The White Man’s Boredom

Governing empire was deadening to its administrators, and lethal to its victims

In H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 best-selling novel, King Solomon’s Mines, the narrator, Allan Quatermain, leads two other Englishmen, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good, and a retinue of “native” hunters, bushwhackers, and bearers in search of a secret hoard of treasure hidden deep in the jungles of southern Africa. Captain Good’s “passion for civilized dress” nearly kills him. An enraged, injured bull elephant spots Good’s conspicuous trousers and gaiters. As the animal approaches, Good stumbles. One of the bearers springs to the rescue, throwing his spear at the elephant. He is trampled and eviscerated, but his death gives the others time to empty their magazines into the bull and kill it. “Though I am an old hand,” Quatermain reflects, “I felt a lump grow in my throat.” But before Quatermain is unmanned, another “native,” named Umbopa, reflects, “Ah well . . . he is dead, but he died like a man!”

Allan Quatermain was the Jack Ryan of late-Victorian and Edwardian fiction, revived in book after book, indomitable, unkillable, the empire’s finest shot, the secret weapon of governors and kings. The Quatermain stories made empire seem like rugged fun. Haggard was a minor colonial official in British Natal before he was a novelist. In King Solomon’s Mines, published at the peak of the “Scramble for Africa,” the elephant hunt reflects Haggard’s admiration for Natal’s white big-game hunters: their uncomplicated pleasure in decisive violence, their physical courage. Haggard’s British Empire is a playground for boys with the courage to carry a gun and the confidence to shoot it. Imperial power is stylized and condensed, expressed as a personal charisma.

And yet, as Jeffrey Auerbach shows in a rich new book, Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire, despite the parades and the hunts, even colonial governors in the late 19th century British Empire found their work endless, fruitless, and boring. Auerbach is primarily interested in the careers of men like Haggard (before his star turn): the small-time imperial administrators and their wives for whom running the British Empire was a living. Auerbach points out that even the most critical histories of towering colonial officials like Lord Curzon or Cecil Rhodes assume that they were in fact at the center of colonial power. Auerbach’s empire is different, more diffuse, more peopled. In adventure stories, the British Empire was glamorous. In everyday experience, it was hateful drudgery.

There was more than one way to kill an elephant in the British Empire. In his essay “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell remembers his own imperial elephant hunt with overwhelming bitterness. Like Haggard, Orwell was a minor colonial official before he was a writer, an “old hand” in British-ruled Burma. “At that time,” he wrote, “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing.” He loathed his job as a district police officer, and he loathed the empire that had put him in it. But when a working elephant ran wild in heat, and its keeper went missing, Orwell was summoned to shoot it. He knew he shouldn’t. An elephant was valuable, and despite its killing a villager and wrecking several buildings, the elephant’s heat was already passing. It could not fairly be held responsible for the death or the damage it caused.

But surrounded by Burmese villagers, Orwell called for a rifle. He was, he wrote, “only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro.” There are few essays written from an imperial perspective that capture the toxic stupidity of colonialism as succinctly as “Killing an Elephant.” Orwell’s job was to dominate, oppress, and exploit the Burmese. He had insight enough to see the British civilizing mission as it was, a racist grotesque of a morality play performed in the name of money. And yet, he played his part. He hated imperialism, but the work of imperialism had dissolved in him any space he might have found for solidarity with the colonized.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon remarked on the power of dissembling and secrecy as weapons in the hands of colonized people, “straws in the wind showing that something is afoot . . . silence falls when the oppressor approaches.” Orwell knew he was hated, and understood the meaning of “the utter silence imposed on every Englishman in the East.” But he still fired three times and killed the elephant.

Here are two ways for a white man to an kill an elephant in front of the “natives.” In the first, the hunter is game and so is the elephant. Quatermain and company are meant to be civilized men in full command of their masculine power taking aim at worthy adversaries. The white hunters are supported by “native” bearers who leap to defend them, who love and respect them. In their attitudes to their subordinates, the hunters think themselves generous. In the second way of shooting an elephant, the hunter is enervated and reluctant. Orwell writes about his fear of being exposed as a fraud in front of thousands of people whose secret (or not so secret) heart’s desire is to murder him. In “Shooting an Elephant,” colonialism is a job, not a game, mostly done by men without titles or generous salaries, and mostly done alone, surrounded by people who rightfully hate their colonizers. Governing the British Empire was work—malign and grinding.

