Empire (2012) s01e01 Episode Script

A Taste for Power

It was the empire on which the sun never set, or, as some said, on which the blood never dried.
At its height, Britain ruled over a quarter of the world's population.
Many convinced themselves it was Britain's destiny to do so.
Much of the empire was built on greed and a lust for power.
But the British came to believe they had a moral mission, too, a mission to civilise the world.
The builders of empire were bold, they were adventurous.
Some were ruthless and some were just a bit unhinged.
The sheer expanse of British rule was breathtaking.
It stretched from the wilderness of the Arctic to the sands of Arabia and the islands of the Caribbean.
There was a time when Britannia really did rule the waves and it's a memory which has never wholly faded.
Once, the Navy imposed blockades, sank enemy vessels at will, suppressed slavery, mapped the world's uncharted oceans, and generally forced Britain's will onto foreign governments.
That heritage helped Britain to believe she's still entitled to a place at the top table in world affairs.
How did such a small country get such a big head? So much that shaped the extraordinary story of the British Empire was born here, in the complex, timeworn expanse of India.
It was here the British learned the art of imperial power.
Yet it was a treaty signed thousands of miles away that determined the fate of India.
In February 1763, the great European powers were meeting in Paris to end years of war and to divide the world between them, from Canada to the Philippines.
Britain's representative at the peace talks was the Duke of Bedford, a stubby, arrogant little man who'd never been to any of these places.
In fact, his gout had made it difficult enough for him to get to Paris.
But the Bedfords did pretty well out of the summit.
The Duchess was given an 800-piece porcelain dinner service by the King of France, and the Duke? The Duke got India for the British.
The technologically advanced countries of Europe were eying up foreign lands for future conquest, and Britain had a head start.
India was decisive.
It gave Britain the resources, the markets, the manpower and the prestige to build a worldwide empire.
And in the years to come, they worked feverishly to secure that prize.
First, Britain took control of the Mediterranean, then they took the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of Africa, then Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, of course, and finally, Singapore.
A web of strongholds right across the globe.
This was the beginning of Britain's time as the undisputed top dog of the world.
Yet the whole thing was built upon something decidedly fragile.
A small island like Britain couldn't, by itself, find the manpower to hold on to this vast new territory.
So they came up with a system that would become a cornerstone of empire.
They paid local soldiers to fight for them.
British officers would now lead Indian troops.
The colonised would provide the fighting force of colonialism for centuries to come.
The Madras Regiment, founded in 1758, is the oldest in the Indian Army.
It spent most of its existence fighting not for independent India, but for Britain.
It doesn't bother Captain Dilip Shekhar that his regiment helped to build the empire.
These are the battle honours we've won under the British.
On the left you can see these are outside India.
China, Afghanistan, Burma - Kilimanjaro? - Yes.
That's in the First World War, in East Africa, isn't it? Yes.
And then all these are battles you've fought Yeah, these are within India.
Sure, but three quarters of your battle honours are - when you were part of the British Army.
- Yes.
- What do you think about that? - That's great.
You were on the wrong side then, from an Indian Nationalist point of view.
- You were fighting for the British.
- We were soldiers, and a soldier does not know whose region it is for he's fighting.
Tomorrow I have a fight with any other country, I'm told to fight with that country, I don't have any personal Do you think the British being here was a good thing or a bad thing or what? Whatever happened in history is history.
But still, we should not be going into that.
But yes, they have done good for us, and even bad.
It was that way.
But it's a good thing they're not here, isn't it? Yeah.
But all the troops you could hire could never control such a huge country.
The British needed a political system to keep them in power, and they found it in the Indian princes.
In the mid-1800s, the British invaders signed a treaty with the local ruler here, the Maharaja of Jodhpur.
They promised him he could go on running his kingdom just as before, but he'd have to pay them for the privilege.
This protection racket would be repeated all over India.
Fantastic goal there by Menenkhar.
They have finally woken up, ladies and gentlemen In time, the ruling classes of the two peoples would become entwined.
British customs and British dress became part of the trappings of Indian court life.
The present Maharaja is the product of both cultures.
