Jamaican Blood and Victorian Conscience
We are still too close to the British Empire. The very words, like Disraeli’s addition of “Empress” to the titles of Queen Victoria, have a selfconscious, playacting ring. And, oddly, they always had, even when they were most used. They were part of the English taste for pageant and ritual in which the individual subordinates himself to his role to a degree of self-caricature. Churchill, a young man of twenty-three going off to a frontier disturbance in India, is taken by a patron to a London club and (I paraphrase from memory from My Early Life) introduced as someone “off to the front tonight.” It is a minor war whose outcome is certain, but around it a special type of drama has been created. The journey from the comforts of a club in London, heart of the world, to an embattled outpost of Empire many seas and deserts away, it is an imperial moment, and is savored as such.
But the Empire had already been built. Endeavor and greatness had gone before; and, in a delayed consciousness of Empire, the inheritors willingly persuaded themselves that they were “builders.” Kipling summoned them sternly to their pleasant duties and outlined their roles. Consciousness of role is an English characteristic; it is also suburban. And the oddest feature of the British Empire is that, during its period of proclaimed glory, it should have presented such a suburban aspect. It is understandable. The development of imperial consciousness was linked with emancipation and the growth of democracy at home. Putting it very broadly, the imperial relationship in the nineteenth century changed from that between insecure merchant-adventurer and Asian potentate to the relationship between the secure administrator’s wife and the Asian cook.
The change is reflected nowhere more clearly than in British architecture in India. The eighteenth-century “palaces” of Calcutta and the buildings of Fort St. George in Madras are more than grand. They are aristocratic; they have the integrity of Spanish architecture in the New World and the astonishing sixteenth-century Portuguese cathedrals in Goa; they are all buildings put up by people in the only way they know. Lutyen’s New Delhi is different. It is consciously imperlars it is meant to awe: it is part of a new national rhetoric.
In 1834 Britain abolished slavery throughout her possessions. Just sixty years later no country was more racially indoctrinated. It is this swift and radical transformation which makes the Victorian period so fascinating. It was during this transformation that the English “character,” as accepted by the English and the rest of the world, was settled. The very thoroughness of the transformation, still so much with us, is a barrier to complete understanding of the Victorian drama. This is not the drama of imperial conquest and consolidation; it is the drama of this inner transformation.
Singularly, this period of imperial pride was not a period of military achievement. Imperial pride fed instead on the achievements of individuals and on victories over the weak and poorly armed in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.