Englishmen Like Posing as Gods

West and East

Despite the Great War and its troubled aftermath, the British Empire continued to bestride the world like a colossus. Chiefly because the United States and the Soviet Union were so bound up in their own affairs—especially during the Depression, when there seemed little to choose between anaemic capitalism and bloody Communism—Britain remained the sole superpower. It dominated the League of Nations. Through the Locarno Pact (1925) it pacified Europe until the rise of Nazi Germany. Its imperial bounds reached their widest extent, encompassing, as geographers liked to boast, “one continent, a hundred peninsulas, five hundred promontories, a thousand lakes, two thousand rivers, ten thousand islands.”1 It evolved new methods of colonial control, putting more reliance on indirect rule through local elites. It found a way to run the Empire on the cheap, not just by using aircraft and armoured cars but by limiting the construction of capital ships. The Washington naval agreement (1921–2) led Britain to renounce its alliance with Japan and to share the “sceptre of Neptune” with the United States, “the one nation with which, above all things, we wish to live on terms of friendship.”2 In 1926 Balfour bound the dominions to the mother country with a final piece of verbal gossamer: they became “autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status…and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”3 This indefinite definition was affirmed by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. After the violence in Ireland, the Levant and India, a lull occurred. Then it was possible to believe that the Free State would stay in a more closely united Empire, that Britain could establish a “Monroe Doctrine” for the Middle East and that the subcontinent would continue to glitter in the royal diadem.

Elsewhere bearers of the white man’s burden supposedly exhibited a “genius for colonisation which has made the British Empire the greatest ever known.”4 This enormous edifice, apologists claimed, was a monument to the highest type of civilisation. It was the “greatest political experiment ever attempted,” said Sir Evelyn Wrench, founder of the Over-Seas League. It could pioneer a way towards “the federation of mankind,”5 he thought, just as Rome should have aspired to become, according to the elder Pliny, the common fatherland to all the peoples of the earth. In its might, majesty, dominion and power, the British Empire even appeared to prophets such as Leopold Amery and Lionel Curtis to be part of the divine order. In the gospel according to Amery the Empire was no mere super-state; it was, “like the Kingdom of Heaven, within us.”6 Curtis, who founded the quarterly Round Table, Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) and other bodies designed to promote imperial union, collected “not more than 12 disciples”7 and preached that the Empire was “the Kingdom of God on earth.”8 Foreigners were impressed against their will. On a journey round the world in 1922 Lord Northcliffe met an American who reluctantly acknowledged that “travelling in the Far East is a revelation as to Britain’s greatness, and our vast possessions make Uncle Sam ‘sit up and take notice.’”9 Adolf Hitler himself was riveted by Britain’s global hegemony and in Mein Kampf he called it “the greatest power on earth.”10

This was a representation that Whitehall mandarins did not scruple to embellish. They had earlier invited Sigismund Goetze to paint a series of allegorical murals for the Foreign Office and soon after the armistice he completed his final panel, entitled “Britannia Pacificatrix.”11 Designed to show a victorious Britain upholding peace with the aid of far-off sons and allies, it is set against a marble colonnade topped with a Latin inscription. At the centre Britannia, magnificent in a plumed helmet and red, white and gold draperies, shakes hands across the sea with America, wearing the cap of liberty and holding the scales of justice. She is flanked by Italy, with axe and fasces (symbols of Roman law), and France, grasping a short sword which points down at the wreckage of Germany’s war machine. In a supporting role are the dominions, Newfoundland with its trident, South Africa in its lion skin, Canada crowned with wheat and girded with maple leaves, Australia in its Digger’s hat and New Zealand with its golden fleece. India appears in a suit of armour. Feisal embodies the epic of Arabia. Greece carries a statue, Romania an oil jar and Japan cherry blossom, while a black boy with a cornucopia of fruit on his head signifies the potential of Africa. Sheltering under Britannia’s mantle are the naked victims of the conflict, notably Belgium, emerging from the horrors of war with broken sword but unsullied flag. Here, dignified by its classical iconography, was a triumphant image of Britain’s post-war might and magnanimity. Curzon said that the painting was not art but melodrama. Really it was propaganda. It was an emblem of the endeavour, which intensified between the wars, to enhance British prestige in order to compensate for the relative decline of British power.

To be sure, the promotion of Empire was almost as old as the Empire itself. But Northcliffe and others had developed techniques for manipulating public opinion during the Great War when “propaganda, like a gigantic upas tree, dripped its poison over all nations.”12 Afterwards Britain made an unprecedented effort to rally democracy behind the imperial standard, so much so that inter-war governments were accused of “tampering with the human will,”13 engendering a herd instinct and placing the mass “mind in chains.”14 New media were exploited. The cinema, more thrilling than the magic lantern show and easier to censor than the music hall, overtook the theatre as a means of fostering imperial sentiment. Films ranged from documentaries such as Palaver, which showed a British District Officer “administering justice, building roads and bridges, teaching the natives to develop the country and live peaceably together,”15 to epics such as Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which Hitler used to teach the SS how a tiny elite could subjugate an inferior race. The wireless and the gramophone conveyed better pictures still, bringing the Empire vividly to life in the imagination of listeners. The British Broadcasting Corporation filled the nation’s homes with “aural pageants”—royal ceremonies, military parades, religious services and the like.16 It gave weight as well as wings to the imperial message, intimating that the plummy accent of the Establishment was the voice of objectivity. Traditional methods of advertising Greater Britain, everything from chocolate boxes to brass bands, from royal tours to popular songs, also flourished during the 1920s. Cigarette cards were never more popular or more patriotic. Scouting boomed and with it exhortations to khaki-shorted youth not to “be disgraced like the young Romans, who lost the Empire of their forefathers by being wishy-washy slackers without any go or patriotism in them.”17 Comics encouraged what George Orwell called “gutter patriotism.” Juvenile literature depicted a timeless Britain where the King is on his throne, the pound is good as gold and the fleet is in the Channel, while comic foreigners jabber on the Continent and at the outposts of the Empire “monocled Englishmen are holding the niggers at bay.”18 The Beefeater press purveyed stereotypes that were scarcely less crude, as did schools, men’s clubs, women’s institutes and other organisations.

