A Tragedy Foretold

In Brendon's original narrative, there are very few saints and he has no qualms about ripping the veil off those who have long been stars in the firmament of British history.

"The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997" by Piers Brendon, Jonathan Cape, 640 pages, 25 pounds sterling

The British Empire is gone from the world, but its ability to generate nostalgia only seems to get stronger. All its evils have been forgiven, and now, in a world where order has been dashed and trampled, the empire is depicted as the last regime that was capable of cleaning up some of the mess.

Piers Brendon, a historian who cares nothing at all for political correctness, has written a hefty but riveting book about the demise of the British Empire. The title immediately calls to mind the seminal, six-volume history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire by the greatest of English historians, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). Until today, Gibbon's work is considered a masterpiece of historiographic writing, combining great literary charm, a thrilling plot and enlightening lessons for posterity.

The story of the decline and fall of the British Empire intersects with Gibbon's book on several levels. The builders of the British Empire knew that they were walking in the footsteps of the Roman patriarchs. They read Gibbon, they pored over his work and took their cues and direction from him. They turned to Gibbon in their hours of glory, and they found consolation in him when the tides turned.

The builders of the British Empire also knew in their finest hour - because Gibbon had taught them - that oppressed people would never resign themselves to being robbed of their freedom, and that empires are fated to vanish from the world. Even when they consoled themselves with the old cliches about the sun never setting on the British Empire, the colonialists knew that it would all be over one day.

The British Empire, they say, was born unintentionally, or at least that's the way its founders made it sound. One day, Great Britain woke up and discovered, to its astonishment, that it ruled half the world. Brendon's painstaking examination of the stages of growth and development show that every tier of this grand construct was carefully planned in advance and was in part justified within the context of the history of the time.

The author's choice of 1781 as the starting point for his story was meant to prove this: The British Empire he writes about begins with the loss of its 13 colonies in North America. After losing its foothold in the New World, Britain looked for some way to compensate itself. What the Crown lost in America, it took back in Asia and every other corner of the earth.

After quitting America, Britain set itself up at the forefront of the battle for the abolition of slavery, but the colonial masters went on instead to become the conquering knights of new colonies. In his famous poem "The White Man's Mission," the great poet of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling, described the "civilizing mission" of every British citizen sent to serve in the Colonies.

Don't smirk, says Brendon, and wipe that cynical look off your faces as you read those lofty sentiments. It's true: The same people who oppressed, subjugated, humiliated and trampled were convinced that they were doing sacred work by giving up the pleasures of London to live in harsh conditions surrounded by uncomprehending savages.

This paradox was part of life in Britain's Crown Colonies from beginning to end. Sometimes it was embodied in fascinating historical couplings - for example, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, both driving forces in the British Empire. Livingstone, a preacher and a missionary in Africa, distributed Bibles to the natives and taught them to read and write. Stanley, an adventurer without the slightest moral scruples, gave them guns so they could kill one another. One epitomized the British Empire, but so did the other.

Brendon reminds us that both of them, the missionary and the explorer, were bigots who never once doubted their racial superiority over the primitive heathens. Without the study of race and the spread of racial theories based on a misinterpretation of Darwin, it is hard to imagine that the British Empire would ever have come into being. All the colonialists were racists to some degree, even those whose intentions were said to be pure and good, and solely motivated by humanitarian concern.

Storrs' shock

Everyone knows Sir Ronald Storrs, who served as the first high commissioner of Jerusalem after the conquest of the city by General Allenby and the beginning of British Mandatory rule. Storrs was the one who ordered that all buildings in Jerusalem be built exclusively from stone. He was a great aesthete, known for his skill on the violin, and when he wrote his memoirs of his days in the colonial service, he made a name for himself as a gifted writer and a man of good taste. Storrs, says Brendon, was transferred to Africa after decades of service in the Middle and Near East, as was customary in the British Empire. When he got there, he was profoundly shocked. All his 26 years in the service of the Crown "have wholly unfitted me for the doglike loyalty of the devoted."

Piers Brendon would love to step into Gibbon's shoes, but he knows he doesn't have any scoops. No new archives have been opened to shed light on what is already known about the fascinating political entity in question. He thus invests his energies in reinterpretation, and tosses out everything we've been previously told about the British Empire. In his narrative, there are very few saints and he has no qualms about ripping the veil off those who have long been stars in the firmament of British history.

For many years, Brendon was the chief archivist of the Churchill Archives Center, home to the papers of Winston Churchill, and his published work includes an extraordinary biography of this illustrious statesman. But his familiarity with Churchill and the inside story of his political life does not keep Brendon from revealing the primitive racist streak in Churchill's imperialist thinking. When anyone asked why he was so opposed to Indian nationalism, Churchill would say that he hadn't become prime minister in order to go down in history as the man who toppled the British Empire.

In general, Churchill displayed a very Victorian attitude toward the various peoples ruled by Britain: Some he liked, but most he didn't consider civilized human beings whose needs and demands deserved to be heard. When Gandhi went on a hunger strike to protest British rule in his country, for example, and hadn't eaten for many days, Churchill sent a telegram to the viceroy of India (as the British colonial governor was then known), asking how it could be that Gandhi wasn't dead yet. Brendon, as if to show us that there had to be some manipulation here, adds that Gandhi actually gained weight during the strike, although nobody, to this day, can figure out how. He wonders if Gandhi the holy man hadn't objected to glucose being added to his drinking water in the middle of the night when no one was looking.

Brendon makes superhuman efforts to write an accessible and readable book. Sometimes one even gets the impression that he is trying too hard, with all his wisecracks and witticisms. One way or another, it is a highly original book, and one of its best features is its orderly, logical arrangement. Brendon moves from colony to colony, describing the distinctive qualities of each and what transpired there. Even Ireland is on the list. Then he goes on to trace the history of how the colonies were liberated from the British yoke and how this whole giant structure collapsed after World War II. Each chapter concludes with a similar, and amazingly tragic, end.

It was hard for the British Empire to give up its glory and its colonial possessions. Its architects and policymakers knew that the empire would fall one day - they had read Gibbon, after all, and knew the "end of the story" - but they refused to give up without a horrible, bloody fight that still didn't change anything. It happened in India and Ceylon and Ireland, and it happened in Palestine, too.

Palestine, where Britain had been granted a mandate to prepare the local inhabitants for self-rule, turned out to be no different from other British colonial enterprises: The temporary nature of British rule was always a basic premise - even when the founders of the empire proclaimed it would last for eternity.

Brendon seeks to create continuity from chapter to chapter, and in his pursuit of originality, he manages to find a common thread that runs through the entire history of the British Empire: If there was one thing that united all the colonialists and went with them wherever they were sent, from Asia to Africa and back again, it was the mustache decorating their upper lip. It was a custom picked up in India, and was adopted with such enthusiasm that it became de rigueur for every soldier in the British army. The disappearance of the mustache heralded the end of the empire. Was it mere coincidence that the last British prime minister to sport a mustache was Harold Macmillan, the leader who was able to accept the fall of the British Empire and taught its citizens to live in a new world, where the British flag went up every morning and down every evening, in London?

It was no accident that this last mustachioed prime minister was the one to deliver the famous "wind of change" speech on February 3, 1960, in Cape Town, South Africa. And he was probably the last prime minister of Britain to think of Edward Gibbon every time he made a political decision.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is the editor of the Ofakim series of Am Oved.