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.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress by James Morris

  1. i very happy to visit your website .Kindly feel free to write if any infomation on India
    Emmanuel Patras
    Ajmer city


  2. Good solid review of one of my favourite books.
    I am rather surprised, though, that a self-confessed anti-imperialist would get through its 500 pages. Meanwhile, this imperialist found quite refreshing the absence of the politically correct stance that seems to be required for writing on such topics these days.


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