There’s a lot of fascinating points about the overall state of the West Indies in the late 19th century. But one point that stood out for me, at least up to Chapter 10 where I am now, is the realization that the process of decolonialization started much earlier than I’d thought.
In some sense, this is a specific application of one of Moldbug’s most insightful points – that the world has been getting more left wing for much longer than most people realize. And as a result, many of the social trends that we think of as 20th century phenomena actually have roots that start much earlier. This is the kind of insight that one is likely to get mostly by reading actual historical sources. Without actually going to the original sources, the temptation will always be to just substitute the modern understanding of historical issues.
The typical narrative of decolonialism starts with the only history that most people know – World Wars 1 and 2. Britain successfully defeated the Germans in both cases, but it was so exhausted, bankrupt and out of resources that it lacked the ability and will to maintain its colonies. Hence, it granted them all independence in fairly quick succession. The start of it all seems to have been Home Rule for Northern Ireland in 1922, after which things snowballed.
This is not a silly explanation, and probably has elements of truth to it. It is indeed true, as Wikipedia will confirm, that the height of the British Empire in terms of territory was achieved in 1921
If this is the main explanation, what should we expect to be the mood in 1887, when ‘The Bow of Ulysses’ was written? We arrive on the scene when Britain had an enormous empire, having been militarily dominant in Europe for at least 80 years. Victorian England was apparently jingoistic and patriotic about its Empire, as the story goes. Presumably the Empire was a source of considerable pride and fervor.
But Froude in 1887 paints a very different picture. The West Indies are depicted as being in a state of general decay. Froude contrasts the scene in Granada with the one described by Pere Labat, a Frenchman who had visited a century earlier, and had been optimistic about what the English would make of the colony after taking it from the French:
“The English had obtained Grenada, and this is what they had made of it. The forts which had been erected by his countrymen had been deserted and dismantled; the castle on which we had seen our flag flying was a ruin; the walls were crumbling and in many places had fallen down. One solitary gun was left, but that was honeycombed and could be fired only with half a charge to salute with. It was true that the forts had ceased to be of use, but that was because there was nothing left to defend. ... Nature had been simply allowed by us to resume possession of the island.”Froude is primarily a historian, rather than a political theorist or an economist. He has a keen eye for the nuance and differences across the various islands he visits. But even in those that have fared better, such as Barbados, there is a strong sense that decay has been building for a long time, due to an interplay of causes:
“The position is painfully simple. The great prosperity of the island [Barbados] ended with emancipation. Barbadoes suffered less than Jamaica or the Antilles because the population was large and the land limited, and the blacks were obliged to work to keep themselves alive. The abolition of the sugar duties was the next blow. The price of sugar fell, and the estates yielded little more than the expense of cultivation.”Countries have survived economic decline, of course. But in the West Indian colonies, the economic decline has a complex relationship with the declining English population, as Froude tells it, where cause and effect run in both directions. As the islands decay, the English have less economic incentive to remain there, tending to become absentee landlords. This in turn causes their estates to decay further, which reduces the incentives of the remaining English population to stay on the island. At some point, the exodus becomes self-fulfilling – English people leave just because they expect other English people to leave.
Froude’s description of St Vincent captures this mood of slow and inevitable decline very well:
“The prosperity has for the last forty years waned and waned. There are now two thousand white people there, and forty thousand coloured people, and the proportion alters annually to our disadvantage. The usual remedies have been tried. The constitution has been altered a dozen times. Just now I believe the Crown is trying to do without one, having found the results of the elective principle not encouraging, but we shall perhaps revert to it before long; any way, the tables show that each year the trade of the island decreases, and will continue to decrease while the expenditure increases and will increase.”How many people do you think understand that white flight began not in the 20th century American mid-west, but in the 19th century British Caribbean?
Interestingly, the paragraph above is eerily prescient in that if you alter the frankness of the language and racial attitudes, its descriptions could apply very closely to both Rhodesia and South Africa in the mid-to-late 20th century.
Declining white population relative to the black population? Check.
Slow but inexorable economic decline? Check.
Meddling with governing arrangements to try to maintain the current power structure? Check.
Ultimate futility of such changes? Check.
The St Vincent Ghost of Christmas Future does not look encouraging. It’s not for nothing that my bet about South Africa six years ago is still looking pretty good.
What is remarkable, however, is that both Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia were crushed under the weight of progressive western opinion, even in the teeth of strong efforts from the local white population to maintain the status quo. In the 19th century, there was no hegemon to push around the British Empire, and no major outside country demanding devolution of power (other than London elites). And yet the result was the same anyway. The same red/blue tribal and ideological conflict was playing out internally within London, rather than between Washington and Salisbury.
