British readers and writers need to embrace their colonial past

Originally published in the Guardian · 23 January 2014

Adventure stories set in the British Empire are so unfashionable they don’t even have a name, even though they form a distinct genre. They form a very significant part of our literary history, however, and in their time some of the best ones were both wildly popular and, in more than one sense, trailblazers. Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, has a strong claim to being both the first real novel in English and the first colonial adventure story. R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines – both published in the 1880s when the genre really took off have some claim, as Giles Foden has argued in these pages, to being the first literary blockbusters. The colonial adventure encompassed hundreds of books, from Kipling’s Indian writing, including Kim, the masterpiece of Anglo-Indian literature, to G.A. Henty’s boy’s-own potboilers, to A.E. Mason’s The Four Feathers, Edgar Wallace’s Sanders of the River, and Talbot Mundy’s King of the Khyber Rifles.

These stories told big, primal stories from the frontier, or what Arthur Conan Doyle called in The Lost World, ‘the big blank spaces in the map’. They provided a vast, exotic, canvas, far from increasingly safe and conventional Britain, on which to recast old familiar plots: quests, struggles with evil, tests of strength, exciting encounters with the unfamiliar. Their protagonists were tested and came through. An energetic plot, and a lot of it, was vital – it’s no accident many of the most famous have spawned multiple film versions.

The books fed the imaginations of Western readers who would likely never see Africa, Asia or the Pacific – and yet felt that through these stories that they had a connection with them. Robinson Crusoe seduces with its vivid narrative voice, its gripping plot and some of the most memorable images in all fiction – most famously that discovery of Friday’s footprint on the beach. Treasure Island gives us an intense sense of place, and a poignant coming of age story full of moral ambiguity. Kim is at once spy story, coming of age tale, picaresque novel, adventure and an utterly compelling and slice through Indian society at the end of the 19th century.

Time has brought changes. Many of these books are now unreadable. They were cheerleading for Imperialism, and were imbued with an unthinking assumption of the racial superiority of the white colonial adventurer over the colonized native. To the post-colonial critics of the 1970s, who examined the cultural legacy of colonialism and Imperialism from the point of view of the colonized, these stories were little more than ideological justifications of colonialism and imperialism. Examples are almost too easy to find. To contemporary readers Crusoe’s attitude to non-whites is unpalatable; he sells a black fellow shipwreck survivor to slavers, and his relationship with Friday seesaws queasily between friendship and servitude. In King Solomon’s Mines, the protagonist Allen Quatermain presents an explicit racial hierarchy, with the rational, scientific Englishmen at the top, the Kukuanans with their ‘lips not unpleasantly thick’ next, and at the bottom, the Hottentots, drunk and ruled, like beasts, by instinct. Kipling says East and West are incompatible, the racial divide cannot be crossed, and he sneers at Anglicized ‘babus’, for ‘aping’ British manners (though In Kim he also has the ridiculed babu save the day). Probably the most offensive of colonial writers was G.A. Henty, a keen Imperialist and author of 122 boys-own adventures with names like By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War. In this novel Henty tells us that ‘the intelligence of an average negro is about equal to that of a European child of ten years old,’ but they can be significantly improved by living among white men where ‘their imitative faculties enable them to attain a considerable amount of civilization.’ Henty, widely accused of xenophobia in his own lifetime, had a small renaissance in the 1990s among conservative American home-schoolers who apparently considered his books provided excellent moral lessons in heroism, patriotism and religious observance.

The finest of the post-colonial theorists, Edward Said, went further. Rather as feminist critics had begun to talk about the ‘male gaze’ portraying women as passive objects and demonstrating the inequality of gender relations, Said suggested that the mere fact of colonial rule must inevitably compromise the writing of even the most well-meaning of would-be Western orientalists. Writers who claimed to love and understand the places they wrote about must inevitably see them through a prism of Eurocentricity, whereby they fetishised their exoticism and strangeness, and unconsciously patronized them. Kipling’s Kim, Said acknowledged in an introduction to the book, was a masterpiece (though one, he said, that some Indian readers regarded as plagued with stereotypes), but even so it presented a complacent and ‘conscious legitimization’ of British rule, and its benevolent effects. In the 1980s, a new strand of post-colonialism, ‘Subaltern studies’, began to look at the history of colonialism from the stand point of the colonized and the exploited – it’s often described as ‘history from below.’ This, like post-colonialism, has had a revitalising effect on the study and writing of colonial and Imperial history and literature.

