A review of Understanding the British Empire by Ronald Hyam, Cambridge, 2010
A tantalising glimpse at a secret manuscript of great importance *****
This collection of eighteen disparate and highly specialised essays is not intended to be any kind of general history of the British Empire. It is described by Professor Hyam as his swansong, and is excellent testimony to his fifty years as probably the world's leading scholar on the subject. Deeply informed and bristling with original ideas, it bears all the usual hallmarks of his writing and has thus irritated some academics for reasons that do them no credit. Mostly this is because he has written for the reader rather than them and insists on basing his conclusions on empirical research in archives rather than fitting them to new ideological fads. Criticised for being "undertheorised", he is more interested in "what people thought at the time." Though always scholarly, he is lively, and every essay is peppered with titbits of information that show the breadth of his knowledge, such as that one elephant tusk could only yield three high quality billiard boards, or the aside that the Maoris "rather foolishly let it be known that European flesh was not sweet enough for their taste" (contrasted with the wisdom of Dahomey in frightening Europeans off by exaggerating its cannibalism).
Without going to extreme length, it is hard to make more than very general comments on a book on such diverse subjects, so I shall concentrate on the chapter I find most interesting and important, which also serves well to illustrate Hyam's qualities as a historian. "Greek love in British India" is about British Indian army captain Kenneth Searight and his hefty manuscript the Paidikion, "the book of boyhood," rightly described by Hyam as "the best and most significant evocation of Greek love since L'Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (1652)." It is a rich mixture of pederastic autobiography, fiction and poetry, but it is Searight's minutely detailed account of his erotic encounters between 1897 and 1917 with 129 boys, mostly Indians in their early teens, that makes it so unusual and therefore important. The insights it affords into how this form of love was expressed and regarded in an age when it was far more widely practised than today, but hardly ever written about, are unique. Though graphic, Hyam points out it would be misleading to discount it as pornography, as it lacks the unrealism and boastfulness typical of that genre; rather it is earnestly sincere, "an almost pagan worship of the naked bodies of boys."
So how does it illustrate Hyam's brilliance as a historian? First, he has chosen a subject, pederasty, that most historians today simply would not dare write about objectively for fear of running foul of the ignorant hysteria surrounding the subject. Secondly, rather than hiding safely behind that ignorance, he has done his customary thorough research and therefore understands what it and Searight were about. Modern mythology is disregarded or punctured, as in this: pederasty "is to be sharply distinguished from paedophilia, which prefers prepubertal partners; and whereas a paedophile may be attracted to little girls as well as boys, sexual relations with a young girl would be unthinkable to a 'Greek' boy-lover like Searight." He is strongly dismissive of "the tendentious attempts [of] ... ascendant 'gay' culture to claim a historical legitimacy", pointing out almost all men in "supposedly 'homosexual' cultures in the past" were involved with boys, not men. Thirdly, true to the historian who in his much earlier Empire and Sexuality annoyed feminists by drawing on the evidence rather than their theories and daring to suggest native women sometimes enjoyed and benefited from their affairs with European men, he ignores modern dogma in favour of the evidence in assessing Searight's character. He points out that Searight never had any authority over his boys to abuse and they were hardly likely to have returned, as they did, for up to 96 orgasmic sessions each, "unless they enjoyed themselves."
The importance of Understanding the British Empire is also considerably enhanced by its being far the most substantial expose of this manuscript the public has been allowed, even though after a long and secret history of changing private ownership, the manuscript has finally fallen into the hands of Cornell University. It was understandable that private collectors should keep it private, but is a stunning indictment of the scholastic cowardice of our age and its contempt for intellectual freedom that an illustrious institution devoted to the dissemination of knowledge should hide away such a unique source of social history (allowing viewing by appointment only), rather than publishing it.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 27 Aug. 2015