For all their flaws, I admire Britain’s empire builders

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Ever since I was a boy, I have remembered the opening paragraph of one of my favourite books almost by heart. “It is a curious thing,” our narrator says, “that at my age – 55 last birthday – I should find myself taking up a pen to try to write a history.”

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In the next few lines, he tells us something about himself. “At an age when other boys are at school,” he says, “I was earning my living as a trader in the old Colony. I have been trading, hunting, fighting, or mining ever since.” The narrator has “shot 65 lions” or more; he has “killed many men”; he “once cheated a Kafir out of a herd of cattle”. And he has “had to do with niggers” – although he immediately corrects himself: “I will scratch out that word ‘niggers’, for I do not like it.”

The narrator’s name, of course, is Allan Quatermain, hero of H Rider Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines. If there has ever been a better story of pure adventure, I have not read it, and it takes no great insight to spot the influence on Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films. There is no denying, however, that as the lines quoted above demonstrate, many of its values are now painfully dated – hardly surprising, of course, since the book was first published in 1885.

Quatermain may dislike the word ‘nigger’, yet he sees many African characters as little more than savages. Twala, the villainous king of Kukuanaland, is “an enormous man with the most entirely repulsive countenance we had ever beheld,” his expression “cruel and sensual to a degree”. And then there is his witch-finder, Gagool, a shrunken, gabbling, half-crazed figure, whom Quatermain likens to a “wizened monkey”, the representative of all that is strange and evil in the Dark Continent.

Since rereading a cracking tale such as King Solomon’s Mines can occasionally be an uneasy experience, it is no wonder that – as this month’s magazine explores – our relationship with the great imperialists of history has become ever more confused. Images of the proconsuls of empire gaze across most of our major cities – from the mounted figure of Lord Roberts of Kandahar in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow, to the statue of Captain Cook on the Mall in London or the great effigy of General Gordon in St Paul’s Cathedral. They are at once relics of our vanished imperial greatness, and reminders that we owe our current prosperity at least partly to the ruthless empire-building of our predecessors. Those of tender dispositions may shudder at the thought, but we live in a world that Gordon and Roberts made.

The temptation, of course, is to call for the demolition men to get working on all those embarrassing statues, and in the meantime quietly to remove all copies of H Rider Haggard from the library shelves. My own view, though, is that this would be nothing more than ignorant historical vandalism. Our own values and prejudices are no more ‘right’ than our predecessors’ were ‘wrong’, and to congratulate ourselves on our moral superiority – especially when we are still perfectly happy to screw every last penny out of the rest of the world – is to turn ourselves into self-righteous harpies.

Beyond that, however, lies the plain fact that empire is the stuff of history. There has never been a time when the world was not dominated by large, multi-ethnic territorial units, run by one class or group for their own benefit. And although the British empire may have been particularly large, rich and successful, it was not markedly more brutal than its rivals.

Indeed, while I might draw the line at taking a holiday in the Sudan in a General Gordon frock coat and fez, or strolling down the streets of Lusaka in a Cecil Rhodes T-shirt, I cannot help feeling that while these men were in many respects utterly unlikeable, they still had admirable qualities of their own. Gordon’s extraordinary moral certainty, for instance, is now deeply unfashionable. But quite apart from his undoubted courage, he was a pious Christian who gave up his time to work with the elderly and the sick, and even set up a boys’ club in Gravesend.

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Even Rhodes, a thoroughly unpleasant, greedy and prejudiced man in so many ways, stands out from the pages of history for his sheer ambition, work ethic and self-belief.
Racist and ruthless these imperial heroes may have been, but I would rather read about them than any number of drippy do-gooders – and I suspect that, deep down, many of you would, too.