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Feature essay

Imperial lives in the Oxford DNB

‘If Christ were to return to this world today’, the Oxford-based historian Lionel Curtis asked in 1910, ‘where would He find the principles of His teaching best followed?’ He unhesitatingly gave his own answer: in the British empire. Few even of his contemporaries shared the same degree of enthusiasm for empire. Emily Hobhouse, the exposer of Britain's ‘methods of barbarism’ during the South African War, Agatha Harrison, the supporter and follower of Mahatma Gandhi, and Rita Hinden, secretary of the Fabian Colonial Bureau, certainly did not. Yet the fact that Curtis could pose such a question and give such an answer reminds us that, for part at least of its existence, many British people saw their empire not as something embarrassing, nor merely as the object of pride and loyalty, but as the outcome of an imperial mission, which in turn was a key element in contemporary constructions of British identity.

Britons abroad

A sense of imperial mission characterized the outlook of many of the imperial proconsuls of Curtis's age—men like
  George Nathaniel Curzon (1859–1925) by John Singer Sargent, 1914 George Nathaniel Curzon (1859–1925) by John Singer Sargent, 1914
Lord Milner, Curtis's own patron and mentor, Lord Cromer [see Baring, Evelyn], Milner's chief in Egypt, or Lord Curzon, the unbending viceroy of India. ‘To me the message is carved in granite, hewn of the rock of doom’, Curzon wrote, ‘that our work is righteous and that it shall endure’. Such sentiments would have seemed as absurd to earlier generations of British colonial governors as they do today. ‘Our object in conquering India’, Sir Charles Napier wrote in 1840, ‘the object of all our cruelties, was money … Every shilling of this has been picked out of blood, wiped and put into the murderer's pocket … We shall yet suffer for the crime as sure as there is a God in heaven.’ Yet Napier himself went on to conquer Sind, with great loss of blood; and as governor did much to wipe out suttee, thuggism, and infanticide (all in the name of righteousness). Earlier still, in 1773, Sir George Macartney (former chief secretary in Ireland, later governor of Madras and then of the Cape) wrote approvingly of ‘this vast empire on which the sun never sets and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained’.

Colonial governors and administrators (of whom more than 400 appear in the Oxford DNB) were the key instruments through which Britain exercised its dominion over ‘palm and pine’. Their lives frequently illustrated the complex interaction of motives which led them to leave the shores of Britain to govern remote lands: devotion to their mother-country and empire and genuine interest in other cultures; altruistic concern for colonial subjects and deep-seated personal ambition. Sir George Grey, one of the most eminent of mid-nineteenth-century proconsuls (governor of South Australia and the Cape, and twice of New Zealand), liked to portray himself as a good democrat, a public benefactor, and a friend of Europeans and non-Europeans alike; yet, as James Belich writes, many others saw him as ‘at best, manipulative and untrustworthy, at worst, an insane megalomaniac’ (Oxford DNB). Perhaps the most fundamental of his convictions was ‘that “savages” needed to be “raised” to something European-like, and that they were incapable of raising themselves’ (ibid.). This latter was, of course, a belief which underpinned much of the imperial enterprise.

Of at least equal significance in Britain's gaining and retaining an empire were the naval and military officers who (sometimes literally) devoted their lives to the empire. The Victorians made a cult of such figures—from Admiral Nelson, victor of Trafalgar, to General Gordon, the ‘martyr’ of Khartoum (who wrote, revealingly, that ‘I know if I was chief I would never employ myself’). As their biographies indicate, life for such men usually consisted of long periods of inactivity and boredom, punctuated by brief periods of fame and glory. Of none was this more true than of the recipients of the Victoria Cross—men such as James Travers, who distinguished himself at Indore in 1857, or John Chard, a hero of Rorke's Drift in 1879, both of whom remained in the army for many years after the deeds which brought them fame, but neither of whom appears to have seen action again.

