Book Review: Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress by James Morris

Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress is the first in the Pax Britannica trilogy of history books about the British Empire by James Morris (better known today as Jan Morris, the world’s most respected travel writer).

This volume traces the rise of the Empire from a few scattered holdings to dominance over 2/3’s of the Earth during the period 1837-1897, the first 60 years of Victoria’s reign.

Although a thick book well over 500 pages in length, it is actually a rather quick read due to Morris’ lively writing style. It is not an exhaustive work but it does hit upon the many thoughts, trends, and events that gave rise to British Imperialism. At times Morris seems wistful about Britain’s lost imperial past and times amused by the mores of Victorian era Britons. Being rather anti-imperialist myself I feel Morris is not critical enough, but on the whole Morris tells the story warts and all. His main thesis is that a missionary zeal drove the expansion of British influence worldwide. In the process the prostelyzing goal shifts from the gospel of Jesus Christ to the gospel of British civilization.

As a reader of British fiction, I found this book helpful in finally knowing something about all those cultural touchstones that appear in British literature. At last I know a bit about the Indian Mutiny, the Boer War, Gordon of Khartoum and Dr. Livingstone. The Crimean War, however, is only mentioned in passing.

To help illustrate the breadth and diversity of this work I include a couple of sentences summarizing each chapter.

1. A Charming Invention — Queen Victoria accends to the throne in 1837, while Emily Eden travels in India with her brother. Nothing seems to indicate that Victoria will soon be Empress over a vast swath of the Earth.

2. High and Holy Work — Britain not only bans the slave trade but also the Royal Navy is saddled with the task of preventing the smuggling of human chattel.

3. Sweet Lives — The Boers get bored with British interference and trek off to settle their own country where they can be racist, cranky, and slaughter the natives. Morris holds a bizarre romantic attachment to the Boers while at the same time making them sound like the most awful people ever.

4. Roots in Their Soil — Religious and political reform join forces to eliminate the Thuggee cult of stranglers in India.

5. Laws of War — The British venture into Afghanistan and find themselves in a quagmire that eerily resembles current day headlines.

The presence of the army in Afghanistan, it said, was apparently displeasing to the great majority of the Afghan nation; and since the only object of its presence there was the integrity, happiness and welfare of the Afghans, there was no point in its remaining.

6. Merchant Ventures — The traders, voyageurs, and imperialists of the Hudson Bay Company.

7. White Settlers — Settlement in Nova Scotia, Australia, and New Zealand.

8. An Act of God — The horrors of the Irish famine, and the indifference of the British to their suffering neighbors due to a devotion to market economics instead of the religious charity and reform they brought to other parts of the world.

9. ‘What a Fine Man!’ — Short sketches of the military and colonial leaders who would shape the Empire.

10. Grooves of Change — The British become enamored with technological progress from the machinery of Crystal Palace to the medical plants of Kew Gardens.

11. The Epic of the Race — The bloody and tragic Indian Mutiny which forever changes the relationship of Britain to its colonies. Attitudes shift from a communal of effort of joint improvement to the Imperial imposition of British ways.

12. Pan and Mr. Gladstone — The British acquire the Ionian isles, use them for imperial R&R, and are completely ignorant of the local culture.

13. The Imperial Style — The empire settles on Gothic architecture and constructs hill stations to oversee its colonies.

14. Illustrious for the Nile — The search for the source of the Nile leads to a feud between explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. Speke wins.

15. Governor Eyre — An uprising in Jamaica meets bloody reprisals from the British colonial rulers that cause a furore back in Britain.

16. ‘Ain’t the Pentateuch Queer’ — Missionary zeal, the schism of the church in South Africa, and superstition in the ranks.

17. The Humiliation of the Metis — In Canada, a mix of indigenous peoples and French Canadians efforts at self-determination in Manitoba are ruined by a British doublecross.

The British were now exporting to their dominions a kind of package civilization, offered in competition with the local product, and backed by powerful service arrangements.

18. In the Pacific — The British squabble with the Americans on the high seas and along the US/Canadian border at San Juan Island.

