‘Race’ or ‘Civilisation’?

Victorian Empire

Lord William Bentinck did not hold office in British imperial service during the reign of Queen Victoria, but the offices he held before she ascended to the throne were significant; he was governor-general of India, the first to hold that office after the Charter Act of 1833 re-organised Indian governance. His attitudes and perspective can thus be seen both to foreshadow Victorian ideas of empire, and also, in places, to diverge dramatically from them. When Bentinck departed Britain for his first role in colonial administration, the governorship of Madras, which he occupied at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he expressed Enlightenment values pertaining to the universality of human nature: ‘Is not human nature everywhere the same?’ This belief was stiffly expressed but sincerely held.

In some ways Bentinck was representative of his class; the son of the Duke of Portland, he was educated conventionally and experienced military service after a commission was purchased to enable him to advance. Thus his statements about the universality of human nature, which could be seen to suggest that the idea of race, so centred on difference, did not feature in the British consciousness when regarding its empire. This could suggest a corollary: a sense of a civilising mission, one dependent on doing right by colonised peoples, a task for which India was a natural exemplum. Much of this was necessarily exploitative, but it was framed, in public and private, in terms of co-operation, of mutual assistance and aid. During his term as governor-general, Bentinck expressed a desire to ‘found British greatness on Indian happiness’.

Bentinck’s learning was not prodigious and he did not express the educational fervour channelled by the later-Lord Macaulay in his much-criticised but deeply learned “Minute Upon Indian Education”, though Bentinck did give ‘entire concurrence to the sentiments expressed in this Minute’ when it was presented to him. His sense of civilising mission was earthier. Drawing on his mixed experience developing lands owned by his family in Britain, Bentinck saw himself as an improver on a grand scale; the entirety of India was ‘a great estate’, of which he was ‘chief agent’. This language is both heavy with civilisation but not weighed down by its pretensions. Bentinck, especially during his time as governor-general, was a keen proponent of improvement in all forms; he sponsored the creation of steamships, one of which bore his name. He attempted to make India navigable. All of this, he insisted in his private writings, was to the ultimate benefit of the Indians.

This was a civilising mission, not a racial one. Bentinck had prejudices – especially evident during his time as Britain’s envoy and de facto dictator of Sicily during the Napoleonic Wars, when he expressed romantic fondness for the place and its Arcadian history but contempt for Sicilians and many of the peoples of southern Europe – though this was less evident in his writing about India and his government of the subcontinent. He attempted, with some success, to induct members of India’s native elites, literary and economic, into British governing circles. But this rosy image is reductive and underplays the extent to which racial prejudice was an essential part of his contemporaries’ worldviews and of the nature of British government in India and elsewhere. It was undoubtedly a part of the national British understanding of empire, too.

Bentinck noted ‘[t]he exclusion of the natives from a participation in the government’, which, he noted emphatically, ‘I so condemn, was, I perfectly well know, most honestly determined by a belief in the utter worthlessness of the native character and of their unfitness for all charges of trust.’ Enviably this belief, allied to similar ideas of natives of the rest of the colonial world, was culturally significant, deeply engrained, and borne of ideas of race which predominated among the British elites in India and at home, and more broadly throughout the British nation. Bentinck’s optimistic assertion that ‘[h]appily this prejudice is giving way rapidly to more liberal and enlightened principles on the part of the younger part of the [Indian] service’ does not seem to be borne out by the evidence of the decades which followed his leaving office.

Bentinck was in his own time considered a ‘Radical’ by some and thus his views cannot be considered representative. At the same time, however, he had followers and acolytes in office, and it is unlikely that his beliefs were entirely original; they must have been in the air at the time in some way. This set of beliefs comprised, crudely put, largely Enlightenment ideas, both intellectual and practical. Bentinck’s ideas of improvement and development were practical, largely of a technological and infrastructural nature. And this was couched in practical terms. It was the sharing of the benisons of British development, something intended to aid Indians and enrich Britons. Language of race was not present, or if it was it came to feature largely in denunciation of the attitudes of others, who were seen to be less enlightened than was good and necessary.

