Empire Builders

There were a few good men among them, weren’t there?

By Brian Doyle | May 31, 2013


I met a man recently who told me he had somehow discovered he was a candidate to receive an award called Member of the British Empire. He was tart and funny when he told me about the whole thing. First of all, he said, what British Empire is that? Do we have an empire? We’ve lost Australia, America, India, and Ireland, we’ll lose Scotland, we never did really have Wales, and all we have left is the Falklands, which we don’t want but won’t by god hand over to the Argies, out of sheer spite. Plus what exactly is Britain? We were never more than the astoundingly ambitious English. I count myself among them, but I have to say I feel more honest saying I am an Englishman than a Briton. Are Bretons Britons? It gets confusing, and so much of it is pomp and nostalgia and memory, and of course so much of all that is false and fictional. It’s easy to laugh, and well we should, for all empires, including yours and ours, are cruel and rapacious in the end; they are all economic engines, no matter what you say about enlightening the savages; and it’s not like we ever let any of the colonial fiefdoms go easily. You Americans fought us, the Australians waited until we were tired, the Indians waited until we were penniless and tired, and the Canadians—well, God knows what the Canadians think.

Yet every time I want to laugh, I think of people—my parents and grandparents, who would have been thrilled at this honor, and all the poor souls, male and female, who really did work as hard as they could for an empire that did some good, that educated millions of people, that didn’t always steal and ravage. It’s easy to sneer at the English Empire, especially now that we are back to being the southern part of an island, like in the beginning, but think how many millions of people spent their lives doing good things, or trying to. That’s not so easy to sneer at. So that’s what I think when I think about that thing maybe someday sitting above the fireplace. Sure, I laugh about it—I mean, our only colony now is the Isle of Man, until they rebel—but somehow sometimes it’s poignant. There are a lot of people standing behind it, so to speak, and they were not all thieves and charlatans. A lot of them were, sure—but not all. Right?

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