The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Culture and British Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century

  • John M. MacKenzieEmail author
Living reference work entry

Empires, to achieve their objectives in pursuing commercial, territorial, and demographic resources by military means, also need to be culturally expansive. They cannot be self-effacing but must exhibit their presence through what they consider to be the superior qualities of their culture, conceived as the central aspects of their identity (MacKenzie 2016). In modern empires, this was always known as the “civilizing mission,” a mission which invariably started at home. In the British and Hibernian Isles, Ireland provides the classic case, and it is the cultural influence of England on Ireland that has proved to be most durable. Such cultural characteristics offered both the means and the alleged justification for the apparent ascendancy of imperial peoples. Empires therefore seem impelled to make cultural assertions as part of their acquisitive designs. Such statements take many forms of which perhaps the material presence of the dominant power is the most obvious – that is, the appearance of structures such as fortresses, walled settlements, later commercial, administrative and religious buildings, as well as domestic residences, sometimes at the center of plantations and other agricultural developments. New cities and towns often rise as a powerful expression of the manifestation of the new empire. In addition to this material display, a dominant empire seeks to expand the incidence and usage of its language, aspects of its political system, and its religious observance and associated institutions. It also invariably disseminates methods of socializing the young through education and other activities (MacKenzie 1984). But empires are also adaptable and, whether consciously or unconsciously, invariably assimilate characteristics of the subordinate peoples. Most importantly of all, empires require to seek the acquiescence of their home populations in their expansive activities.

Such a description of the cultural effects of empires could encompass many empires in human history, and it is no less true of the global spread of British rule, initially hesitantly in the seventeenth century, more aggressively in the eighteenth, and finally triumphantly in the nineteenth (Canny 1998; Marshall 1998; Porter 1999). The British, particularly the political, scholarly, and landowning elite, were well aware of the fact that their own territories had themselves been subjected to the imperial rule of the Romans and later the Normans. Progressively, as they made their military, maritime, commercial, and material presence apparent in North America, India, and elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and Australasia, they were conscious of following in the footsteps of other historic empires, albeit on a more extensive scale. They were also caught up in a strongly competitive urge to world domination. Spain and Portugal had been the first European states to embark on global expansion, very much bound up with the Roman Catholic Church. In the course of the seventeenth century, this sense of intense competition was particularly associated with the Dutch empire in Southern Africa and in Asia, but by the end of that century, there was no doubt that the principal rival was France. The struggle with France was to continue until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. It was this fierce commercial and territorial rivalry, heightened by the realization that the French enjoyed considerable power in North America, the Caribbean, and in South Asia and by the recognition that it was a contest between a Catholic and a Protestant power, that was to infuse British imperial culture in profound ways (Armitage 2000). In the eighteenth century, the British also promoted the myth that it was a contest between a liberal and supposedly free political system competing with a royalist autocratic one (Colley 1996).

As the British prosecuted this rivalry through the sequence of wars that marked the eighteenth century, they became more and more convinced not only of the rectitude of their activities (partly confirmed by their apparent success) but also of the superiority of the culture which those exploits represented. At the same time, this sense of an imperial destiny became closely bound up with patriotism and nationhood, a patriotic impulse which, after 1707, had become inseparably associated with the union between England, Wales, and Scotland, constituting the Britain which would always give its name to the empire (MacKenzie and Devine 2011). After 1800, the union with Ireland (long in effect a colony) brought together all of the British and Hibernian Isles into this imperial constellation. This sense of nationhood became closely associated with overseas expansion and the opportunities this afforded. It also became bound up with the continuing development of naval technology, with the emergence of the Royal Navy as the principal arm of an expanding state, with the commercial companies (such as the East India, Hudson Bay, and Royal Africa Companies) associated with maritime trade, with the great voyages of exploration, and, by the end of the century, with the evangelical impulse of the Protestant churches.

We should perhaps consider some definitions before examining these cultural phenomena in greater depth. We need to distinguish between cultural imperialism and imperial culture. These may be defined in the following ways. First, cultural imperialism involves the conscious efforts at conversion to an imperial culture; the proselytizing urge, in respect of the home population; the migrant diaspora to the colonies of settlement; and the conversion of indigenous peoples. It constitutes the ambitious attempt to create a genuine imperial community united by political, legal, religious, and social ideas, promoted by the material presence of the imperialists in architecture and settlements, as well as in the language, educational, sports, and entertainment forms that they disseminate. All of these incline toward offering a specific allegiance to a symbolic center, notably the monarchy and the metropolitan British state. Cultural imperialism can also be seen as the business of Christian missionaries, not just in religious proselytization but also in education, clothing, economic practices, and many other phenomena, although such an approach has been the subject of controversy among historians (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 1997; Porter, A, 2004). The objectives of cultural imperialism are also embedded in the activities of secular educationalists, administrators, elements of the press, the community of authors, and other aspects of print culture and can be additionally conveyed by some fragments of a newly emergent and culturally assimilated indigenous elite.

If cultural imperialism is the process, an imperial culture is the desired outcome resulting from the vehicles of cultural imperialism. It is the wished-for product which energizes the economic arms of the imperial state and creates the cohesive community through which imperial objectives can be attained. If it is ever attainable, this may be represented in town planning, architecture, infrastructures (Bremner 2016), and environmental transformations and with musical, dramatic, and, later, cinematic performances of the supposedly settled imperial culture. It can also be reflected in ceremony, pageantry, ritual, the dispensation of laws, and all the other ways in which empires display themselves. This is the ideal which some arms of the imperial state strain toward while always beset by dissenting voices both in the metropolis and in the empire itself.