19. A Fixed Purpose — The rivalry of Gladstone and Disraeli and their conflicting visions of empire.

But the sense of duty, too, powerfully contributed to the passions of Empire. It was less a missionary duty now: the idea that the world’s natives could be converted to Christian Britishness had lost some of its conviction. But it was still, in its austere way, a philanthropic mission. Justice, security, communications, opportunity — these were the advantages of civilization which the British now diligently if aloofly distributed among their subjects. . . . The British had no doubts about the merits of their own civilization, or qualms about their mission to distribute it across the world: but they had coe to suppose that not all aspects of it were transplantable (p. 389-90).

20. Ashanti — The British enter into black Africa and brutally take on the proud, mystical, and militaristic Ashanti.

Africa was a brutalizing influence upon the Empire: not because the black peoples were more brutal than others, but because the British though them so, and behaved accordingly (p. 404).

21. By the Sword — The British secure because of their strong but dated Navy are shocked by the opening of the Suez Canal, but eventually take control of that as well.

22. South of the Zambesi — The British meet the Boers again and are humiliated in battle once again, a rare loss in a string of Imperial victories.

23. The End of the Tasmanians — The aboroginal people of Tasmania are erased by genocide.

24. The Rebel Prince — The inspiring yet tragic story of Charles Stewart Parnell and the doomed Irish Home Rule movement.

25. The Martyr of Empire — Gordon of Khartoum became a national hero by waiting for Krusty to come to Sudan.

26. Scramble for Africa — The European powers divy up Africa for their own commericial and imperial causes.

The idea of Empire was becoming vulgarized, like some fatidious sport cheapened by arrivistes. It had often been brutal in the past, and often misguided, but it had seldom been mean. Eve in hypocrisy its aspirations were at least grand, and it had been enobled by the lingering vision of the evangelicals. Even in moments of vindictive frenzy its furies could be interpreted as divine, and most of Victoria’s imperialists genuinely believed the British Empire to be an instrument for the general good of the world.

Africa and the New Imperialism tainted this conception. There were still visionaries genuinely concerned with the betterment of the Africans, who saw the humiliation of tribes and ancient kingdoms only as sad means toward honorable ends. Generally, though, the African scramble was a chronicle of squalor — chiefs gulled, tribes dispossesed, vast inheritances signed away with a thumb-print or a shaky cross (p. 520).

27. An Imperial Fulfillment — By the time of Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897, empire is firmly established and the sun never sets on the British Empire.

Movie Review: The Case of the Grinning Cat

Tonight I went to the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square and used my membership voucher to see The Case of the Grinning Cat or Chats Perchés in the original French.

This documentary set in Paris follows the filmmaker Chris Marker’s fascination with giant yellow cats with great big grins that suddenly begin appearing painted on the city’s rooftops in 2001. Without learning who the artist or artists of these graffiti tags are, the movie traces the cats’ development and spread across the city, becoming a cultural phenomenon. Eventually images of the grinning cat begin to appear in Paris’ many political demonstrations from 2002-2004. Marker brings his camera to demonstrations in search of the cat who appears during the Chirac/Le Pen electoral crisis, Iraq anti-war demonstrations (my favorite banner says “Make Cats Not War”), anti-racism rallies, an AIDS die-in, and protests against Prime Minister Raffarin. Marker captures the spirit of the protestors while gently chiding them for their excess and misdirected efforts. The focus of the film really shifts more and more away from the cats and to the demonstrations. At the end of the film, Marker reveals that the cats themselves have faded away and suggests that they left due to popular interest in a celebrity scandal (at least that’s what I think he’s suggesting).

The value of this film lies in the time capsule manner in which a specific time and place are caught on film. Whether he’s filming spray-painted cats or people on the march, Marker is really good at capturing the small details. The camera captures an eye-level view of the streets and Metro of Paris often zeroing in on a particularly beautiful moment or person. Through what is really just a collage of images a story emerges about Paris in the post-9/11 world.

Here are some other reviews of The Case of the Grinning Cat (which I haven’t read yet so as to not color my own review) from the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the Village Voice. Images of les chats may be found here and here.



From Monday afternoon to Tuesday morning, snow gently fell on the metro Boston area for the first time this winter. At least it was a close approximation of snow that dusted the region and tried to remind us what season it really is. For me it is a proud moment because I’m still trying to commute to work regularly on my bike through the winter. The several weeks of unseasonably warm weather made it pretty easy to keep peddling so this was my first real test. Monday was also the first day I got to try out my new fleece jacket, a Marmot shell, and thin insulating gloves, thin insulating socks, and a thin insulating hat that fits under my helmet, all acquired at Hilton’s Tent City.