Yet it is doubtful whether they had much impact. Old colonial hands continued to complain that no one at home took the slightest interest in their affairs. One Viceroy, Lord Reading, observed that English people only listened to talk about India out of politeness. Another, Lord Willingdon, declared that lack of awareness about India was especially marked at Westminster: “He was amazed at Baldwin’s ignorance; & still more amazed that he should not want to know.”19 Intellectuals said that the writings of Kipling, Haggard, Henty and their ilk no more won converts to the cult of Empire than Gothic melodrama inspired “a belief in ghosts.”20 Experts acknowledged the difficulty of influencing the public mind. For it was not a tabula rasa or blank sheet on which the imperial creed could be inscribed; it was a palimpsest of differing opinions and a “phantasmagoria of conflicting values.”21 Propaganda, which became a dirty word as wartime atrocity stories were exposed as lies, seemed less to direct popular views than to reflect official policy. In fact, Britain’s drumbeat sounded louder as its Empire grew more hollow.

Nothing illustrated this better than the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, the most ambitious show of its kind ever staged. When George V pressed the button on a golden globe to open it on 24 April 1924, amid scenes of dazzling ceremonial, he telegraphed a message of imperial power round the world in eighty seconds. The audience cheered the boy who delivered the telegram to His Majesty confirming this electronic feat almost as rapturously as it greeted the King, whose amplified voice, according to the Daily Mail, caused an African chief in the crowd to exclaim: “This is magic!”22 Commentators were equally awed. They hailed the exhibition as “the greatest co-operative effort for peaceful ends the British Empire has ever made.”23 Of the fifty-eight countries in an Empire of four hundred million people covering fourteen million square miles—seven times larger than the territories of Rome at their greatest extent—only two or three failed to contribute. At a cost of £12 million the rest filled the 220 acres at Wembley with a bonsai version of this great association, as rich in detail as Queen Mary’s doll’s house (designed by Lutyens) which was also on display. The twin-towered sports stadium and the huge pavilions around it were erected at astonishing speed by the use of concrete. Indeed, the Palace of Engineering, covering a space over six times the size of Trafalgar Square, was the biggest concrete building on earth. But nothing seemed more to merit the eulogy of its builder, Sir Robert McAlpine, “the Concrete King,” than the stadium itself, the finest in the world.

When Titus of Ancient Rome built the vast Amphitheatre, known on account of its colossal size as the Colosseum, taking sixteen years to do the job, it probably did not enter his imperial mind that one day a stadium almost three times as large, and infinitely more enduring, would be constructed in less than a tithe of the time by a nation he and his forebears thought it scarcely worth while to conquer.24

The twin towers, which scarcely survived the British Empire, were a Mughal excrescence on a Roman base and they typified the eclecticism of Wembley’s architecture. Canada and Australia favoured the neo-classical. South Africa built a traditional Dutch mansion with stoep, loggia and pantiled roof. India amalgamated its largest mosque and its finest tomb, the Jami Masjid and the Taj Mahal, to create an alabaster palace. West Africa raised a three-acre, red-walled city encompassing a terracotta fort. Burma constructed an old Moulmein pagoda and Ceylon a Kandian temple. The Palace of Beauty was a melange of cream stone, Siena marble and lapis lazuli.

Laid out amid lakes and gardens, connected by the “Never-Stop Railway” and illuminated after dark by three million lights, these edifices were an imperial treasure casket. They contained gold, diamond and coal mines; furs, forests and fisheries; coffee, tea, sugar and rubber plantations; timber mills, ostrich farms, sheep stations, rice paddies, cotton fields, palm groves, oil wells, chocolate factories. Craftsmen from India to the West Indies wove cloth, worked leather and beat metal. Hong Kong offered a picturesque street of shops. Egypt provided a replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb, complete with dragomans. Bermuda showed “Old Glory” being hoisted when America took over part of the dockyard during the war. England presented famous naval battles fought with model ships and a gigantic map of the world set in water. In front of its pale grey pavilion Australia placed an equestrian statue of Apollo in the chariot of the sun. Along with Mounties, Canada contributed a statue of the Prince of Wales carved in butter. Prince Edward himself said that the exhibition was “the Empire’s shop window.”25 It did indeed promote sales of an exotic range of goods: everything from Canadian hockey sticks to Australian eucalyptus oil, from Malayan copra to Gold Coast cocoa, from Fijian turtle shells to Hong Kong human hair commodities, from New Zealand artificial limbs to Newfoundland eelgrass. Moreover, it led to the establishment of the Empire Marketing Board, designed to “sell the idea of Empire production and purchase…as a co-operative venture.”26 Yet as appears from the historical pageants and torchlight tableaux, the Scout jamborees and martial tattoos, the music by Elgar and street names by Kipling, the Exhibition was much more than a trade fair. It was, insisted The Times, “a true shrine of Empire.” Its purpose was to make the imperial faith burn more brightly, to renew communion between all the King’s subjects in the aftermath of the war and thus to win the peace. Majesty was the essence of the imperial saga, “‘majestas’ in the full Roman sense, but loftier and purer than all the majesty of Rome.”

However, as The Times further observed, since the Crown was the sole bond of Empire “the weakness and dangers of the system are manifest.”27 So despite the pomp and circumstance, which Elgar himself found “irredeemably vulgar,28 the Exhibition bore involuntary witness to the frailty of the system. Plagued by labour troubles, it was not completed on time and stucco façades concealed a litter of tangled wires, twisted pipes and broken packing cases. It attracted twenty-seven million visitors but lost £600,000. It proved too expensive for many workers though the hard-pressed waitresses in its cafés and restaurants were woefully underpaid. Its fifty-acre amusement park seemed to be “a Roman circus where the populace could…seek a refuge from reality.”29 It confirmed racial prejudice: Zulu clerks in European employment were “painfully endeavouring,” said The Times’s final Wembley supplement, “to assimilate the lessons of a man to the mind of a child.”30 It was politically divisive. The short-lived Labour ministry endorsed the Exhibition and the Empire, despite Ramsay MacDonald’s earlier insistence that imperial expansion was “only the grabbings of millionaires on the hunt.”31 But many socialists still held such views and they disparaged the Wembley carnival. The left-wing New Statesman snubbed it. The Daily Herald, which was subsidised with tsarist jewels by Bolsheviks who identified the colonies as the “Achilles’ heel” of British capitalism,32 virtually ignored it. Instead the paper printed a hagiography of Lenin and publicised George Lansbury’s confession that the minority Labour government could not implement a true socialist policy towards the Empire, “even if any of us were quite sure what that policy should be.”33 The closing speech by the Duke of York (the future King George VI) was a stammering embarrassment. All told, the Exhibition scarcely restored confidence in the British Empire’s capacity to develop and, in the wake of the war, to undertake “the biggest rebuilding job our planet has ever seen.”34 Yet Britons believed that the Empire “must grow or it must decay.”35 So, for all its splendour, symbolised by the six lions at the entrance to the British Government pavilion, the Exhibition also suggested that the imperial structure was infected by decrepitude. Ravaged by conflict and bloated by mandates, the Empire was suffering from what Beatrice Webb called “a sort of senile hypertrophy.”36

