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 and have stayed here under no blind or capricious impulse, but in obedience to what some (of whom I am one) would call the decree of Providence, others the law of destiny—in any case for the lasting benefit of millions of the human race.

When the British began to lose this conviction only a couple of decades later, it was the beginning of the end, for no durbar, no matter how splendid, could convince more than three hundred million Asians that the white man should rule over them, if the white man himself showed doubts. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the author of that masterpiece of colonial literature The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, shared much of Curzon’s imperial idealism, even though he was of a later generation, and it had become a little eccentric for an Indian (and especially a Bengali) intellectual to think in this way. But Chaudhuri believed that a great civilization could have emerged from the fusion of Indian tradition with the values of the European Enlightenment. That it did not come to pass, he blamed on Indian knavery and the sad lack of enlightenment among most British colonizers, but also on what he termed “funk”; the British, in his view, simply lost their nerve.

All this happened or rather began to happen in Curzon’s lifetime, which makes him such a good subject for a study of imperialism. He came of age at the height of British self-confidence, and witnessed its waning. But there was a peculiar paradox running through Curzon’s thinking. For he did identify, much earlier than most of his fellow grandees, a severe limitation to imperial ambition. In his book Persia and the Persian Question, published in 1892, he observed that Western ways may be ill-suited to non-Western people, and that their imposition may not be such a good idea, for “the normal Asiatic would sooner be misgoverned by Asiatics than well governed by Europeans.”* Not everyone would agree with him, even today. In any case he never applied this insight to India, and governing India, albeit more in the manner of an Asian autocrat than a European democrat, remained his proudest achievement.


After Curzon’s time there were occasional flashes of the old grandeur: Britain’s Finest Hour and all that. But, really, by the time of Curzon’s death in 1925, the sun of Queen Victoria’s Empire was already on the way down. After World War II, with food rationing at home, a virtually bankrupt economy, and a rapidly vanishing empire, British superiority could hardly be assumed by anyone. Only some of the manners remained, here and there. When my father first visited England in 1950 as a nervous Dutchman, he was introduced to the Cambridge friends of his future British brother-in-law. One of them played cricket for England. I once asked my father how these young Englishmen behaved toward a foreigner. He said they were very polite but took care not to be so polite that they might seem condescending.


George Nathaniel Curzon was in some ways a typical product of his time and class. Born in 1859 to an old, even grand, but not very distinguished, line of landed gentry, he suffered the usual rigors of upper-class English childhood. His governess, a Miss Paraman, would not only beat him, but made him ask the butler to prepare the birch for this purpose. An odd and even more humiliating refinement was to dress the seven-year-old boy in a petticoat with words like “coward” or “liar” attached, and order him to display himself to the local villagers. Things hardly improved at his primary school, where he was frequently beaten by a teacher whom Curzon would later recall as “a master of spanking.”

Gilmour is probably right not to jump to conclusions about this kind of thing. Most boys who experienced such treatment did not become great public figures, seething with ambition. More is made by Gilmour—again, plausibly—of the modest achievements of Curzon’s family, including his ancestors, whom he himself dismissed as “just ordinary country gentlemen.” Curzon felt from a very early age that he was surrounded by underachievers. His brothers were mostly “excellent fellows” who didn’t amount to much. His sisters were plain. One was a spinster, the other married an “excellent clergyman.”

Curzon decided he was made of greater stuff. His resolve to shine was already remarked upon at Eton, where he soon became captain of this and president of that, complaining all the while that the powers and privileges were no longer what they once were. On holiday in Paris, he reflected on the genius of Napoleon, “that marvellous man.” Thence to Balliol, a First, and a Prize Fellowship at All Souls. A schoolfriend remarked how Oxford, for Curzon, would be just a “brief interval which must intervene between Eton and the cabinet.” Two contemporaries of his at Balliol are believed to have composed the verse that would annoy Curzon for the rest of his life:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon
I am a most superior person,
My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim once a week.

This suggests a kind of upper-class dandy, a silky presence at all the finest tables of the land. There was indeed that side of him, beautifully described by Gilmour. His dashing presence was much prized in London society. Women adored him, and he them; Curzon was a famous seducer. British upper-class life would be unthinkable without its private clubs and cliques. In Curzon’s time, the smartest young set belonged to an informal group called the Souls. Mostly Tory in their politics, this coterie, which included two future prime ministers, Arthur Balfour and Herbert Asquith, as well as Curzon himself, gathered in country houses to celebrate their charm, beauty, and wit, while playing charades, having affairs, and writing clever little poems. Although lightness was their usual manner, the political significance of this kind of group was considerable. This is where the future rulers of the British Empire “bonded.”

