Tag Archives: British Empire

The enigma of T.E. Lawrence

After watching David Lean’s 1962 Oscar-winning movie, Lawrence of Arabia, I became fascinated by T.E. Lawrence. As a high-school kid I slogged through Lawrence’s expansive and detailed memoir of the Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and followed up with some of his other writings, even his translation of the Odyssey.

T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabi...

T.E. Lawrence (also known as Lawrence of Arabia) led the Arab revolt forces in the Battle of Aqaba. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American journalist Lowell Thomas, whose camera crew captured some of Lawrence’s exploits during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, was largely responsible for the creation of the Lawrence of Arabia legend. In sold-out post-war lectures, Thomas depicted Lawrence—in his flowing Bedouin robes—as a dashing figure, a chivalric knight waging a guerrilla war for Arab freedom against the Ottoman Turks.

The romantic legend appealed to a war-weary Britain. Lawrence’s own popular account, Revolt in the Desert, only fed the fever and became a bestseller. But the psychological price of his war exploits and celebrity soon caught up with him.

Lawrence became shy of publicity and sought escape in an ascetic’s life. He changed his name to John Hume Ross and entered the Royal Air Corps as a private, only to be publicly exposed. Forced to change his name again, he enlisted in the Royal Tank Corps as T.E. Shaw. He recounted this post-war military experience in his memoir, The Mint. When he died in 1935, aged 46, after crashing his motorcycle to avert two boys on bicycle, the Lawrence of Arabia legend became secure. “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time,” Winston Churchill said. “We shall never see his like again. His name will live in history.”

Sooner or later someone is bound to challenge such hyperbole; in Lawrence’s case it took about thirty more years. In 1969, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia by Phillip Knightly and Colin Simpson attempted to pry beneath the legend. Based on classified documents released by Britain’s Public Records Office in 1968 and on interviews with people who played roles in critical episodes of Lawrence’s life, the book proffered more questions than answers. As its sensational jacket copy states: “Archaeologist, author, savant, soldier, intimate of poets and kings, an intellectual who was also a man of action…or pathological liar, homosexual, Irish nobody, traitor, a Foreign Office lackey in fancy dress?” More documents, including many of Lawrence’s wartime dispatches, have since been declassified, and more research done on the war in Arabia and the disastrous 1919 peace conference in Paris that determined the region’s fate. Their addition has enabled journalist Scott Anderson to provide a balanced reassessment of Lawrence’s influence and accomplishments in his new book, Lawrence in Arabia: Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Lawrence in Arabia

As the subtitle promises, the book’s scope is broader than a biography of the man. The Lawrence of Arabia legend (as if an Englishman, despite the robes, could ever be of Arabia) is recast in the context of the ambivalent role Lawrence played in what was essentially an imperial gambit. Anderson weaves the story of Lawrence and the Arab Revolt with those of an international cast of characters representing the many factions wrestling for a piece of this oil-rich land. Primary focus is on the rivalry of the European powers and the Zionist movement that mostly sprang from Europe and targeted a homeland in Palestine. Front and center are the political machinations of the British and French, in the guise of diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, whose secret agreement would seal the fates of Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran—assuming the Triple Entente won the war and wrested these territories from the decaying Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally.

English: Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916. Reproduce...

Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916. Reproduced from http://www.passia.org with permission.

Where did Lawrence stand on this land grab? At first he and the Cairo-based intelligence unit he worked for advocated a policy of Arab liberation under British tutelage. They wanted to nullify French claims on Syria (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel) by keeping the French out of the Arabian campaign. To this end, Lawrence’s superiors encouraged Emir Hussein of the Hashemite clan to revolt with the promise of an independent Arab nation that included Syria and the Arabian Peninsula. Lawrence was sent to join the Arab guerrillas to ensure that British interests prevailed. But, according to Anderson, Lawrence’s growing wariness of the political machinations taking place in London and Paris to undermine their promise to the Arabs led him to secretly reveal to Emir Hussein’s son, Prince Faisal, the nature of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Was this treason or a shrewd manipulation to spur the Arab prince to press his campaign toward the capture of Damascus?

As Anderson makes clear, Britain was not the only nation, and Lawrence hardly the only emissary, in the region conniving for position. From Jerusalem, the German spymaster Curt Prüffer instigated Islamic jihad in British-ruled Egypt. Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn ran a spy network in Turkish-controlled Palestine to aid the British, whom he believed the best guarantors of a Jewish homeland, while his colleague and sometime adversary, Chiam Weizmann worked the corridors of power in London. Even the Standard Oil Company, through its representative William Yale, was negotiating oil rights with the Turks while providing oil to both sides of the conflict. Later, after America entered the war, Yale would keep the U.S. State Department abreast of British and French military and political maneuvers.

