Heroic Failure and the British
Yale University Press, 2016
280 pp., 40.0
"Alibis for Empire"
Half overgrown village, half London commuter town, renowned for golf, well-kept inns and Arts and Crafts houses, Chislehurst in Kent is an unlikely place to find a shrine to a dead hero. On the fringes of its common is a large granite Celtic cross, erected as its inscription says "In memory of the Prince Imperial and in sorrow at his death … by the dwellers of Chislehurst 1880." At the Roman Catholic Church is a mortuary chapel that borrows its Renaissance flourishes from the Château d'Amboise in the Loire. Inside, the Prince Imperial rests on his sarcophagus like a medieval knight, hands clasped in prayer, arms around his sword. He was a failure. Kicked out of France when his father Napoleon III was overthrown in 1870 and suddenly an heir to nothing, he needed an occupation and trained as a British army officer. Keen to see action, he enrolled as a "special observer" in the army that entered Zululand in the spring of 1879 to salvage a disastrous campaign against King Cetshwayo. On the morning of 1 June, the Prince's reconnaissance party was surprised by a party of Zulu warriors. Bungling his getaway, he was speared to death. Yet if he was a failure, he was a celebrated failure. Prints of his demise, waving an ineffectual revolver at muscled spearmen, made him into a noble victim; his friend Queen Victoria treasured a prayer he had penned in his last days, commissioned a painting of the discovery of his corpse and came to Chislehurst to watch as he was consigned to the grave.
The Prince Imperial does not feature in Stephanie Barczewski's Heroic Failure and the British, but he perfectly exemplifies the phenomenon it describes: the tendency of imperial cultures to lavish sorrow on their agents rather than their colonized victims. So strong was the desire of the British during the Victorian apogee of their Empire to feel it was they who bore the costs of its expansion that they could shed a tear even for the luckless son of their former rival. For Barczewski, the reason why the British distracted themselves with stories of those who died serving Britain was simple. Along with many recent historians, she argues that the ideology and rhetoric of the Empire was libertarian. The British liked to feel that they were spreading freedom, prosperity, and Christianity around the world and preferred the bits of the Empire—Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Cape—whose colonization could be presented, misleadingly enough, as the expansion by freedom loving Anglo-Saxons into waste spaces. Yet in Asia and Africa the expansion of Empire depended on wars that toppled kingdoms and broke up societies and was run more by force than persuasion. The historian Bernard Porter has not found much support for his thesis that domestic Britons were "absent-minded imperialists" relatively oblivious to the Empire's existence. But if not absent-minded, they were perhaps blinkered imperialists: the more ruthless and effective was imperial expansion, the more the British fixed their gaze on their own dead.
Failure had tended to be incidental rather than integral to early 19th-century heroism. It is possible to find brave or even suicidal heroes who died doing their duty: men like Sir John Moore, who died retreating from Napoleon's army at Corunna in 1809, or the hellraising Rollo Gillespie, shot in the chest while storming an impregnable Gurkha fortress during the 1814 Anglo-Nepalese War. Here though the duty not the death was the point: the public celebrated fearlessness, not failure. It was not on the battlefield but in undiscovered territories that the shift toward the hero as a man of sorrows emerged. For explorers to be "alibis for Empire," they should suffer rather than inflict suffering. The explorer Mungo Park went down fighting on his final voyage down the River Niger, shooting dead many natives from his boat before running out of ammunition and drowning in making his escape. The posthumous tributes omitted this detail, just as accounts of the missionary David Livingstone's demise skated over the fact that his crusade against slavery entailed the deaths of Africans. While Livingstone's discoverer Henry Morton Stanley was frank about his own violence, it was important that nothing should obscure Livingstone's presentation as an exemplar of "self-yielding in these all too selfish days." In a gripping chapter on polar exploration, Barczewski shows how self-sacrifice became all-important. Parry, Ross, and most famously Sir John Franklin all went looking for the Northwest Passage and did so with the latest technology, Franklin setting out in steam powered icebreaker ships. Yet for the public their failed ventures became medieval exercises in frostbitten "self immolation," not scientific coups. What counted was not whether they found the Passage but the character they displayed in the hunt, which kept Britons manly in the enervating intervals between Continental wars. Just as well, for Franklin's miscalculations cost the deaths of 130 people. The Admiralty ended up spending around £600,000 in searching for their remains, suggesting that for empires the line between dreams and strategic priorities is a thin one. If the public did not want to know about Park's muskets, they were just as unimpressed by suggestions that some of Franklin's crew had eaten their dead mates, suggestions which Charles Dickens angrily dismissed as the lies of Eskimo informants.