Devotion to a rather different ideal characterized the lives of those Christian missionaries who in many cases formed the vanguard of British imperialism. Sir Harry Johnston claimed in 1890 that missions ‘strengthen our hold over the country, they spread the use of the English language, they induct the natives into the best kind of civilization and in fact each mission station is an essay in colonization’. Nevertheless the relationship between missionary Christianity and imperialism was never straightforward, and the tensions between the two are evident in the lives of many who preached the gospel abroad. The most famous missionary of all, David Livingstone, paved the way for British expansion in central Africa, and in Andrew Roberts's words ‘redeemed the colonial project’ (Oxford DNB); yet his insistence on the humanitarian basis of British intervention provided an uncomfortable legacy for later generations of administrators. The ambivalent nature of the relationship between Christianity and imperialism is even more evident in the lives of such missionaries as C. F. Andrews, the supporter of Indian independence, or Arthur Shearley Cripps, a fierce critic of settler imperialism in Southern Rhodesia.

Ambitions of a more material kind prompted many other Britons to venture abroad.
  Robert Clive (1725–1774) by Nathaniel Dance, c.1770 Robert Clive (1725–1774) by Nathaniel Dance, c.1770
Fabulous fortunes were to be made from the ‘sugar colonies’ of the Caribbean or the East India trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sir Thomas Modyford arrived in the West Indies in 1647, determined ‘not to set his face for England, til he had made his voyage, and employment there, worth him an £100,000 sterling; and all by this sugar plant’. By all accounts he succeeded: by the time of his death he owned plantations with some 600 slaves and servants, and was reputed the richest man in Jamaica. Robert Clive left an estimated £500,000 at his death in 1774, while Warren Hastings sent more than £220,000 to Britain during his governorship of Bengal (though it was dissipated by the time of his death). In a later age the most spectacular fortunes were to be made from the gold and diamond fields in South Africa: after enormous outlays during his own lifetime Cecil Rhodes left almost £3.5 million to the Rhodes Trust at his death in 1902. Similarly vast sums were left by Barney Barnato, Alfred Beit, and Joseph Mylchreest. Later still, Roland (Tiny) Rowland left more than £25 million, most of it made from trade in Africa.

In other fields of endeavour the empire framed the careers of many thousands of Britons, as judges, lawyers, journalists, writers, artists, engineers, surveyors, or scholars. Sir Thomas Strange, a judge in Madras, published The Elements of Hindu Law in 1826, a book regarded for many years as ‘the only authoritative account of Hindu jurisprudence’ (Oxford DNB). Mrs Meer Hassan Ali was an Englishwoman whose Observations on the Mussulmans of India (1832) performed a similar function for Muslim customs. In the twentieth century Africa provided ample material for the scholarly endeavours of the likes of J. W. T. Allen, the Swahili scholar, Humphry Greenwood, the ichthyologist (who discovered some fifty new species of haplochromine cichlids in Lake Victoria), Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, the archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists who conjectured the African origins of man, W. B. Fagg, the historian of African art, or Lucy Mair, the anthropologist. Of the latter it was often said that she believed that Africans were always right, though it is now clear that this said more about her contemporaries' reluctance to believe this than it did about her own willingness to do so.

The colonies of settlement

At the time that the original DNB was published (1885–1901) the distinctions between ‘Britons abroad’ and ‘colonial subjects’ were considerably blurred in the case of the colonies of settlement (Canada, New Zealand, the colonies which formed Australia in 1900, and the colonies which formed South Africa in 1910). These colonies were seen in Britain, and (at least as far as those of British descent were concerned) to a large extent saw themselves as part of a wider ‘British world’. ‘A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die’, declared Sir John Macdonald, the principal architect of Canadian federation and dominating figure of Canadian politics in the late nineteenth century, in the midst of an election campaign which he fought (and won) on a platform of loyalty to the empire. In Australia and New Zealand such sentiments persisted beyond the Second World War. Sir Sidney Holland, prime minister of New Zealand after the war, saw himself as a ‘Britisher through and through’, and referred frequently to the ‘dear old empire’. Sir Robert Menzies, prime minister of Australia, declared himself ‘British to the bootstraps’, and thought that Australia was inextricably linked to Britain by the ‘same blood and allegiance and history and instinctive mental process’.