What is most striking in Froude’s descriptions, even more than the economic aspect of the decline, is the decline of will. Even by 1887, there is the general sense that people have lost the sense of quite what the empire is meant to be for. The West Indian colonies were fought over strongly when sugar was such a lucrative crop that they were valuable as a merely economic proposition. There remains a sense of noblesse oblige in remaining to secure good government for the subjects of these islands. But as the economy declines and the cost of the proposition increases, there arises a general question – what exactly are we doing all this for?
"Languidly charming as it all was, I could not help asking myself of what use such a possession could be either to England or to the English nation. We could not colonise it, could not cultivate it, could not draw a revenue from it. If it prospered commercially the prosperity would be of French and Spaniards, mulattoes and blacks, but scarcely, if at all, of my own countrymen. For here too, as elsewhere, they were growing fewer daily, and those who remained were looking forward to the day when they could be released. If it were not for the honour of the thing, as the Irishman said after being carried in a sedan chair which had no bottom, we might have spared ourselves so unnecessary a conquest.”And remember, this is coming from someone who was for the most part a defender of Empire.
Without an obvious answer to this question, there arises a push towards general devolution of powers towards self-government. From the white populations of the islands, the primary causes seem to be quite frivolous: fashion, boredom, a desire not to be left behind, and the possibility of securing lucrative government appointments for themselves:
“Trinidad is a purely Crown colony, and has escaped hitherto the introduction of the election virus. The newspapers and certain busy gentlemen in ' Port of Spain ' had discovered that they were living under ' a degrading tyranny,' and they demanded a ' constitution.' They did not complain that their affairs had been ill managed. On the contrary, they insisted that they were the most prosperous of the West Indian colonies, and alone had a surplus in their treasury."
"They were a mixed and motley assemblage of all races and colours, busy each with their own affairs, and never hitherto troubling themselves about politics. But it had pleased the Home Government to set up the beginning of a constitution again in Jamaica, no one knew why, but so it was, and Trinidad did not choose to be behindhand. The official appointments were valuable, and had been hitherto given away by the Crown. The local popularities very naturally wished to have them for themselves.This passage illustrates a number of points not widely appreciated in the common narrative. Firstly, the main instigators for political self-rule in these British colonies were not organized opposition from an unhappy local black population (such as was the case in the violent overthrow of the French in Haiti), but rather local English elites, who felt they personally stood to gain from the new arrangements.
But more importantly, these domestic forces on the side of political change are notable in Froude’s description for just how feeble and absurd they are. The only reason they can succeed is that a large portion of the elite in Britain have simply lost the desire to maintain the existing arrangements. As a result, the full independence obtained for these colonies in the 20th century was merely the last step in a gradual devolution of powers that began at around a century earlier. And the devolution of powers was actually quite acceptable to London elites, because they simply couldn’t be bothered with the whole thing any more. Froude describes the upshot of the meeting he talked about in the previous quote:
"The result, I believe, was some petition or other which would go home and pass as evidence, to minds eager to believe, that Trinidad was rapidly ripening for responsible government, promising relief to an overburdened Secretary for the Colonies, who has more to do than he can attend to, and is pleased with opportunities of gratifying popular sentiment, or of showing off in Parliament the development of colonial institutions. He knows nothing, can know nothing, of the special conditions of our hundred dependencies. He accepts what his representatives in the several colonies choose to tell him; and his representatives, being birds of passage responsible only to their employers at home, and depending for their promotion on making themselves agreeable, are under irresistible temptations to report what it will please the Secretary of State to hear. For the Secretary of State, too, is a bird of passage as they are, passing through the Colonial Office on his way to other departments."World War 1 is not even a puff of smoke on the horizon, and yet the whole scene is already laid out for us. The most interesting part of reading Froude is to compare his descriptions to how events subsequently unfolded. Devolution ended up proceeding in largely the way he anticipated, but the process has a very different origin from the standard narrative today.
The larger point that emerges is that it is a mistake to judge the power of an empire, a people or a country by its territory or strength on paper. Societal decline is a slow process of erosion over decades, as institutions and the popular will get worn down. Abandonment of territory or government is in fact better understood as the last step of the process. Inertia alone will keep governing arrangements limping along long after the will to maintain them has actually disappeared. And the will to govern, once gone, is apparently a rather difficult thing to rekindle.
If all of this sounds somewhat like the latter stages of the American empire that we find ourselves living in, there is a reason. I can see why Moldbug recommended this book so highly.