The characteristic heightening of the patriotic significance of events and the presentation of personalities and key moments leading toward the emergence of an imperial culture became particularly apparent in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century. Such phenomena included, for example, the development of the cult of heroes. The notion of the hero and the heroic life seemed to develop a much more powerful resonance once such heroism was located in exotic geographical contexts. Such heroes became almost superhuman and representative figures associated with the national success of the British state. Naval and military figures came to be elevated to the status of empire builders, celebrated in a whole variety of media (Cubitt and Warren 2000; Sѐbe 2013). Admiral Vernon was one of the first of these, associated with the Wars of the Spanish Succession and of Jenkins’ Ear, notably with his capture of Porto Bello from Spain. This constituted a relatively hesitant start to the phenomenon until it became a national passion with General Wolfe in his victory on the heights of Abraham in 1759, one of the crowning victories of the Seven Years’ War which massively expanded the British Empire in North America, the Caribbean, and India. Wolfe now became the subject of a major cult of statues, painting (as in the most celebrated “history” painting of the age, the “Death of Wolfe” by Benjamin West), and countless theatrical tableaux. At sea, Admiral Rodney became celebrated for his exploits in the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years’ War, and the War of American Independence. In the latter, the Battle of the Saints against the French off Dominica was seen as saving significant islands of the West Indies for the British. Later, Horatio Nelson became the supreme exemplar of this national passion after his victory at Trafalgar in 1805 (Cannadine 2005). Wolfe and Nelson illustrated the fact that nothing heightened the status of such national figures more than a heroic death at the moment of supreme success. This was also true of a heroic figure in another field, exploration. Captain Cook’s succession of voyages in the Pacific and his role in cartography and scientific discovery, followed by his death in 1779 on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), led to his apotheosis into the highest rank of national imperial heroes, particularly in view of the manner in which British success in the ultimate annexation of Australia and New Zealand was seen as resulting from the fame of his exploits. In all of these examples, artistic representations, statuary, and hagiographical biographies contributed to the developing cult of important imperial events. While some aspects of the consumption of such cults might be seen to be limited to an elite, they became progressively more available to the population as a whole through prints, book illustrations, and the development of spectacular theatrical representations.

Major changes occurred during the nineteenth century which resulted in many additional cultural phenomena representative of the British conviction that their rule constituted the most strikingly progressive empire of human history. These included the elevation of the British monarch, particularly in the reign of Queen Victoria, to the mythic rank of global ruler. This unquestionably contributed to the development of British architectural styles and a passion for monumental sculpture representing the continents, their peoples, and the role of the British in supposedly bringing so many of them together into a vast empire with an allegedly common culture. Associated with this was the progressive rise in the status and reputation of the military. Famously, although the centrality of the navy led to the development of the cult of the “Jack Tar” or common sailor (Conley 2009), the military in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was often viewed as “the scum of the earth,” as Wellington put it, who needed to be turned into heroic, morally elevated figures through the army. As the nineteenth century developed, however, the soldiery came, in many respects, to be lionized, an effect which was heightened by their campaigns in distant and exotic places. Moreover, as western weaponry was transformed by industrial processes, particularly into the fast-repeating machine guns like the Gatling and, more particularly, the Maxim, the ratio of casualties changed such that indigenous opponents were in much greater danger than the British. Thus, soldiering on the part of the British for the extension and protection of the British Empire became less dangerous in terms of conflict but continued to have casualties through disease and the problems of the environment. Such colonial campaigns often became wars against nature as much as against people (MacKenzie 1992, p. 8; Spiers 2004). The reign of Queen Victoria was a time of almost continuous colonial campaigns (sometimes against rebellious settlers and subjects) in North America, Australasia, India, Southeast Asia, and the Far East, as well as in Africa during the period of that continent’s partition among the European powers between the 1870s and the early years of the twentieth century. In the same period, after the Cardwell army reforms of 1870, the affiliations of regiments became more local, associated with specific counties, cities, and towns within the British Isles. By this time, the appearance and reputation of the military had become central to imperial culture, in paintings and prints, in the theater and patriotic songs, and in real life in the ceremonial departures and triumphant returns. In these ways, the soldiery became increasingly significant in national and civic events, almost a ubiquitous sight on the streets of many places in Britain, cheered by the population consciously celebrating their role in creating national identity and in expanding and defending the empire. They also became central to local identities, not least through uniforms as, for example, with the highly visible Scottish soldiers. This was equally true, however, of Wales, Ireland, and individual counties. Yet all such heightening of local identities seemed to feed into the union sanctified by imperial success.

There can be no doubt that in imperial culture generally, the Indian Revolt of 1857 constituted a significant turning point. The events of the revolt were followed very closely indeed in the British press. It has been said that the horrors that were allegedly perpetrated by Indians (some were grossly exaggerated and in any case the retribution exacted by the British took horrendous forms) led to the heightening of racial ideas, a development which was exacerbated by the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica in 1865 and the actions of the Governor Edward Eyre. Support for Eyre by key figures in British culture, such as John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, and Thomas Carlyle, served to heighten these racist ideas, although there were others, such as David Livingstone, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, John Bright, and Thomas Henry Huxley, who took the opposite line. Such racial ideas were further heightened by events in Africa and the attitudes of the dominant whites in Southern Africa and later Kenya and elsewhere. Imperial culture had now adopted notably racist views, although there was always an alternative faction which attempted to mitigate the more extreme attitudes.

