The thesis of Stephanie Barczewski’s new book is that in the long nineteenth century, British politicians, preachers, painters, poets, and the public poured their collective anxieties about being a powerful, brutal Empire into one pot and brewed themselves a way to hide from the truth by celebrating not the violence or even the victories of their imperialism but the military men and explorers who failed in their missions, goofed up and died. Professor Barczewski’s knowledge base cannot be disputed; she has written often on the subject of Britain and on the Empire. Her research is also a model of how to discover details from fellow scholars and major periodicals of those times but also from letters, poems, and snippets of conversations recorded in obscure diaries from the failed heroes, their families and their supporters. Barczewski’s style is straightforward and she captures her thesis on every page.

But if we think twice about the book’s supporting theme, that empire is an evil--and this theme plays in the background throughout--we may see heroic failure in a different way. The thesis of this review is that Britain’s failures were human beings and must be seen as more than bunglers whose portraits, stained glass commemorations and statues are simply a smoke screen for the ugly imperial machine. The background theme of my response is that empire-making seems, at our stage of development, to be part of human nature connected to our aggressive instinct and our habit of commandeering anything, from wings and fins to the inventions of others, to make our lives richer. Also involved in the impulse to empire, though this may be hard to think, is the human desire to share and teach.

To introduce her thesis, Barczewski paraphrases British comedian John Cleese that “the greatest hits of heroic failure,” the Charge of the Light Brigade, Gordon at Khartoum and Scott of the Antarctic, occupy a more prominent place in the British psyche than heroes who actually succeeded. She asserts that highlighting when soldiers or explorers lost and/or showed “calm in the face of disaster” helped the British live with the fact that they were actually a nation of violent conquerors. Here we detect a slip of the pen. For to make her point that the British chose to celebrate losing, Barczewski has to keep stating that they should have celebrated winning. She abhors exploitation yet continuously condones victory, its most basic fact. And if you say that winning is the right way to be an imperialist and that the British didn’t cherish it enough, aren’t you leading us to wonder if the British way might be a more humane way to go about conquering? A quick response might be no, exploitation and winning must be downplayed in order to rid our planet of imperialism and maybe even of war. But Barczewski’s subtle underscoring of winning is an all-too-human sign that she sees we may not be able to do that and that it is in our DNA to fight and try to take over. If winning and conquering are part of being human, shouldn’t we sympathize with the British for choosing to mourn over their losses rather than gloat? A contradiction, yes, but human, and one that two great thinkers of modern times bring to our attention. A supporter of the League of Nations, Einstein wrote an open letter to Freud in 1932 hoping the near-impossible might happen, “the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action--its sovereignty that is to say.” He asked Freud to report if there was any way to deliver mankind from war. Freud said yes, whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war, but he advised against denying the aggressive instincts to destroy and kill. So with Einstein’s dream and Freud’s admonition before us--and with xenophobia, belligerence and hatred around us--we should review this book about British power.

Left: Memorial to Major Generals Sir Edward Pakenham and Samuel Gibbs. Richard Westmacott II. c. 1815. Right: Monument to Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore, K.B. John Bacon, Jr. Both monuments are in St. Paul's Cathedral. Click on images to enlarge them. [The photographs are from this site rather than the book under review.]

In the beginning, Barczewski says that, in 1815, though by rights the British should have quickly buried “their embarrassing defeat” to the Americans at New Orleans, instead they chose to grant their losing generals a memorial statue in St. Paul’s. The English back home found their heroism particularly powerful because it involved men of elevated social status, but Barczewski is cynical about this “martyrdom” and asserts that in this time of English democratic reforms, the rich only wanted to promote a new image of themselves as a service elite to provide “justification for continued upper-class domination.” Nevertheless, her picture of this service is always poignant. At New Orleans for instance, before the first British general died from a musket ball, he “did all that a General could to rally his broken troops” and his second-in-command continued the charge to within 20 yards of the American front line--all in vain because a misunderstood order meant the troops hadn’t brought the ladders they needed to scale a wall. Barczewski’s point is that this “nobility of death in battle helped to conceal the deficiencies of specific campaigns.” But looking at the memorial to the two generals, one cannot help thinking there is nobility in dying in service. Another celebrated failure in the introduction is Sir John Moore who, in the war against Napoleon led 35,000 soldiers on a retreat across Spain to evacuate them by sea, only to find that the ships were delayed so that he and his forces had to hold off the French to buy time. Moore was killed when a cannonball struck him in the chest. He too is remembered in St. Paul’s with a stone monument in which he is being lowered into burial by an angel. Is this an example of heroic failure or simply heroism? As another reviewer said, valor is still valor, bravery is still bravery.