Such views were of course contested throughout the histories of these colonies. The lives of such colonial statesmen as Sir Wilfrid Laurier in Canada or Jan Smuts (to say nothing of J. B. M. Hertzog, D. F. Malan, or Johannes Strijdom) in South Africa reveal a much more nuanced relationship with the imperial power. A fortiori, the lives of Pemulwoy, a leader of the resistance to European settlement in Australia (whose severed head was carried in spirits to England), Potatau Te Wherowhero,
 Potatau Te Wherowhero (c.1775–1860) by George French Angas, pubd 1847 Potatau Te Wherowhero (c.1775–1860) by George French Angas, pubd 1847
leader of the King movement in nineteenth-century New Zealand, or Louis Riel, leader of the métis in Canada, remind us that the process of colonization was far from peaceful. In South Africa the Zulu kings Cetshwayo and Dinizulu fought the British for control of Natal (the latter being exiled, like Napoleon, to St Helena for his supposed ‘rebellion’), while Sol Plaatje, first general secretary of the South African Native National Congress, and Abdullah Abdurahman, president of the African Political Organisation, contested European supremacy through political means.

The establishment of the colonies of settlement owed much to explorers such as Henry Kelsey, the Hudson's Bay Company official who explored the Canadian prairies, or Matthew Flinders, who charted the Australian coast. It also owed much to promoters of emigration like Caroline Chisholm, who led columns of wagons bearing female emigrants across the Australian bush (and once counted fifty-one pieces of wedding cake sent back to her by happy brides), or Catharine Parr Traill, who produced guides for female emigrants to Canada. Letitia Youmans, the temperance activist in Canada, and Kate Sheppard, the promoter of women's suffrage in New Zealand, took elements of a culture shared with Britain, but developed them in different ways in the different conditions of the colonies. Similarly the lives of the Canadian artist Anne Langton, the Australian singer Dame Nellie Melba, or the South African writer Olive Schreiner illustrate the ways in which the artistic cultures of the colonies were shared with Britain and yet increasingly distinct.

Pre-revolutionary America

Exploration, trade, religion, conquest, settlement, and the increasingly distinctive development of elements of a shared political culture also characterize the Oxford DNB's coverage of the earliest British colonies, on the Atlantic seaboard of North America. The lives of the Quaker preacher Sarah Gibbons and the dissident prophet Anne Hutchinson illustrate the attractions of America for religious radicals, but also the tensions that could be caused by religious extremism: both were banished from Boston after conflicts with the civil and church authorities. More prosaically, the lives of James Alexander, lawyer and landowner in New York and New Jersey, Israel Pemberton, a leading Philadelphia merchant, and James Parsons, a planter in South Carolina, illustrate the commercial opportunities of the ‘new’ world; at his death Parsons owned some 22,000 acres and bequeathed property worth nearly £2 million.

The complex and frequently changing nature of the relations between colonists and the ‘native’ inhabitants of America can be seen in the lives of Massasoit and Metacom, leaders of the Algonquian Indians,
 Pocahontas (c.1596–1617) by Simon de Passe, 1616 Pocahontas (c.1596–1617) by Simon de Passe, 1616
Pocahontas (who converted to Christianity, married an Englishman, and was received by King James), or Blackfish, leader of the Shawnee Indians, who repeatedly fought against the encroachments of the colonists but is perhaps best remembered for adopting the captive Daniel Boone. Similarly the complex and evolving relationship between the British authorities and the colonists cannot easily be fitted into narratives of the ‘growth of a nation’—as can be seen from the lives of such as James Abercromby, agent first for North Carolina and then for Virginia in Britain, who recognized (as Ian Archer writes) ‘that the logical outcome of the existing relationship was independence’, but who nevertheless believed that ‘colonists should not have the same rights of representation as subjects in Britain’, and that ‘Britain should rule decisively and, if need be, mercilessly’ (Oxford DNB). That the colonists stumbled rather than strode towards independence, and did so within a framework of political discourse shared with Britain, is evident from the lives of the ‘founding fathers’, such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. As Lawrence Goldman makes clear in his essay ‘America in the Oxford DNB’, independence by no means ended the political, cultural, and commercial interaction between Britain and its former colonies, which indeed provides the theme of many hundreds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century entries in the dictionary.

