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Hearts of Darkness

The incoherence of the British Empire

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Was there ever really a British Empire? Cartographers certainly wanted you to think so. Starting in the late eighteenth century, British mapmakers colored territories ruled by the British in red or more often in pink (for contrast with the typeface). At the height of Britain’s global power, imperial pink tinted a quarter of the map. Suspended on the walls of schoolrooms around the empire, the map became one of the most memorable icons of British dominance. Whenever we look at a map even today, we are looking at a vestige of British imperial power, thanks to the establishment in 1884 of the prime meridian at Greenwich as the global standard for longitude and time zones.

But the imperial map was little more than a rose-tinted fiction. It lied time and again. The uniform coloring falsely implied similarities across radically different kinds of domains. Sometimes pink swept authoritatively over regions where British power lived under wraps. Zooming in more closely on India, for example, one would see some 40 percent of the subcontinent marked in yellow, ruled by the nominally independent princely states. Pink skirted other regions where British influence was more vivid than the map let on, such as Egypt, which was ruled by an indigenous sovereign but occupied by the British from 1882, or Argentina, a republic critically dependent on British banks, markets, and munitions. The map usually whitewashed other transcontinental empires, which might be rendered in different hues: the blue French, the green Portuguese, the orange Germans.

This cartographic illusion endures in the widespread assumption that the British Empire was a unified entity with a single sense of mission—whether of cultural hegemony, as post-colonial critics contend, or of economic “Anglobalization,” as Niall Ferguson terms it. But “when we stare at old maps of the world with their masses of British imperial pink,” writes John Darwin, “it is easy to forget that this was always an empire-in-making, indeed an empire scarcely half-made.” In his important new synthesis, Darwin tears away the pink curtain to reveal the muddle of methods, motives, and manifestations that truly characterized this “unfinished” empire. The result is a challenging and complex book, and also the most persuasive and provocative survey of the British Empire in years. Anybody with a serious interest in the subject should read it.

For “unfinished” Darwin might better have said “incoherent.” “Both at home and abroad,” he contends, “empire took different forms and assumed different meanings. It attracted different allies, often with little in common. Its mystique was invoked to support multiple causes, some contradictory.” In place of any one imperial project, Darwin argues, there were at least three. There was an empire of conquest, made up of colonies acquired by military force, and ruled directly by British agents. There was an empire of settlement, known as “Greater Britain,” composed of colonies populated chiefly by white British and Irish emigrants, and granted a high degree of self-government. There was an empire of free trade, which ranged well beyond the formal territorial limits of the British Empire, in which British investors, entrepreneurs, and manufacturers dominated overseas markets and resources. Each of these three kinds of empire had its preeminent actors; each had its emblematic locations; each had its moments of particular historical salience.

Joseph Conrad: Alvin Langdon Coburn/George Eastman House/Getty Images; Rudyard Kipling: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Darwin takes a hawk’s-eye view of his terrain, circling from one genre of colony to the next, and it is a testament to the clarity of his presentation that he captures so much detail from such a height. The thematically organized chapters trace a broad chronological arc, beginning with the experience of “making contact” in the Americas and India, and concluding with the breakup of the empire after World War II.

England’s simultaneous projects in the early 1600s to found a “colony” for settlement in Virginia and to establish a “factory” for trade in India set the empire on course to develop—legally, militarily, economically, culturally—in two distinctive directions. In the colonies of settlement, Britons justified their annexation of territory on the grounds that the regions they approached were “empty,” and lacked recognizable states. When they encountered resistance, the British settlers’ “instinct was to buy out or drive out, and if need be, wipe out” indigenous peoples—which they did with relentless, near-genocidal thoroughness. Ironically, however, settler populations proved the most difficult group for London to govern: witness the American Revolution. To British colonists’ demands for autonomy throughout the nineteenth century, London answered by granting limited self-government, while highlighting the settler colonies’ economic and strategic dependence on Britain, and playing up ethnic and cultural ties. This synthesis formed the basis of the Commonwealth of Nations, through which Britain hoped to sustain its power into the post-colonial world.

In the empire of conquest, by contrast—an empire that started in India and grew to encompass Crown colonies on several continents—Britons were “dependent on local agents and allies.” They acquired territory by treaties signed with indigenous rulers, and they bolstered their possession by force of arms. Britain’s conflicts in Asia and Africa were overwhelmingly wars of annexation, fought against “barbarous” non-whites, aimed at the outright acquisition of territory. Britain owed its frequent (if by no means inevitable) victories to superior firepower and, still more, to tactics and logistics, including the “invisible ally” of the Royal Navy, which whisked troops from one continent to another in an “amazing dispersal of British military power.” India became the empire’s strategic linchpin, the source of vital manpower, and “the central obsession of imperial defense.”

