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This fine book by a friend and former colleague demands a review in the Victorian Web, despite its apparent post-Victorian subject, because as Philip Holden demonstrates so convincingly, Victorian beliefs permeated virtually all aspects of decolonization. In fact, its most famous leaders — Ghandi, Nehru, Nkrumah, Mandela, and Lee — feel, think, and speak with many assumptions that we think of as characteristically Victorian rather than modern. Truly, these are cases of the Empire Writing Back to the Imperial Center.

Autobiography and Decolonization has many virtues, one of which is its frequent qualification or enrichment of commonly held assumptions. For example, when discussing the gendered nature of colonialism, he valuably observes how

commentators from Edward Said onward have noted that the colonial landscape and the colonized were frequently feminized, displaying a fundamental lack with reference to masculine colonizers. The situation was in reality much more complex: certain "martial" races — Zulus, Sikhs, Pathans — in fact became symbols of hypermasculinity, magnificently expressive of male energy. Conspicuous feminization and accusations of unmanliness were often reserved for those who threatened what Chatterjee describes as the "rule of colonial difference," middlemen in the colonial world, such as Eurasians, Straits Chinese, and Bengali "babus." Yet in both cases the colonial production of these others was clearly central to the construction and preservation of the masculinity of the colonizer. [34]

Holden is especially good in uncovering what the demands of genre and politics delete from these narratives, and he makes fine use of secret service and similar documents to cast light on an author's claims and contexts. Nkrumah, for instance, portrays himself as ascetic, someone whose devotion to the cause leaves no time for women, but letters from his lovers, one of whom promises to wear a new negligée for their first night together after being long apart, tell a different story, showing not that Nkrumah was dishonest but that he saw himself creating a kind of ideal public self to guide others. Holden also repeatedly uncovers key Victorian texts by authors ranging from Newman (125) to Henley (147) that pervade a kind of narrative unconscious, shaping an author's attitudes while often remaining out of sight. He's especially good on the way women's contributions to decolonization find themselves excised from official histories, which try to emphasize powerful masculinity. I found the discussions of Ghandi, which convincingly explain how and why he differs from other writers of national autobiographies, most helpful. And although Holden doesn't mention it, Ghandi's emphasis upon self-discipline as necessary before political liberation is pure Carlyle: "'Real Home Rule,' Gandhi would write in Hind Swaraj, 'is Self Rule or self-control'" (77).

The most important of Holden's contributions, however, appears in his central organizing idea of the national autobiography — autobiographies of leaders, such as those named above, who in relating their lives both make them coincide with the decolonizing and decolonized new nation but also provide a pattern, or model, for their new citizens to follow. "Reformulating Benedict Andersen's well-known phrase, they constitute the nation not so much as an imagined community as an 'imagined individual, with newfound autonomy in a public sphere of international relations'" (7).

The introduction opens with the statement that "this book begins and ends in Singapore," and Holden quite properly introduces his own life and experience of the nation state as a point of departure, in the process summing up some of his key ideas. For example, he explains that each of these national autobiographies

begin in a world of inequality, a colonial world that is also, paradoxically, a modern one. In seeking new futures, they critique the present from two opposing directions. Although they frequently imagine a precolonial past as a time before the disruptions of colonialism, the narratives urge us that such an interruption in history can now be overcome only by moving forward, not backward; these stories thus critique colonialism not simply as disturbing a precolonial order but also as not modern enough as refusing to take the ideals of the Enlightenment seriously. They thus propose new nationalisms as the Enlightenment's genuine heirs, seizing the baton of modernity from an exhausted West. They tell the story of decolonization and of the hopes for new nation-states in the period immediately after the Second World War. Some end here, but later narratives must cope with a world that has changed again, . . . they arrive, belatedly and sometimes reluctantly, in the world in which we live now. [7]

After a first chapter that surveys and corrects twenty-first century critical approaches to autobiography, gender, and decolonization, the next — "Missing in Action: The Strange Case of Imperial Autobiography" concerns the unwritten or incomplete autobiographies of four major imperial figures, all of whom proved themselves to be skilled writers with numerous important books: (1) Cecil Rhodes, who "in twenty brief years rose from subsistence cotton-farming in Natal to holding the position of prime minister in the Cape colony, while simultaneously gaining control over the world diamond trade" (43). (2) George Nathaniel Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, (3) Frederick Lugard (East Africa), and (4) Hugh Clifford, an official in the Malay States.

Chapter III, "Absent States: Casely Hayford, Ghandi, Garvey," discusses an African novel, an African-American autobiography, and that of Gandhi, which is unique among all these writers because he alone did not have a vision of a modern liberal state embodying enlightenment ideals because he did not want to a state, modern or otherwise. The ground prepared, Holden in succeeding chapters examines the national autobiographies of Nehru, Nkrumah, Mandela, and Lee, showing that each draws upon the same group of what we may observe are fundamentally Victorian ideas. First, employing the well known strategies of Wilberforce, Carlyle, and Ruskin, they pointed to obvious gaps in colonial ideology and practice:

Colonial modernity contained inherent contradictions of which colonized elites made strategic use. The new imperialism of the late nineteenth century clothed itself in Enlightenment notions of progress, of the potential equality of human beings, and thus presented itself as — at least partially — a project of uplifting and educating "subject races." Yet colonialism — in its British form, at least — constitively refused to grant equality to those who fulfilled the very criteria it laid down: indeed, most colonial governments exhibited considerable reluctance to accord non-Europeans the status of British subjects. In the colonies, Chatterjee notes, colonialism was destined "never to fulfill the normalizing mission of the modern state because the premise of its power was a rule of colonial difference, namely, the preservation of the alienness of the ruling group." [47]