Another characteristic development of the nineteenth century heightened all these effects. It was an age which witnessed a massive growth in print culture. Newspapers had their origins in the eighteenth century, but in that period, patriotic ideas and the announcement of events in war were often conveyed by poetry, ballads, broadsheets, and posters which circulated on the streets. The price of newspapers, however, ensured that circulations were relatively low, generally among the elite. However, the significant change came in 1855 when newspapers were freed from the stamp duties which had rendered their cover price too high for a working-class readership, at a time when the extent of literacy was in any case fairly low. After the repeal of stamp duty, papers became available at twopence or a penny, ensuring that at least theoretically they were available to all. Their circulations grew considerably conveying news of imperial campaigns and other colonial events to every corner of the country. Another type of publication that emerged at this time was the illustrated journals such as the Illustrated London News (founded 1842) and The Graphic (1869) which exploited the new printing technologies with woodcuts and engravings to reproduce illustrations on a major scale, often of imperial campaigns, of heroic events, or of grand ceremonial, for example, in India. While these journals would have been too expensive for many ordinary people, still they would have been seen by the large class of servants in middle- and upper-class households, while the new development of free municipal libraries (after the act of 1850 which permitted local councils to raise a penny on the rates to fund them) made newspapers and illustrated journals available to all. This growth also promoted the striking explosion in advertising that became a characteristic of the age (Ramamurthy 2003). Such advertising, in newspapers, magazines, and on hoardings, often placed products in colonial settings, associating the specific manufacture with events and heroes of the day. The key to the further expansion of print culture and its consumption was the spread of literacy, promoted by the Education Acts of 1870 (in England and Wales) and 1872 (in Scotland).

Indeed, helped by this extensive availability of printed materials, the cult of heroes which had already developed in the eighteenth century grew considerably in the second half of the nineteenth. Major heroes included military figures who had served in the suppression of the Indian Revolt of 1857, the so-called mutiny, such as Henry Havelock, John Nicolson and Colin Campbell, and Lord Clyde (MacKenzie 1986). David Livingstone and his explorations, associated with the suppression of the Indian Ocean slave trade, became one of the most celebrated heroes of all, complete with his remarkable funeral in Westminster Abbey after his body had been brought out of Africa (Lewis 2018). General Gordon in the Sudan was elevated to powerfully iconic status by his death at Khartoum and by the considerable admiration of Queen Victoria. We can add to these Henry Morton Stanley made famous through his search for Livingstone and other African exploits and Herbert Kitchener who was seen as retaking the Sudan, avenging Gordon, and then defeating the Afrikaans people of Southern Africa in the second Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902. In the early twentieth century, exploration in the Antarctic produced another crop of heroes including Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who famously died on his return from the South Pole, and Ernest Shackleton who managed, through particularly heroic voyages in small boats, to bring out his followers alive. But, as has sometimes been pointed out, it was heroic failure that seemed to have a particularly heroic resonance for the imperial British (Barczewski 2016).

David Livingstone’s heroic reputation had a galvanizing effect upon the continuing development of missionary activity. Catholic missionaries had been involved in the expansion of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires from the sixteenth century, but Protestant missions had relatively weak beginnings in the eighteenth century. Organizations like the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (founded 1698) were as much concerned with domestic society as with overseas. From the 1790s, however, the evangelical urge became an energizing force in developing missionary ambitions among the various Protestant denominations in the United Kingdom, including Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, and the Scottish churches. Much of this activity was channelled through missionary societies such as the Baptist (1792), London (mainly Congregationalist, 1795), Scottish (1796), and the Church (Anglican, 1799) missionary societies. The established Church of Scotland and the breakaway Free Church of 1843 both became highly active in India, Africa, and elsewhere. Such missionary societies continued to appear throughout the nineteenth century, with the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (1860) founded as a direct result of Livingstone’s appeal. His death in what is now Zambia in 1873 had the effect of recruiting large numbers of clergy and women missionaries to the cause, and there was an extraordinary upsurge of activity throughout the world. This evangelizing activity was immensely helped by the opportunities of the new and cheaper print culture. Missionary magazines and other publications became available in large numbers, as did cheap books about missionary endeavor and about the figures who were regarded as missionary heroes of the age. Such publications can be found to have had wide circulations down to the inter-war years of the twentieth century.

In addition to all these printed materials, missionary societies were able to propagate news of their activities and raise funds not only through the networks of churches of the various denominations but also through exhibitions in which they exhibited illustrations of their activities in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. This was also a means of selling missionary publications and even postcards. Missionaries on furlough also made lecture tours, perhaps with the projection of magic lantern slides (a significantly popular visual development of the age), to spread news of their missions and also to raise funds. An essential part of this propagandist activity was the self-regarding and satisfying news that peoples elsewhere in the world were not only being converted to Christianity but were taking on the cultural characteristics of the home population, attending schools, wearing western clothes, and learning familiar crafts like brickmaking, carpentering, and printing, while girls were being taught the gendered, domestic activities of the missionaries’ home society. In these ways, at a time of considerable piety and extensive church attendance, there can be little doubt that the missionary societies and the extraordinarily extensive network of mission stations which they established throughout the world were among the most potent disseminators of an imperial culture both within Britain and overseas. Moreover, both the national and local press regularly advertised the activities of missionaries and of lecture tours. Evidence from the Scottish newspapers in particular reveals the striking prominence that was accorded the work of missionaries, their schools, and other activities as well as the propensity of missionaries to see themselves as contributing significantly to the civilizing mission. Moreover, societies (sometimes of women) were founded in many towns to support these enterprises. To return to David Livingstone, it is an astonishing fact that in the 50 years after his death almost 100 popular biographies were published to celebrate his life. If there had not been a market for such works, it is highly unlikely that it would have been fed so assiduously.