It was not far from the useless sacrifice of polar explorers to the "chivalry" displayed by the cavalrymen sent on the suicidal charge of the Light Brigade. The adversaries in the Crimean War were evenly matched, but Barczewski goes on to suggest that the theme of noble sacrifice became strongest where there was a stark asymmetry between British forces and their opponents. Most of the "last stands" toasted in late Victorian poetry and painting happened in conflicts that ended in bloody victories for the British. The massacre of British troops at Isandlwana and the successful stand at Rorke's Drift both occurred in the Anglo-Zulu War that killed the Prince Imperial. Fifteen Britons were killed at Rorke's Drift but 350 Zulus, with the survivors massacring another 500 wounded Zulus after the battle. In the battle which avenged Isandlwana, 26 Britons were killed but 2,000 Zulus, with fired-up Britons massacring 500 wounded. The same was true years later in the Sudan. Britons wept over General Gordon, the modern Galahad who in George Joy's famous painting offered himself in Christlike fashion to the spears of the dervishes who overran Khartoum. No tears were shed for the 11,000 Sudanese killed and 16,000 wounded by British machine guns at the battle of Omdurman, which avenged Gordon's killers. Major-General Kitchener considered that they had got a "thorough dusting." If heroic failure often masked ruthlessness, then by the early 20th century it articulated fears of imperial overreach. The heroism of Captain Scott's death in Antarctica disguised British embarrassment at coming second in the race for the South Pole and could not wholly prevent anguished discussion about whether Britons were physically prepared to compete with the agents of other powers.
If the failures Barczewski covers are familiar, then she has plotted them onto a provocative thesis about how the moral imagination worked in the British Empire, which is perhaps how it works in all empires. Even seasoned readers will encounter many arresting details, such as Queen Victoria's meeting with Bobbie, the mongrel dog who was one of the few survivors of a regiment massacred at Maiwand in Afghanistan. Dogs recur in the story of Scott: sentimental Britons could not forgive his Norwegian rival Amundsen for eating his huskies when they had expended their usefulness. At an English banquet in his honor, Amundsen glowered while Lord Curzon proposed a toast to his dogs.
It is surprising that the book does not reflect much on Christianity's role in all this. Despite mentioning funerary monuments in churches and the odd sermon, Barczewski misses the bigger point that this was a culture programmed by its faith to celebrate a hero whose peaceable triumph was his death. It is Christianity's influence over an extensive domestic public which perhaps explains why the voices of the soldiers who eagerly slaughtered Zulus and Afghans were seldom heard at home. If the British clearly wanted to see their heroes as representing a peaceable, almost defensive Empire, rather than one red in tooth and claw, that yearning invites further explanation. Perhaps also the book could have done with fewer summaries of the "boilerplate" tributes that heroes attracted and more controversy. Heroes were controversial figures because so were the enterprises in which they engaged. Queen Victoria for instance wanted a monument to the Prince Imperial put up in Westminster Abbey, to the fury of radicals who regarded him as a "tyrant's cub" and threatened to dynamite it if she went ahead. There were always pockets of resistance or indifference in British society to imperialism, even when cloaked in "alibis"; Barczewski might have been more precise about who believed the propaganda. Nonetheless, as a rollicking account of a moral quirk in British culture, one which can affect any powerful and aggressive nation, this book deserves a wide readership.
Michael Ledger-Lomas is lecturer in the History of Christianity in Britain at King's College London.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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