Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy Empire Day!


Today is Queen Victoria's birthday. It would have been her 192nd, but all good things must come to an end, and in the case of her life, that happened in 1901. However, the day lived on as Empire Day, a celebration of the British Empire.

Perhaps you are wondering why I, an American, am celebrating the Empire. After all, isn't American Independence Day a repudiation of the Empire? Americans sometimes think of themselves as heirs to the British tradition of representative government, trial by jury and free enterprise. Less often do modern day Americans think of themselves as heirs to the Empire, but I am willing to argue just that.

Let me highlight this phenomenon with regard to just one imperial possession, India. As a child, I grew up playing both Parcheesi and Carrom; at the time I knew that the former was Indian in origin (known there as "Pachisi"), but I found out only last year that the latter is also an Indian game. As a child I also played chess (a game of Indian origin, though much earlier than the Empire) and I once came upon a special variant of the game called Maharaja. What is striking, in retrospect, is that at a young age I knew what a maharaja was, probably because of this comic. Likewise, as a child I was taught to despise thugs, wash my hair with shampoo and wear pajamas, though I had no idea that any of these words came from Hindi. As an adult I took to wearing seersucker, including on my visit to Jordan (another imperial holding, taken from the Turks by imperial troops, but I digress); this too is a product of the Raj. The world is simply too interconnected for Americans to think they have nothing to do with Britain's historical role in Africa, Asia and far-flung corners of the world.

In 1958 Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day and since 1976 the Commonwealth has celebrated it on the second Monday in March. But being a man of history, I have a certain nostalgia for the old things. This is not to say that all the Empire did was good or right, but today we choose to remember it at its best; tomorrow we can criticize, if we must.



Today's image of Queen Victoria comes from BritishMonarchs.co.uk. The lovely map comes from the University of West Georgia's Readings in the History of the British Empire. Lovely though it be, it does not show the Empire at its fullest extent; for that, click here.
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