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ornamentalism, the pretty way to rule an empire
on August 2, 2009
Let's start off with the title. Unlike the book, which does not mention the term until page 122, simply put it is an explanation of the method by which Great Britain exercised (indirect?) control over its Empire. Cannadine argues that the Empire was governed using a theatrical form of social elitism which interpreted local societies as a reflection of the multilayered and tightly ranked home society in Britain. What this meant was that local aristos were sought out by the British (eg Maharajahs, Sultans, Nawabs, tribal chiefs, Bedouin leader/kings. In the settled dominions these were drawn from settled grandees - especially and initially in Ireland) and placed alongside the British colonial regimes to lend legitimacy and local control. Why ornamental? Because an elaborate system of rewards based on the award of (colourful & ornate) honours within a structure of conspicuous display for those of local & British high rank (Indian durbars, investitures, "plumed hats") bred a form of upper class bonding that crossed caste & race differences to create a ruling class that controlled one quarter of the globe in the interests of Britain.
In a way this was no more than Louis XIV's use of Versailles court procedure - making up grand offices/titles/costumes for the upper nobility in return for a superficial court task, but this kept them quiet and allowed Louis to rule absolutely.
Everyone, local dignitary or colonial official, knew their place in the hierarchy and energies focused on climbing up the decorative ladder and not falling out with the fount of promotion - London. Hence colonial government was carried out as London wished, and the plumed hats and fancy awards poured out to those in government, especially the local royalty. Reading this it struck me how this concept had survived even to the Scottish public school I attended in the 1960's where everyone had a defined role, ornamentally visible and so enforceable to everyone else (under 13 years old-short trousers, aged 14: uniform jacket had to be closed at all times using the middle button; aged 15: jacket could be open; aged 16: hands could be put in pockets; aged 17: could wear a non uniform jacket. Prefects: could wear special ties, Team players could embroider teams in gold thread on jacket. Everyone then policed the system to ensure no younger boy could exercise their "privilege". Indeed this was control on the cheap for the school!).
Cannadine's is an interesting idea but there are several issues:
* There is too little on who actually perceived the Empire in this way at the time and more importantly who cultivated it.
* What was the role of the new "yellow press"?
* How conscious a process was it? This is especially significant when the book shows how even the British ruling classes were so ready to get rid of the ornamental Empire and betray its colonial collaborators during decolonisation.
Nonetheless there is much to this work, most perhaps in its final sections where it is clear that ornamentalism was no preparation for independent nationhood - once Britain left and deserted those it had previously been happy to collaborate with, the new regimes put in place by the departing British came from those (lower) social classes previously excluded from government. Lacking experience or traditional supporters, the outcome in most ex colonies was to be instability and long term chaos.
Another salient point to emerge: the crucial role played by Britain's Irish experience: first colony where ornamentalism was practiced and model for elsewhere, then the first post 1776 colony to break free and then serve as a model for independence from London for those colonies seeking independence. (See casahistoria Ireland site)
Finally, my edition has an interesting personal essay (An Imperial Childhood") as an appendix, and if the author ever reads this then let me say that yes, I have similar recollections and am of a similar age. But on the other hand, I am a historian too.......