What kept the gigantic enterprise of empire going was something of a mystery, for the officials who conducted it were astonishingly thin on the ground. The Indian Civil Service was only 1,250 strong. Its Malayan equivalent numbered 220 and its Ceylonese a hundred. Britain ruled the forty-three million people in the two million square miles of its dozen or so African colonies with 1,200 administrators, two hundred judges and legal officers, and a thousand policemen and soldiers (not one above the rank of lieutenant-colonel). About forty Englishmen governed Sarawak. Sometimes a man in his twenties might take charge of a piece of Africa as big as Yorkshire or, like Leonard Woolf in pre-war Ceylon, a jungle district of four hundred square miles containing not one other European. Of course, any sudden upsurge of violence could overwhelm this “thin white line.”37 So the British augmented their power by collaborating with local elites and enhanced their prestige by insisting on white superiority. Keeping up appearances was deemed vital. Probably the single most evocative vignette of empire is George Orwell’s account of how, as a policeman in Burma, he shot an elephant that had gone on the rampage, in order to sustain the dignity of his own race. The animal no longer posed a danger yet, equipped with his rifle, Orwell had to do what was expected of him “to impress the ‘natives.’” As he wrote, “A sahib has got to act like a sahib.”38

Come what may, the servants of empire must present a bold front. Indeed, so much effort went into a display of ascendancy that it was often to the detriment of efficiency. Soldiers paraded in polished array but the army remained little more than an imperial gendarmerie. Even after mechanisation the War Office allowed cavalry officers two free chargers each and regiments that received self-propelled guns slowed down their firing rate by retaining elaborate procedures for controlling non-existent horses. Sailors showed the flag with Nelsonian panache but the navy’s inter-war sloops were “under-armed and under-powered”39 because they were built more for their impressive silhouette than for their fighting capacity. Airmen put on a wizard show but the RAF was so starved of cash that in India it could not afford tyres for some of its aged Bristol planes, which had to take off and land on the metal rims of their wheels. District Commissioners dressed for dinner in the jungle “to maintain the proper pride” that a white man should have in himself, wrote Somerset Maugham, who noted the discomfort and inconvenience caused by such formalities.40 Everything was done to elevate rulers above the ruled, to establish them as a separate order of beings. Each according to his place in the imperial hierarchy enjoyed a portion of the divine authority supposed to flow down from a theocratic King. Servants of the Crown became local deities. Eventually, as E. M. Forster wrote in his novel A Passage to India (1924), they would “retire to some suburban villa, and die exiled from glory.” In the meantime, to quote one of his characters, “Englishmen like posing as gods.”41

Those who ran the Empire between the wars were, at least, brought up to command. Half of them—those most likely to succeed—came from public schools which prided themselves on turning out the leaders of the future. By now the cult of athleticism was entrenched and games had definitively superseded godliness and good learning as the prime means for “the training of character.”42 Of course the colonial service also accommodated savants and classical scholars who felt “dreadfully Rome-sick.”43 But it was “qualities of character”44 that chiefly recommended candidates to the ineffable Sir Ralph Furse. The incarnation of snobbery and jobbery, he was long responsible for recruitment at the Colonial Office, where as a young man he had played cricket in the Colonial Secretary’s room, bowling from the great door and using the fireplace as a wicket. Furse, a product of Eton (which by itself provided over a quarter of those joining the Foreign Office during the early 1930s), gloried in the old boy network. He preferred men who came from “stock that has proved its worth”—though there might be a place for rougher types, the sort not afraid to tell smoking-room stories to tribal elders, in more uncouth outposts of the Empire such as the Gold Coast. And the methods of selection he employed during his term of office (1910–48) were simple to the point of naïveté. Indeed, the Colonial Office’s Appointments Handbook sometimes seems to echo the Boy Scouts’ Handbook: “Weakness of various kinds may lurk in a flabby lip or in averted eyes, just as single-mindedness and purpose are commonly reflected in a steady gaze and a firm set of the mouth and jaw.”45 Monocles were no impediment to the steady gaze but Furse took a dim view of “the spectacled chap.”46

Still, his criteria had a wide appeal at the time, especially to traditionalists who thought that the Empire was best managed by solid, patriotic gentlemen committed to playing the game. As one senior administrator in Malaya wrote, “What we require out here are young public school men—Cheltenham for preference—who have failed conspicuously at all book-work and examinations in proportion as they have excelled at sports.”47 On the whole such officials did sterling service, being honest, brave, responsible and industrious. They did much to earn the most fulsome encomiums. According to that scourge of imperial wrong-doing, E. D. Morel, they were “strong in their sense of justice, keen in their sense of right, firm in their sense of duty.”48 In his unpublished memoir an Irish lawyer, who was usually scathing about the English, had nothing but praise for the District Officers he met in Nigeria: “Their concern for the native people they governed was wonderful.” He added that the philosopher George Santayana was thinking of such men when he said that the world had never had such “boyish masters.” It would be a tragedy, Santayana added, when they were replaced by “the churl and the bully.”49

