BRITISH EXPLORATION AND COLONIALISM: A READING LIST

We hear so much these days about "Asian men" in Britain these days that it seems almost uncouth to mention that little more than a century ago it was more common to see white men in Asia. The creative and conquering energies of the British were then too vast to be contained in one island or even one continent. In honor of that mighty spirit, here are a few selections from among the thousands of technological and military feats of Englishmen and assorted Europeans in the British dominions in Asia and across the Pacific. Reading these accounts after seeing the tragic sight of modern Britons turned to passive sheep by their Muslim minority and their misdirected police state is almost enough to make one question genetic determinism. Are these really the descendants of the men who conquered Everest? There is always room for hope, however. What they did once they can, under the right circumstances, do again. Harsh times and so on. On that note, British culture today could use a lot less Ariana Grande and Theresa May and a lot more of Plato's Menexenus and Henry V.

Sons, the present circumstance itself reveals that you are sprung from brave fathers. Free to live on ignobly, we prefer to die nobly rather than subject you and your descendants to reproach and bring disgrace on our fathers and all our ancestors. We consider the life of one who has brought disgrace on his own family no life... Therefore, you must remember what we say and do whatever you do to the accompaniment of valor, knowing that without it all possessions and all ways of life are shameful and base. For neither does wealth confer distinction on one who possesses it with cowardice... nor do bodily beauty and strength, when they reside in a worthless and cowardly man, seem to suit him. On the contrary, they seem out of character; they show up the one who has them for what he is and reveal his cowardice...Make it your business from beginning to end to do your absolute utmost always in every way to surpass us and our ancestors in glory. If you do not, be sure that if we excel you in valor, our victory, as we see it, brings us shame, but if we are excelled by you, our defeat brings happiness. And the surest way to bring about our defeat and your victory would be if you would prepare yourselves not to abuse and waste the good repute of your ancestors, because you are aware that for a man with self-respect nothing is more disgraceful than to make himself honored not through himself, but through his ancestors’ glory. Honors that come from ancestors are a noble and magnificent treasure for their descendants, but it is shameful and unmanly to enjoy the use of a treasure of wealth and honors and fail to hand it on to the following generation because of a lack of acquisitions and public recognition on one’s own part.

Plato Funeral Oration 247a

Cooper’s Creek

Alan Moorehead

Cooper's Creek is an adventure tale of the men who walked across Australia, passing through deserts and swamps so vast and harsh that their fingernails cracked in the desiccating heat and their clothes rotted off their backs. The doomed expedition came within a fraction of success before misfortune overtook them; the advance party missed their relief parties by mere miles and mere days in the empty expanses of the Outback. Moorehead, a native of Australia, gives some background on the amazing development of the colonies before launching his narrative of the expedition. This was the accomplishment first of the dregs of Britain, the men deemed least likely to succeed.

The squatters in the bush were hardly less well off. Their homesteads were comfortable places with wide verandas, mosquito nets in the bedrooms and even bathrooms with hot water. There was an abundance of food for all comers, and a man’s normal breakfast was a pound of steak, perhaps with an egg on top…Among the rich and the middle classes who were now arriving in increasing numbers the standard of literacy was very high, probably higher than it was in England. Something like one-third of Britain’s book exports were sent to Australia… [M]ost working men were still a long way off the achievement of the eight-hour day. For a man to lose his job was a disastrous thing. But this was not poverty as it was known in Britain, where there were still a million paupers. Food, especially meat, was cheap, and in this mild climate there was no great struggle to keep warm through the winter months…In ten years they had risen from being the newest and smallest colony on the mainland to a wealth and importance that far eclipsed all the others. In wool they supplied one-sixth of Britain’s imports, and in gold one-third of the world’s production; indeed, it had been so great a flood of gold that all the world’s economy was affected, and Marx and Engels, who had predicted a disastrous slump in Europe, found their programme seriously delayed.

Captain Bligh's Portable Nightmare: From the Bounty to Safety- 4,162 Miles Across the Pacific in a Rowing Boat

John Toohey

The personal courage and skill of the men like Captain Cook and Captain Bligh who opened the Pacific to European trade and conquest was unrivaled. Multiyear voyages of discovery are impressive to read about on their own, but absolutely mind-boggling when one remembers that these expeditions were tiny things tossed off almost casually in the vast complex of European history that also included wars in the Mediterranean and North America, colonies in South Africa and India, trade with China and South America, not to mention the domestic politics of every European nation. Cook and Bligh get less and less coverage in public school with each passing year. Next time some kid starts gushing about the navigational skill of the Polynesians (name derived from Greek, of course), give them Mr. Toohey's book.

