Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire by David Cannadine - review by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

They Mistook Kenya for the Home Counties

Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire


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Empires are usually travesties of home. On every frontier you can sense the tension: on the one hand, the ‘frontier effect’ draws restless spirits, rebels, outcasts and escapees to open a new kind of society, unfenced or utopian. On the other, cultural baggage piles up: people crave the comforts and recreate the ways of home. Some metropolitan values triumph; others are blown away by winds of change. In sixteenth-century Mexico and Peru, some conquistadors dreamed of a genuinely New World — with a new Church and a new society, heralding a new age; others erected ‘New Spains’ which were passable simulacra of the old one. In seventeenth-century Ninguta, traditional Chinese hierarchies persisted alongside new rankings: mandarins’ daughters slid barefoot down the icy hill to the only well, while merchants greeted the military governor as they would a younger brother. To Kenya’s Happy Valley, English colonists carefully transposed their home-grown etiquette, then subverted it with transgressive adulteries. In some jungles, settlers wear dinner jackets; in others, they change into leopard-skin spots. Some go home, some go native. Some, when ‘pukka-sahib traditions cracked’, ‘took to pig-sticking in quite the wrong way.’ We wonder, with Noel Coward, ‘what happened’ to them.

No historian exceeds him in wit, acuity or fluency; few are his equal in scholarship or sensitivity to evidence or language, which he formulates with finesse and utters with candour. He is free of the restraints of both fashion and tradition. In Ornamentalism, he explains how ‘repudiation and replication’ of

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