In this sense, for Bentinck, race was not just less important than civilisation; it almost did not matter, or was seen not to represent a limit on development. It was not a brake on the spread of an idea civilisation. Combining this with the Macaulay thesis on Indian education, which suggested extensive reforms, including teaching in England and instituting British-style curricula, taking ancient Indian languages to be useful in the same way classical languages were seen to be useful in the education of Briton, it can be seen that there was a widespread sense of civilisation in this era in governing circles. Some thought it was only nascent in India and had to be developed; others thought it had to be exported from Britain and Europe outright. The ostensible racial language and the ideas of superiority this necessitated, appeared only as justification for governing in the first place.

Once colonial rule was established, for these people at least, the language of civilisation assumed primacy: its cultivation, its development, and the justifications of civilisation and the civilising mission. That Bentinck faced constant opposition suggests that even the watered down version of these ideas which he presented to his superiors in London and, through the writings of others, to the public was not appreciated, and that these ideas were not commonly held. But Bentinck is more than an outlier and elements of his notions had deep roots. They were not entirely absent from Britain’s governing classes, and even the popular conception of empire.


The British Empire was both pursued and rationalised for different reasons. Its popular significance was of a different order to the justifications elites produced to defend its very concept. One thing united these ideas: the notion of British superiority, which served to mitigate the acquisition of other peoples’ lands, and to give the project a positive edge. Two aspects of British superiority were put forward: one racial, the other societal, otherwise known as civilisation. The latter encompassed a great number of divergent features, not limited to the Christian religion, technological advancement, European classical traditions, and political sophistication. This was compared favourably to the ‘backwardness’ of those who inhabited the territory claimed and colonised by Britain. The British were said to have something to teach them. Race proved a different but not entirely divergent matter. The fact that there was no British nation to speak of mattered. Irish, Scots and Welsh, many of whom played important roles in British colonial history, retained a sense of individuality despite being tied to a wider whole. To suggest that British identity in this era, conceptualised as a British ‘race’, was entirely English in character is to be mistaken. This internal difference did not stop thinkers writing of a British race, however. J. R. Seeley, in his Expansion of England, wrote of ‘a great homogenous people, one in blood, language, religion and laws, but dispersed over a boundless space’. The same could be seen other in descriptions of a ‘Greater Britain’, one which spread its people, its race, as well as its social and cultural advancement, across the world. In an era where race was frequently held to determine other characteristics, both of societies and of peoples, it is difficult to separate race and civilisation entirely. But this is essential for a more nuanced view not only of the British Empire and its justifications, but also for the Victorian mentality more generally. In this analysis, therefore, it can be stated that the arguments made on civilisational grounds were more commonly enunciated than those on racial grounds, though the two were often linked. As such, the idea of civilisation, protecting it, defending it and exporting it, was more important to the Victorians and their empire than that of race.

To understand the Victorian mind, one has to appreciate the impact of religion on their collective and individual consciousnesses. The same is true of the Victorian empire. Religion provided a focal point around which the home nations could gather; Christianity, of the broadest type, unified England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The fact that many parts of the world did not have a unifying Christian religion served to exercise Britain’s missionaries. Missionary work, coupled with and allied to the empire, gave the British nation a sense of moral purpose. Meanwhile, claims to British moral superiority, both at home and abroad, were couched in religious terms. The abolition of slavery, which was an essentially self-critical religious movement, was not anti-imperial. It wished for a better empire, an empire morally fit to lead and rule the world. The same can be said of David Livingstone’s campaigns to eradicate internal African slavery. And Livingstone’s work can be associated more broadly with the ambitions of British missionaries, whose ambition was to spread Christian civilisation as well as to engender faith in Christ. Without the assumption of cultural, civilisational superiority, they would not have been able to work at all, or to justify their activities. The popularity of missionary charities in this era attests to the popular sense of their importance; and though Dickens and other writers mocked the far-flung ambitions and grandiose missionary sentiments of characters like Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, these stereotypes were both popular enough to be recognisable and widespread enough to exert broader cultural influence. While missionaries were seen by some colonial governors as a nuisance (notably Bentinck, at least for a time), their actions could not be entirely restrained or their missions circumvented. The popularity of their cause was too great.