Or at least it has everywhere but Britain, where we were already embarrassed and guilty about our colonial past, before post-colonialism found a troubling ambiguity in even the most well-intentioned colonial enterprise, and exposed plenty of straightforward brutality and exploitation. It’s very striking to compare the energetic debates of the last few weeks over how the First World War should be presented – a reflection of our constant fascination with the two World Wars – with the near-silence with which we approach the subject of the British Empire. Increasingly distant from us, it’s such a knotty, ambiguous subject, in which the British are the bad guys rather than than the plucky underdogs, that it has become easier to ignore our imperial legacy than to examine it full in the face. With a few striking exceptions, such as William Dalrymple and Philip Hensher, contemporary writers have become wary of engaging with it in all its complicated, uneasy-making richness. And yet, its legacy is a still matter of intense debate in former colonies all over the world, its consequences as great, or arguably greater, than the First World War. The only place where it isn’t an issue is Britain.

It is a mistake to neglect our colonial past. We should not want to become like Japan, which deliberately chose to forget the shame of the Second World War. Japan has never – unlike Germany – apologized for its actions during the war, instead coming to see itself as the victim of the conflict rather than the aggressor. In Britain, we haven’t truly processed our colonial history, and we should remind ourselves of it. One way cultures remember and digest the past is through stories, which is why the best of these colonial adventure stories deserve to be reread, in all their awkward ambivalence. In India, recent colonial narratives include Amitav Ghosh’s wonderful Sea of Poppies and Tabish Khair’s The Thing About Thugs.

It’s also why British writers should be uneasy about writing about the Empire, but should go ahead and do it anyway. Perhaps their writing will be ‘compromised’, but that’s not to say that it won’t tell stories that will illuminate parts of the colonial experience, particularly for an increasingly uninformed domestic audience. In Britain the whole issue of post-colonialism has made it easier for writers to forget the Empire; but it can also open up new routes into stories about it.

A few years ago, having previously only written non-fiction, I decided I wanted to write a historical thriller. I had been mulling over a character, a detective of a kind, for some years, whom I wanted to put into an unusual milieu. I had also long been interested in the Thugs – the roadside bandits who befriended, then strangled, unwary travellers on the roads of India – and the man who had crushed and chronicled them, a Company soldier-turned-administrator called William Sleeman. Even in the driest historical accounts the story of the Thugs was almost impossible to believe. William Sleeman’s grandson claimed they killed over a million people over several centuries; these days estimates range between 50,000 and 200,000, which are still astonishing numbers. Sleeman said, and believed, that the murders were acts of devotion to the goddess Kali. Almost as bad, it seemed that certain native rulers were protecting the Thugs in return for a share of the spoils. Not surprisingly, the Thugs caught the imaginations of the British at home (which is how the word thug entered the English language), and became a touchstone for colonial justifications for ruling India. They perfectly exposed India’s lack of ‘moral compass’, the evils of Hinduism, and the country’s inability to rule itself. Sleeman’s work, naturally, demonstrated the effectiveness and rightness of British rule.

The Thugs became a classic colonial trope: thrilling, exotic, evil naturally, and also an idealogical justification for colonial rule; one which quickly found its way into western fiction, starting with the 1839 bestseller Memoirs of a Thug, through John Masters’ 1952 novel, The Deceivers, to the 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – a movie deemed so offensively racist by the Indian government that it refused to allow it to be filmed in India.

What made me want to put the Thugs in my book, and put my character in India, was the fact that since the 1970s some historians had begun to challenge the notion that the Thugs had ever actually existed – or at least, existed as Sleeman described them. Some suggested they were a convenient fiction, a colonial panic that provided another handy justification for extending Company rule. Just as intensely, other historians had disputed this. The subject is still hotly debated. Moreover, it transpired that in Indian folk memory, Sleeman was a ruthless figure, not at all the benevolent administrator of Imperial histories. At the time, though, both of these counter-narratives had emerged out of post-colonial and subaltern studies. There was the traditional colonial version, and right next to it, the post-colonialist rejoinder, waiting for a plot to bounce them off each other.

Having written two very fact-based, empirical historical biographies, and done my history degree in the 1980s when almost all theory was dismissed as foreign rubbish – we historians lagged a least a decade behind literature students – it’s been surprisingly interesting to encounter academic theory in a practical context mid-career. I hope I’ve managed to breathe some life into this contested, neglected genre. In any case, the idea that a body of theory can be practically useful contradicts everything I was taught, and that’s been one of the most surprising things about it.