Ruling the Waves – Episode 5 – ‘The White Man’s Burden’

Udo J. Keppler, "From the Cape to Cairo," Puck Magazine, 10 December 1902. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Udo J. Keppler, “From the Cape to Cairo,” Puck Magazine, 10 December 1902. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Stefan Piotrowski
Against the Current Productions

Historians – filmmakers, too – should always be careful about sweeping all particulars into a grand overarching narrative. Attitudes to race are a case in point. They are always complex, at both an individual and a societal level, but there does seem to be evidence from the historical record that over the course of the nineteenth century there is what we might describe as a hardening of opinions over questions of race.

At just over 10 minutes long, this episode cannot do justice to the complexity of the subject or the tremendous amount of research on the subject. In this introduction, I wanted to raise some points that hadn’t been properly addressed in the film or had only been touched on briefly. For that reason you may want watch it first and then read what I have written below.

Attitudes formed in the colonies were not automatically transferred back to the motherland. There could be marked discrepancies between the two. In Doris Lessing’s debut novel The Grass is Singing, Tony Marston the young farm manager fresh off the boat from England comes face to face with the reality of settler life in Northern Rhodesia:

Most of these young men were brought up with vague ideas about equality. They were shocked, for the first week or so, by the ways the natives were treated. They were revolted a hundred times a day by the casual way they were spoken of, as if they were cattle; or by a blow, or a look. They had been prepared to treat them as human beings. But they could not stand out against the society which they were joining. It did not take them long to change.

It could also be the case that the process happened in reverse. There are plenty of examples of individuals leaving Britain with ‘tough’ views on racial questions and then being forced to come to terms with their prejudices by their experience in the colonies – again, there was no simple ‘imperial experience’.

The point I was trying to make at the end of this chapter was that although the experience of empire – in all its forms – obviously shape individual attitudes toward race, these individual attitudes aren’t necessarily translated into firm ideas back in Britain – or fitted into an overarching imperial ideology.

The great West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine’s played Lancashire League cricket for the village of Nelson in the late 1920s and early 30s. Held back by the colour of his skin in his native Trinidad, Constantine sought to secure a better future by playing cricket as a professional in England. His experience, as described by C.L.R. James, reveals a mixture of attitudes within the host community. Racial prejudice – although sometimes seemingly good-natured – was found alongside genuine openness and acceptance. A lack of detailed knowledge about the empire often went hand in hand with vague and often crude stereotypes about other peoples:

The people in Lancashire had an inordinate appetite for asking Constantine to come to speak to them, most often in church and similar organisations. […] The truth was that Constantine by his cricket, by the demeanour of himself and his wife in what all could realise was no easy situation, by 1932 he had created an enormous interest in the West Indies and West Indians. Most people were hazy about both the islands and the people. The majority, or at least a great many, thought the West Indies had to do with India. In the park, preparing for a speech that night, a very friendly little boy came up to me, sat on my knee and asked me where was my spear. The children were always intrigued by our unusual appearance and often came up to make acquaintance. Wherefore one evening Mr Mayor, overflowing with goodwill, told my audience that when he saw Mr Constantine and Mr James with the children he knew … I cannot remember the phrase but it was to the effect that we were as human as the rest of them. (C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary, pp. 154-5.)

This was a period in which the Empire Marketing Board was in full swing, propagandists were doing their utmost to promote an imperial ‘mentality’ and yet from James’s testimony – anecdotal as it may be – many in this corner of Lancashire seemed only vaguely aware of the Britain’s overseas territories. And it is to this subject that I turn to in the final chapter.

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