A te­dium on which the sun never set

Joanna Lewis is fas­ci­nated by a study of im­pe­rial te­dium, but finds it miss­ing some key dis­cus­sions

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Joanna Lewis is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional his­tory at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics and the author of Em­pire of Sen­ti­ment: The Death of Liv­ing­stone and the Myth of Vic­to­rian Im­pe­ri­al­ism (2018).

Im­pe­rial Bore­dom: Monotony and the Bri­tish Em­pire By Jef­frey A. Auer­bach Ox­ford Univer­sity Press 320pp, £35.00

ISBN 9780198827375 Pub­lished 4 Oc­to­ber 2018


h God! Not an­other fuck­ing beau­ti­ful day.” So be­moaned a char­ac­ter in James Fox’s novel White Mis­chief (1982), as she looked out over the Rift Val­ley in 1940s colo­nial Kenya. En­nui and ir­ri­ta­tion; dis­ap­point­ment and de­pres­sion. These are all states of mind fa­mil­iar to his­to­ri­ans of em­pire (in the lives of their sub­jects, of course). It has long been ar­gued that strate­gies to relieve mo­ments of male bore­dom in the em­pire in­cluded adul­tery, al­co­hol, hunt­ing, di­ary­writ­ing, taxi­dermy, bird-watch­ing and beat­ing up the ser­vants.

But Jef­frey A. Auer­bach takes bore­dom to a new level in this fas­ci­nat­ing study. He main­tains that a uni­fy­ing fea­ture of the Bri­tish Em­pire was the pro­longed ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing bored. It was its chief char­ac­ter­is­tic, and even dom­i­nated the so-called age of high im­pe­ri­al­ism in the 19th cen­tury. More­over, so bored had the Bri­tish be­come, he in­sists, that this laid “the emo­tional foun­da­tions for [them] to leave their em­pire in the twen­ti­eth”.

Auer­bach’s study is en­cy­clo­pe­dic. He spent 20 years gath­er­ing ev­i­dence span­ning the late 18th cen­tury to the turn of the 20th, which records feel­ings of be­ing bored, mis­er­able and de­flated. It’s a cap­ti­vat­ing his­tory of im­pe­rial te­dium drawn from mem­oirs, di­aries, pri­vate let­ters and of­fi­cial cor­re­spon­dence. In “read­ing against the grain”, as Auer­bach puts it, he has fo­cused on recorded events nor­mally skimmed over by his­to­ri­ans, pre­cisely for be­ing bor­ing – mul­ti­ple en­tries re­peated over and over again about the weather, train times, ship­ping fore­casts, de­liv­er­ies, lists and march­ing; or about noth­ing ever hap­pen­ing. Read­ers are treated to ex­am­ple af­ter ex­am­ple of com­plaints about long, un­event­ful sea voy­ages or dull, samey land­scapes; tes­ti­monies of the banal, mind-numb­ing te­dium of the colo­nial civil ser­vice or mil­i­tary cam­paigns when noth­ing hap­pened; and, fi­nally, dreary ac­counts of set­tler life.

If you are a lover of his­to­ries of white im­pe­rial rulers and thumb­nail por­traits, this book is for you. It’s full of ex­cel­lent quotes. Lord Lyt­ton, for ex­am­ple, fourth choice to be gover­nor-gen­eral of In­dia in 1875 (and ap­palled by the prospect), later summed up the Bri­tish Raj as “a despo­tism of of­fice­boxes tem­pered by the oc­ca­sional loss of keys”. It was cer­tainly the case that pro­pa­ganda about em­pire and the books writ­ten about it to make money cre­ated false ex­pec­ta­tions, lead­ing to bit­ter dis­il­lu­sion­ment.

But sweep­ing state­ments such as that the em­pire de­vel­oped “in a fit of bore­dom” are un­con­vinc­ing. The author seems not to have vis­ited Africa or In­dia dur­ing his re­search. Had he done so, I doubt if he would ac­cept that colo­nial ac­counts of be­ing bored rep­re­sent the full ex­pe­ri­ence. Ab­sent are deeper dis­cus­sions of how ex­pres­sions of be­ing bored are linked to racism, ar­ro­gance and the need to as­sert power in strange, chal­leng­ing and un­sta­ble en­vi­ron­ments. Emo­tional de­tach­ment, dis­dain and a de­mand to be en­ter­tained were also part of a well-re­hearsed reper­toire of dom­i­na­tion.

Rather than em­pire be­ing mostly bor­ing, more ac­cu­rate would be David Liv­ing­stone’s ver­dict on ex­ploratory travel while bat­tling dysen­tery: “it’s not all fun you know”.

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