On the other hand, despite much local partisanship their first duty was not to the inhabitants of the colonies but to the Empire. As an Acting Governor of Nigeria told the young James Callaghan, it would help him and his colleagues if Britain ceased its “hypocritical emphasis on being in Africa for the benefit of the Africans” and acknowledged that “we stayed there for our own good,” though this might also profit the natives, who would otherwise revert to cannibalism in a “disease-ridden malarial swamp and jungle.”50 Furthermore, officials often had the vices of their virtues. Many were priggish, boorish, aloof and stultifyingly conventional. Leonard Woolf said that those in Ceylon never rose above the level of “the lowest Cambridge pseudo-blood” and that no one talked about “anything more interesting than ‘the service’ or whether Mr. A is really engaged to Miss B.”51 Margery Perham complained of a colonial civil servant whose conversation was “confined to sport, public schools and regiments, including the colour of their ties.”52 He and his kind were frequently smug, intolerant and reactionary. Given such power and such freedom, they were all too liable to develop “the failings of irresponsible rulers.”53 At home critics such as H. G. Wells increasingly damned the public schools for producing a cadre of narrow-minded Philistines dedicated to the defence of class and race privilege. Bernard Shaw declared that Eton, Harrow, Winchester and their cheaper imitations “should be razed to the ground and their foundations sown with salt.”54 Shocked by the habitual rudeness of expensively educated sahibs towards Indians, E. M. Forster wrote in 1922: “Never in history did ill-breeding contribute so much towards the dissolution of an Empire.”55

Such hostile opinions might have been confirmed on a voyage out to Britain’s Asian possessions aboard the floating caravanserais of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company. Its fleet, immaculate in black and white livery, the rising sun emblem loftily displayed, was a monument to imperial pride. Young men going to their first postings began to learn the ropes as they travelled in style with the P&O, which had always insisted on quasi-naval protocol and the “proper subordination” of second-class passengers.56 Kipling complained that it imposed “chain-gang regulations” and acted as though it were “a favour to allow you to embark.”57 The new boys found that they must respond to the sound of bugles, which signalled such important events as huge meals, deck tennis competitions and dances to popular tunes played by the ship’s band. In the punkah-stirred dining room, where “social level-finding”58 was an art, they were soon put in their place and, as Talleyrand said, the place at table never lies. In the green-tiled smoking room, which resembled “a bedroom suite in the Tottenham Court Road,”59 they discovered that it was good form to talk about sport—not money, like Americans, or beer, like Germans. Soon they were parroting the standard view that “kindness was absolutely wasted on black men; the one ethical quality necessary in a representative of Great Britain was firmness.”60 In the saloon they were initiated into the business of signing chits for drinks—payment settled weekly. In fact they signed chits for everything, including church collections, since Europeans seldom carried cash in the East—one Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, confessed to never having seen a rupee. In their cabins it was ordained that the “precise, imperturbable, Imperial Englishman…goes to bed cleanly in his pyjamas…shaves religiously each morning, and carefully brushes his clothes.”61

After Port Said, supposedly the Clapham Junction of the Empire, virgin sailors found that the tuxedo gave way to the white mess jacket, known as the “bum-freezer.” This was worn with boiled shirt, stiff collar and black trousers. Despite the formality high jinks sometimes occurred and other barriers were breached thanks to “the promiscuity of ship-board.”62 But conventions governed even seductions: young women going out to look for husbands (“the fishing fleet”) were forbidden fruit but those already married were fair game. Amid the spiced zephyrs of Ceylon it was permissible to succumb to the magic of the Orient, to the enchantment of crystal waters, coral strands, jewelled skies, jade foliage, bronze skins. No one conjured up the gorgeous East more vividly than Joseph Conrad, but he did warn that “a stealthy Nemesis” lay in wait for proud members of “the conquering race.”63 George Orwell, aged nineteen and en route for Rangoon, received a portent of this in 1922 when his ship called at Colombo, fabled “Queen of the Tropic Seas.” On the dock, to his horror, he saw a police sergeant kicking a coolie. His fellow passengers watched the scene with “no emotion whatever except a mild approval. They were white, and the coolie was black. In other words, he was subhuman.”64Ironically, as a policeman in Burma Orwell himself resorted to physical abuse. But violence inevitably provoked a hostile reaction, in perpetrators as well as victims. Orwell grew so disgusted by colonial dirty work that, to judge from his novel Burmese Days(1934), he burned with hatred for his own countrymen and longed for “a native rising to drown their Empire in blood.”65

Few of his compatriots shared that hope but those bound for the East often did discuss how long the Empire would last. It was still quite possible to take the view that it “would go on for ever and ever.”66 Politicians at home proclaimed the solidity of its structure, none more vehemently than Winston Churchill, who had reverted to Toryism and sounded like “the head of a True Blue Committee of Public Safety.”67 Proconsuls abroad continued to “doubt if Asiatics can ever be taught to govern themselves.”68Colonial statesmen such as Jan Smuts declared that the greatest political organisation of all time, founded on freedom rather than force, had passed through the “awful blizzard” of war and “emerged stronger than before.”69 British soldiers snorted that they would preserve the Empire by flogging or hanging nationalists—or, as Orwell’s Colonel Bodger suggested, by boiling them in oil. However, the Victorian illusion of permanence had largely vanished in the shambles of the Western Front. A view commonly heard on P&O steamers between the wars was that the Indian Raj might last another twenty-five years, long enough for new recruits to serve their time and earn their pensions. The attractions of the service were not what they had been before the war. To compensate for heat, solitude, fever, monotony and tragedy, it still offered “cheap servants, cheap horses, cheap houses, cheap sport, cheap social amenities.”70 But some warned that the progressive Indianisation of the ICS made a posting outside the subcontinent more secure. Burma, where disturbances led to power-sharing in 1935, was not an inviting alternative. Nor, save to incurable romantics, were the remote islands of the South Seas. For all their allure these were tropical slums run on a shoestring, often by quaint characters like George McGhee Murdoch, whose will to dominate was betrayed by “the deliberate, waxed bristle of his sergeant-major’s moustache.”71 Ceylon had merit, being peaceful, prosperous and politically sophisticated. But the most attractive country in South-East Asia was Malaya. Penang, for example, was the sort of place in which an Englishman might actually choose to live, remarked the patrician globetrotter Patrick Balfour, whereas the “idea of anyone choosing to live in India would be grotesque.”72Malaya was “a Tory Eden in which each man is contented with his station.”73