Religion provided a broad justification for imperial action more globally and a moral mission for the project in sum. This was especially true in less developed parts of the world which fell under British rule, but also embraced a broader mission independent of physical borders. British Bible societies continued to sponsor American equivalents after the Declaration of Independence was issued. Britain began to embrace a broader Christianity, predominately Protestant but not supremely, which dialled down on anti-Catholic sentiment in exchange for a broader aversion to lands remaining untouched by Christian influence. Britain was no longer a land fled by those different Christians seeking religious toleration; rather, it wanted to export its religion, in a broad sense, to the world. This religious feeling was not independent of race, but it could transcend race. No race was seen to be too corrupted or two ignorant to be beyond saving or at least improving religiously. And, as a corollary, there was no inherently superior British characteristic, especially racial, which meant its Christianity was civilised; rather, Christianity itself was held up as the agent of civilisation. Religion could bind people of all races and improve them; it was thus an effective conveyer of ideas of civilisation, and a focal point for notions of civilisational importance.

One aspect of civilisation was distinct from ideas of culture and ideas of race: technology. Though some recent contributions to the historiography of the Industrial Revolution place it within a broader industrious revolution, something necessitating cultural shifts, this was not always seen in those terms. Britons were ascribed certain Teutonic values, for example patience and dedication in labour, but these were not all encompassing, and did not come with a need to develop the world. For much of Victoria’s reign, and especially early on, British economic growth and development were seen to be insecure, and were not held to be essential to the national character. Britain was not necessarily a confident nation, projecting economic superiority abroad and displaying it at home. It required two impulses, each of them contradictory. One was naked profiteering, the sort which led the brightest Balliol graduates to sit examinations for entry into the East India Company with the hope of returning a nabob; the other, directly opposed to this impulse, was a religiosity which made ‘improvement’, physical and religious, material and spiritual, a central part of the mission of life.

Lord William Bentinck was an Evangelical. Under his direction, and those of his fellow Evangelicals, India was subject to improvement more physical than spiritual. But it was from this that Bentinck derived his convictions about the universality of the human spirit, an idea which was to have some traction among his followers. More specifically, and returning to improvement, Bentinck’s development of India, like a ‘great estate’, meant the cultivation of both its land and its people. he aimed to make India attractive for British traders, all the better to create trading relationships which could enrich both empire and colony. At the same time, his intention was to cultivate the Indian people, both on more local levels and among the Indian elites. This improvement, carried out as a moral mission, parallels the morality of missionary work but in a more explicitly political way; and Bentinck was willing, when he thought it necessary to appeal to or appease a local ruler, to restrict the operation of British missionaries in India. The practical aspect of improvement therefore predominated. This was improvement both for the Indians’ sake and the fortunes of the British. But it was, at least in Bentinck’s case, also a spiritual event, something to be understood through the prism of his Evangelicalism. While high-born Evangelicalism of this kind did not enjoy much popular success, the proliferation of other religious ideas, which began the abolitionist movement and other self-critical projects in the era of colonialism, dulled the edge of British racialism and attempted to find a moral character in colonisation. When Bentinck died, despite his attempts to restrain politically troublesome missionaries, ‘the missionary papers praised him for having given Indians “the sense that their country was still their own, and their rulers were likewise their stewards”’, in John Rosselli’s words. This almost religiously paternalistic view of empire, coupled with Evangelical religious sentiment more generally, undoubtedly affected how the British saw themselves and their mission, and also how they perceived the rest of the world.

The issue of race cannot be ignored in this debate and its centrality is assured, not least by the evident racial prejudice exhibited by British imperialists towards the natives of the lands they conquered and ruled. As Krishan Kumar notes, the notion of ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ was not narrow; it was not a strain of ’Little Englanderism’. Rather, it was a wide term whose definition encompassed most of the inhabitants of the British Isles as well as descendent populations in North America, southern Africa, and the Pacific. The very breadth of this idea was to give a strong tinge to its eventual exclusiveness. The exclusion of former Celts – Scots, Welsh, Irish – was one example but this did not prove insurmountable. The exclusion of non-whites was more profound and more noteworthy. Internally inclusive ideas of race bred externally exclusive ones. Indians, even high-born, were largely excluded from participation in government before Bentinck’s day. Though native elites were co-opted if possible and even allowed to maintain titular control over territory, as in India, this was a fiction. And in wider cultural terms, this was known, both at home and in imperial territories.

