Chanting peace-paeans as they reaped and gleaned, gazing worldward, on her undrawn sword, watchful as she leaned.
(A. Austin, Songs Of England, 1900)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. INTRODUCTION: (Pages)
• THE ETHICS OF EMPIRE (3-5)
• IMPERIALISM REVISITED (5-8)
2. DEFINING MORALITY
• THE THEORY (8-9)
• THE PRACTICE (9-12)
3. MAIN SECTION:
• INTRODUCTION TO THE MAIN SECTION (12-14)
• THE POLITICS OF MORALITY AND THE MORALS OF POLITY (14-22)
• THE PEN OF IMPERIALISM (22-32)
• FRONTIER ETHICS (32-39)
4. CONCLUSION (39-42)
5. BIBLIOGRAPHY (44-48)
THE ETHICS OF EMPIRE.
The concept of the British Empire started out within the three kingdoms of Britain and Ireland , bifurcating into two distinct Empires: first, an Empire of settlement (which we may refer to as the Anglophonic world) and later an Empire of expansion (a non-Anglophonic world). This inquiry proposes to step up to the podium of late-Victorian and Edwardian history and examine a third and least conspicuous empire: an Empire of sentiment. By revisiting its well-thumbed pages and tapping the zeitgeist, we hope to make sense of the nature of morality at the zenith of British Imperialism. The intention is not to apologise for its deeds or very existence nor sacrifice it at the high altar of folly. The broad aim is to unravel the moral enigma of history’s only large-scale Empire to have “given up by the pen what was won by the sword” . And to expose the strata of moral values that both led to and justified this unique feat.
Being the vast temporal and spatial entity that Britain’s Empire was (see image above ), this inquiry is committed chiefly to a late nineteenth century historical focus on the ethical dimensions of colonial rule in an era of accelerated change, a moment of ideological awakening to what J. A. Hobson called a “conscious policy of Imperialism” . To lay to rest the need to further quantify our choice of beginning and end, we need only remark that, “for convenience, the year 1870 has been taken as indicative of the beginning of a new conscious policy of Imperialism, (even though) the movement did not attain its full impetus until the mid 1880’s” . This consciousness was intricately linked with zealous public awareness at home and abroad and fuelled by a tremendous generational outpouring of energy and purpose, so very synonymous with the Victorians. In attempting to retrace Imperial sentiment in an age of foreign competition we hope to broach the ethical ramifications at a time when British Imperialism would never again be quite so articulate or intense; and to further assess the progressive pledge to “re-humanise the dehumanised” . As for conscious policy’s abrupt end (which did not preclude territorial enlargement after the Great War), there is little ambiguity that the terminus of the long nineteenth century, triggered literally by a Serb nationalist in the summer of 1914, signalled “one of the most undeniable natural breaks in history” .
In singularly attempting to quantify what focus ought to be given to this limited study of a substantial Imperial canvas, suffice it to say, compelling theories of the economic quintessence of Imperialism, as may be procured from the writings of Hobson, Lenin or Kennedy shall assume a lesser role in this discourse. Not for want of relevance must this relegation take place, as the summation of new Imperialism defined as “excessive capital in search of investment” or in equal measure as the “highest stage of capitalism (and the) eve of the socialist revolution” still echoes in its conceptual clarity and veracity. Similarly there is much substance in Kennedy’s assertion that the “dynamic of world power (is) essentially driven by technological and economic change” . Aside from economics, the main bulk of scholarship on late-Victorian Imperialism down the years has been concerned thematically with geopolitics, military strategy, and social and cultural elements. Historiography has extended its realm to visualise Empire organically, from cradle to grave. By looking at the evolution of an organism over time, the methodology has strove to pinpoint the system of values and attitudes shared by the late Victorians. It is within this paradigm that we may explore the moral implications of an epoch abuzz with what Lenin referred to as the “pen of Imperialism, (as scripted by) petty-bourgeois reactionaries, although they call themselves pacifists and socialists, who insist that peace and reforms (are) possible under Imperialism” .