Actually the British held sway because they controlled the local elites through a variety of administrative systems and kept a balance between the three races—Malays in the paddy fields, Indians on the plantations, Chinese in the shops and mines. Tin and rubber, of which Malaya was by far the greatest producer in the world, brought wealth to the country. Furthermore, a government monopoly in the manufacture and sale of opium provided around half its income. One Governor explained the situation to the Colonial Secretary in terms redolent of Lord Palmerston:

Opium smoking in Malaya is not the awful scourge believed in by western sentimentalists…[it] is not doing as much harm as drink in England. It can never be stopped in Malaya…Smuggling is impossible to prevent, and the money now coming into revenue would go to the smugglers. Any attempt to earmark our opium revenue…to humanitarian works of supererogation would play the devil with our finances.74

If the Chinese suffered, British officials benefited from this bounty and could afford to send their sons home to public schools. By the 1920s the Malayan Civil Service (MCS) had become highly professional. Gone were the days of Victorian patriarchs such as C. F. Bozzolo, who had ruled Upper Perak from elephant back wearing only a hat and a sarong, disregarding government missives and maintaining a large harem. Admittedly his successor, Hubert Berkeley, also tried to keep the modern world at bay. He refused to build roads, invited guests who had not “dunged”75 to share his two-seater latrine (decorated with pictures of other officials, including the Governor) and exercised droit de seigneur over the girls of a local orphanage. He even obtained a superior “sleeping dictionary,”76 a Malay schoolteacher, for a new recruit to the service.

However, the advent of white wives caused an exodus of brown concubines. Once they had been thought so essential to health that when (in 1890) the Chief Commissioner of Burma issued a confidential circular against native mistresses, the Rangoon Turf Club ran a horse called Physiological Necessity. Now there was merely a jovial nostalgia for “the good old feudal times [when] the planter was always metaphorically and occasionally (bad luck, sir!) literally the father of his flock.”77 And now young men joined a civil service with a “distinctive esprit de corps.78Yet its members also held more aloof from the population. They took note of that distinguished champion of miscegenation, Sir Hugh Clifford, Governor of the Straits Settlements for two years before being shipped home in 1929, who constituted a terrible warning of its dangers. As a youth he had apparently contracted syphilis in Malaya and back in England, before being confined to a private asylum, he would sit in a sarong on the steps of the Colonial Office giving his former colleagues advice on imperial problems of the day as they went in and out of the building. Robert Bruce Lockhart, who had worked in Malaya as a young planter and returned in the mid-1930s as a journalist, reported that “over-bureaucratisation” was undermining initiative and destroying the efficiency of Britain’s imperial administration. The same fate, he observed ominously, had overtaken Rome. Lockhart called the final section of his account “White Man’s Twilight.”79

This is not to say that MCS cadets were idle. Effectively prevented from marrying until their superiors gave the nod, they were set to work. Over the next few years they learned the range of duties that earned them promotion. The District Officer had to be omnicompetent. He collected taxes, presided in court, supervised the police, oversaw public works, advanced agriculture, promoted health, inspected schools, fostered sport, encouraged Boy Scouts, arbitrated in disputes and fulfilled endless social functions, from attending royal jubilee celebrations to introducing wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performances. Despite economic fluctuations and the Great Depression itself, which hurt primary producers much more than manufacturers, Malaya’s relative prosperity enabled the British to improve the fabric of life. They took direct action, every Resident being, as one official put it, “a Socialist in his own state.”80 They invested in education, sanitation, irrigation and power generation. They erected buildings and created enterprises, notably the tin-smelting industry. They constructed roads and railways. The most spectacular railway station was the white and gold fantasy at Kuala Lumpur, supposedly built to the British specification that its roof should be capable of bearing the weight of three feet of snow. It was embellished with minarets, spires, cupolas, scalloped eaves and keyhole arches, an architectural style described as “Late Marzipan.”81

Yet many of these achievements helped to widen the gulf between Europeans and Asians. New means of communication led to segregation. Whites now played games among themselves, “the hall-mark of British civilisation in the East [being] a bag of golf clubs.”82 They established exclusive districts in Kuala Lumpur and avoided fraternisation. They isolated themselves in hill stations of pebbledash and mock Tudor, making Home Counties residences out of bungalows in the Cameron Highlands. Above all, sahibs consorted with memsahibs, who encouraged a laager mentality and for the most part remained in a kind of European purdah.

Of course, as feminists have argued, women faced almost insuperable difficulties throughout the Empire. With notable exceptions, they lacked both essential work and an independent role. They were deterred from learning local languages by their alleged impropriety. They were fed lurid stories of coloured lust, doubtless intended to increase their dependence on white males, for whom violence against white women was “a potent symbol of political revenge against the ruling group.”83 They found themselves in an alien, sometimes hostile and often incomprehensible world. Like the wife of the District Officer in Joyce Cary’s novel Mister Johnson (1939), set in Africa, they could often derive “no meaning” from the picturesque or squalid scenes around them.84 In the Pacific, according to one official, British women knew islanders only as servants and “were unable to conceive that there could be any difference in rank between one ‘nigger’ and another.”85 Minds remained closed in the subcontinent. “The Indians!” exclaims Mrs. Bristow in Joseph Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday (1952), “I never think of them.”86 Indeed, according to Iris Portal, “The tragedy of British India was the unpreparedness of the memsahibs.”87 Even well-prepared memsahibs could develop an invincible aversion to Asians. “I really think I hate the women more than the men!” wrote Lady Grigg. She found them “semicivilised & wholly revolting.” And she was particularly disgusted by tinselly saris and matronly bodies, “so rude & shapeless & corsetless.”88

Needless to say, some European women were sympathetic and selfless. They were keen to express “woman’s love for her sister woman of other hue.”89 They preferred to build bridges with local people than to play bridge with their own kind. In Khartoum one tried to teach Sudanese girls Scottish glees. In Lagos a Ladies’ League gave instruction in cookery, hygiene and needlework. But many who called themselves ladies were lazy, arrogant “vixens”—Nirad Chaudhuri’s word.90 The “poker-backed white woman, all whipped up in whalebone,”91 was no mere stereotype invented by masculine prejudice. She was ubiquitous, a bored, aimless prig with nothing to do but curse the country, scold her servants, write letters home, play tennis and gossip with friends over gin pahits (bitters) or whisky stengahs (halfmeasures—also an offensive term for Eurasians). If you met her at the Colombo Garden Club, said Leonard Woolf, she could “tell you what you had for dinner two weeks ago in Jaffna.”92 She fussed inordinately about distinctions of status and refinements of etiquette—it was said that “the appearance of the first silver coffee-pot changed the face of Nigeria.”93 In Malaya she helped to draw between the races “an iron curtain of ignorance.”94

