HIST 202: European Civilization, 1648-1945

Lecture 15

 - Imperialists and Boy Scouts


The boom in European colonial expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century, the so-called New Imperialism, can be seen to follow from three principle factors, in ascending order of importance: religious proselytizing, profit, and inter-imperial political strategy. With respect to the latter concern, the conflicts emerging from imperialism set the stage for World War I. Along with its military and industrial consequences, imperialism also entailed a large-scale cultural program dedicated to strengthening support for its objectives among the domestic populations of the imperial powers. The creation of the Boy Scouts is an exemplary form of such a program, founded upon a mythology of the American frontier reformulated to encompass Africa and Asia.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

European Civilization, 1648-1945

HIST 202 - Lecture 15 - Imperialists and Boy Scouts

Chapter 1. The Age of New Imperialism: God, Gold and Glory [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: All right. I’m going to talk about imperialism today. This complements the chapter in the book. The main topic is the New Imperialism, and the lecture is very much about the culture of imperialism. Part of the age of mass politics in Europe in the 1880s and 1890s, before World War I, involved massive support for the New Imperialism. What was new about the New Imperialism? What period do we talk about as having had the New Imperialism? It’s really from the mid-1880s, just say the 1880s, to 1914. It’s at that point, as you can see from the maps in the book and you can see from the discussion, that the European powers really conquer the world. There’s no other way to put it. There’s a frenetic, wild chase even to the South Pole as part of that.

The African continent, of which there were huge blanks in the maps of Africa, by 1914 virtually the entire continent was not only charted but had been conquered. Europeans really control the globe. The Americans, in a smaller way, are part of the New Imperialism. Let me just start out by posing the question, and I sent all this stuff around to you, so I don’t have to scribble on the board and you don’t have to try to figure out what it is that’s written on the board, because it’s hard to see from here. If you were going to point out or to claim that there was a central reason for the New Imperialism, why even Bismarck, who described colonies as an albatross around the neck of Germany while he gets into the kind of feeding frenzy himself, it’s been put rather cleverly by a guy called Baumgar a long time ago, that it comes down to God, gold, and glory.

There were those who interpreted the mad quest for colonies as being the missionary impulse. A sort of subset of this would be the French idea that there was a civilizing mission going on and trying to give indigenous peoples access to French culture. Basically it argues that Dutch Calvinist ministers, and Lutheran ministers, and Catholic priests, and other denominations encouraged states and their own church people to bring to their religion indigenous peoples all over the place. Well, we can dispense with that one. That was part of it, of course. You can’t distinguish any of these three and say that any of them are nul. But that is a rather small part of the quest for yet more colonies in the New Imperialism, and indeed for all of the well-meant, however condescending in many cases, quest for religious conversion.

Most of the Lutheran ministers and Dutch Calvinist ministers in Southeast Asia, and Catholic priests all over the place such as Vietnam — my friend Charles Keith just finished a dissertation on Catholic Vietnam in the 1920s — most of those priests in areas such as Africa were there to tend to the religious needs of the European communities. It was particularly true of, for example, Lutheran ministers in German Southwest Africa and in other places. The drive to convert peoples to organized European religions was probably greatest, and the Vietnam case is a very good one, and the role of the Catholic Church is extremely interesting in Vietnam and the origins of Vietnamese nationalism. But that is another story.

The second one was gold. Gee, I put a “d” for the “o” in gold, but it’s spelled G-O-L-D usually. I said in what you’re reading that if you get Karl Marx, if he ever sat together with Hobson, a very major economic thinker whom I describe in there, if they were having dinner, there would be a lot that was uncomfortable about the dinner. But they would really agree. They would say that the New Imperialism, of which obviously Hobson was a great critic, emerged out of the quest for riches, for resources. Part of Marxism and part of Leninism, an important part was that imperialism is sort of the final stage of the development of capitalism, and that states need new markets. They need new resources. Therefore, they set out to, at a time of economic crisis — nothing like now, but there is a depression that lasts from 1874 to the mid-1890s — they set out to find new riches.

