Read Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress by Jan Morris Free Online
Book Title: Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress|
The author of the book: Jan Morris
Date of issue: February 3rd 2003
ISBN 13: 9780571194667
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 913 KB
Edition: Faber and Faber
Read full description of the books Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress:We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too!
This is history told through a patchwork of breezy anecdotes — that might not even fit together well enough, but still achieves the objective remarkably well. The narrative flits in and out across the world, now Australia, now India, now Afghanistan, now Congo, and so on. The idea was probably to allow the reader to visualize through these series of picturizations the full magnificence that was the Empire.
More than the anecdotal nature, the selection of anecdotes themselves is curious. They are largely personal anecdotes, dealing with individuals. The historical narrative is stitched together from these short, quick personal sketches.
The Middle Path
While enormously interesting, this selection also betrays the by-default-note of imperialistic apology writ large over such an approach. It is hard to talk of individuals without touching the picture up with romanticism, especially when only eulogizing records exist, the crushed ones having not kept individual/personal records, especially when Morris searches out the medium-level players, not the Viceroys, Governor-Generals, Kings and Ministers — the on-the-ground players — who exist now only in British-written annals or diaries/letters and loom larger than life, as they had to.
This is a new method to the rhetoric of imperial defense, at least to this reviewer — the Imperial Progress across the world is shown from a middle view — the view of the decent men and women who participated in the everyday pushing along of the imperial cart.
But why focus on them?
Why leave out the two ends of the spectrum - the Imperial Station Masters and the common men among the imperial subjects?
Because this middle view is surprisingly conducive to showing a decent and forgivable view of the Imperial ‘Progress’ — a on-high view would expose the despotism, racism and blatant menace that accompanied the progress; while the bottom view would expose that the word ‘progress’ is way beyond an excusable misnaming of the imperial process.
I still do not give the book less than a middling star rating since the language is good, the prose is breezy, and it is a decent reading experience. It is extremely light reading and is a good parlor-table book, enjoyable and non-thought provoking.
It is hard to capture that spirit when tackling a momentous period. The author attempted and captured that brilliantly. She also manages to make me feel defensive and a complete prig for criticizing such a breezy and good-natured account.
That is the strength of the book and the danger. The author does starts with a frank admission of bias, adding to the breezy tally-ho approach, forcing any offended readers to forgive her and just enjoy the journey. I am sorry to report that it can easily work. I was caught off-guard many times, especially when it was the other countries that were the subject of discussion. Only when the focus shifted back to India was I able to detect the prejudices of the breezy account.
In fact, how Morris would treat the 1857 Revolt (not mutiny!) was something I looked forward to — I knew that would act as a touchstone to how I would judge the book’s biases. True to expectations, she shows the ‘mutiny’ as a bumbling no-show and the britishers as magnanimously outraged avengers. It is treated as a complete farce. That decided it for me and from then on my reading was much more alert to undertones.
I noticed how trivial details are lovingly dwelt on, to convey the full sense of a nostalgic lost world; while tragic events such as the burning of the Summer Palace in Beijing (an event that left such a psychological scar on Chinese history) are passed by with a single breezy sentence: ‘a well-placed blow to Tartar pride.'
What is most noticeable, however, is that the only subject people (empires enemies) who are given a semblance of humanity are the Boers and the Australian settlers — both European in origins, of course. The Irish is also given a more personalized picturization but there is a thread of hostility and reductionism detectable there too.
Sample a selection:
... when in 1897 good old Queen Victoria celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of her accession to the throne, the nation made it gaudily and joyously a celebration of Empire. Never had the people been more united in pride, and more champagne was imported that year than ever before in British history. What a century it had been for them all! How far the kingdom had come since that distant day when Emily Eden, hearing upon the Ganges bank of the young Queen’s accession, had thought it so charming an invention! What a marvellous drama it had offered the people, now tragic, now exuberant, now uplifting, always rich in colour, and pathos, and laughter, and the glow of patriotism! In 1897 Britain stood alone among the Powers, and to most Britons this isolated splendour was specifically the product of Empire. Empire was the fount of pride. Empire was the panacea. Empire was God’s gift to the British race, and dominion was their destiny.
Or, consider the excuses set forth in this little passage:
Not many people doubted the rightness of Empire. The British knew that theirs was not a wicked nation, as nations went, and if they were insensitive to the hypocrisies, deceits and brutalities of Empire, they believed genuinely in its civilizing mission. They had no doubt that British rule was best, especially for heathens or primitives, and they had faith in their own good intentions. In this heyday of their power they were behaving below their own best standards, but they remained as a whole a good-natured people.
Their chauvinism was not generally cruel. Their racialism was more ignorant than malicious. Their militarism was skin-deep. Their passion for imperial grandeur was to prove transient and superficial, and was more love of show than love of power. They had grown up in an era of unrivalled national success, and they were displaying the all too human conceit of achievement.
Sure. I buy that. Yeah.
It also has to be said that occasionally she does try to knowingly mock the empire to show detachment but inevitably slips back into a gloating romanticizing of the empire. The account on Irish history also helped me with my reading of Joyce - another positive for the book. Also, THERE IS AN INDEX!
A Non-Intellectual Defense
So in effect, it is a non-intellectual defense of Empire, deftly done by by providing personal accounts, by telling the reader — “but look, see how swell these guys were?” It is emotional manipulation. And quite effective — It is hard to feel anger towards most of the characters on which the book rides. I feel that is quite a psychologically powerful impression that the book can leave. Even more so for being true, most of these middle-level guys in probability really were swell guys.
Niall Ferguson (Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World) should endeavor to learn from Jan Morris.
[ About the cartoon - As Japan apologizes to Korea, a group of people from other colonized nations wonders when their colonizers will issue a similar apology. ]
Even though cringe-inducingly triumphalistic throughout, this is good historical time-pass. It is recommended in that spirit. As long as the readers stay alert against taking an ideological impression away from the reading of the Empire as a good natured, well-intentioned beast that never knew that it was doing anything wrong and got up and left as soon as it realized.
The problem with all such defenses of Empire is that they are inevitably operating on the premise of a false dichotomy — that of being able to separate (or even prove the existence of) positive and negative sides to colonialism. Which is just the wrong way to look at subjugation and exploitation — it does NOT matter if positives were there. Mistakes were made, deal with it. Denialism will get us nowhere. Imperialism was not genial bumbling. Sorry.
“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”
~ Edward W. Said
Read information about the authorJan Morris previously wrote under the name "James Morris".
Jan Morris is a British historian, author and travel writer. Morris was educated at Lancing College, West Sussex, and Christ Church, Oxford, but is Welsh by heritage and adoption. Before 1970 Morris published under her former name, "James Morris", and is known particularly for the Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire, and for portraits of cities, notably Oxford, Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, and New York City, and has also written about Wales, Spanish history and culture.
Morris was assigned male at birth, and before circa-1970 was known as "James Morris". In 1949, as James, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter. Morris and Tuckniss had five children together, including the poet and musician Twm Morys. One of their children died in infancy. As Morris documented in her memoir Conundrum, she began taking oestrogens to feminise her body in 1964. In 1972, she had sex reassignment surgery in Morocco. Sex reassignment surgeon Georges Burou did the surgery, since doctors in Britain refused to allow the procedure unless Morris and Tuckniss divorced, something Morris was not prepared to do at the time. They divorced later, but remained together and have now had a civil union. On May, 14th, 2008, Morris and Tuckniss remarried each other. Morris lives mostly in Wales, where her parents were from.
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