Paradoxically, cultural harmonisation also aggravated racial alienation. The spread through Malaya of western dress, education, cinema, sport and habits prompted the British to insist on their own singularity. This was marked in various ways. The government ensured that whites never suffered what was regarded as the indignity of serving under Asians. Britons complained that the Chinese were not suitably deferential, refusing to step aside for them on the pavements of Kuala Lumpur, and they tried to insist that their Chinese servants kept their pigtails as a sign of respect and a token that they were unspoilt by civilisation. The authorities deported white engine drivers, bootblacks, prostitutes and others engaged in menial occupations. Sporadic attempts were made to keep the races apart: for example, non-Europeans could use Singapore’s Raffles Hotel but they were not allowed on to the dance floor. Incipient rivalries gave new stimulus to ancient antipathies. On his tour round the world Lord Northcliffe inveighed against

the swaggering, boastful, whisky-and-soda drinking, horn-spectacled, and fountain-pen-wearing Babu, who likes to think that because he has the imitative and blotting-paper mind that enables him to pass examinations, he is the equal of the Anglo-Saxon, and, knowing his own inferiority, is bitter and dangerous.95

Northcliffe was sensitive about examinations—it was said that the only one he ever passed was the Wassermann test for syphilis. But his characteristic commination might have been heard throughout South-East Asia during the inter-war years.

Nothing insulated the British more definitively from their imperial subjects than that omnipresent institution, the club. Wherever the map was painted red, Britons created more or less accurate imitations of the palaces of Pall Mall. Their aim was to exclude as well as to include, on the metropolitan model. In London, for example, Pratt’s not only barred women but forbade them to telephone the club; while to get into the Beefsteak one had to be a relation of God and, members intoned, a damned close relation at that. Colonial clubs arose as social bastions and whites were encouraged to attend in order to maintain solidarity, as appears in Forster’s A Passage to India. Early ones might consist of a thatched hut furnished with two benches and a plank. When the monsoon left the ground too wet for polo, members would make a bonfire of the entire structure, along with the club accounts, only to start again the following year. Soon more permanent establishments arose, though many remained down-at-heel. The Kandy Club in Ceylon was “poky, gloomy, and even rather sordid.”96 The European Club in Accra looked like, and perhaps was, “an out-of-date railway station”97—according to legend it had originally served Balmoral and was donated to West Africa when Queen Victoria required a smarter stop. With its faded wooden jalousies, its rusting wrought ironwork, its tattered green baize notice boards and its sagging verandahs, Aden’s Union Club “reeked of the decay of Empire.”98 More cheerfully, tropical clubs were often embowered in English gardens. These were full of petunias, hollyhocks and roses, which grew dropsical in the heat and swooned under a riot of crimson hibiscus, silver frangipani, vermilion poinciana and purple bougainvillea. The clubs had high, barrack-like rooms cooled by punkahs, later by ceiling fans. They were furnished with rattan mats, bamboo tables and reclining cane chairs popularly known as Bombay Fornicators. The walls were adorned with animal horns and heads—the British passion for shikar made taxi-dermy big business.

Women were confined to separate enclaves, usually known as the “Hen House,” or moorgi-khanna (though the Sind Club in Karachi called this area the “Shallow End”),99 and sometimes they were banned completely. A proposal to equip the Madras Club with a ladies’ pavilion in 1892 was regarded as “revolutionary.”100 In 1930 the Hong Kong Club turned a redundant cubicle into a Ladies’ Room, which one beneficiary dismissed as “a mangey [sic] concession very grudgingly given”101 by members who still forbade women to use the library. The Hill Club at Nuwara Eliya in Ceylon imposed a range of petty restrictions on women, whose luggage was permitted to go through the front door while they themselves had to use a side entrance. When a lost female strayed into the “sacred precinct” of the United Services Club in Simla between the wars its horrified major-domo “snatched a notice from the wall and, holding it in front of him, barred further progress to the intruder. The notice ran: ‘Dogs and other noxious animals are not allowed in the Club.’”102 Actually, such institutions were not good at repelling the brute creation. At different times the Hill Club was afflicted by a “plague of flies,” its meat was “alive with maggots” and its billiards room swarmed “with fleas—one member caught 13 in a few minutes.”103 Other pests were rampant, as revealed in the unpublished “Complaints and Suggestions Book” of the Bombay Club.

The attention of the Committee is drawn to the daily increasing number of rats, bandicoots, mice, and other vermin in the Club. Can nothing be done to improve the state of things, in this respect? The Mongoose is evidently a fraud and a failure. We beg to suggest cats or traps. The undersigned have this evening seen a large rat seated on the gruyère cheese.

Still, clubs were Englishmen’s castles—the Bombay Club, which prohibited the use of foreign languages on its premises, even wondered “whether Scotchmen are to be allowed to speak Scotch.”104

Clubs were homes away from home. They supplied refreshment. This was often deplorable, menus boasting English dishes such as tapioca pudding and spotted dick with custard. When a member ordered fresh papaya at the Singapore Club he received tinned apricots because “the club did not serve native food.”105 Exceptions were made. Curry tiffin (lunch), along with brandy chota pegs (small measures), satisfied the inner man. And they were sometimes taken as a kind of secular sacrament, especially at havens like the Madras Club, which acquired a “qualified artist” as chef.106 Clubs provided recreation. Games of all sorts were treated with more than religious zeal, promotion at work often depending on proficiency at play. In one Indian club members complained that church services held next to the billiards room put them off their stroke and the Ootacamund (“snooty Ooty”) Club even devised its own cult, snooker. Clubs offered entertainment. There were Burns Nights and St. Andrew’s Nights. There were dances, fancy dress parties and lantern slide shows. There were amateur theatricals, featuring productions such as Lord Richard in the Pantry and The Rotters’ Farewell. There were charades known as “Geographical Teas”: at the Gorakhpur Club one ICS man “went as ‘Lucknow’ with a picture of two dice, with the sixes uppermost, over my open watch; and only two guessed it.”107 There were libraries full of mildewed Edgar Wallace thrillers, tattered stacks of Punch and The Field, and old copies of The Times which traditionally served as shrouds for comatose members. Little energy was devoted to reading: when Richard Burton, as a founder member, gave the Sind Club a copy of his unexpurgated translation of the Arabian Nights, it was placed among the children’s books in the library where it remained, evidently unopened, for two generations. Larger clubs, like those at Malacca, Bangalore and Mombasa, were a little more sophisticated. And at the top were Athenaeums abroad.