The people going up the Niger River, for example, where I’ve been in Mali, they expected to find gold around the next bend, or more peanut oil, or diamonds, because of the diamonds in South Africa, which was the equivalent of the gold rush in the U.S. in about 1848 in California. Hobson was no Marxist at all. And he was a critic of the brutality of the New Imperialism, which I’ll talk about in a minute. But he said, “If you want to find out where this all began, you look at high finance in the City,” the City being the City in London, Westminster, where the high rollers, and the bankers, and the big capitalists are. There are the origins of the New Imperialism.

Now, there were critics of the New Imperialism. Most of them, but not all, were in Britain. Many of them opposed the New Imperialism because of the brutality exerted on indigenous peoples by the imperial power. There was a real wave of opposition, for example, to imperialism that swept through Britain and London in 1900 in what they called the Khaki Election, khaki because it was the color of the uniforms of many of the British soldiers in hot climates. Some of the opposition in the liberal party were opposed, ran on a campaign of anti-imperialism. They were just wiped away. They were just absolutely swept away in the elections of 1900. Ordinary people in Britain thrilling to the accounts of colonial exploits voted overwhelmingly for the conservatives who just blow the liberals out of the water, and the labor party exists in 1900, but is not yet a major force.

Chapter 2. The Domestic Influence of Social Imperialism [00:08:19]

Imperialism carries the day. The big parades in London of returning soldiers from the Boer War in South Africa and from other wars, from all the wars, they are greeted as conquering heroes nowhere more frenetically, enthusiastically, exuberantly than the City, because there is a link between big finance, big capital and imperialism. Besides that, we have a category we call social imperialism. The imperialist power saw imperialism as part of the overall strategy of conquests. They said, “Look, if you’ve got economic problems at home and you’ve got a lot of unemployed workers — also in France — if you’ve got a lot of unemployed workers who happen to be socialists, or in Italy, that you could kind of export your problems, because you can point people in the direction and say, ‘Hey, times are tough here. But if you go to Algeria, we’ll rip off some Arab land for you and you’ll be just fine.’ Or ‘You can go make it rich in Vietnam.’ Or ‘You can go to Kenya or to Ghana,’ (or what would become Kenya or Ghana). ‘You can export your social problems.’”

This is sort of what New Imperialism meant. A classic case would be the insurrection of 1851. This is backing up before the New Imperialism. What do they do with the people who are arrested after the insurrection of 1851? A lot of them are sent to Algeria. You export your “social and political problems.” The irony there, amazing delicious irony, is their great, great, great, great, great grandchildren end up being right-wing supporters of the National Front, and before that of various right-wing groups that believe in French Algeria and who try to keep the French from leaving Algeria in the early 1960s, after the Algerian war of independence.

So, social imperialism is seen by sort of the economic canon, that is, the way of thinking about the political economy of these countries, as a way of keeping things calm at home. They say, “Give people opportunities. Send them to these foreign places.” Geez, in the case of France I remember reading these gripping, just pathetic stories of these people who just can’t make it in the area in which we live in the south of France. They pack up all their stuff and they walk. They walk or they get little push carts, try to get to Avignon, try to get to Marseilles, try to get a boat to get to Morocco, or Tunisia, or Algeria, to try to make a living there. This, too, is part of social imperialism and is part of the idea that somehow social imperialism is economically determined. That it’s the final stage of capitalism. Is that the biggest reason? No. But it’s damn important.

Chapter 3. The Great Game: Colonial Rivalries Leading Up to the First World War [00:11:31]

The biggest reason has to do with the entangling alliances and great power rivalries. It’s represented best by Fashoda, at the end of the 1890s, where a British force stumbles into a French force in the middle of Sudan and they say nasty things to each other, finally toast each other with what drinks they had brought along and their countries almost go to war, because the flag would be tarnished by losing out to the craven reptiles that you just stumbled into in the Sudan. The New Imperialism is one of the fundamental causes of World War I, period. That is the biggest reason. Now, don’t get rid of the gold

interpretation completely, because obviously as Britain and Germany become huge economic rivals, big economic rivals, as the Germans are not only nipping at the heels of the city, British industrial production and British naval production, but passing them in things like chemistry, and production of steel, and the production of big battleships. All this stuff runs together. Your victory is your craven reptile opponent’s loss. That’s the way they viewed it.