Post-1914 narrators like Hobsbawm, Gollwitzer, Morris, Thornton, Porter and Gallagher represent important secondary sources. They all unite in their eclectic approach to Imperial history, including placing some significance on the ethics of Victorian society. All - with the benefit of hindsight - perceive an evolutionary dynamic to Empire. Primary sources of Imperialist sentiment are readily identifiable in all aspects of the public and private sphere of Victorian society: in public addresses and meetings, private memoirs, the press, journals, reviews, in every conceivable form of literature and not only that; the advent of photography brought home to the general public the power of visual realism and foreshadowed a new age of transparency through visual dispatch from the frontier – a ‘Kodak moment’ a la nineteenth century - leaving little margin for moral equivocation. In short, the late-Victorian period, with all its Imperialist overtones positively brimmed with commentary. It was meticulously and fastidiously recorded, converged at from all conceivable angles by virtue of “freedom to associate, to assemble, to opine, and to broadcast” , leaving it unusually exposed to scrutiny then as now.
Post war social mores have proscribed a balanced debate of what could be described as formal Imperialism. The narrative of this most American of late twentieth centuries has vilified it as a festering sore of racism and misguided paternalism . The world post bellum as defined by de-colonisation has vowed never to return down that pre-1945 path. But in the white flight to atonement, the issue has been obfuscated and somewhat calcified. Meanwhile, Imperialism’s thread has been interred under the ideological ice of the Cold War, even though through the historical timeline it never breaks, merely shifting its geographic seat of power, nowadays mutating into a non-territorial, cultural and economic force with equal vigour. When it seems that this era (1870-1914), by all accounts one unprecedented in social progress and a blueprint of our modern modus vivendi, is in danger of being swept away in the nostalgic irrelevance of brass buttons and starched-white collars, of mutton chop whiskers and bumbling At colonels, now it seems that an acceptable period of denial and sensitivity has elapsed to reexamine its profound legacy, of good and of bad.
By doing so, we may hope to understand better the peculiarities of the world at this present juncture, ruled as it is by a supreme cultural, economic and military force in the shadowy figure of the United States, itself convinced of its immeasurable good and its indomitable status. Of late, Uncle Sam has had an epiphany and murmurs now abound from Capitol Hill to California that despite America’s traditional anti-Imperial self-image, the blinkers are up and self-denial cannot hold. Once again it is okay to be an Imperialist, and no less an article of white faith in a barbarous world fractured along lines of civilisation to be so. The levee has broken and America’s manifest destiny has spilled out to all quarters, eerily echoing Britain’s self-styled civilising mission of yesteryear, which in itself represented a continuation of the Roman principle of imperium et libertas (see footnote). It is to the meaning of Britain’s civilising mission that we draw attention.
Within the great frequency of sentiment, unconsciously inserted into fin de siécle narrative, something Edward Said refers to as the literary “structure of attitude and reference” , beats the heart of the enquiry into the ethics of Imperial rule in this era. Cautiously we must approach morality through existing structures of sentiment, as attitudes to British rule throughout a disparate, loosely aggregated Empire were at best uneven, at worst incongruous. One need only consider the affection of the British diaspora in Australia or Canada to the Imperial idea in 1900, compared with the vehement disaffection of the native Burmese to foreign rule as evidenced by Orwell in Shooting an Elephant, or long-standing rancour among the Boer population towards British Imperialism in South Africa.
As competitive expansionism gathered pace in a snowball coalition of mutual economic interests between Germany, Russia, the U.S., and to a lesser extent, France and Italy, the threat to Britain’s unparalleled global competitive edge became palpable, forcing the heretofore splendid isolation of Britain’s Empire into the spotlight as never before. Scrutinised by onlookers torn between envy and resentment, Britain’s Imperial impetus became as much about a new moral impetus as it was a mad dash to consolidate continental spheres of influence and perhaps tame the wanderings of restless capital. this juncture and with few allies to speak of, the old mistress of the seas paused for some reflection. Writers like Tennyson, Kipling and Austin ensured that reflection was glorified, but other mediums of criticism tempered the tone.
To ponder briefly what constitutes new Imperialism, we have to return to Disraeli’ s tenure in office from 1872 to 1880, and accept that existing Imperial policy became at once soldered to a new mode of foreign policy. Disraeli’ s raison d’être was one of territorial aggrandisement, but as Eldridge points out, behind that foreign policy lurked the twin justifications of “peace and Empire” . So nationwide and beyond, new Imperialism did amount to a process of self-conscious realisation, infused with Beaconsfieldian romantic overtones that indeed one did possess an Empire, a gilded elephant, and not the white variety. In turn, we may enquire how those living at the time in fact perceived the binomial equation of peace and Empire.