The topic of exploration in Africa and the Arctic begins in the introduction and continues in the second chapter. These new and dangerous exploits were publicized, worried over and, when they failed, memorialized back home in what Barczewski sees as blinds to camouflage England’s mission to dominate. But her stories tell us more about human behavior than she seems to notice. By the 1820s English expeditions were seeking sea passages and the sources of rivers to make commerce flow easily. For Barczewski this was fueled by opportunism and then covered up by sentimental stories. But seen with more empathy, her stories paint the picture of a human empire doomed to fall. In fact, in the book the British Empire project is so full of human contradictions that it seems absurd. Of course the British saw it positively: their language, justice and benevolence would spread everywhere. But it is impossible, and just as short-lived, to try and run the world the way a gambler runs the table. One author Barczewski cites calls the Empire tragicomic which gives the impression that the British must have sensed the awful ambiguity of their project. Barczewski quotes Anthony Brand, whose The Man Who Ate His Boots covers John Franklin’s long Arctic journey to find the Northwest Passage where near the end he and his men reportedly did eat their leather boots and later cannibalized their dead. They made it back to England not having found the passage but the publicists made their failure a cause for celebration (though, in a telling side note, Barczewski admits it was “underlain with fortitude and resolution”). In fact, Franklin’s story can change the tint of our book’s thesis. As governor of the imperial outpost, Van Diemen’s Land, he humanely enacted policies “sympathetic to the island’s aboriginal inhabitants.” He later returned to the Arctic with 130 men, but within months they were trapped in ice, and this lasted at least two years until they all perished. “The scale of failure had been spectacular,” Barczewski points out; mistakes abounded and then the cynical press made money off their end. But a quote from Anthony Brandt’s book suggests another view. They had

tempted fate until fatality became inevitable…Yet tragedy can be the scene of heroism as well as arrogance and folly …To behave nobly and heroically in an obviously hopeless cause is a kind of folly, but it can also constitute a kind of greatness. Despite the wrongheadedness of the enterprise, an air of transcendence rises from their sufferings. It was in vain that they died, but their deaths raised them up…and made them emblems of whatever it is in human beings that can seem sublime.

Within each chapter are facts that show this other story summed up in words Barczewski uses for the next failure, the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea: “chivalry, struggle, pain, heroic and noble suffering.” Of course these humane words cover the experience of the oppressed too but have to describe the losses of the imperialists who wanted to see themselves as moral. When we read that half of the brigade of light cavalry (small men and small horses) lost their lives in a charge described as pointless and mad, and when the inept commanders are contrasted with the heroism of common soldiers, we are in the realm of the Absurd. Tennyson might have unwittingly commemorated the losses on both sides: “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why.”

David Livingstone is next, another man of contradictions. An abolitionist who argued against British commercial interest in Africa and for missionary efforts, Livingston made an extraordinary effort, mostly on foot, to find the source of the Nile as well as a malaria-free zone in south-central Africa that could be the site for his missionary station. But because he did not find the river’s source or establish a mission, the empire’s publicity machine used his exertions as a counterweight to the anxieties engendered back home by the violent and humiliating Indian rebellion of 1857. Barczewski says that for most Victorians, Livingstone’s philanthropic vision represented their ideals of energy and perseverance, and it does seem extraordinary that he crisscrossed Africa from when he was 39 to when he collapsed and died at 60. In one stretch he walked 5,000 miles across sub-Saharan Africa in two years. Barczewski provides facts we must reckon with: on one hand Livingstone was responsible for the deaths of at least eight Africans, but on the other a chief had the hut built for him in which he died, after which African companions carried his body 1,500 miles to Zanzibar across the territory of tribes that forbade the carrying or moving of corpses. Ten Africans died before that commemorative mission reached its destination where the survivors met up with a British expedition headed to relieve Livingstone. The English continued east to retrieve Livingstone’s books and papers. Years later the tree under which Africans had buried his heart died and pieces of the tree were treated by the tribe as sacred. Back home, Livingstone was mostly revered: a hundred biographies, songs, poems, and plays. So instead of a failed hero can we think of him as an ambiguous one?

As Barczewski says about the decolonization process that followed WW I, empires are an “uncomfortable reality.” It seems there is more work to do on how the British dealt psychologically with theirs. For instance, why did they latch onto “last stands?” In 1880, even the enemy saw valor in one of these at Maiwand, Afghanistan. Afghan forces with memories of the previous British occupation decades earlier tightened around Kabul and vociferously denounced the Westerners. The British could not hold out. About two hundred troops of the 66th Foot made a stand but lost 60 men. A second stand lost 80 and now they were down to 56 who made their last. All died. Barczewski lets us know that an Afghan officer lauded them for “fighting to the death, their faces to the foe.” It is not surprising that back home, a last stand such as this “helped to assuage some of the discomfort occasioned by the nature of military conflict in the late Victorian British Empire.”

