Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves!
Daughter Ceili is in London for the next five months, for a study-abroad term through the University of Oregon. This is the fulfillment of a dream she’s had since she was a very young girl, enthralled by the image of Harry Potter and his friends soaring up the Thames on broomsticks. I am quite certain that she also absorbed a heavy dollop of Anglophilia from her father…
My own fascination with This Sceptred Isle has its origins, as most things do with me, in frontier history. The story of the American frontier is British history from the founding of Jamestown through the War of 1812. But it goes beyond that. The imperial frontiers of the 19th century — in Canada, Australia, southern Africa — offer fascinating parallels with American frontier history. The gold rush to the Transvaal is as fascinating to me as the California Gold Rush; the creation of Rhodesia is as compelling to me as the founding of the Republic of Texas. One of my favorite figures in frontier history, Frederick Russell Burnham, was a renowned American scout who served with distinction under the British flag in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902.
Mark me, I am not blindly sentimental about Jolly Olde England. The moniker “Perfidious Albion” was well earned. No one, not even the U.S., tops the British propensity for wrapping naked self-interest in a humanitarian package, and one need look no further than the Middle East during and after World War I for a master class in duplicitous diplomacy. I am most interested in “modern” Great Britain, which for me means from the Act of Union in 1707 on to the present day. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Great Britain led the world into the Industrial Revolution, ushering in an era where extraordinary bravery and gallantry, the birth of high ideals, and explosive material improvement sat side-by-side with the sordid, exploitative and downright grotesque.
I love it in all of its paradox.
Aye, the Brits have many a dark stain on the imperial escutcheon. The savage ethnic cleansing of the Scottish Highlands after Culloden in 1746; the repression of Irish liberty and the Famine; Boer concentration camps; the terrible Armistar Massacre in India in 1919…
But on the plus side of the ledger are the concept of individual British Liberty — the inalienable rights to life, liberty and property; the ideal of a high-functioning, professional, ethical civil service; the rule of law. Of course, these were applied unevenly, initially as the sole province of white, Protestant English males. We Americans had to break up with the Mother Country in order to fully enact them for ourselves. Whether or not they have been consistently observed, the ideals proved so potent that they could not be held by the stone walls of custom, and they have become universal, as has the English language. Classic schoolboy virtues — fair play, respect, perseverance, compassion, and courage — remain worthy lodestars, allowing youngsters to aspire to what H. Rider Haggard’s hunter-hero Allan Quatermain called:
…the highest rank whereto we can attain—the state and dignity of English gentlemen.
Capitalism, that great engine of material progress (and inequality and inequity), is largely a British invention, as are the tools of finance that keep the City of London relevant almost a century after she slid off the imperial throne that once presided over a fifth of the world’s population.
For good and for ill, love it or loathe it, Great Britain created the modern world in which we live.
The folk music that is fundamental to my personal culture has its origins in the British Isles. It sailed across the Atlantic with waves of immigrants, particularly the Ulster Scots who moved into the backcountry of the American colonies in the 18th Century, carrying their fiddles and their ballad tradition with them. It’s the foundation of American country music. American music crossed back across the pond in the mid-20th Century to be refracted through post-War British teen culture, and it roared back again in a Jumpin’ Jack Flash to hit American shores in the British Invasion.
The British sporting tradition runs deep and wide. The classic English gunmakers like John Rigby & Co. and Holland & Holland are the stuff of dreams for one who fed himself on tales of Frederick Courteney Selous, WDM “Karamojo” Bell and Jim Corbett. Those men set a template for the gentlemen adventurers who, in Theodore Roosevelts estimation, combined “just the right alternations between wilderness and civilization.” And who cannot recognize in the Rigby Highland Stalker the very apex of a noble tradition?
Marilyn and I traveled to England in 1996, and hope to do so again during Ceili’s sojourn there. It will be good to once again touch the historical soil from which so much of what made me sprang. To share it with my daughter, who is so strongly coming into her own will be … sublime. And maybe, just maybe, on that visit to the John Rigby & Co. London Gunroom, I’ll get to hoist that beautiful rifle…
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