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Author: Karl Hack

Selling Empire: Epilogue – the slow death of heroism?

Updated Monday, 21st January 2013

This article traces the change from optimism over the Commonwealth and over Britain as a jet-age great power in the 1940s-50s, towards comedy and cynicism over empire by the 1960s. Starting with the Empire and Commonwealth Annuals of the early postwar years, it ends with Carry on Up the Khyber and the Flashman novels.

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Prejudices and assumptions from the heyday of Empire died a slow death as Britain became both relatively weaker and more multicultural from the 1950s. Before decline, however, came a last age of ‘Commonwealth’ optimism.

Britain emerged from war in 1945 victorious, with the third strongest military in the world, notwithstanding continued rationing. It had developed the jet engine, exploded an atomic bomb in 1952, and the Queen turned on its first atomic power station in 1956. In the 1940s to mid 1950s many people could still envisage an atomic and jet age Britain holding moral sway over an increasingly self-governing empire.

Empire Youth Annual Title page of Empire Youth Annual, 1947

This optimism can be seen in postwar Empire Annuals, such as the 'Empire Youth Annual' of 1947, from which the image to the above is taken. These generally provided a potted tour of the Empire, and a series of morals and lessons about geography and history. The latter might be made palatable by being wrapped in tales of adventure, perhaps told through the eyes of a fictional boy or girl. But the old assumptions of British leadership, and settler kinship, were still there.

Over time, these annuals’ names changed to reflect the acceleration of decolonisation. The 'Empire Youth Annual' became the 'Empire and Commonwealth Annual' in 1953, the 'Commonwealth Annual' from 1958, and then seems to have ceased publication in 1964.

By the latter date, illusions that Britain would be able to lead a united Commonwealth were disappearing. In November 1964 Ian Smith’s government of Rhodesia asked its mainly white electorate if they wanted independence, rather than accept the black majority rule that Britain demanded. More than 90 per cent did, and Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence on Remembrance Day 1965. Racial tensions were rising in South Africa too, and Commonwealth countries were diversifying their trade away from Britain.

The era of unselfconsciously ‘heroic’ representations of Empire – whether through military heroes or economic and social development – definitively drew to a close in the late 1960s. Decolonisation was by then rampant. In 1967 Britain left Aden ignominiously, and announced a timetable for withdrawal of all forces from ‘East of Suez’.

Carry On Up The Khyber Williams The Khasi of Kalabar (played by Kenneth Williams) and Bungdit Din (played by Bernard Bresslaw); from 'Carry On Up the Khyber' (1968)

The values once lauded were now mercilessly – if slightly affectionately – mocked. Carry On Up the Khyber was released in 1968, spoofing recent Empire films of the ripping yarns variety, such as Zulu (1964), and Khartoum (1966), the old juvenile literature’s ‘heroic’ virtues of restraint, decorum, self-sacrifice for King and Empire, and class values.

Flashman bookcover Book cover of Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser, (London: The Book club Edition, 1970)

A year later George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Paget Flashman (1969) – the imperial antihero who everyone mistakenly lauds – made his first appearance in the eponymous novels. Drummed out of Rugby at the end of Thomas Hughes’ 'Tom Brown’s Schooldays', the womanising, bullying, cowardly Flashman is part conman, part Richard Burton (the nineteenth century explorer who feigned Muslim disguise to take the pilgrimage to Mecca, and translated the Karma Sutra).

He dissembles his way across Empire conflicts from the 1842 retreat from Kabul in the first edition of his supposed recovered ‘memoirs’, to Rorke’s Drift in 1879, exhibiting reverse qualities of the teenage heroes of a G.A. Henty novel, or of a H. Rider Haggard story.

Both Flashman’s first adventure, and Carry On Up the Khyber, touched on Afghanistan and Britain’s tendency to stumble there into humiliation and loss. Both mocked – with a strong hint of fondness for what must pass – what had once been core values of British imperialism. MacDonald Fraser, after all, had fought in wartime Burma with the 17th Indian Division. He could believe the British Empire had been a warts and all good thing – he reportedly said ‘the greatest thing that ever happened to an undeserving world’ – while recognising its wars for the messy, nasty things they were.


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