Most people, I’ll talk about this on Wednesday. It’s fun to talk about, sad but also fun. Most people in the 1890s thought that the next war would involve France and Britain. They’ll be fighting again and their rivals here and there. Or they thought that maybe the British and the Russians would fight because they’re rivals in what was called the “Great Game” for north of India, and Afghanistan, and all of that. Basically, glory and the great power rivalries is the biggest reason that Germany gets into the imperial game, for example. Bismarck — it’s the famous Bismarck story — a really awful man. But when there’s an imperial lobby comes racing along and says, “Look, Herr Chancellor, we really need to have the troops go and protect our merchants.” People like the sort of freelance guy, Karl Peters. He said at one point, he slams down a map of Europe on the table and he says, “That’s my map of Africa. Here we are and we’re surrounded by Russia and France.” But toward the end of his career was completely different. He’s backing up German merchants with expeditionary forces. Plant the flag and then you’d better defend it.

The big issue there is rivalry with France and with Russia. Bismarck says, “Geez, if we can get the French interested in all these colonies in Africa, then they won’t be dreaming of re-conquering Alsace and much of Lorraine.” At the end he says, “Well, we’d better be out there, too.” And they’re all out there. As some wag once puts it, Italy gets into the game, too, with Libya and Ethiopia, with “a huge appetite and bad teeth,” as someone once put it. Of course, they get defeated in the battle in 1896. Then they will pay them back with poison gas and cascades of bombs in the 1930s, and just destroy everybody and kill them all, if they can, to pay them back for their defeat in 1896. I am eventually going to talk about the culture of imperialism and give you the example, which I find telling, of Robert Baden-Powell and the origins of the Boy Scouts. You didn’t associate the Boy Scouts with imperialism, but you will in a minute.

Chapter 4. Violence and Atrocities in the Colonial System [00:15:30]

First, let me just say that this is not some sort of ’70s radical guy saying — there he goes again, “it’s really nasty to be slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people.” But it is nasty, and that’s what they did. That cannot be forgotten. It doesn’t just start with the famous case of the Germans in Southwest Africa. More about that in a minute. Bugeaud, the name is quite forgettable but who’s a general from Limoges. The French conqueror Algiers anyway in 1830 is a political diversion. Gradually they expand their control over Algeria. Algeria becomes a colony. It becomes an integral point of view — from the point of view of the French, in a different way than Tunisia, and Vietnam, or Morocco, and other places of France, even though it’s not part of metropolitan France.

Bugeaud and his successors kill about 850,000 people during the campaign, very unequal battles. Bugeaud comes up with the idea of simply putting men, women, and children into these huge caves and caverns, and then simply throwing bombs in and so they all die. He did that over and over again. It’s easy to say, “Well, the demons of the twentieth century, they come in the twentieth century, don’t they?” But, as I suggested before in terms of the Commune, this stuff is out there in the nineteenth century as well, and so racist ideology is out there in the nineteenth century. There’s no doubt about it. It wasn’t that way in every place, but the French experience was pretty terrible.

In the very well-documented case of what happened in what now is Congo and Zaire, which were sort of the private colony of the king of Belgium, the atrocities there are well-known. One could go on all day talking about these atrocities. The most well-known, certainly, and most well-documented, and, in a way because of what comes later in the twentieth century, is that of the conquest and indeed genocide. Here I’m borrowing an appropriate term, I think, in this case-that’s not a term you throw around very loosely — of my friend and colleague, Ben Kiernan, whom some of you know, in his big book on genocide, which Yale Press published recently. They begin conquering Southwest Africa in 1885. So, Bismarck still has a few years to go. In their way, as they would see it, among other people were the Herero, H-E-R-E-R-O, a Bantu group of about 75,000 cattle herders who were in the center of what would become the German colonial territory.

Again, European powers are putting things like borders there, boundaries, and that has nothing to do with the way that, particularly nomadic people — they don’t have any sense of borders. Mali, where I’ve been because my daughter was just studying in Touareg in northern Mali, north of Timbuktu. The Touareg are a people who had no sense of borders. There were Touareg across other borders, too. Borders are something that were artificially constructed by these powers to say, “Here. Our empire goes there and yours doesn’t start until there.” And, so, as these people rise up to defend their own territory, they are systematically massacred. They basically first decide to crush the uprising at all costs.

