Monday, March 4, 2013

The Balance of Empire

For a few years Paramount lost the US copyright of the famous British 1964 movie 'Zulu' which starred Michael Caine in his first ever film role. I recently came across a home video produced in that gap period in copy protection. 'Zulu' features the Battle of Rourke's Drift of 1879 during the Zulu Wars in South Africa. This battle probably ranks with the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War as one of the greatest feats of bravery in C19th British Imperial history.

Rourke's Drift has an unusual little family connection for me. In my possession is a notice cut out of a Scottish Border paper, the Berwick Advertiser of that year, an ad in which my grandfather, one Sydney Watson-Watson-Weatherburn, announced to the world that he was dropping the first Watson in his lengthy surname. On the back of this page is the first journalistic dispatch from South Africa on the Battle of Rourke's Drift.

Eleven mostly English and Welsh soldiers won the Victoria Cross for their participation in saving this small hospital and missionary station from massacre. The Hollywood-funded film does a nice job of not patronizing or demonizing any of the Natal Province cultures portrayed - Zulu, British or Afrikaans. Indeed the grandson of the Paramount Chief who fought the war lent many of his magnificent tribes-people to the film's producers as actors. Yet the South African secret police of the Apartheid regime of the time were on set to, among other things, make sure the Africans didn't get any pay!


During the end of empire that I lived through as a young man, nothing else got as much of our attention as the way the Afrikaner-dominated South African regime was behaving towards its negro population. Some killing of British soldiers, administrators and even settlers by Mau-Mau, Irgun, Stern Gang, Eoka, Malayan Chinese Communists or Aden Yemenis went on over twenty or so years after WWII, but the plight of the urban blacks and Bantustans was seen as the ugly scar on our relatively smooth though speedy withdrawal from hegemony. That this behaviour was from a government of a white Dominion seemed somehow appalling.

Like the hard-line Protestant element in another messy post-imperial society, Northern Ireland, the Boer population of South Africa were a group difficult to sympathize with. To our ears they had a harsh way of speaking and seemed awfully dour. They also relished their lifestyle privileges too much from our postwar impoverishment perspective.  Yet when my assistant in my London job emigrated to South Africa at the same time in the early 1970s that I left for Canada, everyone in the office thought she had won top prize with a life of luxury and servants versus my booby prize of cold winters and no help. Perhaps they thanked God there were still some spots in the old empire where one could  have it warm and easy.

For a whole generation of postwar British like myself, it was not easy to get into perspective the experience of being brought up in a nation of rapidly declining global influence. A new book, 'The Isles at the Centre of the World', from a historian of empires, John Darwin, paints the British Empire as a piece of unfinished business. In our minds that is indeed true. It seems still too early to be clear about the balance of merit between bequeathing a sophisticated democratic governance and justice model to much of the world and the great wealth we raised and largely shipped away from the colonized peoples. But when those peoples subsequently screw up the good management practices we left behind, as most have indeed done, our sympathy for the formerly colonized is lessened.

When some even, like Pakistan has, become a source of terror in our home countries, we can sometimes wonder why exactly did we leave the Empire in such haste.


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