A glance at the Victorian zeitgeist would reveal that the business of civilising the world is a euphemism for Imperialism only nowadays. In 1900, to the average person of European stock - with the exception of the Americans who were ambivalent; still seduced by Jefferson’s rhetoric of anti-Imperialism, but themselves set on an Imperialist course since the very first buckled pilgrim shoe came ashore on Plymouth rock - Imperialism was a euphemism for civilising the black heart of Africa and Asia; of bringing Christian virtue to those in need of it, who was everyone as far as the evangelical arm of Imperialism was concerned. But as these resource rich, morally impoverished lands were gradually stripped of their raw materials and utilised for cheap labour, one must query whether the evangelical arm represented either a smokescreen or a natural corollary of Imperialism’s economic arm in which the bible distracted the natives while the real business of Empire, or “Empire of business” , got underway. Important as far as this inquiry goes is that the prevalence of sanctimony was to become ever more questioned even before Imperial hubris turned to disillusion in the Second Anglo-Boer war, prompting Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman to later comment, “When is a war not a war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa” . As candid dispatches from colonial frontiers and Imperialist forays poured into to a nation in the midst of a revolution in literacy, “self-education” , mass communication, and mechanised transport, the Victorian imagination was fired to a global extent unrecorded previously in human history. This sensory overload leading to a catharsis in social reform and perhaps even moral re-evaluation signified something akin to a neo-enlightenment, whereby a new kind of compunction was to be forced upon the later Victorians by the sight of hideous iniquities of the industrial age outside their door and the “dramatic advance in the technology of killing” reported in their newspaper. They had little choice but to reconsider their position regarding the social condition of humanity and the humanitarian condition of society. What Hobsbawm considered a worrisome trend of “fiction and futurology” abounded in this period, giving pre-emptive rise to the World Peace Congress, The Nobel Peace Prize, and Hague Peace Conferences during the 1890’s; precognition that would eventuate in the horrors of the Great War.
As an afterthought, let us consider that within this thirty-year period the new conscious Imperialist movement witnessed the birth of modern sociological critique (Marx, Spencer, Weber, and Rowntree), of psychological critique (Freud and Jung), of philosophical nihilism deeply rooted in moral angst and the prophecy of twentieth century annihilation (Nietzsche), of moral philosophy (Sidgwick) and of anthropology (Tylor). Indeed, by being the society they were, the later Victorians provoked uncompromising response from modern academic conscience. Superimposed upon the existing one, a new ethical impulse within this new social and philosophical reality would pervade the narrative of the age, feeding the Imperial machine and adding to its already confusing code of conduct by means of its critical exposition of the hypocrisies of the theory and practice of remote rule, divided as it was between races of British and non-British stock; and of the irreconcilabilities of home and remote rule.
The Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy defines morality descriptively as “a code of conduct put forward by a society”, and normatively as a “code of conduct that would be put forward by all rational persons” . This code, in the English tradition represents a more secular view, regarding morality primarily as governing only behaviour that directly or indirectly affects others. By extension, immorality must refer also to behaviours directly and indirectly affecting others; set apart as immoral through deviating from that code of conduct. As beings “rendered capable of moral government” , we are able to reflect upon actions, approving of some for their “peculiar virtue and good desert” and disapproving of others as “vicious and of ill desert” . To the utilitarian philosophy that underpinned the Victorian moral framework, virtue can be further strengthened by its intrinsic value, selfless goodness according to J S Mill “not for reward but for itself”. The same utilitarian tradition envisioned morality broadly as universal hedonism - the greatest happiness for the greatest number - and placed individual private property rights centre stage. Through fundamental laws and civil constitutions virtue could be enshrined, and manifested in the form of “justice, veracity, and regard to the common good” . Equally, Sidgwick’s three self-evident moral principles of the hedonistic theory of common good: “Justice, prudence and rational benevolence”, read like a trinity of virtue and ethical responsibility. For a Universalist like Henry Sidgwick, hand-reared on the mid-Victorian moral diet of J S Mill, “the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view of the Universe, than the good of any other”.