This is the family palace, designed for them by a British architect.
Understated little place.
Morning, sir, welcome to Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace.
Good morning.
Good morning.
But as the British extended their grip on India, they tore up the treaty they'd made with the Maharaja's ancestor.
They stripped the maharajas of their power, but let them keep their palaces.
This way.
- This is your drawing room, is it? - This is my drawing room, yes.
We've tucked ourselves into a little corner of the palace.
And all these chaps on the walls are your ancestors, are they? - Yes, that's my father behind you.
That's my great-great-great-grandfather.
- Great-great-great-grandfather.
- Hmm.
Splendid beard.
I suppose the first question is what should I call you? - Baapuji.
- What does that mean? Everyone calls me baapuji.
Baapuji is a term of endearment as well as a term of respect.
But what does it mean? Literally it means baap, which means father, and "ji" is like an honorific.
But even as a child you were called baapuji.
Yes, absolutely.
Your own involvement, of course, in Britain is considerable, isn't it? Since the age of eight.
You were sent away to school in England then? Prep school, yes.
Prep school, to Cothill.
Then Eton, then Oxford.
14 years in all.
So you were really brought up as an English child.
English Indian boy.
- Was that good? - But I would switch being what I was.
Being an Englishman and then becoming Indian when I came home.
When you look back at that original treaty, how do you feel about the British reneging on it? My ancestor at that time, he was very unhappy, first of all, to have signed that treaty in the beginning, but he had no option left.
It was self-preservation.
Then he was very unhappy with it.
Until the period came when we learned how to use that presence to our advantage, get the best out of the system.
And at that point it becomes unclear who's pulling whose strings, doesn't it? - Yes.
- Quite tricky.
At the heart of British authority was a gigantic confidence trick.
It worked for as long as the illusion could be maintained.
Take Government House in Calcutta.
It was the seat of British power in India.
It's still the headquarters of the regional government today.
When it was built in 1803 there were fewer than 6,000 British officials nominally ruling over some 200 million Indians.
As one British Governor-General who lived here put it, "If each black man were to take up a handful of sand and by united effort, "throw it upon the white-faced intruders, "we should be buried alive.
" And that's the reason for the scale, the grandeur, the sheer boastfulness of this place.
The idea being, if you look like a ruler the people will treat you like a ruler.
It helps to explain that arrogant, self-satisfied look you see on the faces of so many British imperialists.
But the appearance was an enormous bluff.
It could only be a matter of time before that bluff was called.
Lucknow, in the mid-19th century was, according to visitors, an enchanting place.
The British here enjoyed a life of luxury and tranquillity.
But in May 1857, all that changed.
Fired by decades of resentment, Indian troops rose up and killed their own officers.
Indian servants murdered British families.
The Indian Mutiny, or First Indian War of Independence, had begun.
It reached its climax at the British headquarters in Lucknow.
Here, the myth of imperial power was shaken to the core.
Three thousand British and loyal Indians were trapped inside and surrounded by 8,000 rebels.
A terrifying siege was about to begin.
I think these must have been the servants' quarters or the kitchen or something, they're too small to be formal rooms.
But the amazing thing about it is that this place was just obviously built to impress the local Indians and it ends up this scene of complete, terrified squalor.
At the height of the siege, there were 10 Europeans dying every day.
Just here.
And these must be the marks of some of the cannon balls that struck the building.
These ones didn't actually go through, but in other places you can see the balls have just gone straight through the wall.
And that down there, I think, is what was the banqueting hall.
But during the course of the siege, became used as the hospital.
And was absolutely packed with the wounded obviously, but also, the sick 'cause inevitably what happened was that all the latrines filled up and overflowed and there were corpses rotting in the heat everywhere.
So, cholera broke out.
And it was the job of many of the small children to wipe the flies off the faces and the wounds of the injured inside the hospital there.
It must have been an absolutely appalling scene.
After four and a half months, British relief forces arrived.
As they fought their way into the stinking ruins, they showed no mercy.
In the story of empire, rebellion always met with savage retaliation.
One British commander alone executed 6,000 men.