There is in 1904 an extermination order. That’s literally the German translation from the German. The proclamation of the local military commander is that, “The Herero people must leave this land. If they don’t I will force them to do so by using the great gun,” that is artillery. “Within the German border,” that is defined as now German, “every male Herero armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot to death. I shall no longer receive women or children,” that is spare them, “but will drive them back to their people or have them shot. These are my words to the Herero people.”

Now, I couldn’t make this up. It’s easy to say how terrible this is, but it is terrible. It was part of the enterprise and has remained part of the imperialist enterprise. It wasn’t the goal of every imperialist to exterminate the people who were there, but if they got in the way in a very equal fighting. In India there were various cases of soldiers complaining it was too easy shooting down the rebels because it was just like hunting. It was a very British, upper-class analogy. It was just like hunting. Basically what they do if they don’t shoot them they chase them out into the desert and then they cement over the wells in the oases so they die. Basically they exterminate about two-thirds of the people.

There’s a very excellent book on this written by a former graduate student here many moons ago called Isabel Hull that was published four or five years ago. The origins of this, and again there are people now writing and saying, “Well, it wasn’t that bad. They brought trains to India, ended the huge disparities in prices.” Certainly lots of good things did come. But looming in the background were these massacres. The edition that I’m working on now, that I’m just finishing of the book that you’re kindly reading, there’s a whole recent spate of interesting literature on the end of the British empire in Kenya in the 1950s. History of the Hanged is one. There’s another one by a woman called Caroline Elkins at Harvard. The title escapes me at the moment, but these are just fantastic, just gripping, just chilling accounts of essentially the mass murder, incarceration, and murder, and shooting, under the guise of “trying to escape” and all of this of hundreds of thousands of people. This was hidden from the British public, just systematically by the government. It’s a long story and it’s one that we have to wrestle with.

Chapter 5. The Culture of Imperialism: The Origins of the Boy Scouts and the Frontier Ideology [00:22:26]

Having said that, I want now to talk about the culture of imperialism — this is sort of shifting gears rather rapidly — and talk about Robert Baden-Powell and the origins of the Boy Scouts. Again, because I was once asked to leave the Boy Scouts in Portland, Oregon because I was of no use and never accumulated a single badge, this is not the origins of this lecture. There’s lots of stuff written on Baden-Powell. He’s an easy person to mock. He’s an easy person, I suppose, to have some sort of respect for, too, in a way, depending on your point of view. I’m not dissing the Boy Scouts. Once I had people running up. There was a woman who came up who was a Girl Scout. She says, “Oh, this is so cruel what you’re saying about scouting. It’s not like that.” I know it’s not like that now. But having had some relative who had the very strange idea of giving me, of all people, Boys’ Life as a birthday present. I remember reading that and all this kind of over-the-top Americana publications, I suppose I’m reacting a little bit against that, too.

But there is a point to all of this, so the rest of this is about Baden-Powell and the Boy Scouts. Robert Baden-Powell was a soldier. He came up with the idea of scouting as a way of preparing British youth for imperialism and for the next war. The origins of the Scouts, in terms of its timing, that is the first decade of the twentieth century, has to be seen in terms of these international conflicts, these international great power rivalries with which we began. It comes at the time of the Moroccan Affair, the first Moroccan Affair and the second Moroccan Affair in 1905, 1911, when it seems like the French and the Germans will go to war against each other and they will bring in the other great powers. More about that.

Robert Baden-Powell was a professional soldier. When he went back to England he thought that British youth were cigarette-smoking, heavy-drinking, flabby weaklings, whether they were upper classes and, even worse, his few lower classes, because they were underfed and therefore smaller. He hated the Oxbridge common rooms; he said, “With its town life, buses, hot and cold water laid on, everything is done for you.” The British working classes, like the upper classes, tended to drink a lot. He was sure that there’d be a war fought in the lifetime of these same people, and he came to the idea of scouting.

