Right you are, Governor

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am


Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912
by Stephanie Williams
Penguin, HK$270

Questions of empire are inevitably fraught. The arguments, until more time has passed, cannot be objective. They are influenced by guilt, resentment or a collision thereof, depending on the cultural and racial identities of the people making them.

It was not long ago, during a lecture at university, that I heard a comparison of European colonisation to the Holocaust. It was sensationalistic and I reacted badly, defending what I perceive to be part of my heritage from the knee-jerk response of an indoctrinated young liberal.

I lost the argument, naturally, and have often wondered since then if there is a way to find balance in the dogma of apology that rules our modern view of colonialism.

I should declare an interest. I was born in Hong Kong 12 years before it ceased to be a British colony. I am half-Chinese and half-English. I joined the tiny ranks of English speakers native to this city. Most of us, in one way or another, are children of the British empire.

Stephanie Williams is Canadian, a white child of the empire. She says so at the beginning of her new book, Running the Show, in which she sketches the lives of British colonial governors from 1857 to 1912.

Inspired by her own 'dislocation' to London, she wondered 'how tumultuous it must have been for a man to find himself catapulted into the position of governing a place of which he knew nothing, away across the seas. Who would do the job? How was he chosen? What was he like? What did he think? What was he actually doing, so far away from home?'

During her research for a paper on the history of Hong Kong's Government House, Williams came across the four bound volumes of 19th-century Colonial Office files that form the basis of this book. They contained the answers to a printed questionnaire sent in 1879 by the secretary of state for the colonies, Michael Hicks Beach, to British governors around the world.

It was the first time in 300 years of imperial administration that an attempt had been made to understand the private lives and daily concerns of the men who ran the colonies. The documents formed a 'snapshot of Empire', which Williams determined to expand into a panorama voiced, as much as possible, by the governors themselves. She has gathered an impressive bibliography of published and unpublished sources to help her tell their stories.

Chronologically ordered, the protagonists range from John Hawley Glover ('an eccentric and uncompromising man of considerable versatility') on the Slave Coast at Lagos to Hugh Clifford ('young and eager' at first, then imperious, wilful and finally mad) in Ceylon - today's Sri Lanka - 'the nation's premier Crown colony'.

'You hardly need to go beyond the indexes of all the volumes that have been written about the history of the British Empire to discover how little has been written about the men who governed the colonies,' the author writes.

'Even in local histories they appear as little more than ciphers, remembered ... in the names of towns or, more usually, streets.' (Indeed, reading her book has made it impossible to look at Hong Kong's street signs without thinking, for example, of George William Des Voeux, John Pope Hennessy, Hercules Robinson or Frederick Lugard.)

Williams' motivation was personal, too. She is descended from 'a family which emigrated {minus} seven of them, from three generations {minus} from an old whitewashed stone house in Cumbria to the wilderness of southern Ontario in Canada in 1837'. She describes her great-grandmother baking bread for the Indians.

'How hard their life must have been, how huge the shock of dislocation, from the soft light and the gentle rains of the Cumbrian hills to the harsh rock and deep forest, big snows and long winters of Canada, has been lost in time,' she writes. In part, the book seems to be an effort to understand what her ancestors endured.

For the most part, history hates the European empire. Its glory is drowned in the scars of subjugation, which throb even today. Humanist thinker Frantz Fanon and French poet Aime Cesaire, for example, declared with vitriol that Europe was indefensible for its blood-soaked and gluttonous imperial enterprise. They were - and are - by no means alone.

If the passage of time has demonised the white man who ruled the snatched colonies of his homeland, then Williams' endeavour is to humanise him again. Behind the circus pomp of her title and the florid representations of imperial life - from the corridors of the Colonial Office in London to the hinterlands of Canada and the swamps of Malaya - there is a gentle challenge to the binary view of European colonisation as an unequal clash between good and evil.

We reach Hong Kong in chapter eight. It is a Sunday evening in late April, 1877. The colony's new chief, John Pope Hennessy, sails into Victoria Harbour on the P&O mail-boat Zambezi accompanied by his beautiful wife, Kitty, and their infant son, Bertie. He is 43 years old, 'small and dapper, vain and impetuous', with a reputation as a 'controversial and volatile governor'.

In fact, Hennessy became the only governor of Hong Kong to have his statue erected by public subscription - a reward for his unusual sympathy to the needs of the local Chinese. Among other achievements, he instigated a ban on the public flogging of Chinese criminals along Queen's Road, and appointed Wu Tingfang - the first Chinese barrister in Hong Kong - as the first non-European member of the Legislative Council.

Williams has lived in Hong Kong and it's easy to tell. She sets the scene on the waterfront comfortably and with flourish, even allowing a wry note to creep into an observation that William Kenswick, the taipan of Jardine Matheson, was the real king in town.

She quotes from a letter Kenswick's cousin had written home in 1849: 'You will like to know who have got the nicest houses here. As you are aware the Governor and the General generally have the finest. Here it is not so. Who then? Jardine's ...'

After Hennessy's death, Kitty remarried and turned to spiritualism. At the command of a ouija board, she burned her former husband's library and all of their private papers. Williams has had to rely, as she does for many chapters, on a single source. In this case it is James Pope-Hennessy's memoir of his grandfather, Verandah. Pope-Hennessy's notes and some of Hennessy's correspondence survive in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.

Despite what must have been, at times, a patchy and frustrating research process, Williams has produced a dramatic and informative cross-section of British colonial life in the mid-19th through early 20th centuries. The prose is well-crafted if deliberately old-fashioned and Williams is a talented narrator.

Her motivation as the result of her cultural and racial identity is important. Perhaps it is only as products of the British empire that we have enough interest in looking beyond its condemnation.

In the beginning, it feels very much as though Williams might offer a small counterweight to the horrors of colonialism. In the end, what emerges is a more specific comment that, at least in the century before decolonisation in the 1960s, there were some good people in charge of that mission.

Nonetheless, even as Williams describes the confusion and heartache of her great-grandmother settling in Canada, we know that the family's presence there was never as shocking to her as it was to the Indians for whom she baked bread.