Ornamentalism Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Of the unity of the British Empire during the period 1850-1950, Cannadine says, “[T]his remarkable transoceanic construct of substance and sentiment is imperialism as ornamentalism,” and ornamentalism is “hierarchy made visible, immanent and actual . . . with ample available plumage for showing it and for showing off.” Readers will find the “plumage” best illustrated in a photograph of the Prince of Wales wearing an Indian headdress in Banff, Alberta, in 1919, and the corpulence of Sir Robert Menzies fully clad in absurd regalia is certainly visible and immanent.

Although Cannadine does not deny the Britons’ sense of their racial superiority, he stresses the importance of their vision of a social hierarchy in which the illiterate natives at the periphery were seen as the social counterparts of the working masses in the metropolitan homeland. When the British thought of their overseas peoples collectively, they often saw them by race, but seen as individuals they were judged by their social status. Thus, it was not only an Enlightenment belief in the inferiority of dark-skinned peoples that guided British overseas governance but also a pre-Enlightenment understanding of “a carefully graded hierarchy of status, extending in a seamless web from chiefs and princes at the top to less worthy figures at the bottom.” Between the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and Indian independence, British rulers strove to create both at home and abroad a picture of a “layered” hierarchy unifying the empire. Cannadine defends this thesis in a series of chapters that distinguish among the dominions, India, the colonies, and the mandates.

Cannadine points to the hierarchical attitudes revealed in Britons’ general contempt for American Indians and African Americans, and he quotes Edmund Burke’s brutal remarks about native peoples. British settlers abroad tried to replicate “on top” of these lower castes a system of rank like the one they knew at home, inventing such titles as Esquire, Gent, Master, and Honourable to identify everybody’s place in a society marked by subordination. Unfortunately for England, the antihierarchical sentiment in the United States overwhelmed the empire’s best efforts to sedate its growing colony with titles and plumes, and when the Revolutionary War ended, the British determined that elsewhere in the colonies hierarchy would be “nurtured and supported” as a means of diverting the population from social revolution. The Act of Union of 1800 joined Great Britain and Ireland in a new “imperial-cum-metropolitan unity,” and the appointment of a viceroy who lived in splendor in Dublin Castle created the “proconsular prototype” that would eventually preside over India and throughout the Empire. The viceroy was the “cynosure and apex” of an elaborate structure of pomp and ceremony.

The Irish solution was extended to Canada, where the conservative immigrants were susceptible to a rigid social order. In India, where a firmly layered society already prevailed, based not on property but on caste and manners, the British policy was to strengthen the system by fluffing up the native princes and developing a regime of “unprecedented grandeur” catering to the Indian taste for such ceremony. The British saw themselves in a layered society at home and wanted to see their overseas possessions structured in the same way. To encourage intricacies of rank and title, a bloated honors system evolved, with the (English) Order of the Garter, the (Scottish) Order of the Thistle, and a new (Irish) Order of St. Patrick. The Order of the Bath was extended, and the order of St. Michael and St. George was introduced. Cannadine explains: “The result was the consolidation of a pan-British, pan-imperial elite that conquered and governed, unified and ordered, the empire for the first time.”

Despite these efforts and despite how the system may have looked to Britons at home, this grand scheme was only a “partial image” of reality. British conservatives in India often scorned the native rulers they perceived as corrupt and loathed the manners they judged barbaric, and surely many colonial subjects understood—and resented—British manipulation. At the same time, Cannadine insists that “from the Indian Mutiny of 1857 to Indian independence ninety years later, the rulers and leaders of the British Empire tried to make that hierarchical system happen, and that hierarchical vision convince.” How they went about this challenge is his story.

Britain’s four great dominions of settlement—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa—were treated as “white men’s countries,” resulting in the disregard of such “inferior” peoples as the “Hottentots” in South Africa, the Indians and Inuits in...

(The entire section is 1944 words.)