Pax Britannica Was Good for Civilization
Over the summer, RealClearHistory Editor Samuel Chi embarked on a two-week tour of the British Isles and France. He filed a few dispatches via the transatlantic telegraph cable, which we just received now.
LONDON - We could not conclude our two-week circumnavigation of the British Isles without a visit to the British Museum. Established in 1753, the museum appropriately represents all the power and majesty of the British Empire at its zenith, with a vast array of collections from all corners of the world.
I never visit London without a trip to the museum. First, it's free of charge (though a donation would be appreciated) so it's a wonderful place to spend a day in the hyper-expensive UK capital. Also, its enormous collections, along with the usual crush of tourists (again, because it's free) largely prevent you from viewing everything you want to see in a single trip.
During my first visit to the museum two decades ago I happened to spot a rare error in the description of an exhibit, so I scribbled a note and dropped it off at the visitors desk. When I returned to the States a few weeks later there was a letter from the museum waiting for me, thanking me for the catch and letting me know that the error had been fixed. Needless to say, I became even more of a fan.
The museum has undergone many renovations and facelifts in its lifetime, the most recent being the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, completed in 2000. But there is another development that can potentially trouble the venerable museum - the restitutionist charge that many of the museum's precious exhibits are loot - including the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone.
At the height of the British Empire where the sun never set, British archeologists and profit-seeking opportunists alike fanned out around the entire globe, grabbing whatever artifacts and trophies they could find and sending them back to the home country. Some of them were war booty from British incursions on foreign soil, such as the sacking of the Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) in Peking in 1900.
As a Chinese person, I grew up with very little admiration for the British, who were described in school textbooks as conniving brutes who initiated the Opium Wars to begin China's century of humiliation. The British "occupation" of Hong Kong and their uselessness as an ally during World War II further tarnished their reputation in China. This was made abundantly clear in Bruce Lee's eternally popular Fists of Fury, as he tried to enter a British concession that had a sign declaring "No Dogs and Chinese Allowed."
Yes, I had as much love for the British as a young Barack Obama (or maybe even President Obama) did.
But my view of the British has become more nuanced - and much more positive - over the years as I have dug deeper into their history. Today, I consider the British domination of the seas for the better part of two centuries a good thing.
Unlike their Spanish and Portuguese predecessors who explored the globe with a mixture of profiteering and missionary zeal, the British overseas ventures were more enduring because they brought with them tangible and intangible civilizational advances - industrial revolution and morality rooted in law and order. While this isn't to say the British weren't every bit as exploitive as other colonists, they brought much more than just food (think: French) to the table.
In particular, civilization owes the British a measure of gratitude for two acts: 1) Suppressing the transatlantic slave trade, and 2) Resisting the Nazis at the expense of the destruction of their empire.
After World War II, the sun set on the British Empire as she was reduced to a second-rate power (but not quite "a small island" of little consequence, as Prime Minister David Cameron eloquently protested). But to her credit, Britain never ceased being relevant. Its rich history in inventions, literature, exploration and now pop music carries on. And, thanks to the immigrants who flocked to Britain from her former empire, you can actually now get a decent meal in London that doesn't involve fish and chips.
Thus, we leave the British Isles with fond memories from our two weeks on and off the shores. Our next destination was three hours away by train, part of it under the English Channel. But before we transmit the next dispatch from the City of Light, I leave you with a hearty rendition of Rule, Britannia, on the last night of the annual BBC Proms (I'm particularly fond of this 2012 edition, which took place after the end of the London Olympics).