Across five chapters, Auerbach explores five theaters of imperial boredom, including “Voyages,” “Landscapes,” “Governors,” “Soldiers,” and “Settlers.” In each, he finds the same emptiness that Orwell found in Burma (in fact, the book begins with a close reading of Orwell’s novel Burmese Days, and its depictions of the sweaty ennui and endless white-colonial backbiting of the men and women who occupied that middling tier of colonial power). Auerbach focuses in particular on the Victorian empire of the mid-to-late 19th century. He argues that before the Enlightenment, and particularly before the age of industrialization, it was impossible to be “bored” in the way we now experience boredom. “Without the modernist idea of the individual as the producer of his or her own meaning, there is no boredom,” he writes. He defines boredom as “a state of being in which one has nothing to do that one wants to do, leading to the feeling that time is moving slowly.” His argument is that before the combination of increasing leisure time and the mechanization and bureaucratization of work in the era of industrialization, life might have been monotonous, but it could not be “boring.” There was always something to do that urgently needed to be done for survival. Failing that, the strictures of a communally organized way of life were there to shape and apportion time. Before the rise of industrial capitalism, time was a different kind of resource, one that couldn’t be “spent” or “wasted” or “lost” in the way it could be in a workshop or factory.

For example, in the 17th century, Auerbach shows that the British Empire offered danger to would-be imperialists. Colonialism was so hazardous to the British explorers and merchants, settlers and indentured laborers who carried it out that it was effectively impossible for them to be bored. In the 18th century, the sudden and rapid expansion of the British Empire, and the launching of great voyages of conquest and discovery, along with the privations of the settler frontier muted imperial boredom. But in the Victorian era, the era of steamboats and Maxim guns, of capital markets and telegraphs and wire services and unquestioned British power, the empire was experienced by most of its officials and settlers, governors and soldiers as another tedious job as an atomized part of a much bigger machine.

Above all, Auerbach insists that the 19th century empire was experienced by most colonial officials as boring because people in the 19th century British world spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about themselves. They had many opportunities to notice the lack of purpose or direction in their lives. Allan Quatermain is a man of action, but George Orwell is a man dedicated to mortifying self-dissection.

In the 19th century British Empire, journals were intimate and bureaucratic, tools for introspection and for administration. Many Britons kept diaries, but colonial administrators were often required to keep them, and to send them back to Britain to their superiors. In the 18th century, to write a diary was to self-disclose, and writing and sharing diaries was a passion for many educated 18th century Europeans. With the rise and consolidation of the British Empire and of industrial capitalism, Auerbach argues, writing a diary became a way of auditing personal productivity and interest. Writing a diary was a chore for most British officials. “A diary begs to be written every day,” he comments, “regardless of what is going on in the author’s world, and its existence implies that there is something worth writing.” Constant writing was the most important part of governing the diffuse and often disorganized British Empire. Overwhelming military and naval force guaranteed British hegemony, but paperwork made it seem real and justified.

In the present, the platforms for self-disclosure are privately owned and mined for marketing information and advertising dollars. What Auerbach shows is that constant self-invention has been exhausting and alienating work for at least a century. Not only officials but also everyday emigrants in the 19th century were expected to write journals in ways that were sometimes standardized and mechanically stereotyped. Auerbach quotes from The Emigrant Voyager’s Manual, a guide for people moving from Britain to the settler colonies published in 1850, which included a template for writing about the outward voyage from Britain to the settler colonies: “---At --- A.M. left Deptford, and went on board the --- emigrant ship, of --- tons, bound for ---; . . . A.M. dropped down the river; reached Gravesend at --- P.M. Remained there --- hours.”

Just as everyday life in the empire could be reproduced following templates published in cheap handbooks, even the most dramatic landscapes of imperialism were made generic and then mechanically reproduced. Just as the Quatermain novels that followed King Solomon’s Mines followed well-worn tropes and rote plot points, Auerbach shows how landscape paintings in the empire acquired a tedious sameness. The wild scenes of the imperial “picturesque” adhered to extremely strict rules, including a dark foreground, a well-lit middle ground, a more opaque background, and a composition designed to draw the viewer’s gaze to the middle distance. The Taj Mahal, Victoria Falls, Sydney Harbor, and other landmarks of the far-flung Victorian empire were painted again and again through the 19th century, often in exactly the same style.

In consequence, many Victorian Britons knew what “the sights” of the empire looked like, and many were disappointed when they saw them in person. They seemed grubby and tired, even to people visiting them for the first time. As Auerbach notes, Queen Victoria’s name was also everywhere, “from Argentina and Australia to Malaysia and Malta . . . Victoria mountains, Victoria parks, Victoria rivers, Victoria straits, and a Victoria valley.” This, he writes, was proof of the reach of the empire but also “a powerful reminder of the utter banality of that global institution.”

Imperial boredom was also gendered. In the empire of petty administrators, women were doubly bored. They often went abroad largely to accompany their husbands—they were not there to work or to tour—and in India to add a veneer of high-toned white “civilization” to a Raj that many Britons feared was crumbling due to the sexual improprieties of British officials. Imperial Boredom has a chapter on “settlers,” but the book is not really about settler colonialism. Still, it seems like the tedium of the frontiers of settler colonies—particularly after the wars of subjugation and dispossession against Indigenous people in North America, Australia, and South Africa were largely complete—fell heaviest on women.

