(Written 7 Dec 2010)

Dear All,

In the chapter titled “Victorian Virtues”, Parkinson* gives his view on what the colonising British offered the Asian continent while on what he calls their ‘imperial mission’. Of course, behind the colonising powers of that time was their technological superiority but to this Parkinson adds “The British way of life”, which he describes as having four distinct traditions. Traditions that have their roots in ancient Greece, Rome, Judaism and the experiences gained in Ireland (not sure why Ireland).

From the Greek tradition comes the emphasis of the role of the individual as distinct from the family or the clan; an individuality that was extended also to women. As he points out elsewhere in his book (pg. 52), unlike those societies that made the individual subservient to the community, “The Greeks made individual perfection their aim, their gods being little more than human beings made perfect.”

From the Roman tradition comes a sense of duty, unconnected to any religious belief, with a reliance more on character than on brains. The sense of duty was particularly strong with respect for law and “in theory at least (and often in practice) they saw government in terms of legal enactment and procedure. (The British) were especially successful in keeping military power subordinate to civil.” Like the Romans, the British showed a practical interest in civil engineering and especially sanitation, their more important officials always being the City Engineer and the Municipal Health Officer.

From the Jews, through Christianity, comes the sense of being a Chosen people. In 1895 Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, claimed, “The British race is the greatest of governing races that the world has ever seen” and with this there was the idea that they had an imperial destiny and mission which found expression in organisations such as the London Mission Society, prompting Kipling (1899) to write:

Take up the White Man’s burden
The savage wars of peace.
Fill full the mouths of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;

And finally, (to my mind a rather mixed bag) there were the “special characteristics they had first learnt to value in Ireland. (As I say, why Ireland is not clear to me.) These characteristics were discipline, loyalty, courage, awareness of danger, acceptance of responsibility, aloof superiority, rigid honesty in finance, a black and white uniformity in dress, speech and manner.” ibid. “Looked at from another angle, the same characteristics might look more like subservience to authority, a readiness to tell lies, unimaginative recklessness, overbearing behaviour, snobbishness, red tape, dislike for originality and sheer cruelty towards the least sign of revolt. Much depends evidently on the point of view.”

*Parkinson, C., N. (1963). East and West. John Murray, London, pp. 202-214.