three pairs of lovers with space

A review of Empire and sexuality: the British experience by Ronald Hyam, Manchester, 1990



                 2004 edition

An example to all historians  *****

The definitive account of how the British reacted sexually when they encountered the very different mores of their subject peoples.  In summary, one might say that early reactions were largely receptive and positive for both rulers and ruled, but sadly gave way to the influence of the homegrown Social Purity Movement of the 1890s.

Most of my reading is historical and this riveting history by the leading expert on many aspects of the British Empire is the best I have read for many years.  It is one of those rare books that, though extremely well-researched and argued with vigorous logic, are at the same time so well-written and fascinating that they should appeal to readers of both popular and academic history.

Greek love is a recurring topic, as it was widely practiced in Asia and Africa in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and, being homosexual, was the occasion for the most violent cultural clashes with British values. Most fascinating of all is his account of King Mwanga of Buganda and his enormous harem of pubescent boys presented to him by their noble parents in accordance with a Bugandan tradition valued for the bonds it fostered between the Kings and their nobilities. This should be compulsory reading for those African leaders who now claim that homosexuality is unafrican. Also of  special interest is the tragedy of Sir Hector Macdonald, and his account of the activities of Captain Kenneth Searight, of great importance in view of the use he has made of the latter’s unpublished and elusive manuscript, The Paidikion.

Hyam's handling of Greek love as a topic is unusually objective for a book written in the last generation.  His insistence that “a loving relationship between a man and a boy … is not from a theoretical point of view a perversion” is typical of the compassionate tone he consistently adopts towards sexual behaviour others would be unable or too afraid to present so non-judgmentally.

For me, the true mark of great historical writing is that one should not be able to tell when it was written, as to venture into the past encumbered with baggage from one’s own age is to be immediately susceptible to anachronism, the greatest sin of the historian.  Empire and Sexuality lives fully up to this.  This is history written to enlighten and entertain the reader, and anyone ready for the culture shock involved in any true voyage into the past will be delighted. 

The drawback to this rather old-fashioned approach to writing history is that two groups of people may be upset.  Readers who expect to be told what to think may be disconcerted by Professor Hyam’s non-judgmental approach, particularly where it concerns sexual behavior which has run foul of the new puritan order which arose in the 1980s and is brilliantly summarised in Professor Mackenzie’s foreward in words as succinct and accurate as they are heartfelt and damning.

Equally, I suspect that many of his colleagues will have been frustrated and irritated by his insistence on engaging the reader rather than them.  Sadly, I find far too many modern academic historians allow themselves to be waylaid into a mutually glorifying and ephemeral debate on the correct theoretical approach.

Strongly recommended.


Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on, 22 Oct. 2013.