The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire by H.W. Crocker III
December 1, 2011 by Bob Livingston
If you’re looking to find out how beneficial or evil the British Empire was, you won’t get much help from this book despite the remonstrations on its jacket. Crocker presents a loosely organized collection of entertaining stories about the Brits as they madly travel around the world (mostly by boat) conquering, looting and “civilizing” continent after continent, but the author doesn’t offer much in the way of philosophizing about the results of these adventures. There’s the occasional quote that asserts British superiority. But the reader mostly just gets the adventures that resulted from imperialism and not many clear looks at its alleged improvements.
Oh, sure there are quotes here and there from Mohandas Gandhi about the benefits India enjoyed during British rule. Still, I had to wonder, does Crocker really want to be quoting Gandhi, a key player in the defeat of England’s imperial rule of India? Over and over, Crocker admits that “Gandhi… continued to fan the flames of mutiny and rebellion.”
Ironically, the one chapter that seems to offer the most in the way of justifying British colonialism is one that covers the exploits of Sir Charles Napier, a jolly old chap who seemed to specialize in going to trouble spots around the globe, pulling together remarkable military campaigns to quell revolts and then making friends with the locals as soon as he had finished killing their soldiers.
When Napier was in charge of a colony, the natives were treated well and conditions often did improve. But what was Napier’s overall view of how the British treated the rest of the world? Crocker notes that when Napier was stationed on the Indian-Afghanistan border, the old soldier observed that the overthrown emirs “(were)… tyrants, and so are we, but the poor will have a fairer play under our scepter than theirs…“ But, in general, Crocker considered himself better than the average British viceroy. When he came into town, he said, “the usual Anglo-Saxon method of planting civilization by robbery, oppression, murder and extermination of natives should not take place.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of British colonialism.
Avert Your Eyes
Of course, no one will mistake this entertaining book for a serious historical treatment of the British Empire. But when it lists “Films about British India That Anti-Colonialists Don’t Want You to See,” you know that its explorations of history smack more of marketing than intellectual honesty. I suppose that the attempt at calling out anti-colonialists is supposed to be humorous. (At least, I hope this is an attempt at humor.) But the fight between colonialists and anti-colonialists ended so many news cycles ago, I don’t think many people will get the joke. Though I guess somewhere there might be a doddering communard who is still worried that old black-and-white movies like Gunga Din with Cary Grant or The Charge of the Light Brigade starring Errol Flynn could make you think that English-speaking actors running around with sabers really are going to save the world from extras who don’t get any dialogue.
Crocker’s book is fun to read and offers many exciting stories about how a small island off the coast of France somehow became the dominant sea power of the globe. At the end of the last chapter as he sums up the life of Winston Churchill, Crocker does make a brief argument for the good works accomplished by the British Empire. But although he quotes Gen. Charles George Gordon to the effect that “If you would rule over native people, you must love them,” nowhere in the book do we really find out how native people felt about the British generals, who so often loved them to death.