Paul Kennedy: A historian's education in the ways of empire

Historians in the News

y first glimpse of the British Empire was an entirely favorable one. At some time during my seven years of purgatory at St. Cuthbert’s Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, our history teacher gave us Arthur Grimble’s A Pattern of Islands. Here was a fond reminiscence of a young man who, immediately after his Cambridge education, had been dispatched as an administrative officer to some of Britain’s territories in the Southwest Pacific. His account included no Gandhian protesters, no disgruntled Afrikaners, no Egyptian nationalists, no Arab-Zionist street fights. Instead, Grimble’s little gunboat took him from island to island, where he sat at immense tables stacked with suckling pig and yams, listening to the chiefs and elders as they made their reports.

Cooped up in a working-class row house on Tyneside in the 1950s, I wondered if I might someday pass the Colonial Office exam and end up doing the same as Grimble. Alas, by the time I reached college (1963), almost all of that distant empire had become independent. By that time, too, I had stumbled into a very different account of the servants of empire—the writings of George Orwell, another man who had been steered into a position of vast administrative responsibility at a young age. Orwell was a district officer in Burma in the Indian Imperial Police, which he hated. His abhorrence of one people’s having dominion over another—tempered by his admiration for the imperial soldier and the administrator’s tough-minded sense of duty—lasted until the end of his life. That loathing (which contained a fair amount of self-loathing) oozes through his early novel Burmese Days and through his essay “Shooting an Elephant,” both of which revealed to me the ways that imperialism could brutalize both the rulers and the ruled....

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