The grand clubs of Calcutta were the Bengal, the oldest in India, dating from 1827, and the rustic Tollygunge. Their equivalents in Bombay were the Royal Yacht Club, which resembled a maharajah’s castle in the air, and the Gymkhana Club, whose marble lavatories were “more magnificent than the High Courts.”108 The superb Singapore Club dominated the harbour. Kipling likened the Hong Kong Club, as reconstructed in 1860, to “a small palace”109 built afresh in 1897, it resembled a large palace, in the style of Fatehpur Sikri, though a majestic entrance was sacrificed to accommodate no fewer than four bowling alleys on the ground floor. The United Services Club at Lucknow seemed to be a monstrously inflated cricket pavilion. Although its “premises did not match the glory of its occupants,”110 the Lake Club in Kuala Lumpur was aptly known as the “Tuan Besar,” or “Brass Hat” Club. In such temples of fashion the high priests were usually “die-hard reactionaries.”111 They preserved the spirit of London’s eighteenth-century Warble Club, which had ruled that “any member who has two ideas shall be obliged to give one to his neighbour.”112 They spoke, as at Dublin’s patrician Kildare Street Club, “in a sort of dialect, a dead language which the larva-like stupidity of the club has preserved.”113 Like public schoolboys, they relished esoteric shibboleths and arcane anathemas. They enforced rules and regulations with more-than-metropolitan severity. Indeed, they so worshipped convention that senior figures in Calcutta formed an Unceremonials Club to flout it; but members did nothing more outré than “wear a red cap playing tennis and a red smoking jacket at Club dinners.”114 Above all, British clubs determined their intake according to inflexible social and racial canons. This gave particular offence to indigenous elites. Motilal Nehru refused an invitation to stand for election to the Allahabad Club because he would not risk the insult of being blackballed. One chastened ICS man, though, was glad “for the sake of my own race”115 that Indians did not witness the intricate snobberies of British club life.

Eminent Asians did gain entry to some clubs, such as the Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur, a mock-Tudor edifice which for its pains was nicknamed the “Spotted Dog.” Similarly, a few Britons joined the Mohamed Ali Club in Cairo, a voluptuous sanctuary of deep carpets, velvet curtains, billowing divans and enormous chandeliers. Moreover, some clubs, such as the Island Club in Nigeria and the Cosmopolitan Club in India, were formed to mix the races. It was to encourage integration that Lord Willingdon founded the clubs that bore his name in Bombay, Madras and Delhi. Paradoxically, the first of these turned out to be the last word in hauteur. It included only maharajahs and their ilk, while banning Japanese, and it sanctioned a patrician superciliousness among its members, who might stand impassively near the showers until a servant arrived to take off their trousers. Moreover, Lady Willingdon did her bit to sabotage the enterprise: in the manner of Queen Mary, she admired the diamonds worn by princely members so effusively that they felt obliged to make her presents of them. Still, it was obvious that such advice as the secret memorandum handed to new ICS officials about their social relations with “Indian gentlemen,”116 which contained an appendix written in 1821, was no longer likely to sustain British rule.

So everywhere pressure increased to lift the racial bar to club membership. This was not always successful. As late as the Second World War, Ceylonese were not even permitted to enter the Colombo Club as guests, though they often invited Europeans to the Orient Club. The Hill Club at Nuwara Eliya refused to admit Sri Lankans until 1966 when, facing financial extinction from a haemorrhage of European members, it was known as “The Morgue.”117 The Lahore Club followed a similar course. The Accra Club, which admitted Turks but not Syrians or Cypriots, continued to keep out Africans after the Gold Coast became independent. A senior official in West Africa who tried to promote racial mingling stated flatly, “Clubs are rarely an asset to a station.”118 But there was change, sometimes cheerfully embraced. Typically, the High Range Club at Munnar in Kerala accepted its first (very distinguished but essentially token) Indian member in 1934, though its social policy remained intact and it excluded Royal Air Force NCOs even during the Second World War. Nevertheless, the struggle for admission provoked bitter disputes throughout the Empire. It also became the theme for several novels, notably Burmese Days, in which a character warns that by giving way over small things “we’ve ruined the Empire.”119 Resistance was sometimes violent. At Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club, where Edward Prince of Wales was wrestled to the floor by the amorous Lady Delamere, members set fire to the grand piano in protest against a proposal to admit Jews.

In fact, for all their emphasis on gentlemanliness, clubs often became the scene of hooliganism. Members insulted and assaulted servants. They indulged in high jinks and horseplay. In New Delhi’s Gymkhana Club during the war one colonel tried to crack walnuts by hurling them at a portrait of the King-Emperor and shattered the glass instead. Clubmen bombarded each other with bread rolls though, unlike habitués of St. James’s, they do not seem to have invested in “throwing port.” They engaged in vicious feuds. Quarrels in the Hong Kong Club during the 1860s poisoned the social life of the entire European community. During a dispute over whist in the Bombay Club, a Mr. Ashburner directed a torrent of Billingsgate at the Secretary, Captain Walshe, whom he threatened to strike. Ashburner repeated with “gusto the obscene native term of abuse ‘Barnshute’ [motherfucker], also adding thereto that coarse English expletive so dear to his foul mouth—‘bloody.’”120 The drinking of vast quantities of hard liquor, evidently the prime purpose of institutions such as the Lagos Club, known as the “Gin Tank,”121 often led to the “frenzied destruction of property.” The High Range Club, which was decorated not only with antlers but with the headgear of retired tea planters who had literally hung up their hats, cherished “a tradition of members wilfully breaking glasses,”122 smashing furniture and destroying billiards tables. An entertainment at the Screechers’ Club, formed by RAF officers in India during the war, was the “Prang Concerto” which concluded with “the complete demolition of the piano.”123 Such behaviour was unlikely to convince colonial people that they were governed by a superior race. It gave ammunition to critics at home: Bertrand Russell called the Empire “a cesspool for British moral refuse.”124 And it typified the brutality which the British could bring to the task of preserving their monopoly both in microcosm, at the level of the colonial club, and in the wider realm of the Empire.

