Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



As a source on the establishment and growth of empires, autobiography offers eyewitness accounts of the fate of nations. Examples range from the even-tempered musings in Travels of Marco Polo (1298) and in the globe-trotter IBN BATTUTA'S On the Curiosities of Cities and the Wonders of Travel (1354) to the apologia for Arab sovereignty in THOMAS EDWARD LAWRENCE'S Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922); JOSEPH BRODSKY'S reminiscences on imprisonment and censorship in So Forth (1996); and Marjane Satrapi's children's tale Persepolis (2002), Iran's first graphic novel. Nonwhite memoirists set standards of multicultural commentary on empires, notably in the combat reportage of Scots-Jamaican herbalist MARY JANE SEACOLE'S Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857) and Mohandas Gandhi's advice to passive resisters in An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927-29).

The novelist George Sand (1804-76), a notoriously self-centered author and socialite, turned philosophical in Histoire de Ma Vie (Story of My Life, 1855) by compiling her observations about the Napoleonic Empire. She viewed all centralized powers as an “eternal secret society,” a danger to the peasantry and to democracy (Sand 1991, 342). Like a couturier critiquing costume, she accused the government of overdressing in its self-important title of empire. Of Napoleon's fall, she warned of a perilous interim when his subjects “were going to perish by the thousands for his glory, and the reign of the courtiers was going to flourish anew, more brilliantly and more insolently than under the former monarchy” (178). In a shot at Bonapartist imperialism, Sand dismissed the emperor for “his fundamental flaw—the profound aristocratic vanity of the parvenu” (526).

In the last years of the Hawaiian kingdom, the text of Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, Liliuokalani (1898) surveyed the excellent administration of the autobiographer and her brother. David Kalakaua (1836-91), the island chain's last king, was both a journalist and a mythographer of Polynesian stories anthologized as The Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Fables and Folklore of a Strange People (1888). Liliuokalani (1838-1917) followed his scholarly example with a translated account of the history of the archipelagos, the Kumulipo (The beginning, 1897), a chant that moves from the creation story to her family's genealogy. Like VIRGIL'S AENEID (17 B.c.), the text has propaganda value for Liliuokalani's validation of Hawaii's dynasty. However, her autobiography, Hawaii’s Story, is more explicit on issues of imperialism. In chapter 29, the memoir summarizes the faults of John L. Stevens, the American minister to the islands who, in 1895, imprisoned Liliuokalani at Iolani Palace for 10 months and deposed her for an alleged rebellion. The queen charges the ambassador with outright piracy: “As they became wealthy and acquired lands through the simplicity of our people and their ignorance of values and of the new land laws, their greed and their love of power proportionately increased” (Liliuokalani 1898, 177), an accusation also supported by the outcome of American dealings with Indians.

In the patriotic style of the Byzantine chronicler ANNA COMNENA and Russian novelist LEO TOLSTOY, Liliuokalani takes the measure of vying parties and exposes the rapacity that brought down Hawaii's native Polynesian rule. She mourns, “My kingdom was but the assured prey of these ’conquistadores'” (234), a verbal connection of Hawaii's fate with that of the Aztec Empire of Montezuma. In her reflection over imperialism, she complains of personal humiliation, the treachery of American investors, and the devaluation of her native culture, which white interlopers mocked and reviled. She refers to a sentiment of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE in her declaration that “it is excellent to have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant” (370). She left her people a legacy: land for an orphanage and some 150 songs in The Queen’s Songbook (1973), a posthumous collection of Polynesian originals containing her most famous lyric, “Aloha Oe.”

The Immigrant's Memoir

Books by newcomers to North America, such as the Polish immigrant ANZIA YEZIERSKA, author of Bread Givers (1925), and ADELINE YEN MAH (b. 1937), author of Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter (1997), also document, with hindsight, prejudice and turmoil left behind in their home countries when realms collapse. The classic immigrant autobiography The Promised Land (1912), by journalist Mary Antin (1881-1949), opens on childhood memories of life “Within the Pale,” her term for Jewish ghetto life on the Polish border in Polotzk, Russia (present-day Belarus). Of the purpose of autobiography, she exults, “I take the hint from the Ancient Mariner, who told his tale in order to be rid of it. I will write a bold ’Finis' at the end, and shut the book with a bang!” (Antin 1912, xv). From a child's perspective, she visualizes imperial power: “Why, in Russia lived the Czar, and a great many cruel people; and in Russia were the dreadful prisons from which people never came back” (3), a situation that developed into the post-World War II gulag system of Joseph Stalin. To her bemusement, her father, the scholar Isaiah Antin, posted in their home the obligatory portrait of Czar Alexander III, “a Titus, a Haman, a sworn foe of all Jews” (18). Forced fealty required peasants to pawn their goods to buy flags to fly for the ruler's birthday, a cruel hypocrisy that drove some Jews into penury.

From toddlerhood, Antin learned that she belonged to an outcast race. Russian Jews suffered pogroms, confiscation of goods, child kidnap, and military impressment. More common hardships involved capricious arrest, taxation, and extortion by gentile police, who thrust the offenders behind the fence around Polotzk that segregated Jews from gentile Russians. More fearful to Antin were processions of Catholics and priests, who “might baptize me. That would be worse than death by torture” (9). Rather than accept a triune god, Antin preferred to “be seized with the plague, and be eaten up by vermin” (9). In so fearful a Russian Orthodox and czarist milieu, Jewish children “with old, old faces and eyes glazed with secrets” learned to “dodge and cringe and dissemble” (26). The toughening of youngsters growing up “hungry- minded and empty-hearted” instilled pride in her people's religious integrity, which they refused to water down or compromise (228).

