History, What I'm Reading

What I’m Reading: Ghosts of Empire

Since I’m in Britain, I thought I’d read about well, Britain.

I landed on Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, which might have some relevance as “Anyone who wishes to understand the nature of American power today will profitably find parallels and similarities with Britain’s own experience.” (Casting, of course, zero light on the incomprehensibility that is Trump.) The author Kwasi Kwarteng is a British MP whose parents immigrated from what was then called the Gold Coast, Ghana.

By going through six cases of the rise and fall of British rule in six colonies, Kwarteng shows that though the Empire is often held up as an example of democracy-promoting, well-maintained order, it was actually antidemocratic and highly inconsistent, contributing to instability. The British delayed democracy in its colonies and in some cases promoted undemocratic leaders, including monarchs, chiefs, and direct rule. In addition, policy frequently was at the discretion of individuals rather than coherent strategy coming from Whitehall; this led to brash moves and sudden reversals, most tragically in Sudan.

Imperialism is sometimes offered as an answer the problem of world order. I contend that the example of the British Empire shows the opposite.

Faisal II, the last king of Iraq.

The cases start with Iraq, where British imperialism worked at its finest (that was sarcasm). We get the origins of “look for the oil” and quite literally every maneuver the Brits made in the governance of Iraq was to secure energy supplies. Importantly, the goal was always to use Iraq solely as the source of oil; it would be taken via pipeline to be refined elsewhere, and the oil monopoly was foreign owned. In the process, the British didn’t so much as build a school for the population. When it came time for independence in the 1930s, they installed the friend of Lawrence of Arabia, Faisal, as king of Iraq, after he wasn’t so big a hit in Syria. The monarchy came to a bloody end and the Iraqis, desperate for someone to actually help its people, ultimately turned to the Ba’aths, including one Saddam Hussein, and we know the rest.

The performance doesn’t get much better from there. In Kashmir, they installed a schemer with no royal background and no claim to rule, I repeat, they just installed some dude as the maharaja. Oh, and he was a Hindu ruling over a majority-Muslim population and it got pretty hard to remove his dynasty and hand the state to India or Pakistan, so yeah, that worked out real well (sarcasm again). In Burma, they toppled a longstanding monarchy when Randolph Churchill, Winston’s daddy, just decided they’d do Burma a favor by outright takeover. Over a hundred years before the U.S. went into Iraq, a British official noted, “By suddenly overthrowing the existing government, it looks as though we had consigned the country to a prolonged anarchy.”

Lord Kitchener, the archetypal soldier and administrator who made his debut in Sudan. Took it over singlehandedly with that stache.

In Sudan, the British saw the north and south at fundamentally different stages of development. They then made those differences worse by instituting a “Southern Policy,” isolating the southern region and creating a greater North-South divide than had existed before. They reversed course after 16 years and granted independence to a unified Sudan which lasted only 50 years, culminating in the Darfur crisis and the secession of South Sudan. In Nigeria, the British went from trade to takeover; then, to run empire “on the cheap,” used indirect rule to in the north while taking a more direct approach to the south. Again a unified country was granted independence before it descended into civil war.

Arguably the most consistent the British were in these cases was in Hong Kong–where they consistently ran things like a white dictatorship. Only as the end of the city’s lease and handover to the Chinese drew near in the late 20th century did they try to force some democracy into the city, acting as if the Empire had been about democracy all along. Kwarteng demonstrates that the Empire was really about class, as everywhere from England to Hong Kong things were structured by hierarchy–not always by birth, but also by money and education. And the leaders installed, whether it be the maharaja of Kashmir or the king of Iraq, tended to be as snobby as the British aristocracy.

In all honesty, the book was a bit of a slog, even for a nerd like me. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to the trouble and instead rely on this blog post and other summaries instead. What kept me going was the compelling characters of the colonies themselves. Each behaved differently under British rule just as British rule behaved differently in each country. It becomes clear that these countries do derive a lot of turmoil–though certainly not all–from their colonial background.

In addition, it’s clear that the British Empire suffered from just as much policy incoherence as the American does. The book reminds me somewhat of Maximalist by Stephen Sestanovich, which I highly recommend (if not for its policy recommendation, its deep read of postwar foreign policy). But if the U.S. suffers from political cycles in its application of policy, the British also suffered individual bureaucrats who had too much discretion over their local turfs, driven by the cultural myth of the soldier-statesman-empire builder.

Some weeks ago I was in Bath, standing outside the home of Robert Clive. A local woman approached me and asked if I knew who that was. Of course, I said. We talked briefly about his exploits in Calcutta and elsewhere, which set the stage for British conquest of the entire country. As she told me to enjoy and left to tend her garden, I wondered if she needed reminding that the exploits weren’t necessarily a good thing.

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