Staging the Empire


Imperialism is back in fashion. Or so it would seem from a spate of recent articles and books, telling Americans to stiffen their backbones and shoulder their imperial burden with more vigor. Praise of the British Empire is now openly expressed in a nation which once fought proudly for its freedom from British rule, and great imperial statesmen are held up as models: from Palmerston to Rumsfeld, as it were.

The new imperialists, mostly bookish young men with no experience of combat, let alone running an empire, are right about one thing: imperial rule depends to a large extent on the will to impose it, and this is hard, if not impossible, to sustain without strong moral conviction. In the most successful empires, this conviction is shared by at least a good number of the ruled. If the British, for a long time, thought it was in the natural order of things that they should rule India, then so did enough Indians to make it work. As David Gilmour points out in his superb biography of Lord Curzon, probably the greatest, and certainly the most interesting, viceroy of India, the British Raj, stretching from Persia to the borders of Siam, was protected by no more than 200,000 troops, of which only a third belonged to British regiments. The rest, in a way, was theater.

But the spectacle of power was very important (as every great dictator knows). Mogul emperors in India would stage audiences, called durbars, at which sultans, nawabs, maharajas, nizams, and other dignitaries would come to pay tribute, bearing expensive gifts and accompanied by retinues carefully calibrated to reflect their respective status. The British adopted the same custom, or rather reinvented it by outdoing the Moguls in extravagance and splendor: grand new titles were created, costumes designed, and gun salutes, fireworks, and other entertainments contrived. Curzon’s durbar in 1902 for King Edward VII was attended by 150,000 people staying around the Red Fort in Delhi in tents that were often more like improvised palaces.

This particular extravaganza showed signs of the somewhat gamey opulence of the Edwardians, whose love of pomp and splendor for their own sake was perhaps more in evidence than the stern sense of duty which often marked the Victorian mission to rule. Curzon, who took spectacle very seriously and planned the whole thing meticulously, mockingly referred to himself as a “magnificent State Barnum, an imperial Buffalo Bill.” But although his career spanned the Edward- ian period, he was very much a Victorian imperialist. The “tawdry lust of conquest” was not what inspired him. Indeed, he was usually against military adventures. For him, the right to rule the natives had to be justified by high-minded ideals. As he wrote in 1900, at the zenith of the Raj:

I do not see how any Englishmen, contrasting India as it now is with what it was, and would certainly have been under any other conditions than British rule, can fail to see that we came…

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