wingate later did, more discreetly, with the Khalifa’s.144 Churchill for one did not believe Kitchener’s claim that he had sent the Mahdi’s skull back for burial in the Sudan in a kerosene tin, saying that the tin might have contained anything, perhaps ham sandwiches.

However, Kitchener won nothing but praise for his tactful handling of Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand, whose heroic trek from the Congo to stake his country’s claim on the Nile brought France and Britain to the brink of war. Admittedly Kitchener had gunboats and bayonets where Marchand only had a solid-wheeled bicycle and a flag—and his flagpole snapped when he tried to fly it at Fashoda. During his courteous confrontation with Kitchener, Marchand was completely isolated in “a landscape of dessication and rubble populated by scorpions.”145 The Sirdar, by contrast, could keep in touch with London via a telegraph cable on the bed of the Nile. France was inevitably defeated in what Blunt described as this “wrangle between two highwaymen over a captured purse.”146 Marchand withdrew and the Sudan became an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. It thus added a further anomaly to the region and the Empire. What mattered, though, was British control. This was not secured by means of delicate diplomacy. It was accomplished, to quote Churchill’s characteristic summation, through the most signal triumph ever won by the arms of science over barbarians.

As it happened, Churchill had curiously mixed feelings about the victory. He was thrilled to have taken part in what would be the British Army’s last great cavalry charge but disappointed that the 21st Lancers did not incur enough casualties to make it a truly historic engagement. He rejoiced in the advance of civilisation over savagery but justified the use of dum-dum bullets. He said that surrendering Dervishes had no right to clemency.147 But he blamed Kitchener for encouraging his troops “to regard their enemy as vermin—unfit to live.”148 More significantly, Churchill was also ambivalent towards the Empire itself, at a time when it had become a “positive intoxication”149—Omdurman not only avenged Gordon and set the seal on Britain’s scramble for tropical Africa, it provided a fairy-tale finale to Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee. In that year, fresh from reading Gibbon and Winwood Reade and from fighting on the North-West Frontier, Churchill had become imbued with a curious blend of long-term historical fatalism and short-term evolutionary optimism. On the one hand he thought that civilisations were doomed to decadence and that imperial entropy was inevitable. En route for home he paused in the Capitol at Rome and fell into grim Gibbonian musings about the decline and fall of the British Empire. Back in India, where he had become besotted with Macaulay, Churchill speculated about future travellers visiting the subcontinent and finding nothing to remind them of the Raj but a “few scraps of stone and iron.”150On the other hand Churchill believed that “might is a form of fitness”151 and that the strong would win in the struggle for survival. He altered the manuscript of his first book to insist on white supremacy in India: “the prestige of the dominant race enables them to keep up appearances maintain their superiority over the native troops.”152

In public Churchill quelled his private doubts. More than that, he beat the imperial drum in the spirit of his Harrow headmaster, J. E. C. Welldon, the model for “the Jelly-bellied Flag-Flapper”153 in Kipling’s Stalky & Co. In his first political speech, delivered a month after the Jubilee, Churchill castigated the “croakers” who prophesied that the British Empire, now at the height of its glory and power, would decline like that of Rome. We should, he said,

give the lie to their dismal croaking by showing by our actions that the vigour and vitality of our race is unimpaired and that our determination is to uphold the Empire that we have inherited from our fathers as Englishmen, [cheers] that our flag shall fly high upon the sea, our voice be heard in the councils of Europe, our Sovereign be supported by the love of her subjects, then we shall continue to pursue that course marked out for us by an all-wise hand and carry out our mission of bearing peace, civilisation and good government to the uttermost ends of the earth. [Loud cheers]154

This litany was familiar to the point of platitude. But the last and most sonorous of the Whigs would invest the imperial theme with unique eloquence, notably during the Second World War. Then Churchill conjured up a vision of the past glory and future victory of Greater Britain, of an imperial climb to broad sunlit uplands with himself providentially in the van. In the nation’s darkest hour realists might well have regarded this as little more than inspiring verbiage. Ironically, his first speech had been a piece of rhetorical afflatus; for his faith in the Empire’s manifest destiny, like that of many Britons at the conclusion of Queen Victoria’s reign, was far from being secure.