Curzon’s aim for greatness was, however, a serious matter, much more so than for most of his contemporaries. He really worked at it. Already convinced at Eton that the British Empire was the noblest civilizing mission since Rome, he set out in the late 1880s to become the greatest expert on Asia. He made many trips, one as far as Japan, taking in Persia, Central Asia, India, and China on the way, while “working like a Trojan,” writing articles, and preparing long books about the Persian question, Russian policies in Central Asia, and the problems of the Far East.


Curzon shared many of the prejudices of his contemporaries: French food was “greasy” and French culture “epicene.” Arabs in the desert were “fine stalwart bronzed figures” without “the hangdog look of an experienced Asiatic scoundrel.” Sikhs were “a splendid looking set” of warriors, and Bengalis a bunch of garrulous wimps. Yet he was shrewd and unconventional in his negative views of Christian missionary work in China and Japan, which he saw as foolish at best and dangerous at worst. (He was right: a few years later the Boxers rebelled against the missionaries and caused mayhem in China.) And he became genuinely erudite about many parts of Asia, especially Persia.

The problem was that others, less intellectually active or gifted, did not always appreciate it when Curzon pointed these deficiencies out to them, which he did frequently. As well as traveling and writing, he was elected as a member of Parliament, and spent his maiden speech criticizing other MPs for their ignorance. This showed an admirable candor, perhaps, but not much political sense.

All his furious activity slightly baffled Curzon’s friends. Balfour couldn’t understand the relentless enthusiasm for going abroad, when fishing and shooting in Scotland were so much more agreeable. But on Curzon went in his pursuit of knowledge, experience, and greatness. This, too, in its way, was not untypical of his time. Greatness and great men were a common obsession in nineteenth-century Europe. And hard work was considered a virtue. It was indeed another justification for European rule over native peoples, assumed to be congenitally lazy. But too much open striving did not quite fit the English aristocratic ethos. Prince Albert personified Victorian industriousness, to be sure, but he was German, and his busyness was thought to be a bit foreign.

Brilliant indolence was more admired. Curzon’s description of his old friend Balfour, when the latter was foreign secretary in 1921, is the perfect summing-up of the British cult of the amateur:

His charm of manner, his extraordinary intellectual distinction, his seeming indifference to petty matters, his power of dialectic, his long and honorable career of public service, blinded all but those who knew him from the inside to the lamentable ignorance, indifference, and levity of his regime. He never studied his papers; he never knew the facts…. He trusted to his unequalled power of improvisation to take him through any trouble and enable him to leap lightly from one crisis to another.

Curzon was the opposite. He read every official paper, from early morning till late at night, knew all the facts, and took personal care of the smallest details in his administration, to the point of telling members of his council in Calcutta precisely what stockings to wear at state balls. His life as viceroy in India, from 1898 till 1905, was, as he wrote to a friend, “strenuous, unceasing, exhausting, an endless typhoon of duty.” For consolation, he read books about other “great men,” such as Caesar, Lincoln, Wellington, and Napoleon, and wrote letters to fellow proconsuls of the Empire, such as Lord Milner, complaining about being “thwarted and over-ruled” in his duties as viceroy “by those who know so little at home.”

Curzon’s striving was unusual for a man in his exalted position. The impression one gets of the Empire from Gilmour’s book is of a languid old-boy network at the top, with mediocre generals and pompous governors basking in the trappings of office and a small but very dedicated civil service holding things together in relative obscurity. Gilmour describes the life of a young officer in the Indian Civil Service as an endless grind of moving on horseback from village to village, settling disputes, and inspecting facilities. Deputy commissioners were responsible for the welfare of huge, often inhospitable regions, larger than most European countries, where they spent years, often without seeing a fellow countryman for weeks or months on end. Many fell victim to disease or were too enervated by the climate to live long. It was, as Gilmour says, “by any standards an exacting and sometimes dangerous existence that can only have been rewarding for a man who believed that the British held India for the benefit of her inhabitants.”

