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BBC Empire – #1/5 – A Taste for Power – Jeremy Paxman



Empire is a 2012 BBC and Open University co-production, written and presented by Jeremy Paxman, charting the rise of the British Empire from the trading companies of India to the rule over a quarter of the world’s population and its legacy in the modern world

Episode one: A Taste for Power

Paxman asks how a tiny island in the North Atlantic came to rule over a quarter of the world’s population. He travels to India, where local soldiers and local maharajahs helped a handful of British traders to take over vast areas of land. Spectacular displays of imperial power dazzled the local peoples and developed a cult of Queen Victoria as Empress, mother and virtual God. In Egypt, Paxman explores Britain as a temporary peace-keeper whose visit turned into a seventy-year occupation. He travels to the desert where Lawrence of Arabia is still remembered by elder tribesmen; he brought a touch of romance to the grim struggle of the First World War and the British triumph in Palestine. Paxman suggests that Britain believed it could solve the problems that haunt the Middle East to this day.

Episode two: Making Ourselves at Home

Paxman continues his story of Britain’s empire by looking at how traders, conquerors and settlers spread the British way of life around the world by creating a very British home. In India early British traders adopted Indian costume and many took Indian wives; their descendants still look fondly on their mixed heritage. In Victorian Britain such inter-racial mixing became taboo, especially as more British women began to settle in the colony and form families with British colonials. In Singapore he visits a club, now open to all, where British colonials used to gather together; in Canada he finds a town of Scottish ancestry whose inhabitants proud of the traditions, and have shops selling imported Scottish goods; in Kenya he meets descendants of the first white settlers, who were bitterly resented as pressure for African independence grew; and he traces the story of an Indian family in Leicester, whose migrations resulted from the changing fortunes of the British empire.

Episode three: Playing the Game

Paxman traces the growth of a peculiarly British type of hero – adventurer, gentleman, amateur, sportsman and decent chap, and the British obsession with sport. He travels to East Africa, following the paths of Victorian explorers searching for the source of the Nile; to Khartoum in Sudan to tell the story of General Gordon; to Hong Kong, where the British indulged their passion for horse racing by building a spectacular race course; and to Jamaica, where the greatest imperial game of all, cricket, became a battleground for racial equality when the West Indies white captain was replaced by a black man.

Episode four: Making a Fortune

Paxman looks at how the empire began as a pirates’ treasure hunt. Privateers such as Henry Morgan robbed Spanish ships, largely in the Caribbean. Their naval expertise supported an informal empire based on trade and developed into a global financial network. He travels to Jamaica, where the production of sugar by Africa slaves generated the wealth of plantation owners; then to Calcutta, where British traders became the new princes of India. Unfair trading was a catalyst for the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, whose visit to Britain and the mill town of Darwen in 1931 is remembered by two Lancashire women, who were children at the time. The First Opium War was caused by British trade in opium with the Chinese, in defiance of Chinese law,; Britain’s subsequently took over the island of Hong Kong.

Episode five: Doing Good

Paxman relates how a desire for conquest developed into a mission to improve mankind in other places, especially in Africa, by introducing benefits of British society and education. In Central Africa he travels in the footsteps of David Livingstone who, although a failure as a missionary, became a legend. A flood of Christian missionaries followed him and founded schools, one of which today has 8000 pupils. In South Africa, Paxman tells the story of Cecil Rhodes, a maverick with a different sort of mission, who believed in the white man’s right to rule the world and took vast swathes of land for the British Empire. The territory was administered by small numbers of colonial officials, the District Officers, and he argues that this created the basis of apartheid imposed in 1945 by an Afrikaaner-dominated government. In Kenya, conflict in the form of the Mau Mau Uprising between white settlers and African rebels brought bloodshed, torture, and eventual independence for Kenya. Colonies across Africa achieved independence from Britain. and the break up of the empire in Africa.


The series was criticised by some for its handling of controversial material while trying to avoid offense to numerous stakeholders and audiences. Associate editor of The Guardian, Michael White, said that “the structure of the programme was ramshackle” and he found the narrative to be “episodic and superficial”. He said that Paxman “was diffident charm itself”, as opposed to treating “the former subjects of empire with his customary … abrasiveness”. While White also found “the photography pretty as always”, he concluded that “the overall effect was curiously patronising, serving to reinforce the impression that the great man was basically on a jolly and going through the motions”.[2]

Stuart Jeffries, also for The Guardian, offered similar views, concluding that “Jeremy Paxman fails to argue strongly enough”. Nick Wood, for the Daily Mail, stated that Paxman’s approach was “all too predictably straight out of the cultural commissar’s lecture notes”, calling the series “cartoon propaganda”; Wood concluded that it “may be Mr Paxman, cowed like those poor dupes in 1897, was merely issuing a coded cry for help, hoping that a latter-day viceroy like the imperious Curzon, might free him from the mental chains of the Beeb’s script writers

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