Anderson succeeds in showing how the duplicitous and cavalier decisions of crumbling empires at war brought about the muddle of the modern Middle East. Lawrence, who understood the religious and tribal complexities of the region, failed to win his case for an independent Arabia including Syria. After the capture of Damascus, which effectvely ended the Arabian campaign, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement became public, Lawrence left the Middle East, never to return. Suffering from what Anderson describes as post-traumatic stress disorder, this brilliant, arrogant and ascetic warrior-scholar believed he had betrayed the Arabs he had fought beside. “Blast the Lawrence side of things,” Lawrence wrote in a letter using the alias T.E. Shaw. “He was a cad I’ve killed.” Anderson tells a compelling story that brings greater political and psychological insight to the Lawrence legend, but the enigma of the man endures.

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How empires begin and end

It has always puzzled me how a small, technologically advantaged force can dominate vast multitudes in far reaches of the planet. It’s the story of empire: The Romans extending their rule across Europe and the Mediterranean. Cortés and a few hundred Spaniards conquering the powerful and warlike Aztecs, who had created an empire of their own. And more recently, the British building an empire on which the sun never set, its crown jewel being India.

In most cases the story of empire is one of the few taking advantage of internecine disputes among the many to seize control, of dividing and conquering. It was Rome’s way. It was Cortés’ way. And although I am not well read in Indian history, I suspect that’s what happened there as well–the British striking alliances with advantage-seeking rajahs and playing up religious and cultural differences. Certainly that’s how Kipling portrayed it in such works as Kim and The Man Who Would Be King.

Map of India under the British East India Comp...

Map of India under the British East India Company, 1857. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1857, British control of India nearly came to an abrupt end. That year, the Indian subcontinent erupted in violent reaction to the steady incursion of the British East India Company, an event known as the Indian Rebellion. What astounds me is that the British prevailed.

In The Siege of Krishnapur Anglo-Irish novelist J.G. Farrell attempts to reconstruct the stubborn self-righteousness and contempt that enabled the British to prevail in that perilous year. But Farrell also wonders if the germ of empire’s end wasn’t inherent in those same myopic attitudes.

Farrell, who died in a freak accident in 1979 (while fishing on Ireland’s west coast, a wave swept him into the sea; his body was not recovered for a month), is best known for his Empire trilogy. In each volume he considers a watershed in the British empire’s decline. Troubles deals with a hotel in Ireland after World War I, The Singapore Grip with life in that colony on the eve of World War II. The Siege of Krishnapur, however, is his Booker Prize-winning novel based on the historical siege of Lucknow in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh.

256280Farrell of course has the benefit of hindsight, writing in 1974, decades after India’s independence. This distance allows him to portray the imperial mindset with comedic effect. He finds ironies in the historical context and satirizes the presumptions of the age. Wisely, he scrutinizes the character of the English, whom he knows, but does not attempt to fathom the motives of the Indian sepoys who besiege his fictional Krishnapur. Regrettably, this approach reduces the rebels to faceless hordes akin to those ant-like computer-generated armies in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Despite the Kiplingesque action/adventure story he is telling, Farrell revels in dialogue and interior monologue. The best bits are wicked: “The first thing one learns about India, Burlton, is not to listen to the damned nonsense the natives are always talking,” says one fatuous character before the siege begins.

Only the Collector, the stalwart epitome of British civility and reason who runs the residency for the Company in Krishnapur, a man for whom the technological and scientific advances featured at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 are sure signs of civilization, senses that trouble is stirring. He orders fortifications to be built which enable the small enclave of residents and soldiers to defend themselves when the attack comes.

The siege itself is central, and like the quarantine in Camus’ The Plague, provides an opportunity to observe desperate people at close quarters. The veneer of Victorian propriety soon gives way to survival. The Collector must constantly reassure himself that British rule stands for Progress; he and the Company are bringing Great Ideas to India. But as things grow dire, the busts of the European thinkers that decorate his study must be used as cannonballs against the attackers: “The most effective of all had been Shakespeare’s; it had scythed its way through a whole astonished platoon of sepoys advancing in a single file through the jungle.” Voltaire’s head jams the gun.

After months of siege and as preparations are made for the last stand, the bright red coats of the British army appear on the horizon, and the attackers flee. The Collector survives and years later, back home in London, comments to another survivor, “Culture is a sham…It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness.” Farrell’s own summation of the events of 1857 are expressed in the last glimpse of the Collector: “Perhaps, by the very end of his life in 1880, he had come to believe that a people, a nation, does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge.”

Farrell, like Joseph Conrad before him in “An Outpost of Progress,” Nostromo and Heart of Darkness, sees a black center in the Great Ideas that empire builders use to justify taking what they want from the rest of the world.