Nevertheless, the years between the Diamond Jubilee and the Relief of Mafeking probably witnessed the most fervent devotion to the Empire ever manifested in Britain. All nations tend to think that they are the heaven-born but the British were now more than ever inclined to believe themselves anointed as the imperial race. Some affirmed that they were literally the chosen people: British Israelites claimed descent from the lost ten tribes sired by Abraham. Others, especially among the bourgeoisie, adopted the Jewish practice of circumcision in order to improve the health and “manliness of the future custodians of empire”155—the rise of the moustache complemented the fall of the foreskin. However shaven or shorn, late Victorians felt uniquely endowed by their creator with a genius for governing lesser breeds. These Kipling bracketed with the Gentiles, perennial outsiders; whereas insiders such as public schoolboys were the beneficiaries of both natural selection and celestial dispensation. “God has arranged that a clean-run youth of the British middle class,” said Kipling, “shall in the matter of backbone, brains and bowels, surpass all other youths.”156 The British were the Praetorian Guard of the world. They had inherited the earth and theirs was the kingdom of heaven. The Empire was over four times larger than that of Rome, comparisons with which were now usually intended to boost confidence in Britain. Discussing “The Fall of the Roman Empire and its Lessons for Us,” the historian Thomas Hodgkin concluded that Britain’s Empire would survive thanks to its innate “sense of fair play.”157 Another historian, Sir Alfred Lyall, recalled how St. Augustine, looking out from the City of God at the still vast domain of Rome, had concluded that for such an empire to extend its rule over uncivilised nations “seems to bad men felicity, but to good men a necessity.”158 Plainly Britain’s huge constellation of territory—eleven million square miles containing four hundred million people—was sanctioned by the Almighty. Lord Rosebery, who was briefly Liberal Prime Minister in the mid-1890s and kept cheerful by humming “Rule, Britannia!,” characteristically maintained that the Empire was “Human, and yet not wholly human, for the most heedless and cynical must see the finger of the Divine.”159

It was apparent in the work of ten thousand overseas missionaries. Freemasonry, that ubiquitous feature of the colonial scene, helped (among other things) to give a mystical unity to Greater Britain. So did new organs of the Beefeater press, such as the Daily Mail, for which the expansion of England was a secular religion. Still more did the rediscovery of the Crown and the fresh awakening of imperial sentiment at the Diamond Jubilee. Of course, royal festivals had occurred before and everyone recognised that the first article of empire patriotism was loyalty to the sovereign. Yet, as W. T. Stead observed, in 1897 the British people were as thrilled to discover what they already knew as Molière’s hero was to find that he had been talking prose all his life without realising it. For the Jubilee resembled nothing so much as a conversion experience during an evangelical revival. Stead wrote:

The uncontrollable outburst of intense emotion that is witnessed when…a poor, lost, hell-deserving sinner puts forth the hand of faith, and grasping the finished work of Christ, passes in a moment from death into life, is the nearest analogy which can be adduced to explain the hitherto unknown spirit of exultant joy and unspeakable gratitude which culminated in the Jubilee.160

Others were equally apocalyptic. The Daily Mail said it was fitting that the Queen should pay homage to God at St. Paul’s since He was the one being more majestic than she. Mark Twain found the sight of so many nations marching past on 22 June indescribable, “a spectacle for the kodak, not the pen,” but it provided him with “a sort of allegorical suggestion of the Last Day.”161