This is certainly how Curzon saw things. For all the caricatures of him as an aristocratic snob, he was an extremely dedicated man who did a great deal of good in India by instigating necessary bureaucratic reforms, repairing ancient buildings and monuments, improving agriculture, educational institutions, legal practices, and so on. Even his enemies had to acknowledge his brilliance as an administrator. He loved India and its peoples in the paternalistic way of his time. Like Queen Victoria, who always insisted on benevolence toward the natives, Curzon saw Indians as “very gentle and sympathetic” people who “should be treated with kindness.” The vulgar racism and violent disposition of “the inferior class of Englishman” were, in his view, a danger to the survival of British rule.

An almost inevitable consequence of this type of paternalism is impatience with, and indeed contempt for, theeducated native population. They were seen as being too big for their boots. In Curzon’s case, this prejudice was directed against the Bengalis in particular, who, in his view, got carried away by “frothy declamation” without knowing what they were talking about. As Gilmour explains, this also colored his view of the Indian National Congress, the Indian nationalist movement, which was dominated by Bengali intellectuals. And this culminated in his most controversial move, the partition of Bengal.

Curzon was convinced that democracy was not suited to Indians. They lacked the required concepts of justice, equity, and truth—a point he made in 1905 at the University of Calcutta, to the understandable fury of many Bengalis. His decision to divide Bengal into two parts, East Bengal with a Muslim majority and West Bengal for the Hindus, may have made some administrative sense, but it had the effect, surely also intended, of undermining the Indian National Congress, and thus Bengali and Indian nationalist aspirations. Curzon was a pioneer in the creation of ethnic, or religious, borders, which set the scene for savage conflicts in the future: Hindu–Muslim massacres in 1947 and India’s war with Pakistan in 1971—East Bengal is now Bangladesh.

Curzon could not have foreseen all this, to be sure, but if he deserves credit for predicting the negative consequences of Zionism, which Gilmour as a staunch defender of the Palestinian cause is quick to give him, Gilmour might have been a bit more critical of Curzon’s policy of dividing Bengal. In fact, he rather skates over it, and spends far more time on the British intrigues in London and Calcutta that finally brought Curzon down.

These shenanigans, as Gilmour describes them, had much to do with Curzon’s penchant for seeing himself as a giant among pygmies. Not only could he not suffer fools, he could not bear any sign of mediocrity. Since most governments, especially those made up of good old boys whose main credentials are familial or social proximity to the leaders who pick them, are filled with mediocrities, this posed a problem for Curzon. Sometimes the mediocrities bite back. One of the more arresting themes running through Gilmour’s book is the relationship between Curzon and his fellow Etonian, Oxford man, and Soul, St John Brodrick, later Viscount Midleton, known to his friends as “the Brodder.”

The Brodder was one of those bluff clubbable figures whose rise took him to ever higher levels of incompetence. Wherever he served, as war minister or as secretary of state for India, he was a disaster. But he was best man at Balfour’s wedding. And Balfour liked to have family and friends in his cabinet. Unfortunately, Brodrick also aspired to be viceroy of India, a country in which he had no particular interest, and was clearly jealous of Curzon’s superior abilities. Thus it was that when Curzon became embroiled in a nasty feud with another jealous fraud, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, the Brodder turned against him.

Kitchener was a most peculiar man. Celebrated as a war hero for his rather brutal victory over the Dervishes in the Sudan, he was a lazy megalomaniac, whose friends in high places always got him out of the messes he made. He was also the kind of soldier who hounded a colleague to his death for being homosexual, while spending his own spare time arranging flowers and designing fetching outfits for his servants. And his love of fine objects was such that he was observed to pocket them in other people’s houses.

It was Brodrick who backed Kitchener as commander in chief of the army in India. The system was that the commander in chief was in charge of soldiering, while the Military Department took care of administrative affairs. Kitchener decided that he wanted to have control over everything, and should not be answerable to any bureaucrat in Curzon’s government. In sum, he wanted the Military Department abolished, a wholly impractical idea which Curzon resisted. What followed was a long war between the commander in chief and the viceroy, which ended with the viceroy’s defeat and resignation.

A common view of this affair is that Curzon was undone by his arrogance. Gilmour attempts, convincingly, to set the record straight with an account that is more sympathetic to him. He demonstrates how Kitchener used every devious means to undermine Curzon’s position through press campaigns, society gossip, political manipulations, and secret plots. One of his main allies, stoking the fires against Curzon from London, was Brodrick. Curzon went, and the Military De-partment was abolished, with serious consequences.