If missionary publishing was significant, one of the most striking publishing phenomena of the age was the appearance of large numbers of popular books celebrating the empire, both in supposedly factual accounts and, above all, in the tradition of celebrated juvenile literature which extolled the virtues of heroes (and often included their names in the titles) and the events and wars in which they were involved (Richards 1989; Castle 1996). These books became part of a highly popular adventure tradition in exotic locations. There were a number of celebrated authors feeding this market, of which G.A. Henty was perhaps the most celebrated, prolific, and enjoying large sales. He wrote well over 100 adventure stories between 1868 and 1906, the majority of them about imperial events, often with titles that included names of heroes, such as With Clive in India, With Kitchener in the Soudan, and With Roberts to Pretoria. Several other authors wrote similar books for the young, while there were also “Annuals” (for the Christmas market) containing equivalent material. These ideas became so pervasive that they can also be identified in a different form in school textbooks, particularly those dealing with modern history but perhaps more particularly geography and aspects of religious and literary study (Yeandle 2015). Studies of such texts have revealed the extent to which they promoted a patriotic worldview which placed the exploits and achievements of the British at the center of the technological advances of the age, the urge to geographical and scientific knowledge, and the dissemination of British ideas, including, for example, notions of British freedoms and of democratic and libertarian politics, even although so far as the suffrage was concerned, British society was itself far from being fully democratic. In this respect, settlement territories of the British Empire could be more advanced. New Zealand, for example, although it had been through an era of violence in the Maori wars between 1846 and 1872, had full male and female suffrage from 1893, although the Maori voted in separate constituencies.

Of all the popular conduits through which imperial cultural forms were transmitted, the theater was one of the most influential. Once again, there was a long history to this. The theater had already begun to offer recreations of events that were taking place in the empire and in warfare from the second half of the eighteenth century. At the time of the Napoleonic wars, a tradition of spectacular theater was developed in which battles (even naval ones) were reenacted for the edification and patriotic delight of the audience. These effects were heightened in the nineteenth. Imperial themes became a significant staple of theatrical productions, particularly in the second half of the century when events in India and in Africa were portrayed on the stage (Gould 2011). Themes of class conflict, which had been popular at an earlier period, were often replaced by plots that emphasized racial difference. One of the standard theatrical forms of the age, melodrama, was ideally suited for this kind of material. Imperial patriotism was also transmitted through the popular pantomimes of the age, as well as through some of the increasingly popular presentations of musical theater at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Yeandle et al. 2016). In the same era, the music hall became one of the most popular of all theatrical performances, and dedicated music halls opened throughout the country, both in large cities and in country towns. The music hall often featured patriotic songs, marching soldiers, and tableaux (such as the death of General Gordon in Khartoum, as portrayed in a famous painting by G.W. Joy). Many of these tableaux did indeed assume the form of imperial patriotic paintings, which must have been familiar since they had been disseminated more widely by prints and illustrations in popular magazines or books. In the same period, statuary and other forms of monumental sculpture became one of the most visible aspects of the display of naval, military, and imperial heroes.

One of the features of the nineteenth century was the emigration of British people from the United Kingdom to colonial territories. Such migration had begun in a smaller way to the Caribbean and the American colonies in the seventeenth century, developing to a certain extent in the eighteenth. But the era of mass migration was only to come in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often on sailing ships, but as the century wore on increasingly on steamships which rendered such voyages shorter, safer, and to a certain extent at any rate more comfortable (Richards 2004). It has been estimated that some 18.7 million people migrated out of Britain between 1815 and 1930, with Ireland contributing more than 8 million, by far the highest proportion of its population among the constituent ethnicities of the United Kingdom. Irish migration was partly impelled by the great famine of the 1840s, but migration continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A high percentage of such migrants went to the United States, at least until quotas were imposed in the early twentieth century. But the peopling of the settlement territories of the British Empire, Canada, Australia, from 1840 New Zealand, and to a lesser extent South Africa was one of the characteristics of the age. Such settlement of course went along with the dispossession of indigenous peoples, and settlers were often involved in local wars, both great and small. These colonies remained within the British Empire, although progressive constitutional developments, notably the federation of Canada in 1867, the Australian Commonwealth of 1901, and the South African Union of 1910, leading to the Statute of Westminster of 1931, meant that their emergence as the fully independent countries of today proceeded by gradual stages. Nevertheless, for most of this period, they remained culturally within what has become known as the British World, English-speaking and replicating many of the cultural characteristics of Britain itself. These included the reproducing of the phenomena already described – the appearance of mechanics’ institutes everywhere (for the education of working men, the first founded in Scotland in 1821), the development of an active press of publications (many exported from Britain), the explosive spread of the Christian churches, and the missions to indigenous peoples, the schools, libraries, theaters, and other institutions to be found in the so-called metropolis. Migration contributed to an imperial culture in various ways: through the circulation of leaflets and pamphlets encouraging migration, through advertisements in newspapers, through the lectures of migration agents from various colonies, and through handbooks providing advice for migrants.

