Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why The British Had An Empire

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British floated around the world, taking control of land by force of arms. It's not much of a sop to point out that everyone else was at it, and possibly only a small consolation that we weren't the Belgians. In each case I like to think we invaded with the best of intentions.

You could argue that the gloomy climate of the British Isles was the spur to colonisation, but that wouldn't explain why we occupied Ireland.

You could suggest that we were dissatisfied with our indigenous cuisine and were looking for food that wasn't made entirely from suet. But against that, Marmite was invented in the UK (even if it is named after a French cooking vessel), and the foods New Zealand is famous for (lamb and butter) were both things we already had.

You could suggest that it was because everyone in Britain is ugly, and our forefathers were therefore desperate to get abroad and meet some more attractive people to marry. And then I'd have to punch you for reinforcing the stereotype that all British people are ugly, violent and lacking in height. (That's right, you do get touchy after a few hundred years of those "nasty, brutish and short" jibes.)

No, let's face it, the reason the best and the brightest went out into the world wasn't to bring back riches beyond imagination from the rest of the world. It wasn't for adventure, or a desire to apply some person's idea of civilisation to everyone else. It wasn't even a form of nationalistic oneupmanship. These are all post-facto justifications, when it should be evident, given Occam's Razor, our traditional failure to learn foreign languages, and our instinctive ability to give offence when abroad.

As I said to begin with, we only established our Empire with the best of intentions: we knew you were probably going to hate us, so we made sure we'd be able to understand what you were shouting at us. It's a lot easier to make people speak English when you've eliminated their existing government, and the fact that you've given them a legitimate grievance or two means there will be something for them to talk about.

I suppose if Rosetta Stone had been around a few hundred years ago, maybe there never would have been any of all that unpleasantness.

No, I meant the language learning software. We nicked the Rosetta Stone from somewhere, didn't we?


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