In 1915, when the Turks came into World War I on the side of Germany, the British government debated what to do about Mesopotamia. They needed to keep the Turks out and the Germans at bay. The question was whether to simply hold Basra to safeguard oil supplies from the Gulf, or go all the way to Baghdad. Kitchener was for raiding Baghdad. Balfour and his foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, thought the capture of Baghdad would surely impress the Arabs and make them support Britain. Curzon, serving in the War Cabinet, cautioned that such a move would overextend British forces and in fact anger the Arabs. He lost this argument too.

The campaign, planned from India by a commander in chief who barely had time to leave his headquarters, let alone go anywhere near the front, was a complete shambles. Battles were lost, armies were left stranded to be relieved by others who were defeated in turn. Countless lives were wasted because of tactical blunders and the lack of any medical facilities. Baghdad was finally taken in 1917, after two years of utter chaos and unnecessary bloodshed. The old system of having a separate military administration in India was quietly restored. By that time Kitchener, who had also been partly responsible for the catastrophic defeat in Gallipoli, was dead, drowned off the Orkney Islands on his way to Russia. Curzon was vindicated, but it was too late to take much satisfaction in this turn of events.

At what point, then, did the British lose their will to rule roughly one quarter of mankind? The carnage of World War I, made worse by the incompetence of generals such as Lord Kitchener, was enough to put a dent into the confidence of any ruling class, especially when its own sons were slaughtered in large numbers. Less conservative men than Curzon realized how fast the world was changing. The Russian Revolution, as well as Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905, spurred Asian rebellions against European imperial masters. The fact that the war against Germany could not be won without the United States was another sign that Britain no longer ruled supreme. And at home, rapid social changes meant that Britain would no longer be governed by a succession of landed aristocrats.

Liberal politicians, including Gladstone, had long felt uneasy about Britain’s imperial mission and extended some political liberties to the colonial subjects. This process was accelerated by the war. In 1918, Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India, and the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, drew up a plan to divide government authority between British and Indian officials, some of them elected, in preparation for Indian self-government inside the British Empire. Curzon hated this idea, which in his view could only result in revolution and the end of Empire. But in the new age of Wilsonian self-determination, he had to accept it, albeit in bad grace.

Curzon was not yet sixty by the end of World War I, but he was in many ways out of touch with new developments. In his tastes, he remained a high Victorian to the end of his life, wearing frock coats long after they had gone out of fashion, decorating his many castles and grand houses in the Victorian manner, and so on. Where others, more perspicacious than he, already saw that Britain could not be the great power it had been for much longer, Curzon still made speeches in 1918 about the British flag never flying “over a more powerful or a more united Empire than now….”

He could be right about many things even so, including the likely consequences of promising Jews their own state in Palestine without considering the fate of the Arabs, who would surely not be content “either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants, or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the Zionists. But his flawed view of Britain’s position in the world was particularly clear in his approach to Persia, the country about which he had expert knowledge.

In 1919, as foreign secretary, Curzon bribed the Persian ruler and his ministers into accepting a treaty that made Persia into the kind of client state later associated with American imperialism. Britain supplied arms, special loans, and advisers, who saw to it that Persia remained a loyal British stooge against the Russians. A coup d’état in 1921 and a new regime in Tehran quickly brought this unequal arrangement to an end. In Gilmour’s assessment: “Believing that British policy was almost invariably beneficial to backward peoples, Curzon was astonished whenever the British turned out to be unpopular. He did not understand that the advisers might be resented by Persian nationalists….” Substitute the word “American” for “British” and one sees how little has changed.

Curzon’s idea of imperial benevolence may have been out of date by the 1920s, but it was at least coherent. Wilsonian self-determination of peoples, which came in the wake of the Ottoman and Austrian empires, may not have been altogether an improvement (in fact, as we know, some of its disastrous consequences haunt us to this day), but as an idea it was coherent too. What seems much less rational is the aim of invading countries with foreign armies without the will, the knowledge, or the resources to run those countries, all in the name of democracy. It would perhaps be nice if the American elite were to have the self-confidence of Curzon’s imperial class, but there is no sign that the American people are any more interested in ruling others than others are in being ruled by them.

If the US is not able or willing to run a formal empire, it is having trouble defining its informal one. Supporting democracy, where such support is called for, is one thing, and sending troops to stop mass murder must always be an option. But using the US military to sort out the politics of other peoples in the hope that they will be impressed with America’s good intentions is likely to end badly. As Curzon said about the British rush for Baghdad in 1915, such moves result in “a splashy and momentary triumph at the cost, or at least the risk of subsequent reverse and disaster.”

This Issue

December 18, 2003