In a relativist age like ours, moral certainty becomes problematic. Morality per se is a loaded issue and must be navigated carefully, or else not at all. Transculturally, we tend to retort “Whose morality?” when told what is acceptable and what is not. The word tautology springs to mind when concluding the imposition of a uniform British code of conduct upon scattered races as Imperialism personified. To ascribe a specific ethical context to the political and economic practicalities of running an Empire invites excoriation by the realists of geo-political theory who would view this application as doctrinairism, yet there is much truth in the idea that how an Empire will be remembered in centuries to come will in great part be determined by how it conducted itself during its time in office. As Thornton muses, “a higher power would one day enquire of us…how we had dealt with the untutored, defenceless savage (sic!) whom circumstances had placed in our charge” . There are grounds for acknowledging that Britain’s serious approach to justice through the utilitarian principles of common law, as opposed to the arbitrariness and brute force of, say, Imperial Rome was taken as a priori in terms of administered rule. We have even more reason to suppose that after two centuries of steady, if “absent-minded acquisition of half the world” , the fin-de-siècle consciousness consumed the British with something of an ontological and messianic vision of Empire. Like Voltaire’s assertion a century earlier that if God did not exist we would find it necessary to invent Him, the Victorians would most likely conclude that if beneficent Empire did not exist, the British would find it necessary to invent it. Thus, the national discourse began to agonise over how a newfound dominion could and should be administered, content to extend its own moralising to the state of rule amongst Imperialism’s other players and define its own sense of what Sidgwick called “right and ought” through fixed, usually pejorative perceptions of the competition.
Nowadays the Victorians are renowned for their peculiarly moralistic, almost puritanical approach to rampant Empire building. Their zealous moral claims were often divided as the voice of dissent crept into the rank and file of Victorian society with any public interest in the shaping of their unwieldy Empire; one historically at odds with ideology beyond the attainment of personal freedom. From the mid-1870’s onward, these dissenting voices became increasingly numerous and articulate in their conscience. With the watchword of progress accompanying virtue as a fundamental article of ethics, and order as the prime directive of rule, honest governance became the sum of all these things: at least in theory.
To apply the globetrotting practice to the theory of morality one must go back to school, as it were. According to Schama, “Western education was the instrument by which India was going to be transformed from a world of bullock-carts and beggars into the progressive Victorian dynamic world” .
Within the Western educational framework the roadmap of morals was laid out. Any conception of a moral code of conduct is instilled in a child through a twofold process: primary and secondary socialisation. Primary socialisation is the primer coat of early childhood learning performed strictly within the world of parents, the extended family, and in the middle and upper classes of the British Imperial machine, all too often a nanny or wet nurse acting in loco parentis. Secondary socialisation is where the second coat of cognitive and ethical paint begins to define the finished article by absorbing the extra familial world. To those destined to partake in affairs of Empire that meant public school, and moreover allegiance to a house within a school. In the days of “palm and pine” no respectable figure with any influence in the conduct of evolving Imperial affairs would have failed to secure a spot at the best boy’s school for his child of Empire. It is within the child’s new family, his boarding school masters and fellow pupils, the rigid modalities of life will be taught. Natural vulnerability of tender age was reproachable in Victorian England, producing the stiff upper lip so idiomatic of the age. It is in that same doctrinal institution that his father probably had his ultimate outlook on life drummed into him, and it is in that elite environment where the elder (being his surrogate father – the schoolmaster) trusts his protégé will memorise the book of conduct and acquire the tools so that one day he too will follow in his father’s footsteps to some distant corner of the globe where he will instinctively know not only the meaning of a judicious decision but also to be aware that the buck stops with him: that his will directly or indirectly affects a strangers’ life; and that the consequences will live with him and within him as he struggles morally to separate black from white in a galaxy of grey.
The claims that sought to legitimise the superiority of white rule became inextricably linked to what Benjamin Kidd called “strength and energy of character, humanity, probity and integrity, and simple-minded devotion to conceptions of duty in such circumstances as may arise” . These self-ascribed qualities stemmed in large part from a tendency to concentrate the best and worst aspects of national character into an impressionable young elite. Thus for every defence of humanity lay an undercurrent of racial superiority; for the simple devotion to duty read the simple devotion to upholding a rigid hierarchical class structure founded on privilege.
