The Hubris of Rome
In Calcutta a statue was erected to Lord Bentinck, Governor-General of India. Its inscription bears citing at length as it is testament to the moral zeitgeist with which the British believed their empire to be infused:
[To]William Cavendish Bentinck,who during seven years ruled India with eminent prudence, integrity, and benevolence;who, placed at the head of a great Empire, never laid aside the simplicity and moderation of a private citizen;who infused into Oriental despotism the spirit of British freedom; who never forgot that the end of Government is the happiness of the governed;who abolished cruel rites;who effaced humiliating distinctions;who gave liberty to the expression of public opinion;whose constant study it was to elevate the intellectual and moral character of the nation committed to his charge,[This Monument]Was erected by men who, differing in race, in manners, in language, and in religion, cherish with equal veneration and gratitude the memory of his wise, reforming, and paternal administration.
‘Veneration and gratitude.’ the rulers of empire believed, was owed to a new and truly British form of patriotism; the championing of liberty at home and creation of a maritime, commercial empire overseas. Viscount Bolingbroke spoke for this new breed of patriot:
The Empire of the Seas is ours; we have been many Ages in Possession of it; we have had many Sea-Fights, at a vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure to preserve it and preserve it we still must, at all Risks and Events if we have a Mind to preserve ourselves.
The rulers of this new Empire would not succumb to the hubris of Rome, where addiction to territorial gain had resulted in despotism at the center of over-extended frontiers. Comparisons between the British and Roman Empires would have been fresh in minds with the publication, between 1776 & 1788, of Gibbon’s Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon wrote of the Roman Empire that it:
comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind… The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury… Inclined to peace by his temper and situation, it was easy for [Augustus] to discover that Rome, in her present exalted situation, had much less to hope than to fear from the chance of arms; and that, in the prosecution of remote wars, the undertaking became every day more difficult, the event more doubtful, and the possession more precarious, and less beneficial.
Their liberty would be founded on religious freedom, or as they would define it freedom from the ‘slavery’ of Roman Catholicism (sentiment which perhaps struck a sour note with Arne, the Catholic composer of ‘Rule, Britannia’); no taxation without the consent of parliament; habeas corpus and regular elections with ever increasing suffrage. Above all liberty to the British meant the guarantee of the rights enshrined in Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and for the nation builders of the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries, their most recent and therefore most hallowed 1689 Bill of Rights. These liberties were to be exported over the waters to create an ‘empire of liberty.’ The builders of this mercantile blue-water empire were to immunize their endeavors by preferring business opportunities over territorial conquest; commercial and military ventures should be mutually exclusive.
By the end of the eighteenth century this idyllic vision of an empire of farmers & traders, inhabiting lightly garrisoned outposts, sending the fruits of their labor back to ‘Old Blighty’ had transformed into a military empire with nearly a million slaves in the Caribbean; the 50 million inhabitants of the sub-continent had transitioned from suppliers and consumers into subjects of the Raj:
Stupendous fortunes had been made, not by making men free but by making them servile; not by probity but by corruption; not by a benign and responsible diffusion of that wealth to the natives but by the most shameless coercion and extortion.