Friday, September 9, 2011

The Saabs and the Mame Saabs of the British empire

Contributed by Pervaiz Munir Alvi

IN MODERN Britain, it is bad form to speak too highly of the British empire. Yet beneath such squeamishness, an undercurrent of relative pride still pulses, defiantly. Of course, today’s educated Briton murmurs, the empire was wrong. But at least the British learned the languages, schooled the sons of native chiefs and tried to do some good, didn't they? Surely, other imperialists were worse, the British tell themselves: those savage Germans or outright villains such as King Leopold II, running the Congo not as a Belgian colony but his own private property, unaccountable to any parliament back home?

But was the British empire a good or a bad thing? What is the world view of the men (and a sprinkling of fearless, extraordinary women) who shaped and ran the empire. What are the imperial roots of some of today’s thornier geopolitical problems, from Kashmir to Myanmar or Sudan? Who were the empire’s ruling elites and what are their modern-day legacies? Who were the Saabs and the Mame Saabs of the British empire?

A close examination of the British empire reveals ghostly ranks of imperial warriors, administrators and diplomats who stand exposed and damned by their own memoirs and memoranda to London, and by their carefully minuted actions. Time and again, these “men on the spot” are observed taking decisions for reasons of caprice, snobbery, cynicism or—in the case of the British police chief obsessed with photographing the exact moment a bullet punctured the skin of Burmese rebels sentenced to death—something bordering insanity.

Still more damningly, the arbitrary, individualistic nature of so much imperial decision-making was not a weakness of the system, but the system itself. There was no “master plan” since a policy could be reversed by the appointment of a single colonial governor, or even by the lobbying of energetic mavericks, such as Gertrude Bell, an Arabist caught exulting “We've got our King crowned” in a letter home after planting a Hashemite prince, Faisal, on the newly invented throne of Iraq. If Congo was a personal fief of the wicked King Leopold, the British empire was a scarcely more representative oligarchy, organised on avowedly “aristocratic” lines by a clique of white men on the make. In theory, Whitehall officials and ministers back in London oversaw the empire. In practice, professional imperialists ruled through a caste system alien to anything seen at home.

In Sudan, a notably snobbish spot, one-third of all colonial political officers were the sons of clergymen and half of those recruited between 1902 and 1914 had a “Blue” (a sporting distinction) from Oxford or Cambridge, leading to the quip that Sudan was a land of “Blacks ruled by Blues”. In the 1930s, only officials able to play polo could hope for advancement in the Sudanese province of Darfur: in the same period, Darfur had just one primary school. In 1916, David Lloyd George, the humble son of a Welsh Baptist minister, could become Britain’s prime minister, but would have stood no chance of being governor of colonial Nigeria.

Men from the same narrow, middle-class band of society crafted oligarchies with the British crown at the top and, at the bottom, a tier of native chiefs, maharajahs and princelings granted wide and autocratic powers over their own peoples. They then inserted themselves in between as viceroys, governors and pith-helmeted district commissioners: raised to a form of quasi-aristocracy by their race and education. The same colonial officials who liked sporting, Harrow-educated native princes actively disliked educated Africans and Asians, above all those shifty, resentful urban “examination passers” who made it to British universities or law schools. I suppose we felt the local intellectuals were aiming to take our place, Sir James Robertson, a former Sudan official candidly reflected, years later.

And finally when the British scrambled for the exits, lingering chaos was often the result of this hearty ad-hocery. Was the British empire a good or a bad thing? It all depends on what spot one stood within the Empire.

About Pervaiz Munir AlviPervaiz Munir Alvi was born and raised in Pakistan. After graduating from Government College, Lahore (now Government College University) with a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree Mr. Alvi proceeded to the United States  of America for further studies where he received his Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Civil Engineering and Master of Science (M.S.) in Geo Technical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mr. Alvi resides and works in the USA as a consulting GeoTechnical Engineer.


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