Their situation was desperate. At the time of the mutiny they had taken or been given a steering compass, a sextant, a quadrant and a couple of books of nautical tables by which longitude could be worked out (or at least guessed). They also had Carpenter Purcell’s tools, a copper pot, 150 pounds of bread, about thirty pounds of pork, six quarts of rum, six bottles of wine, twenty-eight gallons of water and whatever breadfruit and coconuts they had scrounged from the Tofoans…By that fantastic capacity instilled by years of mapmaking and navigation, Bligh could imagine a chart unrolling, he could see the way, even some of the landmarks on the 3,500-mile journey, and knew that with effort and luck they might get there. They pointed the boat westward and set the sails...Most of the Midshipmen and Able Seamen had stayed on the Bounty. Almost everyone cast off had particular training and experience. Thomas Ledward the surgeon, David Nelson the botanist, William Peckover the gunner, William cole the boatswain, William Purcell the carpenter, Lawrence LeBogue the sailmaker, John Smith and Thomas Hall the cooks, Robert Lamb the butcher, John Samuel the clerk- all the skill the voyage possessed. Throwing the good men off the ship was Christian’s great mistake, and when the Bounty caught fire and burned up at Pitcairn Island and the mutineers eventually turned on each other in drunken savagery, it was a foreseeable outcome for men who had sought Paradise on earth but had willfully rejected those with the skills needed to attain it. p 48-52

Around three o’clock on the night of the 12th of June the shapeless silhouette of Timor emerged out of the darkness. They had crossed 6,705 kilometres of open sea, enduring shocking physical conditions- the storms, the hunger, the attack on Tofoa, the despair, sickness, fatigue, the terror- and just a couple more days and they would have started dying. p 151

The Great Arc

John Keay

John Keay tells a story that is a blend of technical marvel and personal obsession in The Great Arc, which chronicles one of the criminally unknown stories of thankless scientific work in the modern world. The subcontinent of India was accurately mapped for the first time by the dedication and passion of a few surveyors who strained 19th century technology to its limit. By accurately measuring a set of baselines down to a fraction of an inch and then triangulating, an interlocking grid of measurements recorded the distance, height above sea level, and curvature of the earth all the way across India. The men of the survey team cut their way through miles of jungle, built stone towers across the plains, and battled tropical disease while producing a multi-decade stream of mathematical publications of unparalleled scope and detail. Not a book for those with math anxiety.

By now he had received from England a second chain, but this was reserved as a standard against which Dinwiddie's was frequently checked for any stretching from wear or expansion. Expansion and contraction due to temperature change was a major problem...When in use, the chain was drawn out to its full hundred feet and then supported and tensioned inside five wooden coffers, each twenty feet long, which slotted cleverly onto tripods fitted with elevating screws for leveling. Each coffer he now equipped with a thermometer which had to be read and recorded at the time of each measurement. By comparison with the other chain, which was kept in a cool vault, a scale of adjustment was worked out for the heat-induced expansion. But April and May are hot months in Tamil Nadu. The temperature seesawed between 80 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Although Lambton says nothing of the inconvenience of working in such heat, he was worried sick by the variations. After endless experiments he came to the conclusion that a one degree change of temperature made a difference of 0.00742 of an inch in the hundred-foot length of chain. But were the locally purchased thermometers sufficiently accurate?
To complete the full seven and a half miles of the base-line required four hundred individual measurements with the chain...The whole measurement took fifty-seven days, and that did not include the time needed for the construction of end markers. These were meant to be permanent and so had to combine the durability of a blockhouse with the hairline precision required for registering in the ground the actual mark over which the theodolite would be aligned for triangulation... p 30-31

The Bangalore baseline took forty-nine days to measure and provided triumphant vindication of Lambton's meticulous methods. For it was found that the measurement of the base by chain along the ground differed from that calculated by the triangulation brought up from the Madras base-line, all of two hundred miles away, by just 3.7 inches in the total length of 7.19 miles. p 55

The Honourable Company A History of the English East India Company

John Keay

Though ultimately dominated by the British, India was also the scene of French action for many years. The French now suffer from the same guilt and crippling self-doubt displayed by the British, but such handicaps are largely self-imposed psychological limits. The French using simple military technology could once punch ten times above their weight in manpower and thirty times above their weight in firepower when fighting non-Europeans. Here's hoping they will soon regain the will to use such overwhelming force.

Four days after La Bourdonnais’s departure, the Nawab’s army approached Madras and…took up positions to the west of the city. Like the English, the French made an early sally; 400 men with a couple of guns issued forth to confront an army said to have been 10,000 strong. It looked like a suicidal gesture and contemptuously did the Nawab’s cavalry sweep down toward their prey. The French troopers drew aside to clear a field for the guns; the cavalry kept on coming. At unmissable range the first salvo halted the charge without dispersing the horsemen. Confident in the knowledge that no gun could be fired more than once every three minutes, the Nawab’s cavalry wheeled aside and reformed to move in for the kill. But long before this maneuver could be completed, more men and horses were piling up in front of them. The French boasted a fire rate of twenty rounds a minute and were certainly capable of half that; their infantry were no less adroit with their muskets. In effect every French gun had the firepower of thirty Indian guns and every French trooper could comfortably account for ten ill-armed Moghul mercenaries. The superiority of European arms came as a revelation comparable with the first discovery of a sea route to the East. While in India ideas of drill, arms, and tactics had scarcely progressed since Akbar, in Europe they had undergone steady refinement and development in a host of campaigns. There was no comparison. Warfare in India was still a sport; in Europe it had become a science. p 283