This was much in evidence at Shanghai, Britain’s richest citadel in the Far East. Strictly speaking, China’s commercial capital, the cosmopolitan gateway to the interior situated at the vast yellow mouth of the Yangtse, was not part of the Empire. But the British, although they were outnumbered by Japanese, controlled the treaty port’s International Settlement through the Shanghai Municipal Council. And they behaved with autocratic arrogance. For example, they barred both dogs and Chinese from Huangpu Park, the public gardens opposite the British Consulate on the Manhattan-style waterfront.125 The “Shanghailanders,” as they called themselves, enjoyed a spectacularly privileged mode of life. They drove gleaming Buicks and shopped for the latest fashions in neon-lit department stores like Sun Sun’s. They gambled illegally at “The Wheel” on North Honan Road or followed pink-coated huntsmen in the Shanghai Paper Chase. They smoked cigars and drank cocktails beneath the Venetian campanile of the art deco Cathay Hotel, which was also the rendezvous of quasi-imperialist Americans “imitating the la-de-da manners of the British and ‘cheerioing’ one another.”126 But the taipans inhabited “a heaven on top of hell.”127 Stretched out beneath the grey skyscrapers of the Bund were the noxious slums, sweat-shops, bazaars, brothels, factories, godowns and opium hongs of the city’s three million Chinese—they even had a leper colony. At best most Shanghailanders regarded these nether regions as a grim backdrop to their own dazzling existence. At worst they thought that deformed beggars, diseased prostitutes, tubercular coolies, drug addicts and slave children were “refuse”128 to be swept from the streets.

The authorities often burned down the verminous Chinese shantytowns and they exercised day-to-day control over the underworld through the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP). As police forces go, this was a more than usually criminal organisation, at least half its officers being involved in the opium traffic. In other ways the SMP resembled the Black and Tans, for its middle ranks were staffed by British NCOs toughened in the trenches. Facing gangsters liable not just to kill them but to eat their Alsatian police dogs, they had few scruples about torture and murder, not even bothering to record the shooting of coolies. A recent biography of one such NCO, Maurice Tinkler, gives a graphic account of his fascist attitudes towards “these yellow Chinese swine.” As a result of police brutality in the early 1920s, he recorded, “They hate the foreigners now far worse than they did at the time of the Boxer rising.” For different (though associated) reasons, the Japanese shared their hatred of British dominance. In 1939 Tinkler himself, by then the labour superintendent of a cotton mill, was killed in a clash with the forces of Nippon—their official report stated that he “came into contact with” a bayonet.129

At breathtaking speed Japanese bayonets were to inflict lethal damage on British power in the Orient. This was because it had become a hollow shell. Britain was still wealthy, owning more than half the foreign investment in China, worth £250 million. But it was no longer strong—during the Ethiopian crisis of 1935–6 one old cruiser and four destroyers had to put on a show of being the China Station Fleet. In fact, Britain’s ostentatious but insubstantial position in Asia was symbolised by the Shanghai Club. This splendid edifice had a colonnaded façade of Ningpo granite crowned by Italianate cupolas, a black and white marble hall, an oak-panelled Jacobean room and, of course, the longest bar in the world—Noël Coward said that if you laid your cheek to it you could see the curvature of the earth. Yet from the Club the British could only watch—gleefully in 1932 but fearfully in 1937—as Nippon bombed and shelled the “native city.” The Land of the Rising Sun seemed poised to eclipse the Empire on which the sun never set. Without American support, as a leading British diplomat said, “we must eventually swallow any & every humiliation in the Far East.”130 Impotence sapped self-assurance, a vital element in prestige. It fed the growing unease about the validity as well as the techniques of white rule. Some Britons were even alienated from club life itself, which was, with its comprehensive system of totems and taboos, the epitome of imperial existence. George Orwell was by no means alone in reacting against the “pukka sahib’s code.”131

During the inter-war years a surprising number of imperial officials came to deplore it as a form of organised humbug. It stifled thought and sapped integrity. It also imposed a canon of silence. Such was the pressure to conform that whites usually concealed their sentiments. Orwell memorably described a railway journey in Burma with another anti-imperialist, who was a stranger to him:

Half an hour’s cautious questioning decided each of us that the other was “safe” and then for hours, while the train jolted slowly through the pitch-black night, sitting in our bunks with bottles of beer handy, we damned the British Empire—damned it from the inside, intelligently and intimately. It did us both good. But we had been speaking forbidden things, and in the haggard morning light when the train crawled into Mandalay, we parted as guiltily as any adulterous couple.132

Doubtless influenced by American as well as Russian rhetoric, some functionaries concluded that the colonial Empire was “a racket.”133 It was a benevolent “despotism with theft as its final object.”134 The official held the native down, Orwell said, while the businessman went through his pockets. But liberal officials were trapped in an authoritarian system, serving the inhabitants of their districts yet lording it over them. This fostered a disturbing ambivalence. Roger Pearce, a District Officer in Sind, had to act in the name of the Raj though he “believed that India should be independent.”135 Quite a few of Pearce’s contemporaries would have sympathised with Leonard Woolf, who had become “politically schizophrenic, an anti-imperialist who enjoyed the fleshpots of imperialism, loved the subject peoples and their way of life, and knew from the inside how evil the system was.”136 Travelling through South-East Asia during the 1920s, Somerset Maugham met “judges, soldiers, commissioners who had no confidence in themselves and therefore inspired no respect in those they were placed over.” Their will to rule was impaired. And the master whose conscience was troubled could scarcely be master for long. The whole situation presaged “the Decline and Fall of the British Empire.” Maugham even presumed to counsel its future historian (assumed to be male) on the style that he should adopt for this “great work”: “I would have him write lucidly and yet with dignity; I would have his periods march with a firm step. I should like his sentences to ring out as the anvil rings when the hammer strikes it.”137

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