This migration of British people around the world has been divided into two major categories, settlers and sojourners. Settlers were generally permanent migrants, although some did return to Britain, particularly in the twentieth century. Sojourners were temporary migrants who travelled, for example, to India to work in administration, commerce, the military, or missionary work. Sojourners also went to the so-called dependent colonies of the empire in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Indian and Pacific Ocean islands, and above all the African colonies north of South Africa. Some colonies in East and Central Africa acquired settlers who imagined that they would remain there, based upon the illusion that African nationalism lay far off in the future. But in the majority of cases, they did turn out to be more temporary sojourners. In these colonies as well as in the settlement territories (which became known as dominions in the twentieth century), there is some evidence that this English-speaking community did operate, at least for a period, as an imperial whole, drawn together by the monarchy, the military (with local regiments recruited in all the settlement territories), and common passions. For example, there is considerable evidence from the colonial press that the Anglo-Boer War was given a great deal of prominence, with, for example, the celebrations of the Relief of Mafeking in May 1900 receiving wild rejoicing not only in Britain but throughout both the settlement and other colonies. This was partly because there were troops from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand involved in the war. It is perhaps ironic that this sense of an empire operating together in the pursuit of an imperial campaign actually became an important milestone in the development of national identities in those countries, as is evidenced by the remarkable war memorials that were erected after the war. This was an effect which was of course even more pronounced with World War I. Although there was a fresh wave of migration after that war (and the United States was no longer such a significant destination), the territories which received them were becoming progressively less British, both through the arrival of many migrants from other parts of Europe and because of developing nationalist identities (Fedorowich and Thompson 2013).

Various cultural events were exported around the empire during this period. One of the most significant of these was the idea of the international exhibition. In Britain, the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace contained a magnificent and much admired section on India, but colonies were not central to the exhibition (Greenhalgh 1988). It was much more concerned with manufacturing and economic rivalry with other European powers. The next exhibition, in London’s South Kensington in 1862, had a larger colonial section, but the succeeding one, the Colonial and Indian of 1886, concentrated almost exclusively on empire as its name implied. From this time onward, all exhibitions had this focus. From the 1890s to World War I, they became almost annual events, some of them privately run, with two significant ones designed to celebrate the coronation of George V in 1911. The culmination of this activity came with the massive Wembley Exhibition in 1924–1925, followed by the Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1938, the last of the sequence. These exhibitions all contained pavilions devoted to individual colonies, showcasing their products, agricultural and mineral, as well as the magnificence of their environments and invariably acting as further recruiting exercises for fresh migration. They also often contained “native villages,” living displays of peoples from the colonies which became opportunities for what may be called ethnographic voyeurism (Qureshi 2011). More seriously, there were often stands at which craftspeople from India and elsewhere worked on the production of the various crafts for which they had become celebrated and which were seen as offering a contrast with machine-made industrial items. The exhibitions were immensely popular, attracting very large numbers of visitors to the great variety of their exhibits and, it must be said, to the funfairs that invariably accompanied them.

But these extraordinary events were not restricted to Britain. One of the most striking aspects of exhibition history is the manner in which they were organized in many other places, both in the United States and in colonial cities. All the principal cities of the colonies of the British Empire mounted such exhibitions, and they became almost a “rite of passage” that revealed the economic, cultural, and organizational maturity of the respective colony. They appeared in several cities of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Southern Africa, and India, with exhibitions being organized even in apparently less likely places such as Zanzibar and Bulawayo. They were often linked to the celebration of specific events or anniversaries and set out to bring aspects of the world, perhaps mainly a colonial world, to the city or town in which they were located while also displaying the peoples, products, design, and other attributes to visitors from overseas. It was a remarkable phenomenon and one which united the empire in what can be seen as striking cultural emporia. They stimulated many publications, press reports, visual materials (including in the twentieth-century postcards), as well as celebrations of scientific progress and the efficiencies of such nineteenth-century technological advances as the posts and telegraphs, the railways, and later electricity and the internal combustion engine.

In addition to these, there were other empire-wide celebrations or commemorations which seemed to create a degree of cultural cohesion. These included the jubilees of Queen Victoria, the deaths and coronations of monarchs, and events associated with imperial heroes. For example, the colonial press reveals that there were various celebrations of the centennial in 1913 of the birth of David Livingstone. There can be no doubt that the monarchy was seen as an effective glue which held the empire together, and celebrations of, for example, Queen Victoria’s birthday were an empire-wide phenomenon. Royal tours seem to have been an important part of this and became increasingly frequent as the technologies of travel improved with steamships and railways. Modern royal tours are regarded as beginning in 1860 with the visit of the youthful Prince of Wales (future Edward VII) to Canada and his younger brother Prince Alfred to South Africa in the same year. The Prince of Wales made a highly significant tour of India in 1875–1876, just preceding the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India, while his son, the Duke of York, the future George V, and his wife made an extensive empire tour in 1901, the centerpiece of which was the opening of the federal parliament of Australia in the magnificent 1880 exhibition hall in Melbourne. The Duke and Duchess of York were in India in 1905 and returned for the Delhi Durbar in 1911. In turn, their son made a whole sequence of royal tours in the inter-war years. All of these were accompanied by extensive press coverage with cheering, loyal crowds in the streets (though rather more muted in India), with books being published at the end of each journey. Clearly intended as a prime means of maintaining an overall imperial culture, their efficacy rapidly declined after World War I when the comparative boredom and indifference of the future Edward VIII may well have communicated itself to some at least of those he was supposed to impress. Moreover, the intentions and effects of such tours often diverged. Colonial politicians and indigenous rulers set about adapting them to their own purposes, sometimes at odds with the imperial sentiment that they were intended to propagate (Reed 2016).