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Two rivers, two views of empire

Two well-written histories about Europe’s scramble for Africa provide a fascinating study of how perspectives change with time.

Alan Moorehead was a renowned Australian journalist who began his career reporting on the Spanish Civil War and the North African campaign during the Second World War. After the war, he turned to narrative history and published one of his most highly acclaimed books, The White Nile, in 1960.

TheWhiteNileThe White Nile follows that great river’s course through the last half of the 19th Century, beginning with Richard Burton and John Speke’s 1856 expedition to find the source of the Nile and ending with Britain’s suppression of the Mahdist Revolt in the 1890s.

Tracing the source of the Nile to Lake Victoria is a story of heroic feats of endurance and hardship. In addition to Burton and Speke, it includes two names familiar to every child: the missionary Dr. Livingstone and the journalist Henry Morton Stanley. These men were soon followed by Samuel Baker who sought to tame the river for steamboats and General Gordon who sought to introduce the (British) rule of law to the Sudan. Barely a decade later, the Mahdi’s siege of Khartoum and Britain’s race to rescue General Gordon and then at Omdurman to avenge him involve two other famous Brits: a young Herbert Kitchener and an even younger Winston Churchill.

Moorehead is a gifted writer who presents a riveting, novel-like narrative replete with well-researched details about these colorful figures. His own travels up the Nile during the war and while researching the book provided a first-hand experience that shows in his fine descriptions of the land and his appreciation of the early adventurers’ accomplishments.

Moorehead wrote The White Nile as independence finally came to the “protectorates” Britain established in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Somalia. He isn’t an apologist for empire, but he still believes in the positive elements Britain brought with its governance. He describes the flourishing slave trade that Burton and Speke encountered (Arab traders had plundered East Africa for ivory and slaves for centuries, much as European traders did from West Africa). And he rightly asserts that Britain’s increasing influence through its missionaries and civil administrators helped put an end to that trade.

His book, however, remains largely one-sided. He acknowledges, for example, that Stanley used repeating rifles to massacre Bumbire warriors armed only with spears on the shore of Lake Victoria, yet he admires Stanley’s ingenuity to transport (on porters’ backs) a steel boat in sections to the lake. He makes plain that Stanley was not a humanitarian even by Victorian standards, yet he lauds his drive and efficiency.

What a difference in perspective forty years can make. The British Empire may never have been as abusive as the one American journalist Adam Hochschild describes in his 1999 book, King Leopold’s Ghost, but one suspects that if Moorehead were alive to write a history of the Nile today, it would require another dimension—that of the Africans who lived under British rule.

Henry Morton Stanley meets David Livingstone i...

Henry Morton Stanley meets David Livingstone in Ujiji, 1871. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Figures like Stanley might come under greater scrutiny, too. The Scottish orphan, who changed his name in America and made his name by “finding” Livingstone, doesn’t get off as lightly in Hochschild’s book. As Moorehead tells, this tough-as-nails explorer was the first European to descend the Congo River (after definitively charting the source of the Nile). But, as Hochschild tells, he later returned to oversee the rapacious development of the Congo Free State at the behest of Belgium’s King Leopold II.

KingLeopoldsGhostKing Leopold’s Ghost recounts the harrowing story of the most egregious form of exploitative colonialism in the continent’s history. You already know something of this if you have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for it was King Leopold’s large-scale and deceitful pillaging of the Congo’s resources that both books describe. The horror indeed.

Disguised as philanthropic development to end slavery and bring Christianity to the Congo, the mercenary king created a kind of serfdom that might as well have been slavery. Through a brutal regime of European administrators who used terror and forced labor to extract ivory and rubber, Leopold made millions (billions in today’s dollars) in profit. The horror included hangings, beheadings, the severing of hands, and whippings that often killed. Women were held hostage, raped and traded as chattel. Children were starved and worked to death. And whenever any resistance occurred, retribution came in the form of destroyed villages and mass killings. Hochschild estimates that between 1885 and 1908, due to murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, disease and a plummeting birth rate, the population of the Congo River basin declined by half, from twenty million to ten million.

The story would be dismal if it were not for the brave missionaries and human rights organizers like Edmund Dene Morel, William Sheppard, Alice Seeley Harris and Roger Casement, who risked their reputations, and some their lives, to bring these abuses to light. Hochschild also strives to weave into his story as many African voices from the era as he can, although there are many fewer than he would have liked. Most were silenced by death.

Moorehead wasn’t wrong to tell, in a gripping fashion, the  story of Britain’s role on the Nile, but as history it was incomplete. “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King said. Hochschild’s important book lends credence to that claim.

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