The Last Empire Loyalist

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.
H.W. Crocker III. Regnery Publishing. $19.95. 327 pp.


An American Catholic looks at the British Empire with some skepticism. The Empire brought with it unquestioned benefits, but its roots in the seventeenth-century are entwined with a deep hatred of Rome and the Catholic heritage of the West. We can all cheer at the swashbuckling adventures of Sir Francis Drake or the young lieutenant George Washington, or the military prowess of Lord Clive and the iron will of Winston Churchill, and we can acknowledge the achievements of British civilization. Yet much of that success came at the expense, not of benighted indigenous peoples in need of enlightenment, but of other European powers representing the older Western tradition. The Spanish and French Empires were civilizing forces too, to say nothing of that greatest of Catholic states, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

H.W. Crocker, however, in this great, readable history, has no fear of sacred cows, forthrightly defending the record of the British Empire across the globe. He rightly targets the political correctness of the left as the primary target. For 40 years or more, the Left has denigrated the great traditions of British liberty in favor of a hodgepodge of trendy ideological causes and historical blindness. These ideologues condemn Britain, and by extension the America, as colonial oppressors and not sufficiently multicultural. They ignore that the British also “introduced their ideas about the rule of law, liberty, and parliamentary self-government, not to mention their games of cricket, soccer, rugby, tennis, and golf; their literature; their ideas about what constituted fair play; and — to use an imperial word, a Hindu word — their ideas of what was pukka and what was not.” These traditions and institutions matter, and are positive developments.

What the ideological critiques miss is that the Empire maintained a policy of respecting local cultures unless they conflicted with the Empire itself or furthered some great evil. No Islamic nation voluntarily abolished the slave trade; the British did. No Indian prince ended the burning of widows on funeral pyres; the Empire did. Britain and her colonies stood alone against Hitler. And for all its fault and historical crimes (it did for a long while permit slavery, and it did massacre natives from Ireland to Zimbabwe) the Empire held an ongoing discussion that always placed justice and liberty as a foil to state action. The examples are legion, ranging from John Adams’ defense of British soldiers in the Boston massacre to ending the slave trade. And there was always a recognition of the terrible cost of empire: Crocker tells the story of General James Wolfe, who read Thomas Grey’s “Elegy in a County Churchyard” and its lament that the “paths of glory lead but to the grave” before crushing the French and taking Quebec. This combination of martial toughness and literary sensibility has it most recent representative in the legendary and recently-departed Patrick Leigh Fermor, translator, adventurer, and heroic World War II commando.

Crocker also criticizes certain segments of the Right for being equally ignorant of history. Conservatives often critique bigness and empire, and there is a long political tradition in this country of localism and anti-intervention. But as Crocker notes some of the American Founders, such as Jefferson, explicitly wanted to take the mantle of empire from Britain. The transfer of the Pax Brittanica to the Pax Americana was marred by “American ambivalence about empire.” But as an example of the ambivalence he cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a wishy-washy idealist who trusted too much in the corrupt United Nations but one who was not afraid of being a global actor.

Instead, the true resistance to empire came from the millions of Americans — from native-born American and immigrants escaping the old world, ranging from the Kennedys to newspapermen like Garet Garrett — who wanted to be left alone and to leave the world alone, a sentiment traceable to Washington himself. But Crocker is right that liberalism has infected the way American do treat their imperial responsibilities. Liberals are too conflicted about America’s ability to improve the lives of other nations and to introduce American (though British-derived) notions of fairness and economic liberty, and they are reluctant to acknowledge what is in fact obvious, that the nation rules large parts of the globe. In this, the lessons of the British Empire that Crocker displays here are welcome.

The Guide is structured roughly chronologically with helpful sidebars and factual nuggets along the margins. Interspersed among the chronological chapters are chapters devoted to classic representatives of the Empire – Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, Lord Clive, T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia,” Thomas Raffles, the “White Rajah” and founder of Singapore, ending with Winston Churchill. The list is necessarily selective: Crocker includes Clive, who was generous during his time in India and well respected there by its leaders; he notes that Arab families still name their sons after Lawrence. But he does not include others, such as the rapacious Warren Hastings, whom Burke spent his life trying to bring to justice for his crimes against the people of the subcontinent and who would complicate the story.

That said, the Guide reminds us that the setting of the sun on the Empire is a topic still worth debating, and it presents models of conduct that are still applicable today.


Gerald J. Russello


Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

  • Sarto

    Crisis, where did you get this guy? Steal a people’s future so you could steal their resources, but the empire was not so bad after all, apart from the massacre of populations from Ireland to Zimbabwe? So many of our wars, including the business with Iraq, go back to empire. Next, our Fellow Russello is going to justify Stalin.