However, further technical developments did, albeit temporarily, promote this sense of an imperial community. In the 1890s, the printing of photography had become possible, and this ensured that newspaper reports of events now contained the immediacy of the photographic record. But moving pictures were to have an even greater effect. There is newsreel film of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee of 1897 and of her funeral in 1901. These were notable imperial occasions with many colonial troops marching in distinctive uniforms. There are also newsreels associated with the Anglo-Boer War, for example, depicting the departure of troops at British ports for service at the front. As newsreel became more sophisticated, it produced extraordinarily vivid impressions of colonial places and of remarkable events there. There had been some newsreel of the Delhi Durbar of 1903, but this was surpassed by the much more impressive filming (including the application of color) of the grandeur of the Delhi Durbar of 1911 when George V crowned himself as Emperor of India in a massive ceremonial pageant involving the Indian princes and their retainers, as well as many of the regiments and the administrators serving in India. Newsreels of these events were shipped rapidly to Britain (and to other colonies) and were shown in cinemas throughout the land to large and apparently appreciative audiences, at least if newspaper accounts are to be believed.

By this time, cinema was performing a different function, one involving spectacular entertainment in the shape of feature films involving adventures of various sorts in exotic locations. These had their origins before World War I but became standard fare in the inter-war years with a wave of highly popular imperial films being shown in the 1930s, set in India, Africa, and elsewhere. These films had titles such as King of the Khyber Rifles, The Four Feathers (set in the Sudan), Clive of India, Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and Stanley and Livingstone. More films with similar themes were made after World War II continuing into the 1950s and beyond. These films went around the world to be shown in colonial cinemas which had appeared almost everywhere sometimes as converted theaters but also as a new and dedicated architectural phenomenon (Chapman and Cull 2009). Radio was another medium which promoted a degree of imperial unity (Anduaga 2009). It was a means for the transmission of news and events. In 1924, the speech of George V opening the Wembley Exhibition was broadcast in Britain, and in 1932 the king made a broadcast for transmission throughout the empire. This was usually followed by documentaries which described the celebration of Christmas across the colonies. These radio broadcasts were obviously important during World War II and continued in the years that followed.

It was also possible for intercolonial sports to become a source of entertainment for distant audiences through newsreels. The British Empire was very much a location for the dissemination and development of sports, perhaps more so than other empires of the day. These included sports for the elite, such as shooting, fishing and pig-sticking in India, as well as big-game hunting in Africa (and this produced a genre of film documentaries demonstrating that big-game shooting could involve the camera as much as the gun). Sports that had been nurtured at British public schools and universities, such as rowing, also became more widely popular, while yacht clubs appeared throughout the British Empire wherever there were coastlines or lakes. Horse racing became a particularly important interest, one that could unite the classes in attendance at race courses and in gambling. Race courses appeared throughout the British Empire, in some cases promoted by the presence of cavalry horses in the British imperial regiments. Other sports that enjoyed a more democratic participation and following were also disseminated around the world. Among these was football, the classic sporting development of the late-nineteenth century, much enjoyed by troops wherever the military went. Football was taken up with particular enthusiasm in Africa where it became a passion among both white settlers and sojourners and Africans. Missionaries were influential in this, seeing football as a means of inculcating a sense of common purpose and imperial virtues of team spirit combined with individual prowess and physical courage. Another sport very much associated with the military which was also encouraged in Africa was boxing which became immensely popular among Africans. Football did not, however, develop with quite the same passion in Canada, where American sports became more influential as well as those associated with a very cold climate like ice hockey. Perhaps more influential was rugby, which was taken up as a major spectator sport particularly in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Colonial territories adapted sports to their own ends, such as the unique appearance of Australian-rules football. But perhaps most influential and widespread of all was cricket. Cricket seemed to know no boundaries, particularly given climates which suited it well. It became a central aspect of sporting culture of the Caribbean islands, of India (and after partition, Pakistan), Ceylon, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Intercolonial matches started in Australia (that is among the various colonies) in 1850, and the first English tour took place in 1861. One of the great advantages of cricket was that, unlike rugby, it was not a contact sport, and therefore, at a time of racial sensibilities, it became acceptable for different races to play each other. Cricket test matches started in 1877 (England and Australians in Melbourne, Australia, as a federation did not exist then) and became increasingly frequent in the twentieth century, becoming popular fare in the press, in newsreels, and later in radio broadcasts. Although such sports were indicative of an overall imperial culture (a distinctive one since such sports were at this time not played in the other European empires), they soon became very much part of the development of separate identities and distinctive nationalisms across the empire. Thus, as with so many other aspects of an imperial culture, they were transformed from illustrating a degree of unity in the British World to becoming evidence of growing nationalist separate identities. This was particularly potent in the case of Caribbean islands where it soon became apparent that cricket teams had the abilities and skills to beat the so-called mother country at their own game, as it were (Beckles 1998). Another sport of more significance for the future was snooker, a game that was actually invented in India and was to sweep the English-speaking world and become highly popular, particularly after the introduction of color television.