A young British engineer wrote to his father from the Punjab in 1872: “We work like horses, none of your old Company days for us—all play and no work. One has to work now.” The shortcoming of Imperial Boredom is the way that it sometimes reproduces the solipsism of colonialism a little too effectively. The history of colonialism shows that colonized people often fall silent, in order to preserve for themselves some inner life free from surveillance or to nurture dreams of tearing down the empire withal. And where the “natives” weren’t silent, it is clear that British officials did not often bother to listen. They lived in a world where their power suffocated any possible solidarity with the people they ruled over. George Orwell could see the suffocation, but he still shot the elephant. Auerbach anatomizes the silence, but does not pay as much attention to what it might have meant.

What is clear, though, is that the work of governing the empire was deadening. Even the violence of empire, Auerbach shows, often felt boring to imperial soldiers, particularly in the age of near-absolute British military superiority in the colonial world. A young Winston Churchill, observing the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, remarked that as British and Egyptian forces laid waste to the forces of the Mahdi of Sudan with machine guns, the act of killing became “a matter of machinery . . . a terrible sight. . . . The mere physical act [of loading, firing, and reloading] became tedious.” As the imperial army became more professional, fewer soldiers saw combat. Military service became banal; so did killing.

The particularly mannered and refined racist hierarchies of the high British Empire flowed from its bureaucratization. Imperial Boredom sketches the attempts of the Raj in India in 1867 to try to catalog every book published in the subcontinent—more than 200,000 titles in all—and to collect and photograph people of every religion, caste, and social rank in an eight-volume collection called The People of India (1868-1875). These projects were unnecessary and impossible, boring pencil pushing in the service of fully “knowing” an India that had largely been invented by colonial officials. The British Empire was racist before it was bureaucratically governed, but bureaucracy made racial categories stiffer, and officials ever more numb. “It is a terrible business . . . this living among inferior races,” Lord Elgin wrote from Government House in Calcutta. “When one first passes by their salaaming one feels a little awkward. But the feeling soon wears off, and one moves among them with perfect indifference, treating them, not as dogs, because in that case one would whistle to them and pat them, but as machines with which one can have no communion or sympathy.”

So if the empire didn’t please any of its officials, thrill its soldiers, or interest its bureaucrats, who did it make happy? Colonial officials rarely got rich from the Victorian empire, but the empire made some Britons with capital masters of the world, able to command raw materials and markets at bayonet point. Auerbach writes in a clear and polished style. He is sensitive in his readings of the many dozens of manuscript diaries and letters of various bored imperial officials, and careful in his explanations of the popular art and literature that drew men and women toward the romance of the empire. The strength of the book is the generosity it shows to colonial officials without excusing colonialism. The sympathy Auerbach feels for petty officials, however, does not dampen the disquieting vision of colonialism at the heart of the book. Auerbach reconstructs an empire of people indifferent to the suffering they cause, anxious only to drink or daydream or gossip at the officers’ club. That was the everyday work of imperialism in the age of industrial capitalism.

The British Empire is gone, and the United Kingdom—unhappy, marked by shameful austerity and rising poverty—is busy further humiliating and destroying itself in the service of the idea that Britain could plausibly be the center of the world again, an “Empire 2.0” after Brexit. And yet, we still live in the 19th century. Then as now, we are pushed toward endless, grinding self-disclosure. The need to perform and shape oneself on social media, to invent and stylize “experiences,” from museums to food, from vacations to exercise, is boring work. It is also imperial work, although perhaps not as transparently as it once was; diaries don’t govern empires anymore, but they provide endless sources of marketing information and advertising dollars to a small group of unfathomably wealthy businesses.

Had colonial rule genuinely been thrilling—pith helmets and elephant guns and gin-and-tonics out on the veranda—that would never have excused it. And yet, there is something acutely dispiriting about the idea that all the suffering inflicted by European imperialism was joyless even for the people whom it made masters of all they surveyed. Auerbach invokes Hannah Arendt several times, and he’s right to do so—the British Empire was mostly banal in its everyday governance, but that did not make imperialism less evil. It wasn’t glorious, and it wasn’t glamorous, and it didn’t bring any of the benefits of “civilization” to the places it conquered. As Auerbach writes, the empire brought “death, enslavement, imprisonment, famine, alienation from land and resources . . . poverty and instability almost everywhere the British ruled, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Even by its own metrics,” he concludes, “the British Empire was a failure.” It was an empire of men who shot elephants to avoid being laughed at—although that is a very cold comfort to its victims.