Nowhere is the intellectual debate more fiercely contested today than in the history of empire and in the history of the British Empire in particular.
Professor Robert Tombs should be congratulated in courageously promoting a new book by Bruce Gilley, Professor of Political Science at Portland State University which provides a much-needed counter-factual to the tired and often misleading current consensus on empire.
The Last Imperialist: Sir Alan Burns’ Epic Defense of the British Empire is a fascinating account of empire through the day-to-day life and career of one of its servants. Professor Tombs takes up his story:
“[Sir Alan] Burns, who died in 1980 at the age of 92, was a distinguished man in his field, and a witty and dedicated public servant. But he was not a maker of high policy or an intellectual of wide influence. I had never heard of him; I expect few historians have. This, of course, is part of the attraction, if you want to show what governing the British Empire meant in everyday terms — not the view from Whitehall, but from an office in Nassau, a mud hut in Benin, or ultimately Christiansborg Castle in Accra.
Burns started at the bottom of the colonial administration, as a 17-year-old junior revenue officer in St Kitts, and he ended as Governor of the Gold Coast. He was a true son of empire, born in the Caribbean, one of that rather small occupational class (his father was a local official), who for a few decades managed the largest empire in history on a shoestring.
Perhaps Gilley was drawn to Burns because he was “the last man” to make a principled defence of empire, as his career drew to an end at the United Nations. “It is the fashion today to decry colonialism,” Burns wrote in his memoirs, “but it has saved millions of people from worse evils … slavery and human sacrifice, corrupt judges and tyrannical chiefs, famine and disease.” Merely to say this is to break a contemporary taboo: “on balance, we have nothing to be ashamed of.” But Gilley clearly agrees.
He goes further in this lively, accessible, often amusing and frequently exciting story: he hammers home facts that outrage the “woke” consensus on colonialism. That many of its peoples wanted to be part of the empire. That they were proud to be colonial subjects. That opposition to colonial rule was rarer than the desire for more of it. That its peoples showed loyalty, even to the point of fighting for it. That officials like Burns were popular with the people they governed.”
Whatever one's views on empire, the book is an important contribution to the debate, leaving the reader enriched and informed by a meticulously researched and compelling biography.
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