  • Peter Freeman

    I have to admit, I was thinking of “The Life of Brian” while reading this column. “What did the Romans ever give us…”

  • Pammie

    The transfer of the Pax Brittanica to the Pax Americana was marred by “American ambivalence about empire.”

    It would appear that after listening to the Republican debates and observing the President’s actions while in office we have indeed overcome our traditional reluctance. At least those elites and a goodly portion of their followers have.

  • Bruce

    Great stuff! And ignore “politically correct and wimpy” Sarto above.

  • Michael PS

    The British managed to rule India with only 3,000 regular army officers, most of whom spoke local dialects and many of whom donned local dress

    An ancestor of mine, Lt-Col William Linnaeus Gardner (b. 1770) who had served in the 74th Highlanders, in 1809 raised, at Farrukhabad and Mainpuri, the famous cavalry corps known as “Gardner’s Horse.” In 1796, he married by Muslim rites, Nawab Mah Manzilunnissa Begum Dehlivi, a princess of Cambay, afterwards adopted as daughter by Padshah Akbar Shah, Emperor of Delhi.

    Such an inter-racial marriage was no new thing in the Gardner family; he was descended from Col Jonathan Gale of Fullerswood, Parish of St Elizabeth, Jamaica, who, in 1699, had married a West African slave, Eleanor {her granddaughter, Susannah, a great beauty of the day, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, married Captain Alan Gardner, R.N., later Admiral Baron Gardner of Uttoxeter.)

    Gardner’s granddaughter, Susan Gardner [Sabia Begum], married Mirza Anjan Shikoh, son of Shahzada Mirza Suleiman Shikoh of the Delhi Imperial Family. He was the grandson of Padshah-e Hind (Emperor of India) Jalal ad-Din Abu´l Mozaffar Mohammad Ali Gauhar Shah Alam II (1759/1788).

    Such family connections were quite common in the days of the old East India Company, right up until the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

    On a personal note, as a direct descendant of Sabia Begum, I must have any number of Muslim ancestors of varying degrees of orthodoxy and observance from the first Mughal Emperor, Zahir ud-Din Mohammad (Babur) onwards. Of course, it also makes me a lineal descendant of another great empire-builder, Genghis Khan

  • Tony Esolen

    It’s interesting that the British themselves were ambivalent about empire. Maybe the best sorts of imperialists are those who have bad consciences about it. Kipling did — read “Kim”. Orwell certainly did. Thackeray did. Dickens loathed the whole idea. On our own side, McKinley — a good man who genuinely held, rightly or wrongly, that favoring the big industrialists of his time was good for the country — had to be dragged into the Spanish-American War by zealots like Teddy Roosevelt; the previous president, Cleveland, had told the Americans in Hawaii to go to hell when they tried to wheedle an annexation.

    Then you have the happy-go-lucky imperialist and slave-trader John Locke … The British Empire really is a mix. I am glad that Mr. Crocker isn’t cowed by hucksters like Edward Said. The full story of this thing, its good and its evil, needs to be told.

    • pammie

      “isn’t cowed by hucksters like Edward Said.” For whom or what would Edward Said be huckstering?

      Being matey with a few of the “Raj” descendents, I am amused by their hand-me-down family tales of Anglo-Indian society. Some hung on to India like grim death and then moved into Africa. Like most things on earth, the old days of empire building was a mixed bag of blessing and curse for all involved.

    • Indeed it does, Tony. Being a human story, there is both good and evil, but the good needs to be told along with the usual PC story of oppression, etc. Crockwer deserves much credit for that.

  • Gonçalo Dias

    Always the same story: where do you mention the one civilizing enterprise that was most affected by the others? I am referring to the Portuguese Empire and its associated Padroado, which included the missions from Brazil to Japan and all in between? Keep giving credit to Spain and France and forget those who had the balls to be in Agra, Beijing and Kyoto, Macau, Goa and all the rest, climb the Himalayas and other orographic challanges and always for the service of God and the Church, and you will commit one of the most incredible lapses in modern day history-making. Keep in mind that Spain only had the Philipines in Asia, the rest was part of the Portuguese mission territory. And all this while England was supposed to be our oldest ally… With the likes of the latter we do not need enemies!

  • Pellcrew

    what a pity that Crocker did not venture over the pacific and see how we Aussies-accused sometimes of being more British than the British- realised that with the Fall of Singapore in 1942,we had to ask America to come to our aid.  That 63000 Australians from the First World war’s only volunteer army of 325,000 lie buried in foreign fields because we blindly followed  Mother Britain into the conflict ,and how Churchill was  willing to sacrifice Australia’s territorial integrity just to get two Australian  Divisions of the  2nd Australian  Imperial Force to Burma,but it was our greatest Prime Minister John Curtin who stood his ground and insisted that they come back here.
    Now our politicans blindly follow another Empire-America -as seen by the fawning over the Obamagod by our female PM Julia Gillard last November.