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.1 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, the tone of Decline and Fall is elegiac rather than contemptuous. Cannadine may not agree with Edmund Burke that the nobility is the “Corinthian capital of polished society,” but he has admitted that “some of the most attractive and abiding features of life in Britain today are the legacy” of a now almost defunct aristocracy.2 Elegy and nostalgia are also evident in his affectionate and admiring biography of G.M. Trevelyan (1993), in which he seems to yearn for an age when historians combined elegant prose with “poetic imagination” and did not spend so much time looking at documents. Contemporary historians, he rightly argues, should write interestingly for a wide readership rather than confine themselves to articles in “the mouldering pages of learned quarterlies,” which are only read by other historians.3

Cannadine has many of Trevelyan’s qualities, not least the elegance and fluency of his prose, and, although he reads a vast amount of secondary sources, he himself spends little time with moldering documents. He is admirably free of preconceptions and he does not genuflect to intellectual fashion. He is thus ideally equipped to tackle controversial issues such as race, class, and empire, subjects with which the British are still often so uncomfortable.

In Class in Britain Cannadine chose three models on which to base his examination of how the British have looked at matters of class during the last three hundred years:

The first was hierarchical, which described society individualistically as an interlinked, finely layered and elaborately graded procession; the second was triadic, which divided it into three collective constituencies, usually upper, middle and lower; and the third was dichotomous, which saw society as polarised between the two extremes of “patricians and plebs” or “them and us.”4

Each of the three had some truth, but Cannadine concluded that the first had considerably more truth than the others. The hierarchical vision of British society was in every age the “most pervasive and persuasive” of the models, a view he upholds in Ornamentalism when he describes it as a “more appealing and convincing way of seeing our unequal social world and of understanding many of our ancient national institutions than anything Marx ever came up with.”


Looking at the “them and us” model, Cannadine found that Britain has suffered far less from class consciousness and class conflict than is commonly supposed. The capitalist process

was very much a joint enterprise, and masters and men had a shared interest in get-ting their goods made, without which there could be neither profits nor wages. The age of capital was also an age of collaboration.5

But the least convincing and most irrelevant of all the models was predictably the one associated with that disastrous prophet, Karl Marx. Cannadine has George Orwell’s sensitivity to the gradations and nuances of class and knows that it is—and always was—facile and preposterous to seal social classes in homogeneous divisions and to award each of them monolithic processes of thought and behavior. Classes were and are anything but monolithic, most people did not and do not think of themselves as part of collective identities, and there has never been a homogeneous proletariat. In Britain’s eighty-four years of universal suffrage, the Conservatives, the party of property and business, have been in power for nearly three quarters of the time.


Ornamentalism is a companion volume to Class in Britain, applying the hierarchical vision to the overseas possessions in a bold attempt to “put the history of Britain back into the history of empire, and the history of the empire back into the history of Britain.” Since the publishers (though not the author) claim that the book is also a “counterpoint” to Edward Said’s Orientalism, it needs pointing out that this is not in fact the case. The title is certainly a parody of Said’s influential work, and Cannadine aims a sharp barb at some of Said’s followers when he berates the apostles of postcolonial discourse for their “tortured prose” and the “often sketchy nature of their historical knowledge.” Furthermore, in arguing that the British should recognize that there are other ways of seeing the Empire than in “the oversimplified categories of black and white” which so preoccupy us, Cannadine provocatively declares that “it is time we reoriented orientalism.” But that is really the sum of the “counterpoint.” Orientalism advanced the thesis that the West reinvented the East for imperialist motives. Ornamentalism’s chief concern is to show how British officials reproduced their domestic society abroad and allied it to those parts of “Oriental” society with which they had close affinities. Cannadine’s subject matter, as well as his treatment, is quite different.

That eccentric poet, essayist, and wildly inaccurate historian Hilaire Belloc memorably portrayed colonial governorships as compensation for political failure at home. As “Lord Lundy” was told by his grandfather, the duke:

We had intended you to be
The next Prime Minister but three:
The stocks were sold; the Press was squared;
The Middle Class was quite prepared.
But as it is!… My language fails!
Go out and govern New South Wales!6

Yet while governorships were sometimes given to unemployed and perhaps unemployable noblemen, they were also awarded to ambitious politicians. The Marquess of Lansdowne was in turn governor-general of Canada, viceroy of India, secretary of state for war, foreign secretary, and leader of the House of Lords. His successors to the Indian viceroyalty, Lord Elgin and Lord Curzon, also went on to positions in the Cabinet. But their lives and their duties were more stately and ceremonial in Calcutta and Simla than they were ever afterward in Britain. Governors and officials abroad did not simply recreate the hierarchical structures of their own country: they expanded and exaggerated them so that their courts in India, the colonies, and the white dominions became distorted and highly colored reflections of life at home. They and their wives lived miles “above their station”—very few (and also very distant) people above them, and many millions below.