Now, America has a role in all of this. This country has always believed in the frontier. Those of you who had Glenda’s course in American history and other people know about the Turner Thesis, about always you can expand to the west. You can diffuse your social tensions in the east by giving people access to land further on and get rid of the Indians in the way, etc., etc. Now, we have friends in France who still read The Last of the Mohicans. There’s just a fascination with the American frontier. This is extremely important in the end of the nineteenth century in Europe. Baden-Powell borrows the uniform of the Boy Scouts from the frontier uniform as he imagined it in America — the cowboy hat, the flannel shirt, their neckerchief, the short pants. He said, “The shape of a face gives a good guide to a man’s character,” this sort of firm face. He loved that. Square jaw, compared to working-class “loafers” and “shirkers,” as he called them. It’s this cult of masculinity. This comes at a time, one must say, when you’ve got very aggressive movement for female suffrage by the suffragettes who want the rights of women to vote in Britain, one of whom throws herself in front of a horse at a horse race, and sacrifices her life to make a point. It comes at a time as the famous Oscar Wilde trial. Oscar Wilde, of course, was gay.

There was a sense that the virility of English manhood was being tested by women — Baden-Powell did not like women, he referred to women as “silly women,” “silly girls” — and by gays, whom he saw as effeminate and therefore not really British, and wouldn’t be there. What good could they do in the next war? Also it’s a time where in Germany particularly, but not only in Germany, men were dueling. There’s sort of that test of masculinity. If you’re lucky you’ll end up with a dueling scar and not actually get killed. Most of them don’t get killed. But they’re dueling all over the place. They’re dueling in the woods outside of Paris. They’re dueling almost everywhere in Germany. They’re dueling still in Britain. That sort of reaffirmation, according to Bob Nye and lots of other people, and all sorts of people have written on this. Ute Frevert, , my colleague, is now gone from Yale, unfortunately. This is part of the reaffirmation of virility.

The tendency is to say, looking back, “Well, they’re taking it out on animals, blowing the hell out of them and indigenous people, etc., etc.” So, scouting for boys takes off. It spreads from Britain to Australia to Canada to New Zealand to India to Chile to Argentina to Brazil. In 1910 it starts in the United States. In 1910, Baden-Powell resigns from the command of a division of the Territorial Army to spend the rest of his life involved in scouting. Again, what I’m saying is that involves this sort of grafting on this idea of the American frontier. You’re going to create your new frontier. Your new frontier is going to be in Africa. Your new frontier is going to be in Afghanistan. You create your frontiers, and then you hold the frontiers and you train these boys, these young men to hold the colonial frontier.

He finds sponsorship in the Daily Telegraph, which was a big conservative newspaper. All of the big newspapers are conservative. The 60,000 scouts — I think I sent this around — by 1909 there’s 60,000 scouts in Britain. In 1910 there are 107,000. In 1913, 152,000, and in 1917, 194,000. Why was there such a short gap? Not that much of a leap between 1913 and 1917? Because they’re dead. They get killed in the war. They’re going off to fight. Scouting is finished rather early. You’ve got these big rallies, enormous in London, and scouts coming from all over the empire. Girl Scouts are created in 1914, but Baden-Powell didn’t care much about that. Now, there had been groups of frontier-inspired youth organizations that existed in Scotland, particularly. They’re called things like The Sons of Daniel Boone, The Woodcraft Indians, The Boys’ Brigade in Glasgow in 1883. Some were church sponsored.

Again, this is the sort of moralization of the working classes. You get them into groups. They won’t smoke cigarettes, which is a good thing not to do. They won’t drink. They won’t hang out with the wrong people. They will go to work and become cogs in Britain’s industrial empire. They, too, can look at maps of Africa being increasingly painted red, which was the color of the empire. So, nature remains a part of this. Again, to repeat, the cult of the American frontiersmen, let me say a little bit more about that, is part of this. The idea of the frontiersmen, the buckskin man. Rudyard Kipling is not my kind of poet, but anyway, he expresses often this idea. There’s something hidden; go and find it — what’s happened? I must have pushed something. I pushed something. It doesn’t matter. I’m not easily alarmed — Go and find it. Go and look behind the ranges, something behind the ranges is lost and waiting for you. Go!

Baden-Powell described the frontiersman whose manhood is strong and rich, of a pure life. Now, his own predilection is that for him a life would not involve “silly women,” as he put it. The other idea, and this is not at all, I’m not saying anything about his sexuality, but the reality of the situation is that he preferred the company of young men to anyone else. This is involved in the way he lived his life. The idea is that the free man must earn independence with his gun. This is, again, part of this old American western idea, but you apply it to indigenous people. Now, you have aggressive models coming from the American West.