Everything was done to enhance the solemnity of “one of the most brilliant pageants in history.”162 Chamberlain’s biographer, quoting Gibbon, compared the Queen’s Jubilee to the secular games in Rome: these had “dazzled the eyes of the multitude”163 by their splendour and inspired reverence like any “great spectacle which the oldest have never seen before and the youngest will never see again.”164 A quarter of a million pounds was spent on decorating London as befitted the imperial capital. The streets were festooned with garlands, banners and bunting. Buildings were adorned with huge VRI emblems, many wrought in metal and coloured glass. Patriotic and imperial slogans abounded, often employed by manufacturers to advertise products such as Bovril, Colman’s Mustard, Eno’s Fruit Salt and Willson’s Sparkling Stomach Tonic. The Bank of England, which dominated the forum often called the “heart of the empire,”165 bore the illuminated legend “SHE WROUGHT HER PEOPLE LASTING GOOD.”166Electricity augmented gas in shedding lustre on the imperial monarchy during what The Times called its first pan-Britannic festival. Before setting off for St. Paul’s, Queen Victoria pressed a button telegraphing this message to the Empire: “From my heart I thank my beloved people, May God bless them!”167 Eleven colonial Premiers took part in the procession. So did jewelled satraps of empire, none more glittering than the Indian maharajahs, who illustrated Kipling’s aphorism that they had been created by Providence to offer mankind a spectacle.

Still more impressive was the assortment of military might. Some 46,000 men, the largest force ever mustered in the capital, marched past to the sound of clattering hooves, jingling accoutrements, blaring bands and stamping boots, boots, boots. But this was not just a familiar array of scarlet uniforms and gold breastplates, white plumes and gleaming lances, silver kettle drums and brass naval guns. It was an imperial phalanx, described most vividly by the Daily Mail’s star writer G. W. Steevens.

Lean, hard-knit Canadians, long-legged, yellow Australians, all in one piece with their horses, giant, long-eyed Maoris, sitting loosely and leaning back curiously from the waist, burned South Africans, upstanding Sikhs, tiny lithe Malays and Dyaks, Chinese with white basin turned upside-down on their heads, grinning Hausas, so dead black that they shone silver in the sun—white men, yellow men, brown men, black men, every colour, every continent, every race, every speech—and all in arms for the British empire and the British Queen. Up they came, more and more, new types, new realms at every couple of yards, an anthropological museum—a living gaze-teer of the British empire. With them came their English officers, whom they obey and follow like children. And you began to understand, as never before, what the empire amounts to.168

However, it was in Queen Victoria, according to Mark Twain, that the British “public saw the British Empire itself.”169

Modestly dressed in black moiré embroidered with silver, crowned by a bonnet trimmed with white ostrich feathers, and riding along the six-mile route in the open State landau drawn by eight cream horses, she was greeted on that grey day with ecstasy. “The cheering was quite deafening,” she wrote in her journal, “and every face seemed to be filled with real joy.”170 At St. Paul’s, where the service took place outside the cathedral on account of the Queen’s lumbago, the Church bestowed a divine blessing on earthly majesty. The gorgeously coped, croziered and mitred Bishop of London, Mandell Creighton, known as “the Admirable,” declared that the nation’s imperial destiny had been conceived during Victoria’s reign. According to one witness, the Queen “became visibly transfigured before the eyes of her subjects.” The host of other Jubilee events confirmed her apotheosis. The most awesome was the Spithead Naval Review—more than 160 warships arrayed in three lines almost thirty miles long. It convinced even French observers that the British had totally eclipsed the Empire of Rome. This incomparable armada signified that “the express decree of the Eternal had conferred on them the command of the sea.”171

