The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Judith M. Brown; Wm. Roger Louis et al. | Go to book overview

9

The Popular Culture of Empire in Britain

JOHN M. MACKENZIE

From the perspective of the late twentieth century, it is hard to recognize the pervasiveness and power of the British Empire in the thought and imagination of many sections of the British public. Yet there have been echoes in the Falklands War in 1982; there has been the continuing fascination of the entertainment media with many aspects of the Imperial experience; and most recently there has been the prominence given to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Serious and scholarly interest in Imperial matters has also led to the development of programmes to collect oral, visual, and written material about colonial experiences while a Museum of the British Empire and Commonwealth has been established in Bristol. In still wider perspective, British officials such as those at the Colonial or India Offices were not the only people to be connected to the enterprise of Empire. Many more British people had a knowledge of the Empire because of personal, professional, religious, and cultural experiences.

Thousands of British families had friends or relatives who had emigrated to the Dominions, or who had served or were serving in other parts of the dependent Empire as civil servants, teachers, missionaries, engineers, or in such technical trades as driving locomotives, and of course as soldiers in the British army. Imperial perceptions were not confined to Cheltenham and other genteel places where retired Imperial servants congregated. All social classes were influenced in different ways. The churches of the country and their Sunday schools were a constant source of information about Empire, as missionaries 'on furlough' preached about their work, showed magic-lantern slides, and urged their hearers to contribute generously to medical, educational, and evangelical work throughout the Empire. The missionary commitment to medicine as well as educational work helped to popularize the notion that Western medicine and Western-trained doctors were heroically tackling the most feared tropical diseases and the scourge of maternal and infant mortality. Medicine was thus seen to parallel the perceived moral and spiritual force of the work of Christian missions.

In the various institutions of higher education, Empire was also a pervasive theme—through the teaching of specifically Imperial history, through the

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