Elsewhere, he flogged suspected mutineers, made them lick blood from the slaughterhouse floor and then hanged them.
In other cases, mutineers were tied to the ground, branded with hot irons, told to run for their lives, and when they did so, were shot dead.
It was not enough merely to punish, an example had to be made.
The psychological impact of the conflict was massive.
Each side now knew how very thin was the veneer of civilised co-existence - that with the right provocation, they could unleash hell on each other.
Two thousand men, women and children had perished in the siege.
The pretence of British rule had been shattered, the bluff called.
And when peace returned, British attitudes hardened.
The poet Rudyard Kipling called it, "Wearing knuckle dusters under kid gloves.
" The British would soon find a new way of showing who was boss.
This bleak patch of waste ground outside Delhi was once the setting for a series of extraordinary spectacles.
They were called "durbars," the Indian word for a meeting between ruler and ruled.
It was less a meeting than a ceremonial show of strength.
One Indian called it, "Terror in fancy dress.
" Presiding over each of these gaudy ceremonies was the British ruler in India, the Viceroy.
One of them understood the power of extravagant display better than any other.
"Lord George Nathaniel Curzon" went the rhyme, "was a most superior person.
" He liked to assemble his magnificent uniforms including assorted foreign decorations, from various places, one of them being a London theatrical costume shop.
Magnificent events like this were meant to dazzle the country into submission.
A few old statues in the corner of this foreign field are all that's left.
Even the caretaker of this peculiar place isn't much interested.
- Hello.
- Hello.
Can I ask you some questions? What do you think of all the statues just down here? Oh, I'm afraid we're some of the occasional white men.
But do you know what happened here? Not very interested.
There's one relic of the British Raj that still exerts something of its old magic.
Like the Taj Mahal, the Victoria Memorial is a shrine to a woman.
A British queen in the heart of Calcutta.
In the person of Queen Victoria, the British liked to believe the empire had achieved human form.
They cooked up the resonant but meaningless title of Empress of India for her.
But she was more than a title.
Victoria was Empress, mother, virtual god.
In the years following the mutiny, over 50 statues of her were commissioned and shipped out from Britain.
The Maharaja of Baroda for example, paid £15,500 for a solid marble statue.
And at the feet of it, flowers were regularly laid and every week it was given a shampoo to keep the old queen looking spruce.
Victoria had plenty to smile about.
A mix of enterprise and cunning, brutality and pomp, had turned India into the biggest, richest and most significant colony in the empire.
By the closing years of Victoria's reign, India formed the heart of an empire that stretched from Canada in the west, to Australia in the east.
It was time to celebrate.
Victoria's diamond jubilee on the 22nd of June, 1897, was the grandest showing off of empire Britain would ever see.
If the Indian durbars were designed to cow the empire's subjects, the jubilee was a piece of theatre meant to fire the British public with imperial fervour.
A vast cavalcade made its way across the capital to the so-called "parish church of empire", St Paul's Cathedral.
Thousands of troops had been summoned from all over the empire.
Canadian Hussars, Indian lancers, Cypriot policemen wearing fezzes, Jamaicans in white gaiters.
There were Hong Kong policemen, Australian cavalry men, Diachs, Maoris, Rajas and Maharajas.
In the midst of all this frenzy rode the matriarch of empire.
She allowed herself an occasional tear.
The day was marked by celebrations throughout her colonies.
The Daily Mail brought out a special edition in gold ink to mark the occasion.
As the procession passed, its star reporter was quite overcome.
"You begin to understand, as never before, what the empire amounts to.
"Not only that we possess all these remote, outlandish places, "but that we send out a boy and he takes hold of savages "and teaches them to obey him.
And to believe in him.
"And to die for him and the Queen.
" But not everyone shared this sense of wide-eyed amazement.
There were some who looked at the spectacle and wondered.
They remembered the splendour of the Roman Empire and how that had fallen.
How could an empire that wouldn't stop growing be sustained? And, in particular, how could the great prize of India be secured? The answer to that had already taken the British to some pretty unexpected places.
One morning in September 1882, the Egyptian people woke up to find they were not alone.
