BRASS: A Moral Empire?

To some contemporary historians, the phrase “Moral Empire” is as oxymoronic as “Military Intelligence,” or in the present era “Presidential Gravitas.” After all, one only has to look at the history of the 19th century to see that time and time again, the European Empires treated the peoples that they subjugated in ways that ranged from merely exploitative to genocidal. To quote Joseph Conrad’s still-trenchant “Heart of Darkness,” “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

But is this inevitably the case? Was the Victorian Imperial model by its very nature exploitative and harmful to those who it ruled? Some questions and thoughts here.

Conrad, his own experiences scarred by the atrocities he saw visited on the peoples of the Belgian Congo, was writing at a time (1899) when the Imperial model had begun to reach its most appalling excesses–some of which, it’s true, his own adopted nation was responsible for. 19th century England had embarked on a campaign of global conquest that had the Union Jack flying everywhere from Capetown, Africa to Cooktown Australia, from Trinidad to Toronto, from Bombay to Singapore. Its possessions surpassed any of the other great European Empires, much of it gained and held by force of arms and “gunboat diplomacy,” thanks to the overwhelming superiority of the British Navy. Material goods and resources flooded into Britain from its far-flung territories, colonies and protectorates, and while England themselves didn’t engage in the genocidal and barbarous practices of, for example, the Belgians in the Congo, they were, like those who valued the ivory brought in by Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, happy to deal with anyone who got results.

Yet students of the Victorians often note that the British Imperial identity grew gradually over the course of the century. Before the 1880s, the prevailing philosophy of the British was colonial; interested in economic profit of course, but more inclined towards stable government structures and even self-representation. Early colonial theorists like Edward Gibbon Wakefield and Charles Buller, instrumental to Lord Durham in his efforts to bring self-government to Canada, helped create a theoretical framework for turning a possession into an economic and political ally. And given the overwhelming military force they possessed, the British felt that like the Romans, the conquest they offered came with benefits–roads, irrigation, a common language and enlightened legal system. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the Jamaican Rebellion of 1865 shook but did not ultimately undermine this confidence.

There was another, less pragmatic explanation that helped mitigate the worst excesses of English rule. “From simply a standpoint of extracting tribute/trade from their colonies, the Western nations (in particular, of course, Great Britain) really felt that they were ‘doing good while doing well,'” explains my friend and fine historian Gordon Frye. “Bringing their version of the Christian faith (and that was, in fact a big deal at the time) through ‘Muscular Christianity,’ such leading Colonialists as George ‘Chinese’ Gordon hoped to improve both the lives and afterlives of their subject peoples. And it wasn’t forced upon them, as it had been in earlier renditions of Colonialism (read ‘Spain’).”

In our less theistic age, it’s easy to read various references to “moral improvement” as mere cant–particularly in an America that seems at times to be flirting with a theocracy of fundamentalist Christianity backed by cynical billionaires. But I think Gordon’s right that there’s something remarkably genuine about the Victorian belief that they were bringing something useful and good along with bridges, roads and Western education.  It was a Christian movement, for example, that had outlawed slavery in Britain in 1833, and the actions of the British Navy throughout the century, both legal and extra-legal, ended the African slave trade.

“Literacy, medicine and of course steam transportation was paramount in the ‘civilizing of the natives,'” Frye adds, “even in places such as China and India which were, arguably, far more civilized than Europe and had been for a long time. But we humans are a hubristic lot, and thus the program was carried on with the zeal of reformers, etc.”

In the world of Steampunk, the excesses of Imperialism are traditionally either ignored or emphasized. You’re either joining Professor Twaddlesworth and his Electrical Triangulator for tea, or you’re with a half-automatonic Emma Goldman plotting the overthrow of the whole smoky, xenophobic and corrupt society. What we’re exploring in BRASS is the possibility of a past that looks better than the one we know, in the hopes that by solving historical issues of racism, sexism, and economic exploitations in this alternate world, we can come up with some ideas for solving them in the future.

Gordon and I will be discussing this, along with other thoughts on Imperialism, morality, sword canes and corsets, at the Key City Theatre in Port Townsend on Sunday the 9th from noon to 1:00 as part of the Brass Screw Confederacy. More information and a chance to purchase tickets here.

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