BOOK REVIEW / Art, slavery and empires of the mind: Culture and Imperialism - Edward W Said: Chatto, pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
IN 1975, when Saigon was about to fall to the North Vietnamese, there were notable differences in response among the journalists covering the story. For the Americans it was going to be a dangerous time: their editors ordered them to leave, and they seemed to want to go, or at least to dread staying. Who could say what examples might be made of them if they were caught?

The British, although they saw that the next few days might be dangerous, did not feel themselves to be personally at risk. True, it was the British who had restored French power in IndoChina. We were, technically speaking, responsible for the whole post-1945 fiasco - but only, we felt, technically speaking. We did not feel that something we as a nation stood for was being defeated.

But the French were even more insouciant than we were. They did not suffer from a closed embassy. They had not seen any mass evacuation of their compatriots. Indeed you could see that, in a way, the fall of Saigon would be for them a triumph. It would vindicate them in their opinion that they were the only ones who had ever understood Vietnam properly. It would obliterate the ugly American influence and leave the country more beautifully, more purely . . . French.

In other words, the mental imperium had remained intact, 21 years after the fall of Dien Ben Phu. It was a thing of the mind now, rather than of gross reality, and a matter more of connoisseurship than political will to power. The French had always fitted in better in Saigon, had known how to live the good life there better than the Americans. And they had completely forgotten about the humiliations they had received at the hands of the Vietminh. But the pleasure of ownership they had not forgotten.

So I agree with Edward Said about the pervasive and long-lasting effect of imperialism on the mind-set of the imperial citizen. There are points about British history in this respect that a Briton will be doomed to miss, although our imperial experience often makes us alert to the short-comings of other people's empires, which, like other people's racism, stick out like a sore thumb.

Surprising, though, is Said's opinion that during the imperial era there was scarcely any dissent from its values, that 'there was virtual unanimity that subject races should be ruled, that they are subject races, that one race deserves and has consistently earned the right to be considered the race whose main mission is to expand beyond its own domain.' This comes on page 60 and leaves one wondering about the whole nature of the anti-slavery movement, not to mention Burke's extraordinary attack on Warren Hastings, prepared and pursued over many years.

There is an answer, but it does not arrive till page 290, when we are reminded of 'the earlier positions of Bartolome de las Casas, Francisco de Vitoria, Francisco Suarez, Camoens, and the Vatican, on the rights of the native peoples and European abuses. Most French Enlightenment thinkers, among them Diderot and Montesquieu, subscribed to Abbe Raynal's opposition to slavery and colonialism; similar views were expressed by Johnson, Cowper and Burke, as well as by Voltaire, Rousseau, and Bernardin de St Pierre.'

This is a long and various list, and I do not think it is reliably covered by a further explanation - that liberal anti-colonial or anti-slavery views tended basically to argue for a more humane administration of colonies, not against the 'fundamental superiority of Western man or, in some cases, of the white race'. Let's take Cowper instead: 'A Briton knows, or if he knows it not, / The Scripture plac'd within his reach, he ought, / The souls have no discriminating hue,/ Alike important in their Maker's view, / That none are free from blemish since the fall / And love divine has paid one price for all.' Cowper is also an interesting figure for Professor Said's case about (not against - he is never otiosely accusatory) Jane Austen, who would certainly have read Cowper and known his arguments.

The omission of any extended treatment of the anti-slavery movement is a pity, since it does illustrate and expand Professor Said's contention that it was possible to be both anti-slavery and an imperialist. Zachary Macaulay (the historian's father) so hated the slavery he had encountered in Jamaica that he took an appointment in the colony of Sierra Leone, which Wilberforce had founded as a settlement for freed slaves. He became governor of the colony for five years, before returning to England, to the Clapham Sect. In due course the Crown took over the colony from the Sierra Leone Company, for which Zachary continued to work. As for the Clapham Sect, his son recorded its achievements thus:

The truth is that from that little knot of men emanated all the Bible Societies and almost all the Missionary Societies in the world, the Prayer Book and Homily Society, the African Institution, and the Antislavery Society. The whole organisation of the Evangelical Party was their work . . . They were really the destroyers of the Slave trade and of Slavery . . . Lord Teignmouth governed India at Calcutta. Grant governed India in Leadenhall Street . . .

And Macaulay himself added India to his extraordinary cv.

Professor Said ranges everywhere he wants, and is prone to give enormous reading-lists. Much of the performance invites disagreement, much else is a source of wonderment, as for instance this quotation from Blake: 'The Foundation of Empire is Art and Science. Remove them or Degrade them and the Empire is No more. Empire follows Art and not vice versa as Englishmen suppose.' But what the word Empire meant to Blake remains to me as mysterious as before.