William “Wild Bill” Cody, from my wife’s state of Nebraska, had killed thousands of buffalo. He had dueled. The duels that they do with the German dueling fraternities, you’ve got the equivalent in Dodge City, and all of this, where you’re dueling, and the classic kind of Clint Eastwood western. He’d killed thousands of buffalo, dueled, and he’s a killer and scalper of Indians. He was his own publicist and he had enormous influence in Britain. At the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, he kills Indian Chief Yellow Hand. In 1887 he crosses the Atlantic. He goes to London, Paris, and Berlin. Queen Victoria came out of her extended period of decades of mourning for her dear husband, Albert, to attend the Wild Bill Cody Show. She wants to go. And she’s there with all the others. She hadn’t been to an event like that in twenty-six years. The irony is that Wild Bill Cody runs these fake combats between the Indians and the cowboys in the equivalent of stadiums in Britain. One of the ironies of this about art and reality merging is that some of the people he brought across the Atlantic were Indians who’d actually fought in a battle against him in the Dakotas, and he hires them as extras and he takes them to Paris, to London, and to Berlin. They are a big, huge success.

It’s the Wild West program. At the same time in Canada, those of you who are Canadian know about the Mounted Police and all that business. The Mounted Police become a powerful, though somewhat tamer, more acceptable, more vanilla equivalent of that, of keeping order in Saskatoon and all of these places like that. I’ve actually been to Saskatoon. It’s a pretty nice place. The idea of these mountain men — now the mountain men get uniforms. The mountain men are no longer sort of taking pot shots at people in Kentucky on the frontier or scalping Indians in the Dakotas. They’re wearing sort of freelance scalpers. They’re wearing the uniform of these countries and they’re big-time imperialists. That’s really the point. Here’s a verse, I can’t remember where I got that.

Our mission is to plant the right of British freedom here.
Restrain the lawless savages and protect the pioneer. (It rhymes.)
And ‘tis a proud and daring trust to hold these vast domains,
But with 300 mountain man

You’ve got to kind of make it rhyme a little bit — mountain man, pronounce it as if you were a mountain man. But anyway, and that’s a little harder to do if you have an Oxbridge accent, which I clearly don’t. Also, this is part of the whole — I don’t have time to do it now. I spent a fair amount of time in Australia, but it’s also part of the idea of being Australian, too. Anyway, that’s another thing. Kipling’s Lost Legion is really just awful, but here we go:

There is a legion that was never listed
That carries no colors or crest
But split in a thousand detachments
Is breaking the road to the rest
[I’m supposed to be more respectful when I do this, but anyway]
Our fathers, they left us their blessing
They taught us and groomed us and crammed
But we’re shaking the clubs and the messes
To go and find out and be damned, dear boys
To go and shot and be damned, dear boys.

[Virility, adventure, loyalty — loyalty to boys, loyalty to young men, and brotherhood, and so it starts like that. Can I barely go on?]

Out from the woods of the Great Northwest
Under the austral sky
From the south and the north, they’ll come forth
At the sound of the mother’s cry
And each at his post where the danger is most
Will stand as a sentry then
Britishers all to stand or to fall
The Empire’s frontiersmen.

Now, Baden-Powell is his own best publicist, even better than Wild Bill Cody had been. He helps plant newspaper articles about him. Here’s one from 1900. “It has been suggested that Major-General Baden-Powell’s unrivaled skill as a cavalry scout forms a quite remarkable inheritance of heredity that he’s descended from Pocahontas, the American Indian princess,” which he was clearly not. But how does he become so popular? How do these God-awful poems that I’ve just read, how do they become popular? They become popular because they become the stuff of boys literature of the culture of imperialism. They were the British equivalents of Boys’ Life. I’m not knocking Boys’ Life. I don’t know if that existed. I strongly preferred Sports Illustrated and the sporting news to that. They become the stuff that people are reading as they’re looking at these maps of Africa gradually becoming painted British.

