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The Distortions of Power: Imperial Propagandists and the Masking of Conflict in the Bri

The British Empire contained many enthusiasts for its assorted aims of settlement, rule, and the civilising mission. Imperial propaganda was there to promote these aims as widely as possible. This has been defined as ‘the transmission of ideas and values from one person, […] with the specific intention of influencing the recipients' attitudes in such a way that the interests of its authors will be enhanced.’[i] Imperial propaganda provided a narrative that justified where conflict was presented as good and bad and part of a progression towards a nobler end. The British Empire represented modernity and the conflicts that it provoked were the necessary, if regrettable, corollaries of progress. People and communities who got in the way of this progress had to be co-opted and brought into the labour market or destroyed.[ii] Imperial ideals, which justified this, comprised such an integral part of enthusiasts’ worldview that the conflict which arose from it was reflexively rationalised. Propaganda was widespread and could range from the theatre or adventure literature, to the editorials of the Daily Mail and The Times, to the debates carried out in newspapers’ letters pages.[iii] But, the imperial campaigns and enthusiasm demonstrated in the media before the First World War were not systematised propaganda as we might think of it in later periods. Propaganda was rarely state-directed as this was unnecessary as John Mackenzie has observed. There was an informal network of imperial propagandists willing to bring the British Empire's efforts to the attention of the public.[iv] Flora Shaw was a journalist and later Colonial Editor for The Times in the 1890s. Shaw showcases the distortion around the widespread conflict of the British Empire and its presentation in public discussion in Britain. She also provides an example of the psychological processes that were involved in the conceptions of these conflicts.

The power dynamics of imperial systems often woefully exploit the labour of indigenous peoples. But British imperial propagandists had to present the exploitative indentured work as something better; the civilising influence of regular work. On sugar plantations in Queensland in the 1890s, South Sea Islanders, referred to as Kanakas, were recruited, often using dubious practices to lure people onto ships, now known as “blackbirding.”[v] Beginning in the 1860s, South Sea Islanders were recruited to work, indentured for a period of three years and housed in conditions that struck some as uncomfortably close to slavery.[vi] Nevertheless, Flora Shaw, whilst touring the Empire for The Times in 1892-3, was concerned to present these plantations and their use of these labourers in the most favourable possible terms. Shaw recognised previous occurrences of brutality, writing that she ‘had read accounts so harrowing of the sufferings of these unfortunate aliens […] that I was prepared to give the most careful attention to the subject.’ But Shaw reported back that, ‘not only are they not ill-treated but that I have never in any country seen the lot of the average manual labourer so well cared for.’[vii] This was a view shaped by both her own beliefs in the imperial system and the nature of her visit. As a journalist for The Times, Shaw’s visit was often closely controlled in the guise of help. She had letters of introduction and transport laid on to take her everywhere. The plantation owners were undoubtedly aware of the negative impression previous scandals had created. Although Shaw claimed that she was ‘allowed everywhere’ and had ‘perfectly fair talks with the Kanakas’, her visit was swift and had been tightly planned in co-ordination with Australian officials.[viii] She was deceived by the owners, but Shaw was also a willing participant in that deceit. The plantation owners showed The Times journalist what she wanted to see and Shaw, fervently believing in the mission of empire, reported back accordingly.[ix]

Flora Shaw continued to produce imperial propaganda during the Second South African War (1899-1902), writing to reassure the British public about the imperial mission. The experience of the war had shaken British confidence in its righteousness and might. The war progressed little until the British resorted to the imposition of concentration camps, considered by many, such as the leader of the Liberal Party Henry Campbell Bannerman, to represent un-British ‘methods of Barbarism.’[x] Shaw, visiting in 1902, virtually ignored the war that was coming to an end ‘somewhere out in the distant horizons of the veld.’ Instead, she gave a luscious depiction of South Africa, describing how ‘the peaches are ripe in the fruit districts of Cape Colony and the grapes are turning colour.’[xi] Shaw’s South Africa had ‘everywhere, in every department, the invigorating sense of new life.’ Instead of a warning of imperial overstretch, weakness or barbarism, South Africa became a glorious affirmation of Britain’s future. Shaw recommended that ‘any Englishman whose faith in his countrymen is disposed to flag’ should visit Johannesburg. ‘He would find much there which would help him to understand how Great Britain has taken the place which she holds in the history of the world.’[xii] Sometimes distortion and propaganda can simply be distraction, a choosing and a focussing on a different narrative. Rather than the story of conflict, atrocity and war, Shaw supplied a narrative of a prosperous future.