In other words, using a rhetorical strategy made immensely popular by William Wilberforce, who contrasted nominal and practicing Christians in one of the nineteenth-century's most widely read books on religion; or as, Ruskin put it in "Traffic" — one of those attacks on classical economics that so influenced many of these national autobiographers — "we have, indeed, a nominal religion, to which we pay tithes of property and sevenths of time, but we have also a practical and earnest religion, to which we devote nine-tenths of our property, and six-sevenths of our time. And we dispute a great deal about the nominal religion: but we are all unanimous about this practical one; of which I think you will admit that the ruling goddess may be best generally described as the "Goddess of Getting-on," or "Britannia of the Market'" (18.447-8). Like their Victorian predecessors, every one of these national biographers points to the hypocrisy of British imperialism, which proclaimed both freedom and modernity but in fact gave enslavement and neo-feudalism.

These national autobiographers all present themselves as more British than the British, more true to what Britons say they believe than Britons are themselves. They can do so with authority because they have internalized the intertwined matters of British education and the kind of disciplined masculinity it intended to produce. In his chapter on Mandela, Holden points out "as in Nkrumah's (indeed, as we shall see in Lee Kuan Yew's) narrative, Long Walk to Freedom shows a deep investment in the disciplinary elements of the colonial schoolroom that is difficult to explain away in analysis that simply looks for 'resistance.' Forr Hare is a masculine society that molds men, and Mandela was indeed perhaps more influenced by it and the mission schools than it is narratively appropriate for his protagonist to admit" (47). These mission schools, like British public schools and lesser institutions, all sought to inculcate the belief that self-discipline served as the basis for both the modern gentlemen and the man who would have power. Rule oneself and one can rule colonies, or, as it turned out, one can rule former colonies. Whether Nehru's Harrow, one of the most prestigious of all English schools, or Nkrumah's Achimota, these schools produced both colonial and, inevitably, anti-colonial leaders — sometimes, it seems, intentionally. Nkrumah's Achimota, for example, may have intended to produce docile citizens — "responsible colonial subjects who would work in their communities to prevent alienation . . . from the colonial state" — but it also was

a place fostering a new, modern lifeworld that was a precursor to nationalism, and it did so in a way that makes it difficult to speak unproblematically of complicity with or resistance to colonialism. Each of the members of the largely European Achimota staff had to learn a language spoken in the Gold Coast, and both Akan and African history were taught. The college had its own printing press, and students in the teacher training course would create teaching texts in languages such as Twi, Akan, and Ewe as projects: an inspection committee arriving two years after Nkrumah had left noted that "higher-grade work includes the collection, editing, and dramatization of folk stories, the making of reading-cards, and the translation of reading-books and grammars." The assistant vice-principal of the college, Kwegyir Aggrey, despite the "subordinate position" assigned to him through ongoing discrimination, spoke of seeing at Achimota "a New Africa in process of being born," while Fraser remarked that the purpose of such training was part of "an effort to hasten the transference of leadership in African education into African hands." The college coordinated "regular weekly visiting by patrols of students to all the villages around Achimota. ... In these visits the students persuade the villagers to clean up their villages and keep them clean." These projects were colonial in inspiration, but they had a developmental trajectory that foreshadowed similar rationalizing activities in nationalist movements that were later enacted by the independent nation-state.

Ghana, like many other African political autobiographies, represents the experience of colonial schooling in a much more positive manner than a reader in the new millennium might expect. [128; emphasis added]

The powerful polemic that justified decolonization on the grounds that the colonies and not the Imperium had the ability to live up to imperial ideals especially emphasized Victorian notions of masculinity, for these national autobiographers repeatedly portray themselves as the true heirs to the kind of ideal Victorian masculinity that permitted its possessor to rise above emotions, particularly fear, often against great odds. "The discursive features of such masculinity," Holden explains, "are familiar to us: somatic continence, sang froid, discipline, breeding, and rationality" (176), and he quotes a particularly striking example of Lee Kwan Yew's admiration in words that could have been written by Conrad or Kipling:

At about 11 pm, I saw a tall figure of a white man in shorts strolling through the crowd into the hall. It was Bill Goode, the governor. He was brave. True, the crowd was not yet in an excited mood. Nonetheless, he had been the chief secretary when the first wave of arrests was carried out in October 1956, and governor when the second clean-up of the pro-communists took place. But he showed no trace of fear. My respect for him increased. [Singapore Story, 272; quoted by Holden, 176]

The figure of the brave, fearless white man surrounded by a crowd of potentially life-threatening people with darker skins is, as Holden observes, a "staple of colonial fiction and biography" (176), but here Lee himself stands in the place of the usual British observer, and echoing the words of many late Victorians themselves he sees Britain's former glory (in Holden's words) "sapped from within by the bad faith of the middle and working classes" (177). Two other examples of an autobiographer claiming to live up to the best of the British heritage appear in Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, which not only mentions the self-discipline he learned from sports and then applied to later life but, like the true Victorian pater familias, emphasizes the sacred nature of the nuclear family. "He sees apartheid above all as disruptive of family life, which can only be reconstituted in the national imaginary of a new South Africa." (153).

I have only two reservations about this fine book, the first of which is that I wish it were even longer, for I so enjoy Holden's close readings. Second, I would like to have seen more of the secret service and other archival material he uncovered in various archives, since what he quotes or sums up is so illuminating.


Holden, Philip. Autobiography and Decolonization: Modernity, Masculinity, and the Nation-State. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.

Last modified 11 July 2008