In their thirties the middle-class officials of the Indian Civil Service would administer a district of about half a million people; in their fifties they might govern a province of twenty or even sixty million. A few years later, unless they had succumbed to the Indian climate, they would be back in England, in a small house in Cheltenham or a seaside town on the south coast, where nobody wanted to listen to their stories about Ooty or the Nizam or the tiger they had shot in the jungles of Mysore. Men who had spent thirty-five years yearning for home found in retirement that they were pining for the pomp and deference that had attended them in Bengal.


The British in India regulated their society by a “warrant of precedence” whose seventy-seven ranks established exactly where, for example, people should be placed at dinner parties. One consequence of this was boring evenings. The viceroy’s wife invariably had to sit between the second and third most important men at any function: an entire season in Calcutta would thus be spent talking to the bishop, the commander in chief, the chief justice, and the lieutenant-governor of Bengal.

If some of the British felt constricted by the demands of precedence, they could console themselves with the belief that Indian society, based on caste and class distinctions, was equally traditional and divided. At its apex was Queen Victoria, whom Disraeli made Empress of India (though not Empress of any other part of the Empire, not even Britain), a sovereign smiling benignly if distantly on her subjects, especially the native princes whose territories formed about a third of the subcontinent. Before the Indian Mutiny of 1857, these princes had been regarded as feudal anachronisms, obstacles to reform and progress. After the mutiny, during which most of them remained loyal to Britain, the anachronisms rapidly became allies who added to the gaiety of life as well as to the stability of the country.

Lord George Hamilton, the Empress’s last secretary of state for India, extolled the merits of the princes, especially the Rajputs, whom he regarded as “such gentlemen, and persons with whom it is very pleasant to have personal dealings.”7 Lord Lytton, the most romantic of viceroys, encouraged the use of pageantry and hoped to create a sort of Gothic feudalism around the mystical figure of the Queen-Empress. Even Curzon, who regarded most of the princes as indolent, hedonistic, and useless, claimed in public that they were his partners and colleagues. On the frontispiece of Ornamentalism a photograph shows Curzon and the Maharaja of Gwalior each standing with a foot placed on the tigers they have just shot. Certainly the maharaja (whom Curzon in fact admired) appears to be very much the partner and colleague of the viceroy. But that was the image the late Victorians wanted to give. In reality the princes ran their domains with the “help” of a British official called the Resident and ultimately under the control of the viceroy and the secretary of state.

The thousand members of the Indian Civil Service administered a region consisting of what are now India, Pakistan, Burma, and Bangladesh. Since they obviously could not do this by themselves (or with the help of an army that was also small and overstretched), they needed to find voluntary collaborators among the population and to erect a system of cooperation that ranged from village record keepers to Rajput rajahs; by 1931 there were a million Indians officially working for the government. This system of “indirect rule,” which was extended to Nigeria and other parts of the Empire, required a cunning blend of flattery and force. For a start it demanded the preservation—or apparent preservation—of the status of native chiefs; and next it required that their loyalty should receive appropriate rewards.

Oscar Wilde once remarked that the peerage was “the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.”8 But the making of an imperial upper class—and keeping it happy—was even more imaginative. As Cannadine points out, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were periods of “unprecedented honorific inventiveness,” honors and decorations being showered in large quantities upon natives as well as Europeans because it was believed that “Orientals” were particularly susceptible to such rewards. The process is described by the author as “imperialism as ornamentalism.”

For ornamentalism was hierarchy made visible, immanent and actual. And since the British conceived and understood their metropolis hierarchically, it was scarcely surprising that they they conceived and understood their periphery in the same way, and that chivalry and ceremony, monarchy and majesty, were the means by which this vast world was brought together, interconnected, unified and sacralized.

The ornamentalism on display here shows Cannadine at his most impish. Many of the photographs are hilarious, making both rulers and subjects look exquisitely ridiculous. One portrays Curzon at his most proconsular and unbending, wearing the insignia and robes of a knight grand commander of the Order of the Star of India. The next shows the young female ruler of Bhopal almost overwhelmed by the same costume.

The British did not adopt and embellish native hierarchies simply because they found them useful. Many actually liked and admired them as well: a Scottish landowner of hills and forests was likely to feel a closer affinity with tribal chiefs in the Empire than with linen manufacturers in Paisley. Much of the affection was romantic and sentimental in origin. In the eighteenth century the Highland Scots had been feared and hated by the English (and the Lowland Scots); but in Victoria’s reign, after they had been domesticated and many of them dispersed to the colonies, they were metamorphosed into Noble Savages, proud and chivalrous guardians of a landscape so romantic that the Queen and numerous Lowlanders (both English and Scottish) bought their estates, adapted their tartans, and swooned to the skirl of bagpipes. Similar attitudes to noble savages were often found overseas, especially toward “wild” tribesmen such as the Pathans of the North-West Frontier and the Arabs of the desert.

