Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912 by Stephanie Williams

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Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912 by Stephanie Williams

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Buy Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912 by Stephanie Williams at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A history of the governors who served in the British Empire during its zenith in the second half of the 19th century, revealing the often grim reality beneath the rather airbrushed image.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0670918041

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For some, the glory days of the British Empire were the closing years of the Victorian era and the 19th century. Government ministers in London, and doubtless Queen Victoria herself, would glance at a map of the world and bask in reflected glory at the generous expanses of land coloured red, 'the empire where the sun never sets', to use the old cliché.

Yet for the governors themselves, or officers appointed by the Crown to administer the colonies themselves, and their long-suffering families, the reality was often very different. Being sent without any training or guidance to faraway territories of which they knew little if anything at all was more often than not a thankless task, and few survived with their health and marriages completely intact. Their tasks were varied, but normally included having to negotiate with literally warring factions of tribesmen, review existing laws and draft new ones, build roads and railways, and introduce sanitation systems into countries where none existed and were sorely needed. To live in territories with extreme climates that were often notorious for their diseases, and being placed in charge of indigenous populations often bitterly resentful of their presence, generally called for extraordinary, even superhuman powers merely to survive.

Sir Arthur Gordon, son of the Earl of Aberdeen, one of the least-remembered Prime Ministers of Queen Victoria's reign, was a case in point. One of his postings, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, was a detestable place, with repellent climate, detestable French society, exploited workers and an unjust government. His fortnight-long voyage in a poorly-ventilated French steamer was so awful that he declared his wife and children would never reach the place alive. On a subsequent posting to Fiji, he noted in his diary that he would have been much happier as contentedly sunk into being an obscure clergyman. His wife detested the heat, and after she had been there with him a short time her hands were so badly bitten by mosquitoes that she could barely hold a pen to write.

Unluckier still was Thomas Callaghan, whose brief tenure as governor of the Falkland Islands, following two other tropical postings, was cut short by intermittent fever and death from heart failure at the age of 54. On the other hand the Marquess of Lorne, married to Queen Victoria's daughter Louise, thoroughly enjoyed his governorship of Canada and would have liked to stay there, but his wife was seriously injured in a sleighing accident in which she almost fractured her skull. She returned home and he reluctantly followed her, but he never really felt at home in Britain again. (I have read elsewhere that she seemingly underwent some kind of personality change and developed an aversion to him at the same time, but this may have been sheer coincidence; she was something of a royal rebel, and he was thought to have been gay). Finally Sir Hugh Clifford, governor of Ceylon and then of the Gold Coast, became increasingly eccentric until his mind gave way completely, and he spent his last few years institutionalised in the Priory, Roehampton, a pathetic shadow of his former self.

The job of governor was anything but a sinecure, and the airbrushed image sometimes presented in old movies and novels glamorising the life is a false one. Some of these men, and their long-suffering families, were in a sense sacrificed in the name of the British Empire. The author compellingly portrays the atrocious conditions under which they had to work, and rightly emphasises that the white man in the palace in their midst was not necessarily – in fact, very rarely – a racist white lord who regarded himself as the representative of a superior species. On the contrary, many of them were very enlightened, liberal-minded gentlemen who often saw oppression of the indigenous populations, resented it and did their best to alter the situation for the better. It should be remembered that both Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, were in some ways considerably ahead of their time in actively advocating racial equality among their subjects, and many of the governors shared their views.

The story ends more or less at the beginning of the 20th century. Yet the final chapter mentions an advertisement in the newspapers inviting applications for the governorship of St Helena, including Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, a fixed three-year appointment in which the successful applicant would be responsible for the 'good government' of these territories. The date? March 2007. As the author says, maybe she ought to send him or her a copy of this book. It throws some invaluable sidelights on a facet of our history which has perhaps received less than its fair share.

Our thanks to Penguin/Viking for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoyed this, may we also recommend on a similar theme A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire by Nicholas Murray.

Buy Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912 by Stephanie Williams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912 by Stephanie Williams at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912 by Stephanie Williams at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912 by Stephanie Williams at Amazon.com.

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