The imperial propaganda in Flora Shaw’s writing exemplifies how the supporters of imperial power could justify it on their own terms. Shaw intellectually managed the conflicts that arose from imperialism, distorting, shifting attention, and presenting alternative rosy pictures of what imperial life could and should be. This intellectual management was a large and necessary part of the justification of imperialism to herself and the wider public. It gave it a higher purpose for the empire to a British public that often seemed lukewarm about it, despite the fashion for ‘imperial “sentimentalism.”’ Shaw was ‘half afraid lest speech may be allowed to take the place of action,’ a tendency her life was devoted to combatting.[xiii]

James Watts is currently a third year PhD candidate in History at the University of Bristol. His Thesis explores imperialism in literary and media cultures in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Using an 'Imperial Lives' methodology he is researching journalists such as Flora Shaw and Perceval Landon as well as novelists such as Flora Annie Steel and Henry Rider Haggard to explore imperial advocacy in these circles. This often also involves an examination of travel writing and the imperial representations of empire as reported within Britain.

[i] John M. Mackenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 3.

[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Online, 2012), p. 41. Accessed 16/04/18

[iii] Andrew Thompson, Empire Strikes Back? The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005), p. 38.

[iv] Mackenzie, Propaganda and Empire, pp. 2-3.

[v] Not coincidentally, 'Kanaka' is now widely considered to be a term of abuse in Australia.

[vi] Concerns about this began in the 1860s and campaigns for greater recognition of the trade and conditions are ongoing. "THE ALLEGED SLAVE TRADE IN TIME SOUTH SEAS." Daily News, 11 Sept. 1869. British Library Newspapers, Accessed 1 May 2018. & Accessed 1st May 2018. Also see a Letter to The Times, at the time that Flora Shaw was in Queensland, from a man previously in the Navy stationed in Australia decrying the practice. ERSKINE, JAMES E., and DALZIEL'S CABLE NEWS AGENCY, Limited. "The Polynesian Labour Traffic." The Times , 21 May 1892, p. 19. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 1 May 2018.

[vii] (FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.). "Letters From Australia." The Times, 27 Dec. 1892, p. 10. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.

[viii] (FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.). "Letters From Australia." The Times, 27 Dec. 1892, p. 10. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.

[ix] E. M Bell, Flora Shaw, pp. 101 & 128. This biography by the daughter of Shaw's managing editor at the Times quotes many of the letters and diaries now lost and recounts the numerous letters of introduction and the organisation of her trip by officials. See also, Dorothy O'Helly, 'Flora Shaw and The Times: Becoming a Journalist, Advocating Empire' in Women in Journalism at the Fin de Siecle, ed. by Elizabeth Gray (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 121.

[x] Henry Campbell Bannerman, Speeches by the Rt. Hon. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, from his election as leader of the Liberal party to his resignation of office as prime minister, 1899-1908 (London: The Times, 1908), p. 78.;view=1up;seq=88 Accessed 16/04/18

[xi] (From an occasional Correspondent.). "The Dutch Of Cape Colony." The Times, 11 Feb. 1902, p. 4. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 17 Feb. 2017.

[xii] 'Johannesburg Today' - 27th Feb 1902 (From an occasional Correspondent.). "Johannesburg To-Day." The Times, 27 Feb. 1902, p. 8. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 13 Feb. 2017.

[xiii] The Bodleian Library, The University of Oxford, MSS Lugard, Flora Lugard to Frederick Lugard 4/1/13. Undated but around November 1904 when Frederick Lugard was in Nigeria.

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