Yet the Diamond Jubilee, which took myriad forms in far-flung places, did not win universal acclaim even among leaders of British society. Mr. Gladstone, a Little Englander to the last, shunned the proceedings, railed against “the spirit of Jingoism under the name of Imperialism”172 and privately suggested that the best way the Queen could celebrate her sixty years on the throne was by abdicating. The radical MP Henry Labouchere recommended that Buckingham Palace should be turned into a home for fallen women. Lord Salisbury acknowledged that the multitude needed circuses as well as bread. But he found them vulgar and absurd, from the sham of making knights who knew nothing of cavalry or chivalry to the regal theatre that seemed doomed to become farce. His prognostications on that score proved accurate. During the processions the crowd booed the Cypriot Zaptiehs, who were wearing fezzes, under the impression that they were Turks. The Lord Mayor lost his hat as his horse galloped off with him. And Colonel Lord Dundonald of the Life Guards, riding behind the monarch’s carriage on a spirited mare, kept repeating, “Steady, old lady! Whoa, old girl!”173—calls which the Queen at first thought addressed to her. The Prime Minister also mocked the lust for stars and garters, which raged with particular ferocity among colonial dignitaries—all the Premiers became Privy Councillors, entitled to wear a uniform something between that of “a postilion and a buffoon.”174 Salisbury was almost as scathing about royal ritual as Frederic Harrison, who regarded it as “sublime hocus”175 like the Roman Lectisternium, the placatory feast offered to images of the gods, or the beating of gongs and tom-toms by savages to ward off an eclipse.

The Diamond Jubilee was, indeed, a fanfare designed not just to exalt the imperial spirit but to subdue national fears about the end of the “British century.”176 It was a roar of reassurance at a time when Britain’s kingship of the international jungle seemed increasingly under threat. It was a parade of unionism, challenged in Dublin by marchers with black flags, Home Rule slogans and a coffin bearing the legend “British Empire,” which they threw into the Liffey. It was a triumph that betrayed unease, signified weakness and caused disquiet. Kipling, who marvelled at Spithead but thought jubilant London “unspeakable Tophet,”177 classically warned about present pride and future peril:

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dunes and headlands sinks the fire;

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.178

The theme of Recessional was rehearsed again and again as imperial growth failed to stem “industrial decline.”179 Britain was compared to Rome, gorged with distant conquests, provincial tributes, oriental luxury and alien corn, while Cato thundered in vain about the dissolution of its economic fabric and was called a “Little Italian” for his pains.180

Ironically, even the Daily Mail’s chief trumpeter of the Jubilee discerned “in the public felicity the latent cause of decay and corruption.” Writing in Blackwood’s Magazine in July 1897 under the pseudonym “the New Gibbon” and mimicking the historian’s style with some panache, Steevens declared that Britain relied too much on “the martial virtue of subject barbarians.” The imperial race was losing its force under the “enervating influence of industrial civilisation” and a narrowly commercial spirit. Vulgarity was sapping vitality. Hunting, shooting and fishing, sports in which man matched himself against nature, were giving way to “plebeian exhibitions of mere brute strength and agility” such as bicycling and tennis. Still more demoralising was spectatorship. Watching games of football and cricket, “lazy recreations which were fondly called national,” stunted people’s growth. A puny breed was emerging that would fail at the first crisis. It was deaf to the mutter of the coming earthquake, blind to the prospect of imperial ruin. Yet, Steevens concluded, “decline was already accomplished and irremediable, and fall was but too surely impending.”181

There was much on the international scene, at a time when Britain’s diplomatic isolation seemed perilous rather than splendid, to confirm Steevens’s gloom. Indeed, for twenty years or so the nation had been anxiously attempting to reinforce the imperial panoply. Defensive bodies proliferated, such as the Royal Colonial Institute (1868), the Fair Trade League (1881) and the Imperial Federation League (1884), which propagandists such as George Parkin (“the bagman of Empire”)182 proclaimed the sovereign antidote to disintegration. Others sought to sustain Britain’s economic position by means of an Imperial Zollverein, or customs union. Still others formed societies promoting emigration to the Empire. Youth was rallied in organisations such as the Boys’ Brigade (1883), the Church Lads’ Brigade (1891) and the Jewish Lads’ Brigade (1895). The last aimed to “Anglicise” the “narrow-chested, round-shouldered sons of the Ghetto.”183 All found inspiration in militantly patriotic literature such as the Boy’s Own Paper,begun in 1879. In 1884 Stead started the first of several scares about the fragility of the Empire’s iron walls. So efforts were made to improve and expand the Royal Navy, which adopted the “two-power standard” (making it more than a match for any pair of foes) in 1889. Yet the speed of technological advance assisted Germany, France, America and Japan, which lacked such shoals of obsolescent leviathans. Moreover, the Admiralty was slow to abandon muzzle-loaders, to adopt grey paint, to build submarines and to design ships more like the Dreadnought than the Victory—the Senior Service still looked back to Nelson and, said Admiral Fisher, might just as well have looked back to Noah. As Fisher further observed, “The British Empire floats on the British Navy.”184 So at its jubilant apogee some observers forecast that Britain was “about to sink into the position of a second-rate Power.”185