The Indian Mutiny-Rebellion of 1857 threatened to yank the keystone from Britain’s arch of eastern power, which was one reason it so frightened imperial rulers. It also pointed up a central tension of British imperial government: the need to maintain some degree of consent among the people they governed. In a chapter on anti-imperial revolts, Darwin wonders “what prompted rebellion as a collective act of resistance?” But the real question is why colonial subjects did not rebel more often. The answer was that the British managed to diffuse power through local allies, co-opting a native elite to such an extent that in some locales the empire took the form of “indirect rule,” governed nominally by indigenous sovereigns, with British advisers directing affairs by the merest “Whisper behind the Throne.” The British also “projected a moral and cultural authority” over their subjects that, while it lasted, successfully established “British values, beliefs, institutions and habits” as “the norm against which all others should be measured.”

Like many a couple rushing into marriage, the empire of settlement and the empire of conquest may have been co-dependent—but did they have anything in common to sustain them over the long haul? Post-colonial theorists in the 1990s stressed the role of language and culture as a frame for imperial history; others have looked to the persistence of violence. Darwin finds an answer, instead, in the account books. The British Empire was quite simply the biggest public-private partnership in history: a collection of projects launched by private entrepreneurs, and chartered and assisted by the state.

The East India Company, chartered in 1600, governed “British” India until the aftermath of the Mutiny, when the Crown, essentially judging it “too big to fail,” assumed Indian government instead. The Hudson’s Bay Company, chartered in 1670, administered a third of Canada well into the nineteenth century as the largest landowner in North America, and is still publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. As late as 1889, Cecil Rhodes won a charter for the British South Africa Company to colonize and exploit the resources of present-day Zimbabwe and Zambia. Alongside the remarkable persistence and geographical reach of such monopoly corporations, British merchants benefitted from state intervention in one arena after another. In China, British gunboats busted open markets in the Opium Wars. In Egypt, the British government acquired a majority stake in the Suez Canal. In Latin America, parts of the Middle East, and elsewhere, the ascent of free-trade policy in Britain made the un-colonized world an open field for British bankers, merchants, and investors.

The corporate form extended across all three of Darwin’s versions of empire—conquest, settlement, and trade; and one of the strengths of his book is to integrate the histories of “informal” and formal empire. “Informal” empire has received relatively little sustained attention from scholars, even though it remains the kind of empire most apparent in the world today, under labels such as cultural imperialism, soft power, and globalization. So it seems especially relevant to consider how its structures took shape within the framework of formal colonization.

Darwin makes an equally distinctive contribution, moreover, with his attention to the most tangible component of imperial power: the hard, earthy reality of geography. Geopolitics fell out of fashion after the end of the cold war, and scholars since have tended to explain the rise and fall of the British Empire in terms of ideology or economics—registers that seem more suited to our present age of globalization. But if there is an animating spirit behind Unfinished Empire, it belongs to Halford Mackinder (1861–1947), a director of the London School of Economics, who essentially invented the modern study of geopolitics. Darwin framed his masterful survey of modern imperialism, After Tamerlane, which appeared in 2007, around Mackinder’s observation that “who rules the World-Island”—the Eurasian heartland—“controls the world.” In Unfinished Empire, Darwin enters the minds of Mackinderesque British statesmen to whom it seemed as if “the sun never set on [imperial] crises.” The British Empire, in this assessment, depended on three things: a stable balance of power in Europe, the preservation of India as a fortress and linchpin, and the ability to tie parts of the empire together with overwhelming naval strength.

If you want to know why the British Empire fell apart after World War II, Darwin suggests, look no further than geopolitics. It wasn’t just that Britain owed crippling debts to the United States, or that anti-colonial nationalism was increasingly costly—morally, politically, and militarily—to fend off. It was that World War II delivered an unmitigated “geostrategic disaster” to the British Empire by demolishing the balance of power in Europe and Asia. Pink leached from the map, and Soviet and Chinese red prepared to move in: India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947; Britain waged, and lost, battles for Egypt, Malaya, Cyprus, and Kenya; and the 1960s passed in a roll call of independence days. Within less than a generation, the British Empire went from fact to artifact.  

Flying at thirty-five thousand feet, as Darwin does, you can see clearly the difference between mountain ranges and oceans—but you have no sense of how the lung-piercing sharpness of alpine air feels, as compared with the sticky, saline wetness of the sea. To understand on a human scale how Darwin’s hodgepodge empire contrasted with the sweeping pink map of imperial stereotype—how it appeared to those who lived in it—consider the difference between two of the empire’s best-known writers, Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad. Active at the turn of the twentieth century, both writers captured the British Empire at the peak of its self-confidence, and both fashioned fiction from their firsthand experiences, Kipling as a journalist in India and Conrad as a merchant sailor in eastern seas. Even now, their works (and perhaps more to the point, the film adaptations of them, including The Jungle Book and Apocalypse Now) shape popular views of European imperialism more than any single history book. What kind of empire did they encounter and represent?

Kipling was born in India into one of the (relatively few) middle-class professional British families that formed the backbone of imperial service. Like many British children raised in India, Kipling and his sister were sent “home”—to England, away from their parents—very young, to protect them from the perceived challenges of India’s climate and culture. Kipling completed his education at a boarding school that catered to boys of his status and imperial background, and then he took a job as a newspaper reporter in the Punjab. As a writer, he made his name by capturing the everyday life of the British Raj, conveying a particular sensitivity to the marginal perspectives of common soldiers and children. He built his literary reputation on the strength of fiction set in India, including The Jungle Book and Kim. In later years, he expanded his literary range, notably into verse, which quickly established him as the unofficial poet laureate of the British Empire—and his geographical scope, living for stints in both South Africa and the United States (with his American wife).