Cannadine extends the British Empire to parts of the Middle East that did not technically belong to it: Egypt (theoretically an Ottoman possession until 1914 and an independent kingdom from 1922), the Sudan (theoretically an Anglo-Egyptian condominium), and the territories mandated by the League of Nations: Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan. But he finds the same patterns in the Middle East as in India and elsewhere, the same kind of elected affinity between members of the British upper classes and the “proud warriors” of the sand dunes, hawk-faced Bedu chieftains roaming unfettered over vast horizons. On meeting an Arab delegation in the 1930s, the British high commissioner in Palestine could not “help feeling that the very strain of noble blood which coursed through the veins of Saladin still animates the present-day Sheikhs.”9 Such views have lingered. Two years ago, at a memorial service in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Prince Charles praised King Hussein of Jordan as “a wonderful combination of the virtues of the Bedouin Arab with, if I may say so, the English gentleman.” Yet as Cannadine demonstrates, the whole business was not entirely transient or make-believe. Jordan is only one of several monarchies created or preserved by Britain that still survive.10

After nine chapters promoting his theses, Cannadine qualifies them in the tenth under the heading “Limitations.” If this also limits the impact of the book, it was nevertheless a wise move, anticipating criticisms that he may have minimized the diversity of the Empire, the differences in peoples, cultures, systems of administration, and degree of dominance; the British had much greater control of Bengal than they had of Burma next door. But generalization and omission are inevitable in a powerfully argued essay of two hundred pages. More surprising is the amount of ground that has been covered, even though this is not quite as much as the subtitle suggests. The book does not describe “how the British saw their Empire” but how officials abroad (and some of those at home) looked at it.

Cannadine knows very well that imperial motivation had many sources other than class. One of these was economic, industrialists driving the Empire onward with mines, railways, steamships, and armaments. Another was strategic, imperial planners intent on safeguarding the routes to India by acquiring and retaining Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Aden, the Cape, and the Suez Canal. A third was humanitarian, British altruists and philanthropists working successfully within the imperial system to abolish such barbarities as the slave trade and “suttee,” the custom of burning Hindu widows. In a world without Oxfam, the United Nations, or the World Health Organization, young men dedicated their careers—often at the cost of their health and sometimes of their lives—to fighting disease, preserving the peace, and building canals for irrigation. They were doing what Kipling in “The White Man’s Burden” urged the Americans to do in the Philippines in 1899: “Fill full the mouth of Famine/And bid the sickness cease.” Whether or not they had any right to be there, Victorian officials were usually inspired by lofty motives.

This is not a fashionable view now in Britain or India or indeed the United States—although the evidence is there, for those who want it, in the largely unpublished letters and diaries of the men who did the work. Even distinguished senior historians sometimes find it difficult to ascribe a decent motive to British officials. One eminent scholar at Berkeley has disparaged the research of the Indian Medical Service (while admitting its usefulness) as being “driven by narrowly professional motives” on the part of officials seeking to advance their careers in Britain by their activities in India.11 When one considers the large number of IMS staff who never returned to Britain because they died in the plagues they were attempting to control, one is left wondering whether it is much worse to further one’s career by combating disease than it is to belittle those efforts without taking full account of their consequences.

The most enduring image of the Empire is a racial one, an Englishman in a pith helmet with an Indian lacing his boots—or a variant of the theme. Assumptions of racial superiority were pervasive in several periods, especially the beginning of the twentieth century when Lord Milner, the champion of “race patriotism,” was urging the Empire’s inhabitants to think imperially. Cannadine makes it clear that racial considerations were an important factor in the British view of their Empire; but he also believes that they have been exaggerated. E.M. Forster’s harsh and inaccurate portrait of the Indian Civil Service in A Passage to India has become a stereotype, a self-perpetuating orthodoxy that reached its apogee in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), a film in which the director pandered to American audiences by portraying the British as arrogant, brick-faced, and stupid. The youthful, liberal-minded viceroy, Lord Irwin, who in fact sympathized with Gandhi, is transformed into a cantankerous old curmudgeon (played by Sir John Gielgud when he was nearly eighty) itching to put Gandhi and many other Indians in jail.

Concentrating on the racial question to the exclusion of all else allows survivors of Britain’s antediluvian left to go on flagellating the past. One reviewer of Ornamentalism took the opportunity to inform people that the Empire was built on “the same racist principles as the Nazi Reich,” that it was a “Hitlerian project on a grand scale, involving [among other things] concentration camps”12—an absurd view that suggests the camps into which Boer families were herded during the guerrilla stage of the South African War had much in common (apart from the name, which was taken from the Spanish campos de reconcentración in Cuba) with the extermination centers of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Cannadine, by contrast, deals with the race question without prejudice and without preconceptions. He examines the evidence dispassionately and concludes that racial considerations were not the predominant force in the ordering of the Empire. Too many people looked for affinities among the hierarchies of native societies. Too many were like Lady Gordon, welcoming the Fijian chiefs as men of equivalent rank while looking down on her nanny and other whites of inferior class. In the end Cannadine makes a convincing case that “in so much of the empire story” the most important factor “was not race: it was status.”

This Issue

November 7, 2002