Brits: Your feelings and impressions towards your late Empire, please

I’ve just finished an excellent book, Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica: Climax of an Empire, a portrait of the British Empire in 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year. It’s not a standard history book – there’s little in the way of battles and dates – but rather, a kind of cultural snapshot of the way the British Empire was lived and experienced at its peak. Individual chapters look at life in little colonial outposts (Salisbury, Rhodesia; St. Lucia in the Caribbean); how it worked on a practical level (telegraph and mail distribution, railroads); famous colonialists (Cecil Rhodes, Garnet Wolsely); how average people felt about the Empire, etc. It’s a fascinating and very well written book, and apparently under-read – only one review on! I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic. (And yes, Jan Morris used to be James Morris, so you might find it listed under either name.)

Anyways, 110 years later, I’d like an updated perspective. British Dopers, what are your feelings towards your (mostly) bygone Empire? Are you proud of it? Embarassed? Indifferent? What do you think of your remaining colonies? How about those colonies, like India, that broke away within living memory? How do you feel about the collapse of the British Empire? Was it all worth it? Did it matter? How do you feel about the purported death of that famous emblem of Empire, the Royal Navy?

Any dopers here old enough to have had any first hand experiences of the Empire? For the rest of you, anyone have any interesting family history related to the Empire – a great-uncle who served in India perhaps, or some distant relatives who emigrated to some minor colony? Finally, anyone from a Commonwealth country or recent former colony (sorry, my fellow Yanks, that’s not you) who has something interesting to add, feel free as well. Basically, if your currency has Queen Elizabeth II’s head on it, I want to hear from you!

As this is IMHO and not Great Debates, and we’re asked for “feelings and impressions”… I’d say that I feel that the Empire was more a good thing than not, that we conducted ourselves like colonial administrators and not conquistadors, that in general we gave laws and built railways and cities and so on and aimed to govern with the consent and cooperation of the governed and not as slavemasters, that we tended not to loot and pillage on a massive scale, that we were on the whole innocent of extermination, and that American Indians today, North or South, would trade fates with Indian Indians in a heartbeat. Were the Empire alive today as in 1897 I believe I would be just as proud of it as my great-grandfather’s generation were - and that we would hope and intend that the Empire remained such as to deserve our pride.

Rodgers01, is it plausible Brits might ask the same question of us Americans?

There is a gross misconception about the ‘British Empire’, it did not form until the Indian Mutiny when a rag bag of semi-private operations were put under UK government control.

From then on it was a light weight and well run administration, apart from the major f/ck up with the Boers.

We don’t have any colonies, places we settled are independent apart from some technical stuff that bothers nobody.
Most Brits would prefer to be in Australia, Canada is interesting, one of my brothers is now a NZ resident and the USA - our first colony, is doing fine on its own.

The Commonwealth is probably a good idea, it gives people a chance to sort out problems, put crudely it is a way of civilizing minor states. If nothing else it gets them out of their rather sad domains.

You probably need to find ‘Plain Tales from the Raj’ the BBC recorded peoples’ experiences in India - it was also published in book form.

As for the Navy, from my infrequent visits to Portsmouth I can see that they are scaling back to small multi purpose boats.

Speaking as a citizen of a former part of that Empire - glad it was the Brits in the end rather than the Dutch, French, Portuguese, Germans or shudder Belgians. But being the best of a bad lot doesn’t make you a saint, know what I mean? It wasn’t all bridges and railways - sometimes it’s children (even White children, if that matters) in a concentration camp in the Boer War or machinegunning unarmed people in an Indian courtyard. Just saying…

All true. And yet I’ve seen a quote from Jan Smuts, no less, on the outbreak of WW2 saying that his side’s sympathies lay with the nation that treated his country like Christians when it had them at its mercy; and in India, the bloodletting didn’t stop when the British left any more than it started when we arrived. I’d never make claims for sainthood, and I only said “in general” for the good that we did.

No-one claims that concentration camps are a good thing, but hey, ours didn’t come with a soap factory attached.

No arguments here - I’m a total Anglophile, just don’t want to get all the bad lost in the good - for instance, while the Indians may be better off, I don’t think native *Tasmanians *would mind swapping places with Native Americans.

If there were any Tasmanians left alive to wish it, that is.

Hitler took the name of a different and much more innoccuoss establishment deliberately for his industrial execution camps to mislead observers outside of the Reich and it looks like he succeeded with some people to this very day
.Comparing the two is like confusing Boy Scouts with U.S. Marine Corp Scout Snipers.

The empire is long past so I dont feel strongly about it one way or the other but if we committed a massacre once as an abnormal event (though not in England) its not good but its still a hell of a lot better then the gaggle of states ruled by the whims of their absaloute dictators that were there when we first arrived, so that summary executions were literally everyday,several times a day events occassioned quite often by nothing more then the top mans indigestion, or a row with one of his wives.