This notion of an imperial culture performing as a dominant ideology in British history, notably in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, has not been without controversy. For a long time, the histories of the British Empire and of the domestic politics and society of Britain were treated as wholly separate categories, seldom fully brought together. It was only in the 1980s that it was suggested that the history of Britain and of its empire should be amalgamated through the study of cultural forms (MacKenzie 1984). This conjunction had always been apparent in economic history, in the extent to which the British economy was bound up with its imperial role (although even here it was thought that, given the extent of British trade with the United States and with Europe, it was possible to exaggerate the centrality of the colonial connection). But it was regarded as much less apparent in terms of social and cultural history. Once the connection had been suggested, however, there was some attempt at a resurgence of older ideas. The historian Bernard Porter suggested that in fact the British had little interest in their empire and that the notorious nineteenth-century phrase of the historian John Seeley “absent-minded imperialists” could indeed be seen to apply to the reactions of the British public to the fact that they were citizens of, as it was always described, the largest empire the world had known (Porter, B, 2004). There are, however, certain problems with this view. The first is that any survey of popular materials indicates the pervasiveness of empire and its ideologies. The second is the central place of imperial themes in publications and in entertainment. While there were of course people who found imperialism not only unappealing but reprehensible, still it appears to have been acceptable in so many popular works and above all in entertainments. The theater and other media would not have devoted so much attention to it if impresarios and filmmakers had imagined that it would alienate audiences. Moreover, so many advertisements of the period sold their products in connection with current imperial events or by association with imperial heroes that it would be unlikely that those concerned with marketing would have linked their sales to contemporary events which were either unappealing or which inspired boredom. This indicates the extent to which these aspects of an imperial culture were certainly not part of a governmental or elite conspiracy. “The box office does not lie” nor do sales of products. These phenomena flourished because consumers, at least for a period, found them appealing.

There have, in any case, been many other interpretations by historians, political scientists, and anthropologists that an imperial culture was indeed a major phenomenon of British history, even in terms of the public at large. The most important of these was the book Culture and Imperialism by Said (1993). The author came from a literary tradition and had become highly influential through his seminal Orientalism (1978). His approach adopted the poststructuralist theories of discourse that were to become central to the postcolonial school, and he argued that the nineteenth-century canon of English literature acted as a “polyphonic accompaniment” to the expansion of Europe, interpreting works in the light of contemporary imperial contexts. He argued that “so vast and yet so detailed is imperialism as an experience with crucial cultural dimensions” that it was necessary to think in terms of “overlapping territories, intertwined histories common to men and women, whites and non-whites, dwellers in the metropolis and on the peripheries, past as well as present and future.”

Some historians and literary scholars have found this far-fetched, but there can be little doubt that the prominence of the British Empire and its various territories can be tracked through a whole range of cultural forms. This is not to say that the British people, and the colonial migrants who had left Britain’s shores, had much knowledge of the dimensions of the empire, of the events through which it had been acquired, or of the peoples who inhabited it. However, there was unquestionably a recognition that the empire had converted Britain into a major world power and that the empire provided extraordinary opportunities for settlement, employment, and commercial success, not least because it ensured that Britain had by far the largest merchant navy in the world. During the hundred years between the middle of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Britain and its empire became, in a cultural and demographic sense, synonymous. This was heightened by the development of many aspects of an imperial and colonial culture. It was an effect which was perhaps heightened by World Wars I and II, although those same wars would ensure the rise of nationalist sentiment, the creation of new identities, and ultimately the collapse of the empire as a political and social unit.

However, while the creation and experience of these aspects of an imperial culture offer important insights into the dominant ideas of the British Empire at its peak, the breaking down of such cultures of empire is equally instructive for an understanding of the empire’s decline. The progressive disintegration of the culture of imperialism took place over a period of many years, at different speeds, and at a variety of levels. Within Britain itself, imperial ideas seemed to become less relevant in the inter-war years of the twentieth century when the comparative decline of British dominance in industrial production, command of shipping and trade, as well as military and naval power became increasingly apparent to both politicians and public. Moreover, the cyclical booms and busts of the world economy exposed major problems of unemployment, social deprivation, and labor unrest in Britain. Some politicians and agencies tried desperately to maintain the imperial connection as a bulwark against these economic stresses, for example, in imperial preference after 1931 and such propagandist bodies as the Empire Marketing Board (Constantine 1986), but by World War II, it was already becoming apparent that these efforts to cling to an imperial past were no longer appropriate or effective. In addition, the effects of the worldwide great depression after the Wall Street crash of 1929 ensured that opportunities for white migration had become more restricted. Yet, despite all that, it was still the case that particularly in the theater and films, imperial culture survived and in some respects continued to do so until the 1960s (Ward 2001). It seems that such cultural elements can survive beyond the increasing evidence of economic and political decline.

Beyond Britain it was also increasingly apparent that the dominions, following the Balfour Declaration of 1926 (which declared that these former colonies were now equal in status to Britain itself), were emerging as fully independent countries with their demographic makeup changing dramatically with the rapid growth of migration from Eastern and Southern Europe. World War II seemed to create an illusion of an empire once again coming together to fight the enemy, with the exception of Ireland or Eire which remained neutral. Indeed, the effective departure of the Irish Republic from the British system (the monarchy was dropped from the constitution in 1937, and the republic was declared, outside the commonwealth, in 1949) acted as a significant herald for the rapid processes of decolonization that were to take place between the 1940s and 1960s. While it certainly left many significant traces, an overall imperial culture now seemed to have died, although the British royal family, particularly in the person of Queen Elizabeth II after 1952, seemed to hold together its successor body of equal and independent states in the Commonwealth. The queen continues to be monarch of 15 former imperial territories as well as the remaining British Overseas Territories.