By 1884 the fruits of British meddling in North African affairs were obvious. Having separated himself from the Ottoman Empire, the khedive of Egypt did business with British investors to pay for his Suez Canal but then could not repay their loans. At the same time, Islamic forces rose against Egyptian rule and the Western “infidels.” This entangling of culture clash, business interests and vacillating foreign policy from 10 Downing Street led to the overthrow of the Egyptian government by its own army. When Europeans in Alexandria were killed, the British answered with a naval bombardment of the city and sent thousands more troops. In a situation reminiscent of recent American experience, there was now a second coup by the Mahdi or “Guided One” a long-prophesied descendent of Muhammad. Though the Liberal British government wanted to support an independent Egypt, the decision was made to pull out to stop the losses. The next episode in our book begins when Major General George Gordon is sent to evacuate all Europeans and Egyptians from Khartoum in the Sudan, just south of Egypt, where English and Egyptian interests were mingled. Barczewski paints a conflicted picture of Gordon as an unrepentant zealot for teaching British social and religious values who also shows a “healthy respect” for the beliefs of the Sudanese non-Christian majority. She asks if this is a madman or a moralist, a narcissist prone to risky grand gestures or a gentleman who felt a connection to the peoples of the Sudan. These contradictions played out when Gordon would not leave Khartoum unprotected; Barczewski says this was the start of his failure. London decided too late to send reinforcements and their progress up the Nile was slowed by shallow waters. Then comes Gordon’s heroism in defeat: with the fall of Khartoum and the report by the Muslims that the body of “the accursed one” was found, he became a failed hero. On one side of the book’s equation, the “whole adventure had been a disaster,” on the other is William Joy’s beloved painting of Gordon standing bravely at the top of the British palace stairs in a suit and fez awaiting death at the hands of the rebels [image on Wikipedia].

Should we call the painting a false image promoted by the imperial publicity machine or was there some goodness and strength entwined in Gordon’s defeat?

If we treat the Empire as a massive phenomenon, it is easier to criticize than if we take a more granular view and, in effect, look into the eyes of those who served it. Barczewski’s last chapter brings us to the twentieth century and the Empire’s decline. She starts with praise for Captain Robert Scott, scientist and explorer of the Antarctic as a capable leader whose first expedition “achieved impressive results in increasing human knowledge.” The second trip in 1910 is another story, “tragic” and full of “dreadfully bad luck,” and Barczewski is plainly disappointed that the public never received a no-holds barred account of this or of the last days of Scott and his last two men pinned in their tent by a blizzard. In line with her thesis, Barczewski’s feeling is that nothing new was discovered and that Scott got caught up in a macho-nationalist competition with Roald Amundsen of Norway to be the first man to reach the Pole, a race he lost.

Ironically this last chapter also contains pages of praise by Scott’s countrymen and from around the world. It starts with English pride that Scott devised a motorized way to cross the ice rather than force dogs to do the pulling as Amundsen did and that even though at the end the motors failed and he had to use dogs, he had held off on this necessary animal cruelty while Amundsen’s team used dogs from the first and ate them when they died from the exertion. (The prejudice that supported the Empire is seen here as Amundsen, like everyone in the conquered lands, is dismissed as ‘foreign.’) But praise for Scott grows as letters pour in to the Royal Geographic Society, including one from Maori residents of New Zealand who liken Scott to their founding ancestor who sailed without a compass. Services for the men were held all over. The adulation continued for years. Barczewski feels these responses veil “fears lurking just below the surface that Britain was no longer capable of producing heroes.” On the other hand, she calls the expedition a tragedy and several times points to the basic forces of Nature that beat Scott and his men. In his last message, Scott summed up their experience: “I do not regret this journey…

we took risks, we knew we took them, things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint…. Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishmen. These rough notes and our bodies must tell the tale.

That was 1912. In her conclusion, Barczewski asserts that though the buzz now is that the end of Empire will mean the disappearance of British heroic failure, she bets it is a strong enough strain in their thinking to find a place even in post-imperial Britain. In a world dominated by domination, the question is whether heroic failure is a bad thing.


Barczewski, Stephanie. Heroic Failure and the British. Yale University Press, 2016. 267 pp.

Last modified 2 11 August 2016