It does annoy me when people try to allege that Colonial powers carpet bagged the countries they colonised.
If you take an empty plot of land ,build a factory and then start manufacturing airplanes then you’re not asset stripping the plot of land.

It means nothing that a country is chock full of useful minerals under the ground if the previous management didn’t have the drive and initiative let alone the technology to extract it .
Likewise an incredibly fertile country is no great shakes if the people farming it have never managed to advance from the subsistence farming of a couple of thousand years ago that even today in some parts of the world still being used.

It is a G book of Records entry though ,The Worlds Biggest Empire ,ever! of all time.
Pity we didn’t federate it .

Of course, those remaining from the Black War were all moved to Flinders Island well before the advent of Empire. BYKTA.

I think it is difficult to judge without knowing the accepted behaviour of the time.
In general, I think my country was a pretty good coloniser and usually left gracefully when asked.
The evidence for this is the Commonwealth, where many, many countries show respect to the Queen.

I think the Roman Empire brought some useful stuff to England 2000 years ago too.

It could have been worse.

Yes, I mean, what exactly did they do for us? :smiley: :smiley: :smiley:

I’m sorry, I don’t understand your point -are you saying that the complete removal of all indigenous Tasmanians doesn’t count because some were relocated rather than killed, or because it happened before some official declaration of Empire, or what?

You have no clue about Boer War concentration camps, do you. “Innoccuoss[sic]” is hardly the word I’d use to describe them. Sure, there were no ovens, but there are people alive today whose mothers and grandmothers were in the camps, and they’d spit at you before they’d speak a word of English or suffer it to be heard in their company. They weren’t some kind of holiday camp.

It’s a somewhat vexed issue, but there are still plenty of people who consider themselves indigenous Tasmanians: link

You stated:

By which you clearly mean that the population is extinct; I’m pointing out that this is not so.

Yes, like in Cyprus, where many people fighting for freedom from the Brits in the fifties had their fingernails pulled out, had bottles broken on their heads, or were hung.

And to top it off, when they decided to leave, they left an unworkable constitution and “system of guarantees” in place that predicably brought misery to both Greeks and Turks on the island.

Other than that, they left gracefully when asked.

I find it fascinating, but I’m not proud or ashamed; it has nothing to do with me. I’m
glad that English was spread around the world and I find that imitating colonial types is somewhat amusing. My parents and father’s parents met in ex-colonies.

Not English, but my 2c…

A whole lot of bad shit went down, but overall the Empire was a force for the good, IMHO. Human rights weren’t an issue at the time (and the Brits sure were as patronising as any other colonial power), but they were an order of magnitude better than the other colonial powers in terms of decency. As an Indian or a Hong Kong local, you might get called “Boy!”, but you usually wouldn’t be shot.

The best legacy is the rule of law, and the fact that in most former British colonies, the old cliche holds true about “hearing somebody wearing heavy boots approaching your door before dawn, and knowing it’s only the milkman.”

I think you’re over-reacting to the initial comment there. Not to put words into Lust4Life’s mouth or anything, but I don’t think anyone is making the point that Boer concentration camps were peachy-keen. The point was that Hitler called his camps “concentration camps” when they were more accurately execution camps. As a result most casual observers have a much more horrific visual image of concentration camps than is typically the case.

Camps in South Africa, the Western US, Cuba and elsewhere are accurately described as concentration camps, but comparing them to Nazi camps overstates things. They are bad, but they typically weren’t evil in their inception.

Not quite sure what you mean; that the Brits ask us how we feel about our lost empire (in the Philippines, etc.)? Or that they ask us how we feel being a former part of their empire? Whatever way you mean it, sure the Brits are welcome to ask us if they want!

Looks great! Thanks for the tip – I’ve added it to my Amazon wish list.

Well, the Commonwealth means something – today, appropriately, is Commonwealth Day. But even for those settled, independent countries in the Commonwealth (Canada, Australia, etc.) isn’t there some kind of relationship? Some kind of vague closeness or kinship or something? I’m not talking politically, necessarily; I’m talking personally, psychologically.

That’s more the kind of thing I’m after here; don’t know if I made that quite clear in the OP. I’m not necessarily asking for a debate on whether the Empire was good, bad, or indifferent (though that might be part of a response), but more of an emotional, personal response – impressions, recollections, outlooks, etc. What does the average Brit see when he or she looks out at the world his or her country did so much to create? What’s it like to travel to a very different foreign country, but see your Queen on the currency and your institutions recreated in alien climates? How do you feel towards those relics of the colonial era – all those little colonial outposts in the Caribbean, polo in Argenetina, white farmers in Zimbabwe, etc.? It can be good or bad – I read a great article by Jamaica Kincaid recently in which she vents at the destructive inferiority complex the British Empire instilled in some of its subjects. Views from that angle are welcome too – how does it feel to come from a country that was (in part) created in Britain’s image, then to visit the original?

Sorry if this all sounds terribly wishy-washy; the book I read did a great job of illuminating the mix of attitudes about the Empire in 1897, and I’m just trying to get an updated sense of things.