Whether or not they actually could, the people of the British empire sought to civilize the world. One could say, perhaps, that on a good day those loyal subjects of the realm were sauntering forth to bring to unruly distant lands the rule of law, the benefits of a well-constructed language, and good manners, not to mention cricket.
Or one could say that, on a bad day, those John Bull limeys were exploiting the indigenous peoples, robbing them of their ancient heritages, playing contractual tricks to abscond their homelands, and getting rich in the process.
And one would be correct on both counts. Such is the dual nature of civilized man: he is a scoundrel, even as he strives, or pretends to, follow his so-called better angels.
Ditto for us Americans, their bratty little brothers in this saga of colonializing world history. But hey, it is what it is, and that’s all that it is, so be that as it may, today or someday.
Nevertheless, one beneficial concept that the world has, IMHO, derived from the hegemonizing Brits, is the rule of law. Like the Romans before them, far-flung British representatives of the Crown have, in recent centuries, carried to the four corners of their known world the idea that justice should prevail, and men should be accountable, in a duly-appointed court of law, for their actions.
Therefore anarchy and mayhem are not permitted.
In British literature, a residual benefit of this principle is demonstrated by Robert Louis Stevenson in his classic story, Treasure Island. I’ll not tell thee the tale, as thou must read it for thyself, or find a video of it somewhere online haha, as if there were such a thing.
Nevertheless, I’ll take thee in thy imagination, as author Stevenson did, down to a little island in some distant sea wherein lies a hidden treasure that was left behind during a dispute between some gentlemen of fortune, some of them honest, some of them not, but which is which, I’ll tell thee what–on second thought–suffice it say, some men were killed, and some got caught.
Years later, as the story is told, having obtained a map that could lead to the buried booty, a band of reputable fortune-seeking men have returned to the island to uncover the misplaced gold, which is a considerable weight of what’s called pieces of eight. And if’n you don’t know what that is, matey, go look it up on your wikipedia slate.
By and by, I’m a-comin’ to my point, lads n’ lassies, about the civilizing effects of the British empire. And this is how it happened:
There was, to state it plainly, a mutiny among the men. I don’t know how else to say it except that certain dirty/rotten scoundrels were led by their wolf-in-sheep’s clothing leader, Long John Silver, into the perfidy of lawless rebellion against the good Captain and the owners of the ship who were with him. And there was among the loyals the good lad, Jim Hawkins, cabin boy, who lived to tell the tale, whose account enables me to write it to thee.
Pirates is what they were, pure and simple–Long John Silver and his mutineers.
During the course of the dispute, an actual battle broke out between the two sides. The Captain and his loyal men had managed to occupy an old stockade. The contemptible buccaneers were planning to overpower them with muskets and swords and the ship’s cannon offshore, which they had occupied.
Immediately upon taking the stockade, the Captain had made it his first order of business to raise the Union Jack–the British flag– on a log-pole above the fort, although it might seem there could be more productive ways he could have spent his energy and precious time at that perilous moment.
Very soon the scumbag pirates began firing cannonballs at the stockade. This turn of events is told near the end of chapter 18 in the book. A ship’s owner speaks to Captain Smollett:
“Captain,” said the squire, “the house is quite invisible from the ship. It must be the flag they are coming at. Would it not be wiser to take it in?”
“Strike my colors!” cried the captain. “No, sir, not I”; and as soon as he had said the words, I think (the ship’s doctor is writing this. -ed.) we all agreed with him. For it was not only a piece of stout, seamanly, good feeling; it was good policy besides and showed our enemies that we despised their cannonade.
The good Captain, in so doing, was proclaiming to the scoundrels, and to the very world: This here ground we have taken is now for God and King! This here’s for law and order! We’ll not tolerate mayhem and rebellion! That’s our stand and we are stickin’ to it.
Now this particularly resolute act of the Captain had good effect, even beyond the mere declaration of it. Young Jim Hawkins, who had been separated from the ship’s loyal men, was out in the island somewhere, among the scrubby shrubs and sandy spits, trying to get to the stockade to rejoin his mates. And he had found, long story short, a wild island man who was not actually wild– though he appeared to be so with the scruffy beard and raggish coverings. This character, name of Ben Gunn, had been marooned on the island by the former buccaneers, the ones who had left the treasure somewhere in the vicinity.
So, meanwhile, back at the outback part of the island where Hawkins and Gunn are dodging cannonballs and musket shots, old Ben says to young Jim, at the beginning of chapter 19:
As soon as Ben Gunn saw the colors he came to a halt, stopped me by the arm, and sat down.
“Now,” said he, “there’s your friends, sure enough.”
“Far more likely, it’s the mutineers,” I answered.
“That!” he cried. “Why, in a place like this, where nobody puts in but gen’lmen of fortune, Silver would fly the Jolly Roger, you don’t make no doubt of that. No, that’s your friends.”
Which is to say, the ringleader of the mutineers would not be flying the Union Jack. He would not be claiming ground for God and King. He would not be declaring by such actions: This here’s for the rule of law. Come ye to this flag and you shall find order, and justice, not mayhem and rebellion!Ben Gunn knew this, and he assured the cabin-boy that the Union Jack was reliable, and so. . .
It could come about that the ship’s doctor would later write:
“And I ran to the door in time to see Jim Hawkins, safe and sound, come climbing over the stockade.”
Thus had this incident made known, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the sanctuarial power of Brittania. God save the King, and the Queen, too!
CR, with new novel, Smoke, in progress