After settling in Boston at age 13, Antin published her first poem in the Boston Herald only two years later. She subsequently moved to New York, where she married Amadeus Grabau, a professor at Columbia University, and attended Barnard College. After publishing The Promised Land, she produced They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration (1914), a stirring treatise on civil liberties. Fervid with American nationalism, the text salutes Russian revolutionaries for plotting “under the very nose of the Czar” against “the benighted condition of the Russian masses” (Antin 1914, 41). The publication preceded by three years the successful Russian Revolution and the assassination of the last Romanov emperor, Nicholas II.

Empire Seen from the Air

A heroic chronicler of the French empire in Africa, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-44) of Lyon observed a borderless earth from the cockpit of a single-engine plane. He won a wide audience for his pilot's memoir Terre des hommes, published in English as Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939). The author's philosophy of global cooperation presaged the air age. Comparing the establishment of airlines to the founding of empires, he stated, “For the colonial soldier who founds an empire, the meaning of life is conquest. He despises the colonist” (Saint- Exupery 2002, 46). He warned that forcing people to serve technology created an advanced form of imperialism until “little by little the machine will become part of humanity” (46).

While pioneering long-distance commercial flights that preceded the establishment of Aeropostale, the first French aviation corporation, the author observed changes in the world preceding World War II, particularly the intoxicating egotism of pan-Germanism, the philosophy underlying the Nazi empire. In his final collection, Ecrits de guerre (Wartime Writings, 1938-44), he stated, “There are forty million people over there in France who must endure their slavery,” a reference to the fearful appetite of the Nazi regime for expansion and for exterminating French gypsies and Jews (Saint- Exupery 1982, 91). He declared that “war ceased to be a glorious outing” when Europe became one vast mortuary (48). Outraged at the carnage, he called for an end to imperialists' game playing and an end to territorial conquest and GENOCIDE.

A contemporary of Saint-Exupery and fellow commercial pilot, Beryl Markham (1902-86) lived a multicultural existence in the far reaches of the British Empire. She captured the atmosphere of British East Africa (present-day Kenya) in a bestselling memoir, West with the Night (1942), which the National Geographic Society chose as one of the 100 best adventure books of all time. Her oneness with a colonial homeland derived from personal liberty on an unconquerable veld: “Competitors in conquest have overlooked the vital soul of Africa herself, from which emanates the true resistance to conquest” (Markham 1942, 7). Born in Rutland, England, she came to Africa as a toddler and grew up on a farm in the Great Rift Valley at Njoro, 70 miles northwest of Nairobi. In acknowledgement of Nairobi's centrality to world commerce, she called it “a counting house in the wilderness—a place of shillings and pounds and land sales and trade, extraordinary successes and extraordinary failures” (6). While apprenticing at her father's horsebreeding trade, she played Kenyan board games; memorized stories and African march rhythms; wrestled in the style of the Nandi tribe; and rode her horse, Wee MacGregor, at Elkington Farm near the Kikuyu Reserve. In addition to bow hunting and surviving in the wild, she mastered Swahili from Bishon Singh, a Sikh stableman, and spoke the African dialects of the Kikuyu, Kipsigis, Luo, and Nandi.

After learning to pilot a Gypsy Moth bush plane in 1931, Markham completed a 23-day solo flight from Nairobi to Juba, Sudan, up the Nile to Cairo, and across Europe to London's Heston Airport. She balanced adventuring as an aerial safari scout and relay ambulance pilot with writing short stories, including “Praise God for the Blood of the Bull” (1942), an account of the Masai blood cult and spear-hunting warthogs on the Molo River. In her autobiography, she thought back on the illusion of total freedom in Kenya, when her friend Kibii warned, “What a child does not know and does not want to know of race and colour and class, he learns soon enough as he grows to see each man flipped inexorably into some predestined groove like a penny or a sovereign in a banker's rack” (1942, 149). During World War II, she wrote of international plotting to seize African assets. Of Kenya's fate, she called European invasion a “foothold” secured by “endless dispute and bloodshed … and the noisy drum-rolling of bickering empires” (1942, 7, 8). Upon retirement to postcolonial Kenya, the author turned an early chapter of her memoir into a children's story, The Good Lion (1983), her first-person encounter with a pet lion named Paddy. In the film Out of Africa (1985), the character Felicity portrays Markham and her relationship with fabulist and memoirist ISAK DlNESEN (Karen Blixen) and hunter Denys Finch-Hatton. A biopic, Beryl Markham: Shadow on the Sun (1988), features Stefanie Powers as Markham.



Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.

----- . They Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914.

Liliuokalani. Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, Liliuokalani. Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1898.

----- . The Kumulipo: An Hawaiian Creation Myth. Honolulu: Pueo Press, 1978.

----- . The Queen’s Songbook. Edited by Dorothy K. Gillett and Barbara B. Smith. Honolulu: Hui Hanai, 1999.

Markham, Beryl. The Good Lion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

------- . The Splendid Outcast: Beryl Markham’s African

Stories. San Francisco, Calif.: North Point, 1987.

----- . West with the Night. Berkeley, Calif.: North Point Press, 1942.

McCay, Mary A. “Beyond Femaleness: Beryl Markham, Africa's Adopted Daughter in West with the Wind.” In Nwanyibu: Womanbeing & African Literature, edited by Phanuel Akubueze Egejuru and Ketu H. Katrak. New Orleans, La.: Africa World Press, 1997.

Saint-Exupery, Antoine de. Wartime Writings. Translated by Lewis Galantiere. Fort Washington, Pa.: Harvest, 1982.

----- . Wind, Sand, and Stars. Translated by Lewis Galantiere. Fort Washington, Pa.: Harvest, 2002.

Sand, George. Story of My Life: The Autobiography of George Sand. Edited by Thelma Jurgrau. New York: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Silva, Noenoe K. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.