Now, how did he become well known? Well, because he’s an imperialist. He’s fighting. In 1896 he fought in the Matabele War, which I sent around, not the war but the name, a skirmish against about 1,000 indigenous fighters. It’s at that point where he starts coming up with his own freelance uniform that would become that of the Boy Scouts. In military units people that were scouts, again the idea of tracking. You’re tracking, you’re seeing where the Indians have been. The Indians can see where you’ve been now. You learn how they do it. How the blades of grass turn and all of that. I couldn’t scout anything. You see how they do it. They become known as scouts, which is sort of an Americanization of a term. This is what he likes to do. Teddy Roosevelt, there’s a good example of that. Talk about that kind of narcissism of the colonial imagination and the imperial imagination, “Rough, rough, we’re the stuff. We want to fight and we can’t get enough.” Whoopie! That’s the song of the Rough Riders from the Cuban-American War of Teddy Roosevelt, so it’s part of the hysteria of the U.S. Spanish War. But again, it’s the frontier spirit.

Baden-Powell helps create his own myth, which I’ve said. He drew pictures of the people that he had allegedly shot. These pictures end up being in the tabloid newspapers. Again, the role of the tabloids in spreading all this stuff is terribly important. I said before there’s twenty-one daily newspapers in Paris at the time. I don’t remember how many there are in Britain, but there are an awful lot of them. He sketched a last stand of eight people, supposedly until they get rescued, against the indigenous people. He claimed that the Zulus, against whom the British War, the Zulus called him, this sounds unlikely, “the man, he who likes to lie down to shoot.” The Ashanti called him, in awe, this was his term for himself, “he of the big hat.” And that in this war in 1896, they called him “the wolf,” in awe again, his opponents. “The beast that does not sleep but sneaks around at night.” So, he became “the wolf who never sleeps.” There’s a slight problem with this invention of a term to describe himself as “the wolf who sneaks around,” is there aren’t any wolves in Africa. There are not any wolves at all. He made it up and made it up rather badly, having taken it out of some book somewhere else. But that doesn’t stop the tabloids from referring to him as “the wolf who never sleeps.”

The Boers understand that in the Boer War, that is the Dutch Afrikaner opposition opponents, who by the way — the British created the term “concentration camp.” Again, I’m not looking back from history. They’re separating children and women from the men, and trying to avoid that they receive provisioning out in the bush. They create the term “concentration camp” in the Boer War. The Boers actually lived there and had for a long time, though they’re not an indigenous people. They know there aren’t any wolves there. So, they start mocking Baden-Powell. But “he of the big hat” did not slow down at all.

So, in 1899, he has the good luck to be at the siege of Mafeking, where they are surrounded by a force, but not a terribly aggressive force. Again, he draws pictures of people on duty and all of that, night duty. And the town had resisted 217 days stationed on the railway line that runs between the Cape and Rhodesia. This was a big takeoff for his reputation. Just the name Baden-Powell, the initials B.P. become identified with British imperialism. B.P, “He loves the night and after his return from the hollows of the veldt, where he has kept so many anxious vigils, he lies awake hour after hour upon his camp mattress in the veranda tracing out in his mind the various means and agencies by which he can forestall the Boer move, which unknown to them he has personally already watched. He is the wolf who never sleeps.”

Now, B.P., those initials also become British Pluck, the idea that the British are mudders. This is kind of the image that would come out of the very heroic Battle of Britain under the bombs of German Luftwaffe in World War II. British Pluck, also B.P., British Peerage, British Peers, the upper classes, the title British Peers. He becomes identified with all of this, the wolf who never sleeps. His advice to his own garrison is to “sit tight and shoot straight. All is well here,” he writes. They were able to get messages out to the newspapers who are covering this. Now, again, the British newspapers covered another siege which ends rather badly, which is at Khartoum, with the death of Charles Chinese Gordon. He was called Chinese Gordon because he slaughtered the Chinese, and he gets his at Khartoum. Of course, school children, there’s an enormous, enormous outpouring of tears over the death of this man. The newspapers, because of these modern techniques, they can follow all of this stuff pretty much how the siege is going, etc., etc.

