Fr. George Rutler of Crisis has a pithy way of saying it: “The three greatest blessings to mankind are Christianity, Penicillin, and the British Empire.” For teenage boys, who should already be well drilled in the tenets of Christianity, and might already have imbibed penicillin to deal with the odd ear infection or two, the British Empire stands as a great gateway into the study of modern history. Enter that gate and you enter a world of manly, muscular Christians whose imperial ideals include such worthy ambitions as abolishing slavery and widow-burning, dispensing fair and disinterested justice, and keeping the peace — often nearly alone and by sheer force of character.
The agents of British imperialism were frequently young men, trained in public schools where the curriculum included long, hard runs, cold, dirty baths, Spartan meals, compulsory chapel, and a scholarly emphasis on the classics in Greek and Latin. When they were sent abroad it was assumed they could recreate their own British civilization anywhere, virtually by themselves, the true test of a well-educated man.
In turn, they believed that their civilization had something to give the world. They were tolerant — the British Empire was the largest empire the world has ever known, and ruled over millions of Hindus and Muslims, as well as animists and headhunters, Catholics and Protestants — and usually preferred to rule through local, traditional rulers with a minimum of interference and fuss. When they did fuss, it was on the essentials: “No, sorry, Mr. Slaver, I’m afraid we’ve taken upon ourselves a global mission of abolishing the slave trade, so none of that, if you please”; “No, sorry, put those torches away: your custom may be to burn widows but our custom is to hang widow-burners and confiscate their property, so if you follow your custom, we’ll follow ours” (which is actually what General Napier told a group of Brahmins in India); “No, I’m sorry old boys, but Pax Britannica rules here, so put those spears away, no more raiding other tribes, but we can put on a game of rugger, if you like.”
Ireland, of course, caused the empire a few problems—but Ireland was different because the ever-turbulent Emerald Isle was seen as a national security threat: a potential jumping off point for invaders, whether they be Spaniards, Revolutionary Frenchmen, or Germans in U-Boats (southern Ireland was neutral during World War II). But even in Ireland, it was the English who brought the Irish the Magna Carta, it was England that gave the Irish the idea of a republic (for which, as British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, a Welshman who could speak Welsh, reminded the Irish nationalist and Gaelic-extremist Eamon de Valera, the Celts had no word), and it was the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland that was almost always on the side of maintaining the Union with Britain after Parliament began repealing the penal laws against Catholics in the late eighteenth century. (If you look at the makeup of the IRA and previous Irish nationalists, who were often Protestant, you might see why. And if you go back farther, you’ll note that the initial Norman-English invasion of Ireland in 1169 came with the approval of the pope who wanted the wayward Irish church conformed to the orthodox Catholicism of Merrie Old England.)
Elsewhere in the Empire, not only did the British army employ a hugely disproportionate number of Irishmen, but it acted as a defender of the Catholic Church, extending toleration to French Catholics in Quebec (to the horror of the Calvinist colonists of New England), restoring the Church in Malta when the Revolutionary French tried to abolish it, and, as every schoolboy knows, using the likes of the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue French Catholic aristocrats from the blade of Madame Guillotine.
As with the Scarlet Pimpernel, the real appeal of the British Empire for a teenage boy has to be in its stalwart characters — the non-fictional ones, that is. What teenage lad wouldn’t have his dreams set aflame by the likes of T. E. Lawrence, who schooled himself in body and mind to be a Crusader hero and then led Arabs in a war against the oppression of the Ottomans? What teenage boy wouldn’t thrill to the Christian courage of General Gordon of Khartoum — a Bible-toting British officer immune to fear, fortune, and the wiles of women — who faced down radical Islamic dervishes in the Sudan and became a Christian imperial martyr in the bargain. What sort of armchair teenage adventurer wouldn’t chortle with joy at the example of the suave, debonair, but hard as nails Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer who, as one of his japes to defeat the Communist guerillas in Malaya, had a plane fly high above the clouds over the jungle canopy broadcasting down, as if the word of God, the message, “World communism is doomed.”
The British Empire was full of great adventure stories — which had the advantage of happening to be true. These stories were lived by talented, clever, conscientious, and brave young men. George Santayana famously said of the British Empire that “Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master.” Boys at heart resonate to it still.