Another Little Patch of Red
John MacKenzie suggests that imperial rule and the possession of empire were an essential component of British identity, life and culture for over 200 years from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.
A remarkable portrait from the late eighteenth century depicts a wealthy Glasgow merchant, John Glassford, surrounded by his family and with a black servant standing behind. Or it should show the servant behind. In fact, at some point in the nineteenth century, the servant was painted out. We only know about this because modern X-ray techniques have rediscovered the image of the black attendant. No one is quite sure why: was it because of sensitivities during the anti-slavery campaign or did it arise from a desire to render the portrait ‘racially pure’?
This example reflects the wider debate about the role of the British Empire in British culture and society. Just as the servant was literally brushed out, there have been many attempts to divest domestic British society of its imperial connections. Many committed imperialists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were convinced that the British were not really interested in their empire. But the fully committed always worry about the commitment of others. Those who espouse a cause with quasi-religious fervour – as imperialists in the high noon of empire did – are always on the lookout for tangible evidence of such commitment, in membership of associations, adherence to specific causes, or voting patterns at elections. But the influence of empire upon British culture and society did not always take such obvious forms.