The public school system of the 1890’s, which according to Benson in 1882 was churning out an endless production line of “energetic, morally endowed, intellectually deficient” young Imperialists in mechanised fashion through the “educational factory system” , demanded payment of more than lip service to the abiding conservative principles of adherence to the existing model of Empire. Deemed acceptable to pedagogy was the need to impart a “higher standard of morality to counteract (a growing) Imperialism” . Herein, morality could act as a constraint against the perceived potential for excess in a climate unprecedented not only in its “colonial discontent and European competition” , but also in its reticent social norms. During the 1890’s, the influence of Sandersonian school reforms upon the liberal atmosphere pervading the nation set subsequent reforms in train. He had hoped to fuse a Socratic tradition of intellectual spontaneity - something traditionally lacking in an Arnoldian milieu where masculine morality and esprit de corps were hammered, a la ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, into character on the playing fields of Rugby - with a strong ethical basis upon which his boys would know through co-operative endeavour to “seek out the thing that is good, the creative instinct” . This aspect of reformist moral guidance (which in itself was a microcosm of changes underway in civil society) owed much to the sobering influence of the likes of Thomas Arnold and John Ruskin and assumes some importance in our argument. Nonetheless it would be deceptive to presuppose that this noble vision of the model British Imperialist was realised uniformly. If the theory was of Ruskinian integrity then the practice may just as well have been Shaw-like in its withering analysis, in as much as “the public school product was far more likely to be a blackguard than a man like Ruskin (who had not been to school)” .
Notwithstanding this multitude of dissent, by and large what the English public school product lacked in spontaneity compared to his continental cousin, he more than made up for in a Classical education interwoven with “the training of character and of robust and honourable humanity” . Obversely, was the idea of moulding a young individual with a robust utilitarian code of ethics at the expense of fostering independent thought a convenient ruse to necessarily stifle his capacity to arrive at the unobstructed conclusion that perhaps it was, after all, immoral to rule a subject race, however humanely you dressed it up?
When it became abundantly clear after the bitter Boer experience that sentiment, or for that matter the veiled and failed threat of force, alone could not remain the glue of the Pax Britannica, the gap between intellectualism and morality created an opportunity to approach Imperialism anew. In reality, the Pax Britannica revealed that morality was more than mere theoretical cant. In practice, the Pax placed peace and order centre stage. For some commentators, Pax Britannica simply meant Pax Oceanus, or the peace of the seas. Literally, it translated as The Peace of Britain. For practical purposes, it meant the peace of one fifth of the entire human race. Hobsbawm stated the Pax “was guaranteed by the only navy of global size” . The Times wrote in 1880, “Our naval supremacy is the main guarantee of the security of…the Imperial polity” . Naval peacekeeping became the main pastime for a force operating on a two-power standard, which stipulated that the Royal Navy be at least the size of the next two greatest fleets. Extirpating the global slave trade long assumed priority and grew emblematic of the sunnier side of Imperialist morality. Classes of vessels like men o’ war would have been more aptly re-titled policemen o’ peace during this epoch. The absolute dominion of all the world’s sea-lanes by Britain’s navy brought trouble to heel, galvanising an overall peace during the long nineteenth century. Alas, the downside was others’ determination to challenge this, setting in train a global arms race that could only result in an eventual confrontation. Even if it was for Britain’s distinct advantage, the reckoning went that in the long run, it was for all the world’s advantage. Historians such as Thornton defined the Pax as an “umbrella that sheltered all colonists, one which they neither wished nor could afford to dispense with” . That furthermore, preserving the Pax meant:
“Maintaining civilised conditions among a fifth of the human race. But true Imperialism involved something more than …maintenance. (Its value lay) in not what it took away but what it gave – not by depriving alien races of their own character, language and traditions, but by ensuring the retention of all these things, and at the same time opening new vistas of culture and advancement” .
The ethical platform upon which this inquiry is rooted would leave the footprints of progressive idealism and what seems in retrospect more than a whiff of what Observer newspaper editor Edward Dicey dubbed “higher motive confused with self-deception” .
Ethics, in short, were always integral to the English tradition. Reformist educators like Sanderson realised this component was too deeply entrenched to be simply discarded for a Teutonic model that lauded the cerebral. What makes the cauldron of the new Imperialist movement between 1870 and 1914 bubble with such vim and vigour is in the collision of a long-standing liberal humanist tradition and the avarice of the age: a culture of humility and self-restraint against the glut of “Victorian materialism” ; an ethical model exalting moderation versus an economic model rewarding ruthless acquisition.