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Common Knowledge 11.2 (2005) 283-305

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Imperial Boredom

An India House clerk in the early nineteenth century wrote this amusing little poem about the idleness of his daily routine:

From ten to eleven, ate a breakfast at seven;
From eleven to noon, to begin 'twas too soon;
From twelve to one, asked "What's to be done?"
From one to two, found nothing to do;
From two to three, began to foresee
That from three to four would be a damned bore.1

The historian might be tempted to dismiss as unrepresentative or overly comical this lethargic and indifferent approach to the imperial mission, were the clerk's attitude and sentiments not so pervasive. "Boredom with the overwhelming load of uninteresting business," complained William Bentinck, governor-general of India from 1828 to 1835.2 "Routine," wrote Leonard Woolf in his diary for November 10, 1908, an entry he repeated for four days straight (and numerous other times during his three-year appointment as assistant government agent of the Hambantota district in Ceylon).3 "Dull and uninteresting," concluded a [End Page 283] twenty-one-year-old Winston Churchill after only a month in India.4 Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, British imperial administrators at all levels were bored by their experience traveling and working in the service of king or queen and country.

Yet in the public mind, the British empire was thrilling—full of novelty, danger, and adventure, as explorers, missionaries, and settlers sailed the globe in search of new lands, potential converts, and untold riches.5 The first compendium of British exploration, Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations (1589), was a paean to risk taking in the national interest. By the nineteenth century, Stanley's search for Livingstone was front-page news; explorers such as John Franklin, who died searching for the Northwest Passage, inspired hagiographical biographies; generals such as Charles Gordon, who defiantly held off Sudanese rebels at Khartoum, were lionized in popular engravings; and larger-than-life viceroys such as Lord Curzon, who presided over celebrations like the 1903 coronation durbar, personified the power and pageantry of the British empire.6

Late-nineteenth-century popular fiction likewise portrayed the empire as exciting and exotic. In Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) and She (1887), intrepid adventurers like Allan Quartermain undertake perilous journeys through scorching deserts and over freezing mountains in search of hidden treasures, fighting ferocious warriors (both male and female) along the way, emerging triumphant in the end. In Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901), the Great Trunk Road is the "highway of all humanity," where merchants, soldiers, pilgrims, and spies of various religions participate in the Great Game, the epic struggle between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia. Even The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins, now generally regarded as a veiled critique of imperialism, is nonetheless a conglomeration of nineteenth-century English fantasies about the exotic and the Oriental.7 [End Page 284]

Scholars have by and large perpetuated this glamorous view of the empire, portraying imperial men either as heroic adventurers who charted new lands and carried "the white man's burden" to the farthest reaches of the planet or as aggressors who imposed culturally bound norms and values on indigenous peoples and their ways of life.8 James Morris's Pax Britannica (1968), for example, glorified a number of renowned imperialists, "the giants," who were still alive at the time of Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. These included Henry Stanley—"deliverer of Livingstone, impresario of Africa, namer of lakes and discoverer of mountains"—who rose from the poverty of a Welsh childhood workhouse to a "life of staggering adventure" that made him "an imperial monument in himself," and Herbert Kitchener, "huge in stature" and famous for a series of "romantically mysterious adventures among the Arabs."9

At the other extreme, Lytton Strachey's witty but deflating account of General Gordon's death at Khartoum redescribes the British hero as a pathetic and "unassuming figure," sanctimoniously holding a Bible, retreating to his tent to drink brandy, caught in his dressing gown when the...


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