Nobs & Nabobs

At one of Lady Spencer’s parties in 1881, King Kalakaua of Hawaii was given precedence over the crown prince of Germany. When the prince (the future Kaiser Friedrich III) objected, his brother-in-law (the future King Edward VII) told him that Kalakaua was either “a common or garden nigger,” in which case he would not have been there, or he was a king. And kings, however minor, were ranked higher than princes, even the heir to the world’s strongest military power.

A few years earlier, the native chiefs of another Pacific monarchy, Fiji, found that they too were being treated as social equals by the British, who had recently acquired their islands. Their manners, wrote Lady Gordon, the governor’s wife, revealed that they were an “undoubted aristocracy.” The Gordons’ nanny might look down on them and their wives as an “inferior race,” but her ladyship did not: the nanny was the inferior. “I don’t like to tell her that these ladies are my equals, which she is not!”

These anecdotes illustrate the twin theses of Ornamentalism, David Cannadine’s stimulating new book: that Britain’s imperial rulers sought to reproduce abroad the hierarchies of home, and that while doing so they supported, and enlisted the cooperation of, existing native hierarchies. The theses are not entirely new. They owe much, as Professor Cannadine acknowledges, to the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who long ago argued that reactionary European aristocrats of the nineteenth century were more at ease with traditional societies in the colonies than with the industrial and increasingly democratic society of their own countries; and to the historian Peter Marshall, whose theory that the British transported their indigenous social models abroad is encapsulated in an epigraph. But the author has assimilated and expanded these arguments and produced a work that combines wit and exuberance with learning and style.

Cannadine is fascinated by class. It was the subject of his previous book, Class in Britain (1998), of the one before that, Aspects of Aristocracy (1994), and of the vast and impressive book The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990). But this fascination has not made him a class warrior. In Britain he has acquired the reputation of being a radical, even left-wing, historian; his Decline and Fall was even alleged to have been written in a contemptuous tone. These claims have always been a mystery to me. The peerage, as filmmakers endlessly remind us, can be all too easily and humorously mocked. If Cannadine had wanted to sneer at the upper classes, he would have made much more of the aristocratic indignation that greeted the tax increases of Lloyd George’s budget in 1909; he could have quoted at length the dukes and other magnates who announced that they would have to sack their laborers, cancel their subscriptions to football clubs, and reduce their contributions to charity. But he did not do so. He gave some brief examples and carried on with his eight-hundred-page book.

If anything …

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