The British Library/Robana via Getty Images

The wonderfully quotable quality of Kipling’s poetry has cursed him to an eternity of misreading. Not many people who talk about “The White Man’s Burden” today know that Kipling addressed this poem in cautionary terms to the United States, which had just acquired overseas colonies of its own. Those who chant, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” rarely go on to cite the reconciliatory lines that follow: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, / When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!” It was Kipling who most succinctly captured the fin-de-siècle anxiety about empire in his great Jubilee-year anthem “Recessional,” in which he envisioned a British Empire lying in ruins like those of the ancient Near East; and it was Kipling who wrote the stark, resonant epitaphs for the Imperial War Graves Commission after the Great War, from which the British Empire emerged larger—but weaker—than ever.

For all his doubts and disappointments, however, Kipling embraced the British Empire, loved it, championed it, and never questioned its potential for glory. He supported British military preparedness in the face of imperial opponents. He promoted his friend Cecil Rhodes’s vision for dominance in South Africa. He encouraged Irish Unionism, and he fashioned an enduring popular romance of British India. Kipling has become the spokesman for the British Empire of stereotype.

Joseph Conrad, by contrast, experienced different sides of the British-dominated world and turned them to quite different fictive ends. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to Polish parents in present-day Ukraine, he spent his childhood trailing his parents, political exiles, across the Russian Empire. At seventeen, Conrad trained to become a sailor, and pursued most of a twenty-year career at sea in the British merchant marine—around Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa—before becoming a full-time writer in English, his third language, in the 1890s. His fiction drew heavily on his experience in Asian waters in particular, and on the European continent; his most famous work today, the novella Heart of Darkness, fictionalized his journey in 1890 up the Congo River, to present an indelible indictment of European imperialism.

Conrad proudly became a British subject in 1886 and maintained that, of all empires, Britain’s was the best. Yet his picture of empire differed pointedly from Kipling’s. (Just as did his literary style: where Kipling can sound rather archaic today, Conrad anticipated modernism with his resistance to linear chronology and reliable narrators.) Where Kipling grounded his literary reputation in British India, Conrad established his name as a writer of “sea stories,” and writing about the sea—with its polyglot crews, its cosmopolitan harbors, its passages and crossings—also meant writing about wanderers, migrants, and misfits who slipped the nets of nationalist narratives. Not one of Conrad’s major novels takes place in a British colony, while those that are set on British soil or British ships overwhelmingly feature non-British protagonists. Where Kipling evokes a Britain made great by the possession of empire, Conrad conjures a haunting vision of Britain corrupted by imperial endeavor. And where Kipling represents the empire of stereotype, Conrad’s empire—at least as described in Heart of Darkness—has become a virtual reality, assigned in many schools today as a substitute for history books.

How could Conrad flourish in the same environment that fostered Kipling? Unfinished Empire helps to explain why. Their joint success speaks volumes about the British Empire’s capacity for diversity—while also pointing to underlying commonalities between two authors who, to varying degrees, celebrated and benefitted from British imperial institutions. That said, the contrast also calls attention to a tension threading through Darwin’s book. His thematic approach beautifully draws out similarities across cases and places that historians too often explore in isolation. But the book’s structure also rubs up uncomfortably against Darwin’s attention to difference, and his resistance to unitary causes.

Unfinished Empire proves the difficulty—indeed, the futility—of supplying a convincing grand narrative (Marxist, neoliberal, or otherwise) for this grand imperial entity. Given the incoherence of the British Empire, and the inadequacy of singular frameworks to describe it, perhaps it should not be surprising that we have largely erased “empire” altogether to describe hegemonic power. Whereas a century ago, cartographers portrayed the British Empire as something more coherent than it really was, nowadays we wipe “empire” off our maps and even from our language. Colonization and territorial expansion have been normalized under the umbrella of nation-states, whether in China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, or our own United States. Military interventions take place in the name of a universalized concept of “human rights,” and are given the post-colonial seal of approval by multinational organizations. Forms of economic and cultural domination have been subsumed under the heading of “globalization.” All these concepts have sharp critics, to be sure—but none currently carries so wide a negative rhetorical charge in English as “empire.”

But the truth is that “empire” is far from finished. Even the British Empire lingers on in some shadowy sense today. You can see it on the map: in the overlapping geographies of imperial coaling stations with today’s major bank headquarters and news bureaus, in the continuing prominence of certain geostrategic hotspots, in the global standard of Greenwich mean time. As we grapple with the acute material challenges that confront our globalized and digitized world—looming resource shortages, changing climate, pandemic disease—we may well find that empire becomes as palpable, and as mappable, a reality as ever.

Maya Jasanoff is professor of history at Harvard and the author, most recently, of Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Vintage).