All the world’s an empire

The plumb-pudding in danger, or, State Epicures taking un Petit Souper, by James Gillray, 1805

STUART MILLSON says imperialism is intrinsic

Down from the gardens of Asia descending radiating, 
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them, Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations... 
Walt Whitman (The Leaves of Grass)

In the heart of the unforgiving terrain of the Congolese countryside lies the town of Dolisie. The local people – now citizens of the Republic of the Congo – are French speakers, and their town is named after the French colonial official, Albert Dolisie (a Gallic version, perhaps, of imperial Britain’s Cecil Rhodes) who administered the country in the 19th century. (As yet, no campaign has been started by the outraged Congolese to tear down the station signs and rename the town.)

Dolisie is connected to the rest of the country and the outside world by a railway which was completed in the 1920s by French engineers – using the manpower of local labour, who endured, it has to be said, harsh conditions. Some 25 large diesel locomotives of possibly 40 years’ vintage, operate along the Republic’s line, hauling passenger services which, due to the rugged nature of the track-bed and the problem of conducting engineering work through jungle and rock, sometimes encounter long delays. One prestigious service – the Republic’s very own ‘Pullman’ – also runs regularly, the carriages imported from South Korea, one of our world’s thriving new economic empires. It is, perhaps, surprising that China – a power so interested in acquiring the sovereign wealth of Africa and with a large economic presence in the east of the continent – has not yet come to Congo’s ‘assistance’ with infrastructural projects or ‘goodwill’ visits by rolling-stock salesmen.

Most of the line across country is single-track, and so to proceed along its length, safely and without running into a train from the opposite direction, requires a manual system of control, which in the case of Dolisie means the driver of each service obtaining from the station, a ‘token’, which is a large, cumbersome metal loop. This is handed over in an operation which requires attentive staff, with some physical stamina – as the token is passed on as the train is (slowly) moving. This example of rail arcana (now obsolete in most of the world) can only be of interest to enthusiasts of the iron road, but what might catch the eye of the general observer is the fact that the system was manufactured by engineers in Guildford, Surrey, at the height of the steam era and of railway expansion across the globe.

However, the story of the Congo Railway and its charming points of interest which unite imperial France and the craftsmen of the English Home Counties, might offer us a small, but valuable history lesson – no longer an easy exercise, in metropolitan countries, such as Britain, consumed as they are by a toxic, febrile fear and loathing of any trace of the increasingly forbidden imperial past. This example of an African country, the way life is there – and the factors and forces that have made it – all point to a wider truth, which is that all the world is an empire; a story which stretches back to ancient hominids moving across trackless lands; of tribes turning undifferentiated terrains into regions – Mayan, Aztec, Mongol, Persian, Islamic, Greek, Chinese and Roman, Viking, Saxon – all seeking expansion, empires and memorials to their empires upon which their suns would never set.

Without the restless exploration and conquests of man – without the dispersal and chance settlement of people from one place to another – without empires – languages, geography, government, tastes and technology as we know it, this world of container ports, full supermarkets, 5G networks and smartphones would simply not exist. One thing builds upon another – and every modern country is, to a greater or lesser extent, a plantation, or a transplantation, with seeds from one or another civilisation blowing across the globe; taking with them something capable of changing us from one thing to another. Columbus sparked the genesis of what we all understand by America; Cook established what has become Australia; the Spaniards ‘made’ Latin America.

The continent of Africa, which we see purely through a politically correct prism of European imperialism, was itself a stage for pre-European empire and nation-building –the ancient ancestral kingdoms of the Kongo a testament to an authentically African form of jostling sovereignty and national rivalry. The same is true of Sudan, of Islamic North Africa, of the Zulu conquests of the south – an Africa of rulers and invaders, slavers and enslaved, long before Kitchener or the South Wales Borderers arrived. (1)

The modern West, now saturated by the comfort and wealth that its strivings from two to three centuries of worldwide growth and commerce created, needs to overcome its current crisis of confidence. The constant succession of liberal, anti-imperialist talking heads now paraded across our television screens – their words often broadcast from expensively-decorated rooms – reflect the cries of our age, yet also its hypocrisy and failure to understand all human nature. Empires, states – all are the result of the inbuilt impulse of our species; to seek more, build more, gain more, know more, steer for the deep waters… Human beings will always look beyond the horizon. In almost every case, empires of some sort have made us all.

Editor’s note

  1. Christopher Spring’s African Arms and Armour (British Museum Press, 1993) gives a good flavour of pre-colonial African conflicts