Best of British?

By Dylan Kerrigan

Bonds of Empire: West Indians and Britishness from Victoria to Decolonisation, by Anne Spry Rush
(Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0199-5885-58, 320 pp)

Lion sculpture at Gunhill, Barbados

Lion sculpture below Gun Hill signal station, Barbados, carved in 1868 by British officer Henry Wilkinson. Photograph by Flickr user chriggy1, posted under a Creative Commons license

Here are two common questions about Britishness: how did so many colonials and ex-colonials come to embrace the values of the Mother Country? And why? Bonds of Empire, Anne Spry Rush’s book on “West Indians and Britishness”, offers answers to these questions and also feeds into more global debates about common cultural values that connect a certain transnational class and group of ex-colonials, providing them with the social capital we call status.

The project has a certain lineage in the field of history — the author’s own disciplinary background — but also in the fields of anthropology, postcolonial studies, and Caribbean literature. V.S. Naipaul’s concept of “mimic men,” from his 1967 novel, and Lloyd Best’s Afro-Saxons are two examples illustrating the continuum of West Indian Britishness which Rush claims many people born in the Caribbean between the 1870s and the 1950s came to adopt and can locate themselves on. This thinking disconnects the idea of Britishness from a fixed geographical location, and who would deny that C.L.R. James, Learie Constantine, Frank Collymore, and many others were sometimes able to pass as more British than the majority of those born in the British Isles?

It is important to note that the particular cultural form of “West Indianness” Rush describes is the perspective of the middle class: those who identified themselves as “Imperial Brits” and who “refashioned themselves to fit British ideals.” This was not a working-class adoption of British culture by West Indians. As the middle and upper classes came to dominate society at large, they defined and directed the politics and education of the British Caribbean colonies, and their later development into independent nations. As Rush puts it:

. . . during the twentieth-century colonial period, and arguably for a generation beyond, by virtue of their leadership roles in society (as teachers, preachers, government employees, politicians, and so on) this small percentage of the population was heavily involved in negotiating the decolonialisation process in the Caribbean — both personally and politically.

In his 1968 book Black Intellectuals Come to Power: The Rise of Creole Nationalism in Trinidad and Tobago, Ivar Oxaal spoke about this same relationship. He saw the education system in the Caribbean as a specific design of imperial power that shaped the future leaders of the colonies and produced persons who followed the ways, views, and positions of the West, and its capital interests. He was not surprised to find that winners of Island Scholarships (which paid for university education in Britain) on their return to the Caribbean got involved in local electoral politics and were the architects of decolonisation.

Contemporary postcolonial and anticolonial scholars might describe the scholarship system as an early form of public diplomacy, diplomatic propaganda, soft power, and the continuance of conservative world politics through the disciplining of cultural agents. Rush, on the other hand, seeks to view the relationship from the other side of the debate. Rather than focus on how West Indians suffered culturally and economically, she suggests that by manipulating Britishness they were able to leverage its social capital. This in turn provided opportunities to gain political status and a role in the movement towards Independence. As Rush points out, middle-class West Indians who rejected the negatives of British imperialism “seldom rejected Britishness outright,” because a certain culture of Britishnness was, locally, the vehicle for social status. This is a legacy we can still see in action today, as West Indians of all shades and classes agree that the “master’s” language is the one in which our systems of education, parliamentary decorum, the media, and business should all be conducted in. Rush’s thesis provides further evidence that West Indian identities are fluid, and answers the question of why most middle-class West Indians are still masters of both standard English and local creoles.

Bonds of Empire describes, in a clear and easy-to-follow prose, a pre-1970s world of West Indians growing up in a culture dominated by Britishness. From the first page we are asked to consider how ingrained our British heritage is. The author makes a compelling case that forms of British respectability became entrenched in many aspects of Caribbean social life. The cultural values and social structures of the Britishness Rush identifies are presented as an ideology of respectability that placed heavy emphasis on Victorian values, Western-style education, domesticity, and Christian morality.

The book is separated into three sections: “Fashioning Britishness”, “Mobilising the Power of Britishness”, and “Continuity Within Change”. “Fashioning” is a useful word, speaking about the shaping of taste, the adoption of class symbols, and the way socio-cultural institutions like education can be viewed as mechanisms in the extension of social control. In this section the first chapter, “Schooling Britons”, illustrates how structure, culture, and agency came together to embed the ideals of Britishness in the minds and souls of those Caribbean peoples who would go on to lead the colonies towards independence.

We see how in the 1920s and 30s the various symbols of an imagined community were ingrained into the minds of West Indian children. Young colonials were expected to sing patriotic songs like “Rule Britannia” and salute the prominent Union Jack. Their schools followed the British school calendar with its summer, Christmas, and Easter breaks; while Anglicanisation, cricket, a positive image of British royalty, stories and poems about the British isles, and much else were all elements of a process of imperial socialisation to a particular worldview. As the author notes, “Britishness at some level was not so much a choice as a lived experience.”

