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British photographers in India in the nineteenth century. Photographed by a British photographer.
by Alice Shirell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff
At its height, the British empire produced magnificent heaps of wealth and power. But according to historian Jeffrey Auerbach, the empire also generated staggering amounts of boredom.
In a copiously documented report in the journal Common Knowledge, Auerbach writes:
Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, British imperial administrators at all levels were bored by their experience traveling and working in the service of king or queen and country. Yet in the public mind, the British empire was thrilling -- full of novelty, danger, and adventure, as explorers, missionaries, and settlers sailed the globe in search of new lands, potential converts, and untold riches.
Aurebach’s study is: “Imperial Boredom,” Jeffrey Auerbach, Common Knowledge, vol. 11, no. 2, 2005, pp. 283-305.
Auerbach is an assistant professor of history at California State University, Northridge. His interests are not limited to boredom. He has published on many other subjects, among them “The Homogenization of Empire,” “The Monotony of Empire,” and the inspirationally titled “The Impossibility of Artistic Escape.”
The imperial boredom report is filled with telltale evidence of administrators’ boredom. Those administrators range from the soon-to-be celebrated Winston Churchill (who at age 21 wrote that Indian life was “dull and uninteresting”) to the clerk who wrote this ditty:
From ten to eleven, ate a breakfast at seven;
From eleven to noon, to begin ‘twas too soon;
From twelve to one, asked “What’s to be done?”
From one to two, found nothing to do;
From two to three, began to foresee
That from three to four would be a damned bore.
Auerbach complains that, for generations,
Scholars have by and large perpetuated [a] glamorous view of the empire, portraying imperial men either as heroic adventurers who charted new lands and carried ‘the white man’s burden’ to the farthest reaches of the planet or as aggressors who imposed culturally bound norms and values on indigenous peoples and their ways of life.
Auerbach says he did his research by “reading against the grain of published memoirs and travel logs” and by digging into the unspectacular mutterings of private diaries and letters. His task was the more difficult, he argues, because “if people felt bored before the mid-eighteenth century, they did not know it.” This view of boredom, he points out, was persuasively developed by Patricia Meyer Spacks, whose 304-page book Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind titillated thrill-starved scholars in 1995.
After publishing the “Imperial Boredom” paper in 2005, Auerbach announced that he himself was writing a book about imperial boredom. He will need to expand considerably upon his current study, which is 23 pages long and includes only 76 footnotes. As of 2016, Professor Auerbach still lists this book on his resumé as “in progress.”
British administrators enduring tennis. Photographed by a photographer.
Perhaps, though, he has already done his finest work. Here, in just 47 words, is Auerbach’s take on imperial boredom:
The reality simply could not live up to the expectations created by newspapers, novels, travel books, and propaganda. As a consequence, notwithstanding some famous exceptions, nineteenth-century colonial officials were deflated by the dreariness of their imperial lives, desperate to ignore or escape the empire they had built.The reality simply could not live up to the expectations created by newspapers, novels, travel books, and propaganda. As a consequence, notwithstanding some famous exceptions, nineteenth-century colonial officials were deflated by the dreariness of their imperial lives, desperate to ignore or escape the empire they had built.
The article above is from the May-June 2016 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!
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