In Praise of Imperialism; the Home Secretary Blames Yobbery on the Legacy of Empire. in fact,British Imperialism Was and Still Is Aforce for Massive Good

Daily Mail (London), July 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

In Praise of Imperialism; the Home Secretary Blames Yobbery on the Legacy of Empire. in fact,British Imperialism Was and Still Is Aforce for Massive Good


Byline: PAUL JOHNSON

JACK STRAW'S attempt to blame the yobbish behaviour which disgraces our youth on the traditions of the British Empire tells us more about his own ignorance of history than it does about the facts.

The Empire was not a sordid tale of greed, land-grabbing, massacres and cruelty. That is the Marxist version, still peddled among Labour pseudo-intellectuals of the Straw type. The truth is much more complex and interesting.

Creating and running the Empire was a vast exercise in political and economic experiment, scientific discovery and exploration, and cultural analysis. It was about the creation of wealth and knowledge.

It occupied some of the best minds in Britain, generation after generation.

And the same kind of ingenuity and energies which were once used in empire-building are now deployed by Britons, young and old, in supplying the world with essential services.

It was the greatest single historic force in binding the world together into one society under the rule of law. It had to be kept together by guns and warships, but its most visible products were ports and roads, railways, canals, lighthouses and oilfields, hospitals and universities, laboratories and agricultural research stations.

In this sense the Empire is not yet over. All over the world, ingenious, brave, questing and energetic British people - especially the young - are still at work: as doctors and nurses, engineers and technicians, relief workers and teachers.

They are the true progeny of the men and women who went out to the Empire in the days when it occupied one-quarter of the world's surface. In that sense the Empire lives on.

It is a significant fact that Dr John Dee, the man who coined the term 'the British Empire' in the reign of Elizabeth I, was the country's leading scientist. He encouraged seaventurers to explore the world in order to add to our knowledge and bring back new products.

ONE OF his disciples, Sir Walter Raleigh, founded our first colony in America, Virginia, in 1584. He introduced us to potatoes and tobacco and employed artists to make detailed drawings of the New World and its people.

His History Of The World, inspired by his adventures, is one of the great books of the age.

Francis Drake, the first Englishman to sail around the world, was a voracious reader as well as a fighting man. He made detailed drawings and watercolours of harbours on his travels, and hugely improved the standards of English mapmaking.

The early empire-builders were chiefly interested in trade. To make trade possible and safe, they established forts and enclaves which often expanded into colonies. But improving trade was inseparably connected with acquiring knowledge.

In this task the two vital instruments were the Royal Navy and the Royal Society, the brotherhood of scientists founded in the 1660s under Charles II.

They planned joint expeditions all over the world, the Navy providing the ships, the daring and the firepower, the Royal Society the experts.

Throughout the 18th century, men like Admiral Anson and Captain James Cook sailed all over the world, accompanied by cartographers and scientific jacks-of-all-trades, who recorded what they saw, brought back vast quantities of specimens, and wrote up what they discovered in books which became classics.

The spirit in which these voyages were made is illustrated by the instructions the president of the Royal Society sent to Cook and the Society's chief scientist on board, Sir Joseph Banks.

He urged them to exercise 'the utmost patience and forbearance with respect to the natives of the several lands where the ship may touch. . . shedding the blood of those people is a crime of the highest nature . . .

'They are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several regions they inhabit. …

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