India and the colonial empire

‘Collaboration’ and ‘resistance’ are frequently invoked as overriding themes in the histories of Britain's relations with its imperial subjects in India, the Caribbean, south and south-east Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. Much supporting evidence can be found in the Oxford DNB. Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, the Bombay Parsi merchant who ‘distinguished himself by his loyalty during the mutiny of 1857’ (Oxford DNB), was the only Indian to appear in the Victorian DNB. But in an earlier age, British rule could hardly have been established without the collaboration of such Indians as Munni Begam, ‘manager’ of the Murshidabad court and associate of Warren Hastings, or the Das family, bankers who facilitated the activities of the East India Company; in a later age it could hardly have been maintained without the help of people like Satyendra Sinha, the Indian ‘moderate’ who supported the official policy of Indian self-government through ‘gradual evolution and cautious progress’ (Oxford DNB), and who was ennobled and served as parliamentary under-secretary for India in 1919–20. Elsewhere David George, Baptist preacher, was among those black loyalists who fought for the British during the American War of Independence, escaped to Nova Scotia, then participated in the colonization of Sierra Leone; Samuel Ajayi Crowther, bishop of western Africa, accompanied the British Niger expeditions of 1854 and 1857, and supported military action against anti-missionary native rulers;
  Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c.1807–1891) by Ernest Edwards, c.1864 Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c.1807–1891) by Ernest Edwards, c.1864
and Salote Tupou III, queen of Tonga, placed the whole of Tonga's resources at Britain's disposal on the outbreak of the Second World War, and demonstrated her loyalty to the British crown on many other occasions.

There is abundant evidence also of ‘resistance’. Madan Lal Dhingra was executed at Pentonville prison in 1909 for assassinating Sir Curzon Wyllie, but not before giving a speech which Winston Churchill (not noted for his sympathy for Indian nationalists) described as ‘the finest ever made in the name of Patriotism’. Later his compatriot Subhas Chandra Bose organized the Indian National Army, which fought alongside the Japanese during the Second World War. John Chilembwe, Baptist minister, led a rising against the British in Nyasaland (modern-day Malawi) in 1915, and exhibited the severed head of a local settler at a Sunday service, before himself being killed by British forces. Dedan Kimathi was one of the leaders of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s, a conflict marked by extraordinary brutality on both sides.

Yet the stark alternatives of ‘collaboration’ and ‘resistance’ do little to convey the multi-faceted, constantly shifting, and sometimes contradictory relationship between Britain and its imperial subjects. Sir Saiyid Ahmad Khan worked as a magistrate and judge under the British East India Company and then the raj, but he increasingly devoted his labours to the particular interests of the Muslim community. Ramakrishna Paramahansa responded to the destabilizing effect of British rule by articulating a reformed Hinduism, which appealed particularly to those educated in English-language institutions. Kadambini Ganguly and Amrit Kaur campaigned vigorously for women's rights in India; both were clearly influenced by their British education and by British currents of thought, but were far from uncritical of the methods of British rule.

