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Berny Sèbe, Heroic Imperialists in Africa. The Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes, 1870-1939

Manchester: Manchester UP, Studies in Imperialism, 2013, 304 p. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8492-8
Daniel Foliard
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Berny Sèbe, Heroic Imperialists in Africa. The Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes, 1870-1939, Manchester: Manchester UP, Studies in Imperialism, 2013, 304 p. ISBN: 978-0-7190-8492-8

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  • 1 John M. MacKenzie, Popular Imperialism and the Military: 1850-1950, Manchester: Manchester Universi (...)

1This book is one of the (too) few attempts at comparing French and British late 19th- and early 20th-century imperialisms. The relative scarcity of relevant comparative studies of modern imperialisms is understandable. Such an approach requires both proficiency in two separate national historiographies and knowledge of two very different sets of archival records. Berny Sèbe was able to overcome these obstacles in his detailed study of the development of the imperial hero from the 1870s to the late 1930s without falling into the trap of generalization or mere juxtaposition. This fruitful cultural history of colonialism focuses in particular on the connection between the advent of High Imperialism and the rise of mass culture in the last decades of the 19th century. This work—the culmination of a years-long research project supervised by John G. Darwin—was therefore logically published in ‘Studies in Imperialism’ (Manchester UP). John Mackenzie was the general editor for that series for many years. Sèbe’s examination of colonial heroes owes a great deal to his well-known works on imperial culture.1

2The author carries out a methodical deconstruction of some of the great figures of late 19th-century imperialistic story-telling into three parts. In the first three chapters, Berny Sèbe analyzes the political, cultural and media context in which these characters developed. He specifically points out the consequences of the evolving journalistic environment as well as the impact of industrialized publishing on French and British cultures. In a second part (chapters 4 and 5), the historian provides a typology of the various functions and uses of imperial heroes. He draws a first distinction between the ‘indirect promoters’ of colonial expansion, such as Livingstone, Gordon or Lavigerie, and its ‘direct promoters’ exemplified by Brazza and Cecil Rhodes. The political instrumentalization of prominent colonial agents is yet another category. Charles Gordon’s case, one of the Tories’ best weapons against Gladstone in his afterlife, is a perfect illustration of this process. Sèbe identifies one last group: proconsuls transformed into archetypal figures of good imperial management, such as Lyautey and Kitchener. A third part discusses the invention of two heroes in more detail. Chapter 6 examines how the up-and-coming Marchand, the hero of Fashoda, participated in the elaboration of his own legend. It demonstrates as well how networks in France consolidated and marketed the narrative of his prowess. The last chapter delves into George Warrington Stevens’s career. Stevens, a journalist, was instrumental in modelling the unglamorous Horatio H. Kitchener into a true British hero thanks to his spectacularly popular With Kitchener to Karthoum. The general conclusion highlights a few very recent reinventions of some of the imperial heroes scrutinized in the book. In that regard, Brazza’s conversion into a Congolese founding father by Denis Sassou Nguessou is, to say the least, quite unexpected.

  • 2 Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain, Oxford: Oxf (...)

3The author’s quantitative approach to the topic is one of the book’s most salient achievements. The actual cultural implications of the colonial experience on metropolitan societies are a contentious issue. Bernard Porter’s Absent-Minded Imperialists fuelled the debate a few years ago.2

4Berny Sèbe’s work is a significant contribution to this ongoing discussion. It clearly shows the extent to which imperial narratives mingled with national ones in the late 19th and early 20th century. His original comparative analysis of French and British hero-making constructions, largely based on previously unpublished archival material, therefore sheds new light on the issue. The many illustrations supporting the book’s argument are yet another aspect worth mentioning. They are striking examples of how colonial imagery was used for marketing purposes in the industrial age. Readers will thus discover how imperial heroes helped sell chocolate, soaps and a wide array of surprising products. One of the book’s strong points is precisely its use of materials that have long been considered less noble documentation than official records and more traditional archives, as illustrated by Berny Sèbe’s analysis of the pervading presence of imperial heroes in children’s literature and school curricula. All in all, the book’s main contribution lies in its meaningful comparison of two distinct sets of imaginations. While the shared effects of both the industrialization of culture and the rise of mass literacy on both sides of the Channel cannot be denied, Berny Sèbe demonstrates how the differences between French and British political and media environments produced nationally rooted trends of imperial heroism. He also shows how these constructs developed over time. The obsolescence of most of these imperial narratives during the First World War and the changing perceptions of what military heroism meant after 1914 (202), the rise of a new generation of prominent figures characterized by their supposed capacity to ‘go native’ in the late 1910s and 1920s as well as the institutionalization/reinvention of late 19th-century heroes in the 1930s were key milestones in the evolution of French/British hero-making process. They reflected the complex articulation between changing national cultures and imperial experiences.

  • 3 Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, London: Fraser, 1841.

5The author pays attention to the conflicting uses of the imperial hero’s image, to counter-narratives and to the intricacies of contemporary definitions of heroism, such as Thomas Carlyle’s reflections on the subject (8, 174).3

  • 4 E. Longford, A Pilgrimage of Passion: The Life of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, London: I. B. Tauris, 2007, (...)

6However, a more detailed examination of dissenting voices might have been useful in such a study, even if such an omission is perfectly understandable in what is an already very extensive analysis. Some very influential Victorians, such as Wilfred Scawen Blunt, abundantly mocked these not-so-consensual archetypal imperialists.4

7The archaeology of late 19th-century imperial heroism is another dimension which could have been explored in greater detail. Through his many case studies, the author pinpoints the decline of romantic exoticism without digging further into the mid-Victorian substrate of heroic motifs and its attendant publishing market. Both shaped ‘new imperial’ hagiographies. Livingstone and Gordon were not born ex nihilo. John Murray’s promotion of adventurers started well before the Scramble for Africa. The archetype of the late 19th-century imperial champion was rooted in a long tradition of heroic narratives that predated high imperialism.

8These short comments do not exhaust the contents of this well edited book. Heroic Imperialists in Africa stands at the crossroads between imperial, cultural, publishing and even literary history. It opens new perspectives and undoubtedly deserves to be widely read.

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Notes

1 John M. MacKenzie, Popular Imperialism and the Military: 1850-1950, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992.

2 Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

3 Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, London: Fraser, 1841.

4 E. Longford, A Pilgrimage of Passion: The Life of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, London: I. B. Tauris, 2007, 341 p.

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Daniel Foliard, « Berny Sèbe, Heroic Imperialists in Africa. The Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes, 1870-1939 », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 82 Automne | 2015, mis en ligne le 11 mai 2016, consulté le 22 mars 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/2378

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Daniel Foliard

Université Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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