A British army had landed and was advancing on the capital.
Egypt was never part of the empire, you may say, and indeed, formally, you'd be right.
Egypt was an emergency, an anomaly, an experiment, and, for a while, a bit of a success.
No sooner had British troops landed here than the British government announced they'd be leaving.
In fact, they stayed for 70 years.
What on earth were they doing here? The reason could be found just across the desert.
The Suez Canal.
This 120-mile slice through Egyptian territory was the lifeline of the empire, dramatically cutting sailing time to India.
Most of the ships passing through it were British.
They brought tea and cotton and jute from India and beyond to Britain.
They could take troops back to quell another mutiny.
Trouble near the canal might spell trouble for Britain.
And trouble had been brewing in the streets of Cairo.
Egyptians were angry about foreign influence in their country.
When riots broke out in the city, the British grew nervous.
The Cairo riots triggered a classic piece of imperial footwork.
The pattern goes like this.
British people or British interests are threatened, British forces are sent to protect them and they never leave.
In Egypt, they didn't leave because they hardly admitted they'd arrived.
Much of the British occupation of Egypt was passed off as little more than a spot of armed tourism.
- Good morning.
- Welcome.
Thank you.
For many years, Egypt was run quietly from this building, now the British Embassy.
And this was the man who ran it.
Ruling Egypt for over 20 years and perfecting the strange machinery of British power in the Middle East.
Sir Evelyn Baring.
Officially he was just Consul-General, rather than Colonial Governor, but with 6,000 troops stationed next door, there was no doubt who was in charge.
It wasn't just his size that gave him the nickname "Over-Baring".
Baring was an imperialist through and through.
He regarded the Egyptians, and indeed, most foreigners, as children.
And he treated them accordingly.
With occasional concern and permanent disdain.
It earned him their profound resentment.
Baring allowed the Egyptian elite to imagine they were still running the country.
"The British are easy to deceive," said one Egyptian politician, "but when you think you've deceived them, "they give you the most tremendous kick in the backside.
" Baring was a man who liked to exercise power behind the throne.
He did not give commands, but, it was said, "Advice which had to be taken.
" Here, the workings of empire had become almost invisible.
The British found a word for it.
Egypt was not a colony - it was a protectorate.
Baring allowed himself two hours each evening to exercise at the Gezira Sporting Club.
As they did all over the empire, British officials in Cairo repaired to the club at the end of the working day.
You can be so mean in croquet, can't you? - And it is in many countries now.
- It is in many countries, yes.
Have you been a member here a very long time? In the club? Yes, about more than 50 years.
55 years.
55 years! Do you remember when the British were here? Yes.
And what did you think? I think they were forbidding any Egyptian to enter this club, unless they take a licence.
- Really? - Yes.
- Were you glad to see the English go? - For sure.
- We weren't all bad, were we? - Huh? - We weren't all bad? - All kinds of imperialism is bad.
Was there nothing good that the British did here? Nothing was good.
All the time they were here, 70 years, and it was all - 70 years, more than 70 years.
- Yes, did they do nothing good? I think, no.
How many times did you come to Egypt? - I've been three or four times.
- Four times? - Yes.
I think.
- You are most welcome here.
Well, it's very nice of you.
Thank you very much.
- Yes.
- Particularly in light of our history.
This is one of the good things British did in Egypt.
There you are, you've found one thing.
The temporary intervention in Egypt, the bit of Empire that never was, would last into the middle of the 20th Century.
Baring himself, the invisible man, left in 1907 to retire to Bournemouth.
Baring's last carriage journey from the British headquarters to the railway station, was marked by what one witness called, "a chilly silence.
" I don't suppose he'd have cared that much, he wasn't here to be loved.
But I wonder what he'd have made of the fact that, even generations later, there were Egyptians travelling to England to spit on his grave.
As the 20th Century dawned, Britain's sense of its role in the world had given it dangerous delusions about what it could do.
World war and its aftermath would expose these delusions in a merciless fashion.
The First World War stretched far beyond the mud and trenches of northern Europe.
It reached into the streets and deserts of Palestine and the Middle East.