I would call this imperial indoctrination. That is, it is ideological. It is about the transmission of ideas. As Carl Campbell noted in Young Colonials: A Social History of Education in Trinidad and Tobago (1996), education is the prime socialisation factory in the production of societies of control, and the British in the West Indies chose education as a central means to stamp an English character on their colonies. Education is a deliberate strategy of the powerful to ensure the maintenance of social influence, and it was very successful in the West Indies. As such, I wonder whether the Britishness the author describes can be viewed as a mechanism in the transformation from the divide-and-conquer politics of the plantation society, via race and white supremacy, to divide and conquer politics through status? Still always about division, still always about reproducing the structure of a foreign society.

In acknowledging that “the development of West Indian formal education closely followed that of schooling in Britain itself, thus reinforcing the British-style class hierarchy system in the colonies,” Rush does momentarily connect her discussion to bigger debates about the role of education in maintaining the status quo. On the whole, however, Rush’s is not a critical text in this sense, and the book is mostly without political edge.

In section two the book moves into a discussion of the outcomes of “mobilising” Britishness in the Caribbean. As Rush explains, many symbols of Britishness became engrained in middle-class West Indianness, principally through rituals and the repetition of events — like the celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday, Empire Day, and other royal occasions such as funerals, jubilees, and coronations, all with commensurate displays of banners and flag-waving.

Specifically, the reader learns about a type of idealised Britishness built on a morality of righteousness that made middle-class West Indians at first embrace Britishness but then recoil somewhat at its racial dishonesty and economic inequity. Out of such a dialectic, Rush argues, came the movement towards self-determination, transformations in the importance of education, organisations to disable racial inequality, and West Indian support for Britain during the two World Wars.

In the book’s third section, middle-class West Indianness is brought into the centre of Britishness itself, through a discussion of the BBC and also a chapter on the devotion of West Indians to the British monarchy. This section is the strongest part of the book. The behind-the-scenes glimpses into the BBC’s Caribbean Voices programme and the BBC Colonial Service allow the reader to meet some middle-class West Indians who possessed the specific qualities the author has been describing, such as the Jamaican John Figueroa, the Guyanese Edwina Melville, and the Trinidadian Ulric Cross.

The elephant in the room throughout Bonds of Empire is the continued social exclusion West Indians as a whole suffered during the first half of the twentieth century at the hands of Britishness — the racism of the British Labour Party, for example, and its lack of support for universal suffrage is not discussed. Rush would no doubt reply that her focus is the middle class, and the plight of the West Indian labouring class is not her subject matter, but to disconnect Britishness from the reinforcement of social exclusion and racism against the West Indian working class is problematic, because it denies the viability and usefulness of lower-class cultures in the transformation and development of West Indianness — as though Britishness was the only way to turn, culturally.

If I were to offer a small criticism of Bonds of Empire, then, it is Rush’s acceptance of this supremacy of Britishness over alternative cutural forms. This also influences the language she uses when describing historical events: passive word choices remove the horrors and violence of the colonial encounter. The title Bonds of Empire itself, which suggests linkages and an echo of fraternity, might be equally understood to refer to “bonds” in the financial sense: a debt to the Mother Country where ownership over local development and self-determination are directed by foreign cultural ideals, or what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called cultural capital. That is how empire works, as imperialism socialises those it makes war on and conquers their inner world — their “biopolitics.” Empire enforces itself inside the minds and cultures of ex-colonies. Hence when Rush writes of decolonialisation she masks the process of neocolonialism and the personal politics involved in such a relationship. Her tale omits the cultural disciplining that such “bonds” demand as payment for success, and presents them instead as free choice; what’s more, as the best choice for all. I would venture that such choice eroded authentic forms of Caribbean self-determination and independence, rather than the other way around.

Empire is based on the theft and accumulation of wealth. This power tries to hide its tyranny by claiming to leave behind positives — in many ways, Rush implies that independence and democracy were such gifts. This is problematic because of what it hides: entrenched poverty; wealth in the hands of a few; private enterprises and public industries still run on a plantation mentality, with their surpluses leaving the country. It is quite clear that the populations of the urban slums of the Caribbean and ex-colonies further afield refute the notion that “bonds of empire” have done anything to transform poverty. Instead, one might argue that Britishness and bonds of empire have helped entrench global class inequalities.

Yet there is truth in what Rush claims. Yes, there was an adoption of certain socio-cultural values and economic symbols by a certain group in West Indian society. For those people, their standard of life and that of their children improved, and their gains were great. It is also true that some Caribbean citizens of an older generation say we need a return to a British value system — and perhaps that is a valid argument to make. That said, it is also valid to argue that the values of Britishness are connected to ideas of white superiority and empire, and the fact that Britain stole and dispossessed wealth from vast swaths of the world’s population in order to maintain its power over them. Somewhere between these poles lies a truth about the relationship between the two arguments. That Rush leans further to one pole than the other tells us where her book is situated. Different readers of different generations will no doubt take different messages from Bonds of Empire. For that alone it is very much worth reading.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2011

Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist teaching at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. His recent research looks at the relationship between the accumulation of capital and the shifting construction of difference in nineteenth- and twentieth-century urban Trinidad.