Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Denis Judd is impressed by a survey of the British empire and its patriotic imagery

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Reviewed by: Denis Judd
Author: Ashley Jackson
Publisher: Quercus
Price (RRP): £20

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This is one of the most beautifully produced and sumptuous books about the British empire and Commonwealth that I have ever read. It is simply a pleasure to turn the pages and either to recall (I am now of ‘a certain age’) or to see for the first time some choice imperially orientated poster (both political and commercial), book cover, sepia photograph, cartoon, steamship advertisement, depiction of a significant ceremonial, set of postage stamps, or a map.

In fact, the illustrations in Mad Dogs and Englishmen vividly remind us of what a complex, multi-faceted institution the empire was: part big business, part military machine, part potent vehicle for advertising, part cultural centrepiece, part mass employer and a form
of social services, part enforcer of ethnic stereotypes, part entertainment, part a booster of national self-confidence, and much more besides.

Dr Jackson is the author of two studies of small imperial units at war, Botswana and Mauritius, and more recently of an excellent history of the British empire during the Second World War. This new book, subtitled A Grand Tour of the British Empire at its Height 1850–1945, represents a further widening of his historical canvas, and (in the best sense) an attempt to reach a broader readership. He has chosen the time span for the obvious reason that it encompasses the high noon as well as the start of the decline and fall of an empire that, at its height, included one in every four human beings.

In an echo of Niall Ferguson (author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World), Jackson declares that “to a large extent the British Empire created the modern world”. While it might be more accurate to give the credit to Britain or the British people, this is now a widely accepted view.

It is borne out in the global impact of the English language and of British culture, of English common law, of business and financial practice, of emigration patterns, the spread and codification of sports, the establishment of Westminster-style democracy, constitutional monarchy and the urgency with which imperial statesmen and administrators set out to re-order the vast swathes of territory that came under their control.

One of the main qualities that leaps from the pages of this book is a cheery optimism, or, to put it another way, an ad-man’s penchant for putting a patriotic gloss on things. Thus, among the posters shown, potential emigrants to New Zealand are tempted to come to a “Scenic Playground in the Pacific” (I wonder if the Maoris saw it quite like this after the arrival of the British?); the growing of tobacco in Rhodesia is presented as an act of European philanthropy towards African children; and an intelligent, friendly lion and a sexier than usual Britannia invite visitors to the Greater Britain Exhibition in 1899.

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Dr Jackson does give some space to the ‘awkward squad’ of anti-imperialists and sceptics, but that is not the main function of his text, which is to remind us how powerfully and attractively the images of empire were presented, and recycled, for public consumption and delectation.