Among the generation of men and women who led India to independence there was a similar ambivalence towards the British inheritance—which included in the case of
 Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949) by unknown photographer, 1930 [right, with Mahatma Gandhi during the salt march] Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949) by unknown photographer, 1930 [right, with Mahatma Gandhi during the salt march]
Jawaharlal Nehru education at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, and in the case of Sarojini Naidu education at King's College, London, and Girton College, Cambridge. Elsewhere in the empire the imperial relationship was also endlessly reworked and renegotiated. Sir Alexander Bustamante, first prime minister of Jamaica, opposed self-government initially, and throughout his life retained a deep affection for the British monarchy and British traditions. Hastings Banda, prime minister and then president of independent Malawi, worked for many years as a GP in Britain and had an English mistress; though gaoled by the British in 1959–60 he retained close links with Britain throughout his thirty-year rule. Tunku Abdul Rahman, first prime minister of Malaysia, was again British-educated and regarded by many as a British ‘stooge’, though his nationalist credentials were impeccable and it was he who convinced the British that they should leave.

Impact on Britain

Historians have long argued, and no doubt will continue to argue, over the impact of empire on Britain itself. The Oxford DNB contains abundant evidence of its impact on individual British lives—and not just on those who ventured abroad as governors and administrators, army and naval officers, traders, missionaries, settlers, scholars, etc. Successive prime ministers from Lord Chatham [see Pitt, William] to Harold Macmillan—via Lord North, Lord Palmerston [see Temple, Henry John], Lord Salisbury [see Cecil, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-], Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and Winston Churchill, to name but a few—grappled with problems of an imperial nature. Moreover, such controversies as the debates over slavery, over free trade versus protectionism, over Indian reform, or over decolonization had a significant impact on British politics and British political culture.

The legacy of empire can also be seen in the lives of those who travelled to Britain from all corners of the globe and left their mark on the history of these islands. From Canada came the prime minister Andrew Bonar Law and the press baron Lord Beaverbrook [see Aitken, William Maxwell]; from Australia the developer of penicillin, Lord Florey, and of nuclear energy, Sir Mark Oliphant; from New Zealand the physicist Lord Rutherford, and the pioneer of plastic surgery, Sir Archibald McIndoe; from South Africa the scientist and public servant Lord Zuckerman and the social worker Baroness Faithfull.

  Deen Mahomed (1759–1851) by Thomas Mann Baynes Deen Mahomed (1759–1851) by Thomas Mann Baynes
The impact of people of black and Asian descent has been no less significant, and in terms of its consequences for British society perhaps more so. The immensely cultivated Ignatius Sancho created something of a sensation in eighteenth-century society, and did much to undermine the intellectual justifications for slavery. Deen Mahomed started what must have been one of the first Indian restaurants in London, the Hindostanee Coffee House, in 1810, before setting himself up as a ‘shampooing surgeon’. Dadabhai Naoroji, Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree, and Shakurji Saklatvala all became MPs—respectively for the Liberal, Conservative, and Labour parties—at the height of the British fervour for imperialism. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was a notable suffragette, Homi Bhabha a world-renowned physicist, and Lord Constantine one of the greatest of all cricketers. Britons have cheered the boxer Hogan Bassey, danced to the calypsos of Aldwyn Roberts (‘Lord Kitchener’), and learnt to make their own curries with the products of Laxmishanker Pathak. These and many other individuals included in the Oxford DNB have contributed to perhaps the most lasting impact of empire—the creation of the multicultural society that is Britain today.

Alex May


S. de Passe, line engraving, 1616; Pocahontas [see illus.] · N. Dance, oils, c.1770, Powis Castle, Montgomeryshire; Robert Clive, first Baron Clive of Plassey [see illus.] · G. F. Angas, engraving, pubd 1847, NL NZ, Turnbull L.; Potatau Te Wherowhero [see illus.] · E. Edwards, carte-de-visite, c.1864, NPG; Samuel Ajayi Crowther [see illus.] · J. S. Sargent, oils, 1914, RGS; George Nathaniel Curzon, Marquess Curzon of Kedleston [see illus.] · photograph, 1930, Hult. Arch.; Sarojini Naidu [see illus.] · T. M. Baynes, lithograph, Wellcome L.; Deen Mahomed [see illus.]