Races And Empire
Ahead of the release of Firebox, I think it’s wise for me to revive a discussion that I first began in the historical notes of The Frontier. As we grappled with questions of race in that book, I felt it important to set my own context when it came to ethnic ‘authenticity’… and indeed, to speak a bit about my fascination with the concept of Empire.
Anyone familiar with those notes will tell you that the picture to the left shows me, my mother, my father, and my great-grandfather, Arnim Rouse. Just to make it clear: my great-grandfather is black. Very black, if you like. He married a woman who was half-white and half-Indian (from India), and their daughter married a Chinese man. All of this happened in Trinidad and Tobago, in the West Indies, where my father (and Iceberg’s CFO) Peter Tam was born and raised.
When my dad traveled to Newfoundland for university, he met my mother –– a Newfoundland Catholic, with Irish, English and Scottish in her blood –– and they married after a magnificent courtship. I was the less-than-magnificent result.
I lay this all out again for a few reasons. First, though I always consider myself a Newfoundlander above all, I’m rather proud to have ancestors who hail from so many continents (alas, none from Antarctica… unless a penguin got in there somehow –– it’s not my place to judge). Second, when I discuss the more difficult questions of race-relations, I rather hope this background gives me sufficient credibility to speak without being handcuffed by political-correctness. And finally, as a whole, my family background explains my fascination with the British Empire in particular, and the concept of Empire in general.
As I’ve said before, Empires are rarely perceived to be evil by those who are part of them. The Romans surely thought they were extending civilization, as did the Moors. The Spanish were saving souls, the Chinese were the center of the universe, and the British were spreading good government, commerce and the rule of law. All of them could find empirical arguments to back their cases… but, of course, if a few million people were murdered and cultures subverted along the way, that was the price of progress.
Having studied history for six years –– not just focusing on Europe and North America, but investigating Africa, Asia and the Middle East –– I can certainly agree with those who decry the inhumanity of those times. I can name too many massacres conducted in the name of civilization, and am painfully familiar with the chaos wrought on cultures around the globe.
But as I’ve also pointed out, and will undoubtedly discuss again in future, I cannot simply declare that no ‘good’ came of anything touched by Empire.
You see, all those ancestors I mentioned earlier had only a few things in common: be they Irish fishmongers, English fishermen, Scots, Chinese merchants, Indian servants, or freed black slaves, none of them enjoyed wealth or privilege. They were the most ‘common’ of people… but they were able to come together thanks to the architecture of the British Empire. Slaves were freed, laws implemented, and a certain kind of education made available to people of all colors. Ultimately, that education proved good enough for a ‘black’ boy from Trinidad to attend university in Newfoundland.
Bearing this in mind, I must grapple with the nuances of Empire –– because unless I count my own existence as a bad thing (an argument which certainly can be entertained), not everything that came from Britannia’s reign was evil. And if there was some good under the watch of one Empire, then I must consider that every Empire had its own nuances. It seems unlikely all of them were simply cartoon institutions presided over by monsters (though at times, I’m sure some were).
My exploration of these questions led to Defense Command‘s Earth Empire –– built on the administrative chassis of the British Empire, but with a constitutional mandate enshrining our present-day belief that all races and genders of humanity be treated as equals. We also have both His Majesty’s New World and Champions existing within Britain’s new imperialism –– exploring the times of that far less benign Empire.
I can only hope that, in all these cases, I succeed in presenting Empire honestly –– with its evils and its advantages. It’s the best way I know to engage with my family’s history… and hopefully, to help share what I’ve learned about the real tropes of Empire.
Because if we simply wait around until we see stormtroopers and maniacally-laughing archvillains in black robes, we might miss the subtle arrival of the next true Empire –– which, given how much we now hate the word, will probably call itself something else. The question we need to ask if it turns up… perhaps if it has turned up… is whether we believe in what it stands for, and whether we’re willing to be judged by history for its actions.
For myself, I can only hope that people a century from now value human rights the same way I do. Otherwise, I might be seen as a monster, a fool, or something in between.
Time will tell. It always does.