Once again, Britain feared for its key strategic asset, its lifeline to India, the Suez Canal.
It had to be protected.
The region was ruled by Britain's war enemy, Turkey.
In their desert conflict with the Turks, the British needed allies.
The Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Desert knew this arid land and they knew how to survive in it.
If they could be encouraged to rise against the Turks, they might prove invaluable.
But who could unite them? This is the edge of the Sinai Desert.
It was here that a young man came on a secret mapping mission for the British Army.
It was disguised as an archaeology field trip.
And it was the beginning of a long love affair with the desert and with the Arab people.
That love affair created one of the most romantic figures in the history of the British Empire, Thomas Edward Lawrence.
Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence, the illegitimate son of an Irish baronet - scholar, archaeologist, linguist - was just the man to charm and inspire the Arabs into a desert revolt.
The story of an Englishman leading an exotic army across the desert caught the public's imagination.
In contrast to the mud and murder of the Western front, here was a sweeping campaign fought in blazing sunlight.
And here, too, was a different kind of imperialist.
Romantic, idealistic, dashing and slightly nuts.
Lawrence had a passion for the Arabs and their way of life.
His ability to live like them impressed them.
So did the gold from the British treasury he brought to pay them.
And he gave them something more, a belief in themselves as an Arab nation.
As his masters in London had hoped, he coaxed them into fighting with the British, with the promise of their freedom once the war was over.
- Do you think he was a good man? - Yeah.
Why? He was a real man.
Do you think that the promises that he made were ever kept? Lawrence promised his Arab fighters freedom from foreign rule.
They believed Palestine would be theirs.
There would be many more promises made, and just as many broken.
The war in the desert finally brought Britain a string of heady victories.
Imperial troops from India, Australia and New Zealand, as well as Britain, swept across the region.
By the winter of 1917, the ultimate prize was within their grasp.
The Holy City itself.
And so was born the dangerous conviction that the interests of the British Empire and the will of God, might be one and the same.
For Christians, Jerusalem was sacred as the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, venerated as the place where Christ's body was laid.
But Jerusalem was sacred to other faiths, too.
A thousand years before Christ, it was the capital of the Jews.
Sharing the city with the Jews in relative peace, were the Arabs, for whom Jerusalem was one of the holiest cities in Islam.
For the British prime minister, Lloyd George, the empire now began to feel like a divine mission.
Most British political leaders had been brought up on the Bible.
They were steeped in its geography, and as for its history, well, Lloyd George claimed that, as a boy, he knew the names of the kings of Israel long before he knew the names of the kings of England.
At noon on December the 11 th, 1917, British forces entered Jerusalem.
In a show stage-managed from London, for this imperial victory the trappings of power were discarded.
Commander-in-chief General Edmund Allenby dismounted from his horse and entered the city on foot.
To a watching world, Allenby was proclaiming that he came not as a conqueror, but as a pilgrim.
Behind him, in borrowed army uniform, was a jubilant Lawrence.
But his joy would prove short-lived.
On the walls of the city, Allenby ordered a solemn proclamation from the British government to be read out.
He knew, he said, that the place was sacred to three great religions, that its soil had been sanctified by prayer and pilgrimage.
And he promised to preserve it.
But for all his fine words, Allenby had been handed a ticking time bomb.
For back in London, the British government had just gone even further.
The Jews of Europe, scattered for centuries, had been made a remarkable offer.
In the Balfour Declaration, the British foreign secretary committed Britain to helping the Jews make a home in Palestine.
Playing God in the Holy Land was an astonishing gesture.
The British had come to feel they were agents of destiny.
They had become powerful enough, and you might say, well-meaning enough to believe they could solve the problems of the world.
The Promised Land had now been promised once too often.
Over the next decade, as more and more Jews arrived in Palestine, tension between them and the Arabs rose.
It came to a head at the Wailing Wall, in the heart of old Jerusalem.
In 1929, riots broke out here, at the site sacred to both Jews and Arabs.
The riots spread.
And later, Arabs murdered Jews in their homes.
The British police were completely outnumbered.