Racial ideas of British superiority began with a class element. The notion of the ‘Norman yoke’, under which the Saxon peasantry toiled, gave a particularly popular element to anti-foreign prejudice in particular. Naturally this idea could not be sustained when the Anglo-Saxons were the colonisers and conquerors. Instead, the inequality was reversed. Britons ruled over foreigners, and did so across the world. British rulers established racial hierarchies. The sort of racial prejudice deplored by Bentinck did not disappear among the younger generation of colonial officials. If anything, as the nineteenth century wore on, it intensified. These officials divided territories according to race, and the process of governing them established racial archetypes; British rulers ‘utilised [racial] categories and classifications that legitimated inequalities of power’. These seeped into an affected popular culture at home, which paralleled the development of an English national character, and a distinctive conception of a people previously thought too heterogeneous to be susceptible to characterisation. The language of race grew out of this situation, its asymmetry, and also an attempt to explain the apparent differences in outcome between peoples and nations. The Anglo-Saxon race became one to measure against others; and politicians affirmed that it was a good race, a fine race, one which could be compared favourably with any other in the world. This was especially important in the colonial context, when, after the rapid colonisation of all but two African states, whites, both British and not, were seemingly the sole rulers of the world. Bernard Lewis notes that, before the Victorian period, ideas of white dominance were established. His example is that of Egypt, and how Napoleon was only evicted from that country after British action and the defeat of the French fleet at the battle of the Nile. This sparked, Lewis argues, an inferiority complex within Islamic nations, and, simply put, the converse is true of Western countries.

The repeated success in war, in conquering non-white nations, was seen to provide the justification for a racial attitude. This was always related to other phenomena, however: technological superiority, for one, or moral goodness. This racial idea proved difficult to quantify but nonetheless influential. It is linked to the religious argument proposed above. There was a contradiction to it. Britain’s abolishing slavery made it a good, moral nation. Because inequalities remained in the world, there had to be another cause. Thus, it was suggested, there was a racial distinction between British and non-British peoples. This distinction was fundamental, racially bound. This idea contradicted the notion of a fundamentally unified and inherently similar human species, a view proposed by, among others, the religious. Thus the benisons of religious moral agitation created, or at least justified, the emergence of sentiments contrary to established religious thought and missionary actions in practice. Race was also seen as the precursor of civilisation; the latter was seen as a product of the former. This made racial disparities seem explicable and even essential. But this was myopic and cannot be seen to have been the primary means by which the British understood their empire. Instead ideas of race came about as a response to a call for civilisation, an ex post facto attempt to explain the world as it seemed to be, and more a tool in the formation of British identity under the state than a means of understanding the British Empire.

In summation, ideas of race and civilisation were difficult to disentangle. Both contained elements of the British national community; both were associated with ideas of hierarchy, of virtue or of advancement. But only one offered a possibility of advancement. This was the idea of civilisation, which became a justification for governing and an impetuous to govern well. It gave rise of boys’ magazine stories about governing faraway lands and idea of cultivating the natives for their own good. This idea of civilisation would not have existed without religion, with all of its unifying possibilities. In establishing the idea of the universality of mankind, religion, especially Evangelical religion, gave a new moral character to the British. This was not build upon racial approximations, but rather on hopefulness and the possibility of advancement. Its proponents were enthused and effective – both on the smaller scale as missionaries, with their popular appeal and dedicated supporters, and in the case of Bentinck and others, in the highest seats of government. Without this religious motivation much of what the British Empire did and became would still have been possible. But the unifying influence of religion and the fixity of purpose it gave provided a focal point for the development of a national character at home and the highest aspirations of colonies abroad. It was inherently linked to the idea of civilisation. And though this cannot be wholly separated from the Victorian notion of race, religion was more universal and more powerful than this idea. It provided impetus and moral justification for empire; it was a creative force, generating and marshalling energy, whereas the idea of race was a negative one, dividing humanity up and giving the British a sense of themselves, but at the expense of a universal sensibility and a universal mission which became an increasing feature of British imperial thinking as the reign of Victoria continued and the scale of her imperial possessions increased.

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