So far as indigenous peoples were concerned, this period became one of the acceleration of what has become known as “the decolonization of the mind,” the escape from an imperial cultural hegemony. Of course, some Caribbean, African, and Asian people had embraced a British-style education and the use of the English language, occasionally also Christianity, as a route to personal advancement. Sometimes, this included aspects of the accompanying mind-set which became a useful attribute for entry to some, mainly professional and clerical, occupations, though few entirely abandoned traditional cultural norms. Still most people either remained indifferent to such a phenomenon (as was the case in many rural parts of Africa and Asia) or held it at arm’s length. Alternatively, many recognized the value of creating hybrid cultural forms in order to face the challenges of the modern world. In India, a sequence of nineteenth-century reform movements, particularly in Hinduism, set about responding to and warding off the apparent seductions of Christian missions with their useful attributes of educational opportunity and access to modern medicine (although traditional medical practices remained important). Nevertheless, Christianity succeeded in maintaining its cultural and spiritual bridgehead in many Asian colonies, and churches, missions, schools, and hospitals remained part of the visible material evidence of an imperial culture. In Africa and the Caribbean islands, Christianity stimulated an extraordinary range of responses, from reasonably conventional religious practices to highly syncretic forms as well as the emergence of a whole range of separatist churches which chose to blend elements of Christianity with indigenous beliefs and performative modes of worship. For example, large numbers of nominal Christians in Africa pursue religious ideas and forms that owe as much to African traditions as to imported belief systems. Similarly, it is possible to identify a whole range of reactions to aspects of an imperial culture from partial acceptance as a pragmatic route into globalized systems through efforts at the creation of syncretic forms (e.g., by some African novelists) to outright rejection. Such rejection took political forms in the development of black movements, often but not exclusively Marxist, which drew inspiration from Caribbean and Black American leadership or from revolutionary movements elsewhere (Schwarz 2003). The former slave communities of the Caribbean islands became the leaders of many aspects of cultural decolonization while still converting the aspects of the formerly dominant culture that were useful to them. As we have seen, western sports were capable of being transformed into attributes of nationalist endeavor and propaganda.

These important intellectual and religious responses to British imperial culture were accompanied by others designed to avoid the visible outward appearance of individuals as well as the commemoration of significant figures in nationalist politics. In India, some Asian former colonies, West Africa, and other nonwhite territories, politicians and their followers set about the rejection of western clothing to return to what was conceived to be more traditional dress. This was particularly significant when certain aspects of clothing took religious forms, as among Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Much of the celebrated charisma of Mahatma Gandhi was derived from his adherence to simple Hindu clothing, even although he had dressed as a suited western lawyer during his time in South Africa. This was partly bound up with his Swadeshi movement, the boycott of western industrially produced cloth in favor of hand-spun cotton produced on his ashram (Gandhi 1929). Similarly, Motilal Nehru, father of Jawaharlal, the first Indian post-independence prime minister, made a conscious decision to abandon his western suit and turn to a form of Indian dress, a movement which swept through the Indian National Congress by the 1920s. At a later date, nationalists everywhere reacted against the statuary of notable imperial figures which had been a powerful, visible characteristic of the street furniture of imperial and colonial cities. Statues were often attacked and either destroyed or damaged (symbolically heads and arms were often chopped off). Some, like the statue of General Gordon in Khartoum, were sent back to Britain, and some (particularly of Queen Victoria) went to Canada or Australia. While a few survived, as at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata or in the Mumbai Town Hall, the sculpting of statues of nationalist leaders and heroes became an important response to these symbolic imperial figures (and royalty) that could be found throughout the British Empire. Museums were often converted from institutions propagating an imperial culture to places treating the British Empire as a historical phenomenon that had produced its nationalist response.

The former dominions established their own cultural nationalism, while in South Africa, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and earlier, Kenya, black majorities overthrew white minority ruling groups. This inevitably led to the re-establishment of the primacy of the black experience (e.g., in the teaching of history). In Canada and Australia, there were serious moves toward an internal cultural decolonization. In Canada, First Nations peoples finally rejected the efforts of Europeans to integrate them into a European cultural supremacy. White politicians had attempted to educate them, particularly the children, into the dominant and supposedly accepted norms of the white majority. But the First Nations at last succeeded in securing full citizenship and suffrage rights, which they had been denied in the past, and they re-enacted the central symbols and performances of their own cultures, which had never been fully lost. This was also true among the Aboriginal people of Australia. In New Zealand, these processes took place at a rather earlier period, although the cultural effects of warfare and of various forms of proselytization also had to be thrown off. The Maori people re-engaged with their own cultures, never fully abandoned, and to some extent, these entered into the overall culture of the country. In all three, there was at last some acceptance of the indigenous right to a symbolic acknowledgment of the need for whites to accept that they occupied the lands of a pre-existing people. Indigenous art was revalued and came to be valued as important elements in world art and also as constituent attributes of the identity of the former dominions. Such changes of attitudes, as well as of legal and political status, were confirmed by the justice and reconciliation commissions that were formed in various post-imperial territories like South Africa, Canada, and Mauritius. A central aspect of these elements of cultural decolonization throughout the former British Empire was the historical revisionism of the postcolonial school, the realization not only that history had to be rewritten from the point of view of those who had formerly been repressed but also in ways that eliminated the central tenets, often imbued with the celebratory and self-congratulatory notions of the dispersal of civilization and of progress, central to a former imperial historiography.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of LancasterLancasterUK