And so the Empire lives on….

I visited Daylesford in the Cotswolds yesterday, famous for its farm shop, and explored its vast and well-tended (woodland and pasture and water meadow) estate. How many I wonder connect the estate to Warren Hastings, famous, or infamous, as the 18th century governor-general of India, and subject of remarkable impeachment proceedings (beginning in 1788) when he was labelled by Edmund Burke among other epithets as ‘shuffling, ambiguous, dark, insidious’.

The East India Company in the 18th century was the forerunner of the Raj. But it was back then in essence a trading company, militarised under Robert Clive, not least to combat French influence on the sub-continent. Trade brooked no rivals. The moral conscience of the nation was stirred, but trade had its own momentum. In Burke’s words, ‘(the Company appears) more like an army going to pillage the people under the pretence of commerce than anything else’.

Ten years later (1799) victory over Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, ensured control of southern India. ‘Scarcely a house in the town [Seringapatam] was left unplundered,’ Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, wrote to his mother. The loot was extraordinary. It overwhelms our museums.

How, I wondered, does trade morph into empire, when the exigencies of trading relationships are replaced by the subjugation of whole populations? Local agreements with Indian merchants required local representation, which in turn required residence, and defence of person and property, and of commercial privileges – which extended so easily into a pretence, and then a reality, of empire.

William Dalrymple’s monumental history of the East India Company (‘The Anarchy’) is marvellous on the subject. Also worth reading is Sathnam Sanghera. He’s the Wolverhampton-born son of Sikh immigrants, and a journalist on The Times. His new book, Empireland, pulls together in one short volume many of the elements of our imperial legacy – loot, immigration (‘we are here because you were there’), identity, legacy, amnesia, trade and slavery.

Trade is to the forefront today. Literally today. The commission appointed by Oxford’s Oriel College to review the college’s decision to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes has decided against its removal, and the college has concurred in that decision. The protest group ‘Rhodes must go’ is up in arms. But the ground has shifted even in the last year. The government’s proposed legislation would have had all plans to remove statues called in, and probably overturned.

The growth of Empire was linked to specific products. Rhodes is associated with southern Africa and diamond mining. He founded De Beers. The slave trade and the sugar plantations of the West Indies were synonymous. Cotton textiles were one of the mainstays of 18th century East India Company trade.  The Calico Acts of 1700 and 1721 prohibited their importation, but not raw cotton, opening up later in the century to the import of raw cotton from slave plantations in the southern USA, and creating the conditions for the rapid development of the cotton industry in late 18th and 19th century Lancashire. India became a major market for Lancashire cotton. Indians had no choice in the matter. The connection between slavery, trade, and the industrial revolution is direct.

I speak as a Manchester man, proud of his city. Do I feel guilt? No, that’s not a helpful emotion. And if we apologise – who would do the apologising? And who to? Look over the Channel and see the quandary the French have over North Africa. Macron described the Algerian War as a crime against humanity. But no apology as such has been – or I guess will be – forthcoming. You could argue that those who should be apologising are those of us who still maintain some kind of ‘imperial mindset’. Who still have some notion of British exceptionalism. Look across the pond to America, where ‘exceptionalism’ is also rife.

Brexit evoked comparisons with 19th century free trade and revoking the Corn Laws. But back then we controlled our markets, controlled the seas, and enforced tariff-free trade, always to our advantage. We crushed domestic production in India to create a vast market there for our own goods. I’m researching my great-grandfather’s business in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire – cotton country despite being over the boundary from Lancashire. Did his business, as a merchant tailor with a wide reach, extend beyond Manchester to overseas markets?

There is a curious reverse colonial mentality among some well-known supporters of Brexit. The EU is turned into a surrogate empire, and the only way we can reassert our status is by turning back the clock. And so the British Empire lives on….

The subject, as Sanghera found, is vast, and I’ll limit myself here to one further comment, on the subject of religion, and muscular Christianity, and the role of the missionary. I recently read Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. It’s a short, and remarkable novel, drawing on Achebe’s own family’s direct experience, which, despite having sold twenty million copies worldwide, had passed me by. Missionaries find their way to a Nigerian village, and the old customs of generations are undermined. The old gods don’t stand a chance. One missionary employs a softly softly approach, another brings in the might of the district commissioner, and you realise how imperial power married to a religious conviction re-casts a proud people as inferiors.

