The mythology of British imperialism: 1880-1914
Behrman, Cynthia Fansler
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Man has always created legends and myths for himself, and historians have only recently concerned themselves with the history of these legends. They can be a potent force. This thesis examines the mythology of imperialism: what the average literate Englishman at home thought imperialism was all about, and how he was led to think so. Webster defines "myth" as a story to explain some practice, belief, institution, or natural phenomenon. Imperial mythology is here used to mean a set of firmly- believed ideals and stories which explained, justified, and to a certain extent, qualified, the practice of imperialism. The mythology of imperialism consisted of three major elements--racial, religious, and heroic--and a host of minor ones. The racial concepts of the nineteenth century were confused and "unscientific," as we should call them. The word "race" was used interchangeably with--and usually in preference to--"nationality." People attributed to race a whole set of social and moral traits which were not demonstrably genetic in origin. Thus, it was assumed that the English were predominantly "Anglo-Saxon" with some "Celtic" strains. To the Anglo-Saxon was attributed a love of order and punctuality, and a skill with ships, justice, freedom, and parliamentary government. The Celt was supposed to be fiery, temperamental, unreliable, and poetic, but incompetent. The Englishman also had firm ideas about the rest of mankind. He constructed a graded hierarchy of color, and a linked hierarchy of moral and mental characteristics. The Indian was on a higher plane than the Zulu, but lower than the Boer. And seated at the peak, of course, was the Anglo-Saxon who, because of his eminence, was entitled to assume responsibility for the rest of the world. The religious myth, with roots in the evangelical movement, culminated in an elaborate cult of moral responsibility for the unfortunate. England's religious mission was to educate her subject peoples, and to teach them the arts of civilized life and self-government. The task involved work and self-sacrifice, but it was her Duty, and she should expect no reward but a heavenly one. Just as Britain often likened herself politically to Rome, she thought of herself as Israel's spiritual successor. Finally, there was the ideal of the hero. In a curious way, the Victorian cult of the hero was like a microcosm of nationalism. The characteristic individualism of the nineteenth century tended to glorify the adventurer, whose prowess, courage, and self-reliance had an undeniable appeal, particularly as the circumstances of modern industrial life removed the ideal from the grasp of the ordinary man. The hero was made to personify those qualities most cherished in the national self-image. The empire became a kind of stage for heroic action, and the heroes the representatives of the best of English culture. The thesis examines the role of these myths and their attendant symbols and slogans in the self-image of British imperialism. The sources used have been chiefly literary and journalistic ones. Other writers have searched political speeches and memoirs for evidence of imperial policy and attitudes, but novels, poetry, sermons, and newspapers have been curiously neglected. These sources were important myth-makers. The advent of "modern Journalism," with its techniques of mass media, meant that a greater public was exposed to the imperial ideal. Greater literacy and more leisure for reading meant a wider audience for novels and poetry, and a consequent inculcation of the imperial myth.
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