I’ve learned that bicycling in cold weather means trying to avoid overdressing to keep warm. The lighter, breathable layers keep away the chill of the wind but allow for greater flexibility and prevent my from sweating (and then getting cold from being lathered up in sweat). I found it quite a thrill to ride in the cool, fresh air and to pedal among the snowflakes. And my bike had fine traction, it didn’t slip at all. Of course, this is a mild test compared to the greater rigors of winter, but it’s still a test I passed. One thing I didn’t expect is just how much salt ended up deposited on my pant legs. Perhaps I need gators.

I figure I can make it through the winter riding whenever possible but avoiding riding in 1) heavy rain and/or snow, 2) riding when the streets are icy or covered in snow, and 3) riding when it’s just plain wicked cold. The good news is that it’s only two months to spring so I should be in pretty good bicycling shape when it arrives regardless of how much riding I can get in in that time. I must confess that ice still make me nervous. I read online a comment that slipping on ice generally doesn’t lead to injury compared to warm weather riding because the extra clothing protects one from things like road rash. On the other hand I really don’t want to find out what happens if I slip on the ice in front of a moving car thank you very much.

Speaking of bicycle safety, a recent study suggests that the more people bicycling the safer it is. So I encourage everyone to get out on their bikes and make it safer for everyone. On the other hand, since I had difficulty finding a place to lock my bike in Harvard Square tonight that wasn’t already occupied by a bike, I guess plenty of people are out riding this winter.

Francis de Sales

Saint Francis de Sales

A year ago on some whim I now can’t remember I signed up for the Saint of the Day e-newsletter at American Catholic. As as a result of reading this newsletter everyday I was led to read My Life With The Saints by James Martin which in turned inspired me to do these reflections on different saints over the course of a year.

I think a big wow moment for me was that the very first Saint of the Day email I received was for St. Francis de Sales. The reason is that he is my patron saint whose name I took at Confirmation. Longtime readers of Panorama of the Mountains are probably scratching their heads remembering that I said the same thing about St. Nicholas. Chosing a Confirmation name was a difficult for me (and I confess underinformed and not well prayed over as well). I like Nicholas both as a tribute to a kind saint as well as taking the name of my grandfather, but as a budding writer I was intrigued by the patron saint of writers, Francis de Sales.

Talking with another student involved in the confirmation program at William & Mary, he revealed to me that one could actually take more than one confirmation name. So I settled on two, making difficulty for my sponsor Mike who had to remember the names Nicholas Francis de Sales to speak forth as I was annointed. I also get a ludicrously long set of initials: LTNFdSS(otM).

For all this, I still knew litle about Francis de Sales, the man and the saint. Born in 1567 in France, Francis was drawn to the priesthood and upon ordination was sent to Geneva where he would eventually become bishop. Geneva at the time was a center of Calvinism and as the Catholic bishop of the city, Francis would have found himself in the middle of religious strife during a very violent period of Catholic-Protestant relations. What appeals to me is that as opposed to inserting himself into the conflict, Francis instead appealed to people through his gentleness, kindness, and patience. He also wrote constantly both letters and religious tracts as well as a couple of books.

According to Catholic Encyclopedia:

His goodness, patience and mildness became proverbial. He had an intense love for the poor, especially those who were of respectable family. His food was plain, his dress and his household simple. He completely dispensed with superfluities and lived with the greatest economy, in order to be able to provide more abundantly for the wants of the needy.

What makes me appreciate and relate to Francis even more is that this mildness was not in his nature as revealed in the comment from Saint of the Day:

Francis de Sales took seriously the words of Christ, “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.” As he said himself, it took him 20 years to conquer his quick temper, but no one ever suspected he had such a problem, so overflowing with good nature and kindness was his usual manner of acting. His perennial meekness and sunny disposition won for him the title of “Gentleman Saint.”

Flip decision or not, I seem to have been blessed with the most appropriate patron saint to the type of person I aspire to be.

While researching for this post I came across some other things that Francis de Sale is patron saint of. These include four American cities: Baker, OR; Columbus, OH; Cincinatti, OH, and Wilmington, DE. He is also a patron of deaf people and educators. The patronage that drew me to him was that for writers, and in a similar vein Francis is patron for authors, journalists and the Catholic Press. It appears that at this point there is no patron saint for bloggers, so I humbly submit Francis de Sales as a good candidate.