Was the British Empire boring? As Jeffrey Auerbach notes in his irreverent new book, it’s an unexpected question, largely because imperial culture was so conspicuously saturated with a sense of adventure. The exploits of explorers, soldiers and proconsuls – dramatised in Boys’ Own-style narratives – captured the imagination of contemporaries and coloured views of Empire for a long time after its end. Even latter-day historians committed to Marxist or postcolonial critiques of Empire tend to assume that the imperialists themselves mostly had a good time. Along with material opportunities for upward mobility, Empire offered what the Pan-Africanist W.E.B. DuBois called ‘the wages of whiteness’ – the psychological satisfactions of membership in a privileged caste – and an escape from the tedium of everyday life in a crowded, urbanised, ever less picturesque Britain.
As Auerbach argues here, however, the idea of Empire-as-adventure-story is a misleading one. For contemporaries, the promise of exotic thrills in distant lands built up expectations which inevitably collided with reality. For historians, the challenge is to look past the artifice of texts which conceal and compensate for long stretches of boredom to unravel the truth. Turning away from published memoirs and famous images, therefore, Auerbach trains his eye on the rough drafts of imperial culture: letters, diaries, drawings. He finds that Britons’ quests for novelty, variety and sensory delight in the embrace of 19th-century Empire very often ended in tears.