Knee Jerk Reaction
From Stuart Millson, standing tall
By the end of the 19th-century, the British Empire had achieved a supremacy surpassing that of ancient Rome. The onetime Roman colony at the edge of Europe had become the greatest colonial power in history. The eagle of the Roman legions marked the suzerainty of Caesar, from North Africa to Northern Britain – their power eventually ebbing from our island, 400 years after the birth of Christ. Nevertheless, they left a rich legacy: the foundation of our principal towns, a system of roads and ports to supply them, a wealth of trade and perhaps, more intangibly, the seeding of an imperial ideal that would come to fruition 1500 years later. The maritime expeditions of the first Elizabethan era marked the beginning of this episode.
For the people of the Mother Country in the age of Queen Victoria, the British rulers of India and Africa were heroes. Her empire engendered – if not automatic loyalty from the subject peoples – than at least a strangely long-lasting affiliation, which turned in some cases, after the granting of independence, to a form of imitation. One need only look at the ceremonial uniforms and peaked caps of the modern Indian army and its brigadiers, now facing the Chinese on India’s northern border, to see that.
One of the most dedicated British imperialists was Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). Born in England in an affluent milieu, his life and work were conducted almost entirely in the British southern African colonies, where he rose to political power and achieved great wealth in the diamond mining industry. Rhodes was a child of his time: a scion of a society imbued with a patriotic idealism, as reflected in Benjamin Disraeli’s famous observation that the aim of the Tory Party (if not the whole country) should be “to uphold the Empire of England.” With such beliefs in his heart, and a mastery of commerce, finance and the indefinable spirit that enables some men to inspire and influence those who follow in their wake, Rhodes became in the popular mind the colossus of Africa – often depicted in newspapers as a giant, bestriding the continent.
Rhodes had a vision of the Anglo-Saxon mother country benevolently guiding her dominions; creating countries in the four corners of the world that would forever sustain British culture and civilisation. He envisaged a British railway, from Cairo to the Cape; an imperial Parliament in London – and an empire that even transcended the earth itself: “…the moon, too,” mused Rhodes, “I often think of that.” Rhodes also saw the need to create a cadre of men to guard and to develop his great Britannic vision. He accordingly funded the Rhodes scholarships at Oxford University to promote unity between the English speaking nations.
Rhodes even founded a country, Rhodesia, known as “the garden of Africa”. Its death-knell was sounded in 1960 when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, speaking in Cape Town, referred prophetically to “the winds of change”. They would soon bear new flags aloft of post-colonial countries, ridding themselves of white rule. Rhodesia lasted until 1980, to be superseded by Zimbabwe, which, under its evil overlord Robert Mugabe, became a byword for economic breakdown and political oppression.
Memories of Rhodes and his endeavours live on – or more accurately, lived on – in Britain. But in the caustic, febrile atmosphere of our time, in which anti-racism and anti-imperialism are prevalent, a culture-war against British history is underway. Triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Britain and the West are now supposedly “shamed”, “guilty”, “culpable”. [Editorial note; “Taking the knee” is now de rigueur]
Following sustained protests outside Oriel College, Oxford, backed by relentless interviews with “offended” activists and the usual array of left-leaning “social commentators” on mainstream media, the college authorities have decided to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the front of its listed building. Meanwhile, the Department of Education is looking to increase the profile of “black history” in British schools; and it is reported that more than a hundred local authorities across the country are considering the removal of “offensive’ imperial-era statues. At this point, a quotation from a history of the British Empire seems apposite. It indicates just how much the values of this country have changed since the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, in 1897,
“The bonfires that blazed that night were like rituals… A watcher in Worcestershire counted more than forty, flickering far into the distance on beacon hills across the breadth of England: and their scattered lights in the darkness, their glow in the night sky, were reminders of older urges behind the pride of Empire, beliefs and battles long ago, mysteriously linking the very soil of the imperial island with reef and tundra, desert and distant veldt.”*
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of QR
*From Farewell the Trumpets, J. Morris.