Nigeria was still a colony in my early childhood, and we collected for the work, as a teacher, of a local lady who’d been a missionary in Nigeria all her life. I claim to be a Christian. Can I apportion right and wrong here? Can I have any sympathy for a tribal society in which superstition and shamans called the tune? One God better than multiple gods? Of course. But hand in hand with mission work went subjugation. Subjugation dehumanises.  That is a terrible consequence of empire. It also took root, after more open-minded beginnings, in 19th century India.

We were by that time, in the UK, moving beyond the slave trade. The campaign for its abolition was led by William Wilberforce. But Wilberforce was deeply religious and Indian religions were for him no more than superstition. Conversion was a Christian duty, and implicit is the sense of superiority which characterises the missionary. ‘They’ lack something that ‘you’ have. An attitude in the Raj that had terrible consequences, not least the Indian Mutiny, and more than sixty years later the Amritsar massacre.

I’m a child of empire, and I’d love to think that my children’s generation could see the last of them. But old attitudes live on, and America and China are sharpening up their spheres of influence. How empires of the future might differ, are already differing, from the empires of the past, is another story.

Inheriting a library

Inheriting books – that sets up a whole further range of problems. Problems I’m delighted to have but I’m also inheriting a responsibility. To a great aunt, who I knew well, but now I know her library – and I wish I’d known her better. Her books which take me through from 1910 to her death in the late 1990s are the story of her life – the intellectual, literary story. She read English at Oxford in the 1920s, but never worked, other than as a companion to a fierce-looking great-grandmother of mine, who I never knew.

When I downsized from house to flat I threw away some of the cheap novels (Everyman’s Library and the like) which had been her everyday reading staple – many duplicating books where I already owned copies, and others by authors hardly ever read today. But – for a few years now I’ve felt guilty. They were a mini-library, a personal story, and I wish we hadn’t parted company. I do sometimes imagine her up there, Auntie Frances, with a stern look and a gently wagging finger.

She was born in 1900 and her grandfather was the manager of a cotton mill, or so I understand, in Manchester, and he lived in Prestwich, and he was educated, a member of the new affluent middle class, that Manchester middle class which was the first real middle class in the whole wide world, and he was a book collector, and his books which my great aunt inherited were a pride and joy to her. And now to me.

As examples, two marvellous volumes, London City and London Suburb, which he subscribed for in the 1870s, and his name is in the back, along with all the other subscribers. Bound sets of Studio magazine. Beautifully bound volumes with tinted and tissued paintings of birds and flowers. Macauley’s History of England, in five volumes. Five – but I can only find four. I must have the fifth, surely? (I will be searching.) A middle section of  binding on the spine of volume two has come away, and that is on a small pile of books to be repaired. The metal clasp on a miniature prayer book has already been repaired.

But my biggest puzzle is a volume where the front cover hangs by a thread, and the opening pages are missing. Two books are bound together – a bible from the 1730s and a prayer book from the 1780s. Don’t ask me why they’re bound together. I will need to research.

The more I explore behind the old bindings the more conundrums, and the greater my pleasure. I now have a bookbinder who can help me out. And I will read – in so many ways Victorian books are superior to those of our own time – finer bindings, and illustrations each one of which was a labour of love.

Thirty years ago my great aunt took one book from her collection and gave it to me as a present. Pigot’s County Atlas of England, from 1840. Individual county maps, and a four-way fold-out map of England. I loved it, and when I set up my own publishing company in 1989, the little-lamented Garamond, I published it as a facsimile edition. It looked and looks superb, and I took delight seeing it featured in bookshop window displays. But, the book itself, well, it had to be broken apart before being sent for repro, and it came back to me with the counties as individual parts, the boards (cover) intact, but unbound. And it stayed that way until a month ago, and now at a cost of £230 I’ve had it rebound, and I’m as chuffed as can be to have it there, on my coffee table.

There’s another story to the book. My great-grandfather, whose second wife was the fierce-looking (and black-robed) lady I mention above,  was a successful builder – he built many the houses and shops which line the streets of Bramhall, my home village in Cheshire. And a young man, he’d worked for the rector of nearby Mobberley, the Reverend Herbert Leigh Mallory, the father of George Mallory, long a hero of mine, who lost his lfe along with Sandy Irvine somewhere above the Second Step just below the summit of Everest in 1924. His body was found in 1999.  So my atlas would have been in George’s library in the Mobberley rectory when he was growing up. I like that idea, and wonder if he might have perused and pored over it as I like to do.

I asked Noel Odell, the last man to see Mallory alive, disappearing into cloud, when I met him thirty years ago at the Royal Geographical Society, whether he thought Mallory and Irvine had made it to the summit – he was sure they had.

There will be other stories, I’m sure. More bookish adventures.