And the British authorities decided that, from now on, all Arab outrages would be met with real aggression.
The British want peace at any price.
They try to restore order, search everybody.
They act as if both sides are equally guilty.
To the Arabs, the British had broken the promise of freedom made to them by Lawrence.
Instead, the Arabs were having to give up their land to the Jews.
The Jews felt the British were failing to honour the terms of the Balfour Declaration and the promise of a national home for them.
Both sides made their case with gelignite.
Both sides committed appalling atrocities.
Palestine became a posting from which many never returned.
The Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion is full of British graves.
Many belong to soldiers, policemen and civilians who died trying to keep apart two peoples who had previously lived relatively peaceably together.
After a while, you begin to notice one date keeps reappearing.
The 22nd of July, 1946.
It was in the wing on the right of the picture that the terrorists placed their explosive.
The hotel housed the British Army headquarters and the Palestine government offices.
And casualties were very heavy.
Ninety-one people were killed, including 41 Arabs, 28 British, and 17 Jews.
Sara Agassi was 17 at the time.
She was a member of the team of militant Jews who bombed the King David Hotel.
Pretending she was just attending a dance, she scouted the hotel for the terrorists, deciding where the bomb should be placed.
So they came down here with the bombs, and then what? To the To the place where No, it's not here.
- There.
Let's go.
- Through there? - It was open.
- Do you recognise it? Yeah, of course.
We came from here.
This was the place that you had been looking at - when you came dancing that day.
- Yes.
Here was the bar and here was the orchestra.
And all this was very big and it had a lot of chairs and tables.
Beautiful lamps and everything was very beautiful.
Now, where were the bombs put? Into these columns.
This is one of the columns that supports the whole hotel, I guess.
- Or this corner of it.
- Yes, yes.
It's not one.
One, two, three But four, five.
Five columns, five bombs.
What was your reaction when you heard the bomb go off? - What did you think? What did you feel? - We were satisfied.
- You were satisfied? - Yes.
It was a mission.
You've never been worried about what you did? Of course I was worried.
To succeed.
But your sense of morality, your conscience, - hasn't bothered you since? - No, no.
We fight for our To do something against the British.
What do you think about it after all this time? This is over 60 years ago now.
Have your views changed? No.
Do you not feel any thanks at all to the British? I mean, without the Balfour Declaration, there would have been no Jewish homeland in this part of the world.
The motive is neither here nor there.
I mean, whatever the motive was, do you not think that the Balfour Declaration, the right of the Jews to have a homeland in Palestine It was a good start.
- That was a good thing, wasn't it? - Yes.
And are you not grateful for the British for that? It was now a lot less like the Promised Land, than hell on Earth.
"Tommies go home," someone daubed on a wall.
And beneath it, a despairing squaddie wrote, "I wish we fucking well could.
" What Lawrence called the British love of policing other men's muddles had proved a disaster.
The British Empire is gone from the Middle East but everyone still lives with the consequences of Britain's presence in Palestine.
Divided peoples and a divided land.
The Middle East taught the British a lesson that all empires had to learn sooner or later.
That though you may begin with ambition, and come to believe you will last forever, one day, you will have a head-on collision with reality.
In the end, and there is no disguising this fact, the British ran away.
It was May, 1948.
One departing official commented bitterly, "It is surely a new technique in our imperial mission to walk out, "and leave the pots we placed on the fire "to boil over.
" The bluff of British omnipotence had been called.
It would be called again and again over the next few decades.
The empire that had lasted more than 200 years would be dismantled in scarcely 20.
The British were beginning to lose interest.
The battered country that emerged from the Second World War was more concerned with bettering the lives of its citizens than anything else.
An American politician later remarked that the British people had decided they preferred free aspirins and false teeth to a role in the world.
But it hasn't entirely turned out that way.
In fact, we've done anything but climb into the back seat.
The empire may be over, but imperial habits linger on.
In the last three decades, Britain has embarked on seven foreign wars.
There were arguments aplenty for fighting any one of them.
But you can't help wondering if, without the memory of empire, Britain would have plunged in quite so readily.
It's as if we can't quite let go of who we once were.