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 Asia and Africa. It sanctioned the bloody suppression of the Indian Mutiny of 1857; and thereafter the Empire was like a religion. Calls could be issued in its name; it could always be proclaimed “in danger.” Eight years after the Mutiny in India came the “rebellion” in Jamaica, its suppression, and a most furious controversy. This is the subject of Bernard Semmel’s little book.

Jamaica was not a Crown Colony. It had a long-established House of Assembly, elected on a franchise whose restrictions were in practice racial. In 1865 the leader of the mulatto party was George William Gordon, the son of a white planter and a slave woman. Gordon was a self-educated man who had risen to be a planter and landowner. He married a white woman; and at one stage, in “story-book fashion,” as Mr. Semmel says, he had to rescue his father from bankruptcy. He belonged, then, to that mulatto group which, as the humane and amused Trollope found in 1859, spoke with casual contempt of blacks. But Gordon was a reformer who crusaded for the black peasantry.

Jamaica’s was a one-crop economy; and this crop, sugar, was no longer as valuable as it had been. The distress of the peasantry was due partly to this general decline. It was also partly self-willed. The Negro wanted his own land; he did not wish to work for a master again. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties both peasants and planters became increasingly exasperated, the one with government indifference, the other with Negro “laziness.” Gordon became more and more intemperate. “He clearly thought of himself,” Mr. Semmel says, “as fighting single-handedly the battle for God and Truth against the forces of the Devil.”

The Devil in his eyes was the Governor, Edward Eyre. Eyre was a Colonial Servant of some standing. In Australia he had won fame as an explorer; he had also been made Protector of the Aborigines. He had later served with success in New Zealand and in the tiny West Indian island of St. Vincent. It was a good record but it did not fit him for the governorship of Jamaica. He appears to have been a “frontiersman,” used to getting things done, to having his own way. He was at his best in a “new” country and in his dealings with primitive peoples like the Australian aborigines. But Jamaica was not a new country and its people were far from unsophisticated. High-handed, puritanical, impatient of “politicians,” Eyre misjudged his situation and soon ran into trouble. In the House of Assembly he was described by Gordon as “grovelling, pretentious and prevaricating”; he was “an animal…voracious for cruelty and power.”


The conflict between these two simple, passionate men was soon to be bloodily resolved. Gordon, in spite of his speeches, was a believer in deputations and petitions to the Queen. Among his followers, however, there were people more violently inclined; and it was one of these, a Baptist landowner and preacher, of a type still to be found in Jamaica, who organized something like a local peasants’ revolt, which began one Saturday with an attack on a Petty Civil court, and was reported to Eyre to be developing into a westward, white-massacring march. Eyre acted swiftly. He declared the area affected to be under martial law, and sent a hundred soldiers by sea. Two days later he himself followed with fifty more. No further military dispositions were needed. Rebellion had evaporated. It was probably this which stimulated a fierce military pacification. A thousand Negro homes were burnt; five hundred Negroes were killed, many more flogged and tortured. Improving on the hour, Eyre had Gordon arrested in Kingston, the capital, still under civil law, and had him brought to the area under martial law. There Gordon was court-martialed and hanged.

It was effective frontier justice. But was the trial of Gordon legal? Was Eyre a murderer? There was instant anger in England, and reaction to anger. For three years the controversy endured, declining into tedious legalistic wrangles in which it seemed at times that Jamaica and the five hundred dead Negroes were forgotten both by prosecutors and defenders in their concern for the larger, English issues: the need to limit the powers of the executive, the need—as gradually during the controversy proclaimed itself—to maintain the Empire. A committee was formed to prosecute Eyre: John Stuart Mill, Darwin, and Huxley were on this side. A committee was formed to raise funds for Eyre: on this side, revealingly for the future, were many of the moulders of mid-Victorian thought: Carlyle, Ruskin, Dickens, Tennyson, Kingsley. The prosecution failed. Eyre lived on till 1901. His life had almost spanned the rise and fall, not of Empire, but of imperial consciousness.

Mr. Semmel has told the story well. It is to his credit that he has seen it as an example of the “interdependence of British imperial and domestic politics.” It is original to do so. But Mr. Semmel was right to warn that his is not a “definitive treatment.” The sources have been milked, the facts are all there, yet something is missing which the source-books can never give. It would have been good, for instance, to get some feeling of Eyre and Gordon and the others as men rather than as names and the sources of statements. Mr. Semmel says he has tried to fit the Eyre controversy into its “historic setting.” But perhaps more than historical scholarship is needed to interpret the drama of the changing Victorian consciousness: this is something we can sense best in forgotten novels, magazines, children’s books, all the literary debris of a culture.

Contemporary the Eyre controversy might appear, but to emphasize this, as Mr. Semmel has done, is to distort its importance, its contribution to that developing suburban concept of foreigners, natives, and Empire, which was presently to be totally “received.” (It is revealing that in their official reports Eyre’s officers exaggerated their beastliness: they no doubt felt, after the bloodlust of the Indian mutiny, that it was expected of them.) To say that “in the eighteenth century Englishmen considered the sugar island of Jamaica one of the bright jewels in the imperial crown” might be a bright way of saying that in the eighteenth century Jamaica was a rich colony: but it is a misleading way. It is more likely, going by the literary evidence, that at that time Jamaica was popularly thought of, if thought of at all, as a place where a strumpet might yet make a good match.

In his foreword Mr. Semmel says that the “specific” theme of his book is “whether the maintenance of a colonial empire is compatible with liberal democracy within the metropolis.” It is a theme which he has stated and not adequately dramatized. Democracy led, inevitably, to the diffusion and hardening of imperial-racial attitudes. The early working-class movements identified themselves with suppressed nationalities like the Irish; the later working-class movements established apartheid in Rhodesia and a white Australia: they are still the most energetic defenders of racial faith. Yet it was democracy which led, with equal inevitability, to the transformation of the Empire. Almost as swift as the growth of imperial consciousness was the reaction to it. There is no decline and fall of the British Empire to chronicle: the true drama is that of this continuous inner transformation.


This Issue

October 31, 1963