So, B.P. the prince of good fellows, prince of scouts, here we go. They emphasize his youth. He’s forty-three but he’s youthful. He’s cheerful. He’s always whistling and telling stories, even when things are going bad. He loves pranks, childish pranks. This is from some of the newspapers. “Life was a game, but you have to play it honorably.” It was a game that silly women, as he called them, could not play. He becomes known again as sports, mass sports is starting just at this time. The Olympics are starting just at this time. Again, there’s a reassertion of virility in these Olympics. He’s called “the gallant goalkeeper,” “the goaltender of Mafeking.” So, a sports analogy becomes part again of this imperial thrust. They print patriotic letters to him, which can be signed and can be sent. You can send a postcard. You could send a postcard home. Your parents have left after parents’ weekend, if they came. You can send them the following postcard:

Dear Parents, 
Dear Mom and Dad,

We have shouted “Rule Britannia!” We have sung God Save the Queen. We have toasted gallant Baden a half a score. We have sent our best respects to Plucky Mafeking and we have hoisted flags and bunting in galore. With a wild and frenzied madness born of joy the empire cheers, while we Britishers rejoice through the land. In this hour of jubilation I am sending you a line with the wish that I could warmly shake your hand. Yours exultantly.

Then you sign your own name to it. So, scouting, as someone said, I can’t remember whom, was an attempt to make these “values” of Mafeking permanent and to trace them on the map of these countries of these peoples all over the world. A 1909 newspaper said:

It may be that he is not a great soldier of the sort which Napoleon, or the Maltese, or the Kitcheners are made. He is the frontiersman, the born leader of irregulars, a maverick, and the empire has need of such. Furthermore, he has the knack of seizing the imagination of boys and a deep sympathy with them. He is doing his day’s work for the empire by training a number of manly little fellows to keep their wits about them and their eyes skinned. We shall profit another day in a much greater affair than Mafeking.

That, of course, is preparing for the war against those other peoples who might contest British domination, not the indigenous peoples, but the other powers in Africa. So, be prepared, B.P., the same thing, the same initials. Anybody here a scout? I had to memorize that stuff. I didn’t get a single badge, but a scout. Be prepared. You’re supposed to do that. The jamborees. He creates these jamborees. Also, at the same time, and I don’t have time to talk about this, but this is the same time when Arthur Conan Doyle, the idea of sleuthing, but it was sort of an urban sleuthing for evildoers in London. It kind of merges with all of that. Of boys who risked their life, he says, “I said to one of these boys on one occasion when he came through a rather heavy fire, ‘You will get hit one of these days riding about like that when shells are flying.’ And he replied, ‘Sir, I pedal so quickly, they’ll never catch me.’ Those boys don’t seem to mind the bullets one bit.” Of course, millions of them would catch bullets that ultimately they minded. “I will do my best to God and the king. I will do my best to help others. Whatever it costs me. I know the scout law and I will obey it.”

Again, I am not knocking doing good things for people. Please do understand. But I’m just trying to place the origins of whatever you think of the Boy Scouts in the context of the culture of imperialism, because that’s where it belongs and that’s where it started. In 1912 in August a boat capsized off the coast of Devon, I think. Nine boys from eleven to fourteen drown. They were scouts. There was an enormous, enormous national funeral service in London in which millions of people saw at least parts of it. This helped. Their deaths, and many more deaths would follow, helped tie together the idea of scouting with service to the nation. A magazine called The Captain — again, this is part of the culture of imperialism and of aggressive nationalism — had a troop of mobile scouts on bikes fitted with a rifle bucket and a clip to carry a carbine, a rifle.

So, it shifts. The image of all of this shifts from Africa, where much of the fighting was already over, and indigenous people destroyed or pacified, to the European enemies against whom the next war would be fought. There’s a famous cartoon in the British magazine Punch which showed a Boy Scout complete in uniform being prepared, taking Mrs. Britannia, that is the image of Victoria who was dead, but the female image of the empire, by the arm. It says, “Fear not, grandma. No danger can befall you. I, after all, remember I am with you now.” Boy Scouts played an enormous role in 1914 and in the subsequent years. “Goodbye, I’m off to war.” There was a caricature in the newspaper as Boy Scouts joined up along with lots of other people who weren’t scouts in the war. As you well know, they don’t come back, or a lot of them don’t come back.

It’s part of the mood of nationalism and of imperialism, of the New Imperialism. Those two things are tied together and the expectation, indeed in many cases, as in the case of Baden-Powell, joyous expectation. You could test your virility in a more meaningful combat than simply slaughtering indigenous people, or picking off Boers with greater numerical superiority. By the way, Robert Baden-Powell died in Kenya, in 1941, from which he had just sent his last patriotic message to the Boy Scouts, in what was a very different war. Thank you. I’ll see you on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]