The challenges it faced on land seemed even more acute. Ireland threatened to blow a hole in the heart of the Empire. Russia and Japan were leading the “scramble for China,” where other powers also established footholds—to Britain’s disadvantage. France continued to press in North Africa. London had to make concessions to Berlin in Samoa, though neither side thought the transaction worth the stamps. John Bull also felt obliged to give ground to Uncle Sam in Alaska and elsewhere. Of course, despite traditions of liberty going back to 1776, America had been an imperial competitor in embryo at least since the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine. It looked far west as well as north and south. Commodore Robert Shufeldt, for example, who opened up Korea in 1882, as Commodore Perry had earlier opened up Japan, declared flamboyantly:

The Pacific is the ocean bride of America. China and Japan and Korea, with their innumerable islands hanging like necklaces about them, are the bridesmaids. California is the nuptial couch, the bridal chamber, where all the wealth of the Orient will be brought to celebrate the wedding. Let us as Americans…determine while yet in our power, that no commercial rival or hostile flag can float with impunity over the long swell of the Pacific.186

The United States’ victory in the war over Spain in 1898 and the annexation of its colonies (Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines) indicated not just the waxing of America but the waning of Britain.

This was reflected in the many appeals from the Old World to the New for a tightening of transatlantic bonds, an Anglo-Saxon alliance, a coalition of English-speaking peoples. Kipling, now established as the laureate of empire, urged Americans to “Take up the White Man’s burden.”187Andrew Carnegie promoted race patriotism. Chamberlain pleaded that “the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack should wave together.”188 They did so on many occasions. At the Lord Mayor’s Show in 1898, for example, the two flags flew on top of a float in the form of a ship representing “Sea Power,” which bore mottoes such as “Blood is thicker than water”189 and carried on deck the figure of Britannia extending the hand of friendship to Columbia. Londoners cheered. On both sides of the ocean people forecast an Anglo-American reign of global peace, plenty, justice and progress. In the United States, however, many invoked traditions of liberty going back to Jefferson. These were always to play a part, and ultimately perhaps a dominant one, in the relationship between Britain and America. But they had been flouted by the cruel conquest of the Philippines. Mark Twain said this colonial conflict, which caused the death of some 220,000 Filipinos, had “debauched America’s honour and blackened her face before the world.” Henry Adams turned “green in bed at midnight if I think of the horror of a year’s warfare.” Members of the Anti-Imperialist League parodied Kipling:

Pile on the brown man’s burden

To gratify your greed;

Go, clear away the “niggers”

Who progress would impede;

Be very stern, for truly

’Tis useless to be mild

With new-caught sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.190

Goldwin Smith denounced America’s putative “partnership with British Jingoism.” Behind it was a fresh spirit of force in the world, exemplified by the fact that women now attended prize fights. But modern imperialists also imitated Rome, he said. They aspired to build a new civilisation while actually crushing nations in order to create a “central despotism.” Smith quoted Gibbon’s classic caveat: “There is nothing more adverse to nature and reason than to hold in obedience remote countries and foreign nations, in opposition to their inclination and interest.” This was an eternal truth about empire. In the meantime, though, since America was imposing its will by force in Asia it could hardly object to Britain’s doing the same in Africa. Protests about the bullying of the Boers were muted in the United States, said Smith, because the “blood of the Filipinos chokes us.”191

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