When Empires Fall, It’s Never Pretty
As they collapse, colonial empires usually show us what they are really made of. For proof, look no further than the miserable example of Portugal.
At some moment in the 15th century, Prince Henry the Navigator must have looked out from the rocky shores of southern Portugal, his English wife Philippa by his side, his storied school of adventure and seamanship behind him, and dreamed that his little country—clinging to the edge of the Iberian Peninsula—could be great.
He would send his caravels and money out to sea, as the Muslim hordes moved toward the gates of Vienna and the citadels of Sevilla and southern Spain. With Islamic calls to prayer in his ear and Henry’s gold in his wallet, Dinis Dias would stumble onto the Senegal River and round West Africa’s Cap-Vert in 1444. The next year, Alvise Cadamosto would drive the Portuguese flag into the barren rock of the Cape Verde Islands. Bartolomeu Dias would reach the southern tip of Africa in 1490. Then Vasco da Gama would round the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 to reach the Indian Ocean, searching for what Hitler would later called lebensraum, living space. Portugal’s small redoubt on Europe’s periphery would become a monstrous empire, stretching from Brazil, the largest territory in South America, to the pearls of Africa—Angola and Mozambique—to the romantic city of Goa on the Indian subcontinent, to the East Asian beachheads of Timor and Macau.
It would be some time until Elizabeth I’s navy defeated the Spanish Armada and began England’s own quest for empire, one that would flow to Australia and North America, ebb with the colonies’ insurrection, then flow again, to India and Burma, the tiny South American foothold of the Falkland Islands, to West Africa, East Africa, and the parts of Southern Africa not already claimed by the pesky Portuguese.
How these vast empires collapsed became a fascination for me, one of the historical drivers that produced my novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane. Its working title had been “Empires End,” no apostrophe, no particular empire, just a statement. Empires end, their once-proud people dust themselves off and carry on. Their masters might hang from poles, like Mussolini, or fade into history like Churchill. But the way they end seems to say much about the people at their core, their nucleus, what the Portuguese called “The Metropole,” whether it’s Greater London, Little Lisbon, or mulish Moscow.
Many of us may be familiar with some of the brutal episodes of Pax Britannica’s collapse, the massacre at Amritsar, the beatings meted out to Gandhi and his followers, in South Africa and in India, guerrilla warfare in Burma. But all in all, the British empire’s end was a sleepy affair. Kwame Nkrumah declared independence for Ghana in 1957 without a whole lot of fuss, tipping a cascade of African dominos, from Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria in the West to Tanzania and Kenya in the East to Zambia in the South. With little blood to shed, Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyrere and Kenneth Kuanda emerged as voices of an independent Africa, free (at least at first) of the bloody rivalries borne of armed conflict.
The British in their cool, green, now-lonely island in the North Atlantic could take stock of their losses and remake a national image: Usher out Tennyson, T.E. Lawrence, Stanley and Livingstone; usher in Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Saatche and Saatche, Rotten and Vicious.
In contrast, Portugal raged into the dying light. In 1960, the French West African colony of Dahomey joined the rest of free West Africa and gained its independence, save for a tiny enclave. The smallest town on the coast, Ajuda, was Portuguese. It boasted a 16th-century Portuguese fort, which, by then, had crumbled, and a largish bungalow on the grounds, grandly deemed the governor’s palace. By 1961, the African government of what had become Benin politely requested that the lonely little Portuguese governor leave. Portugal’s unyielding fascist dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, didn’t really refuse. He simply never acknowledged the request. That August, Benin’s president, Hubert Maga, delivered an ultimatum: Vacate your little colony by midnight in one week’s time. Still, there was no response. A few hours before the deadline, smoke puffed out of the bungalow. The governor flew to Lisbon, but only after he burned the Portuguese territory of Sao Joao de Ajuda to the ground.
That same year, a fed-up Jawaharlal Nehru—tired of Portugal’s stubborn little enclave that had sat like a wart in an independent India for 14 years—overran Goa with Indian troops. Until his death, Salazar considered the lovely but insignificant tourist destination of Portuguese Goa to be merely temporarily occupied by the forces of a hostile India.
By 1970, more than half of Portugal’s economic output was going toward wars of independence raging in Angola, Mozambique, and what was then Portuguese Guinea. They would all fall, their independence as much a liberation for Portugal proper as for the colonies.
But Portugal’s imperial implosion did not lead to its rebirth or any kind of social reconstruction. To this day, Portugal seems to be identified by its fallen greatness, once again a small rocky redoubt in Iberia. Jose Saramago captured a nation’s anguish in Blindness, but beyond Saramago’s Nobel Prize, Portugal’s great gifts to the world seem limited in recent years to Cristiano Ronaldo, and the burning debate over whether he is truly a soccer great or just a great lay.
France’s horrific, bloody war with independence fighters in Algeria mars both nations to this day. Paris’s impoverished outer suburbs seethe with angry North African immigrants. Algeria has never quite found stability. Its Islamist insurrection and ensuing bloodbaths heralded in the global jihads we are all suffering through.
Why should we care about the fate of fallen empires? Perhaps it is because, like a sinking ship, they tend to create massive whirlpools that drag everyone in their vicinity down with them. The Soviet Empire, in its early, post-imperial years, seemed to follow the British mode—depressed, sullen, but not terribly threatening. The Warsaw Pact crumbled. The Soviet periphery disintegrated, its largest, richest pieces drifting like icebergs to the West. Gorbachev shrugged. Yeltsin somehow remained jovial between swigs of vodka.
But the Portuguese phase—quiet life in a circumscribed nation, inward-looking, shorn of ambition—appears not to be for Russia, a defeated, angry bully, longing to reassert itself. Hardly meek, the Russia of Vladimir Putin has brutally crushed Chechnya, carved up Georgia, fomented what surely looks like civil war in Ukraine, has even meddled in tiny Moldova. Its bombers and submarines patrol NATO’s northern flank in Scandinavia. The tiny Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are quaking in fear. Russia dreams once more of empire.
In an early version of No. 4 Imperial Lane, the narrator, David Heller, takes one last walk to Brighton Pier, which juts into the sea from the southern shore of England, once merely the launch point for Greater Britain, now empire’s end.
A prostitute stepped out of the shadows at the base of the pier with a German accent and two-toned, black-and-white hair. She was tall and nicely curved, not emaciated by heroin or starvation, maybe new to the trade. East Germany was beginning to crumble, and the flotsam was spilling ashore from the next empire to fall.
“Hello, gentleman, would you like a nice girl?”
I guess I took too long a look. She was wearing a short jacket that fit snuggly around her ample chest; the thin quilting offered little warmth and even less concealment. Her skirt barely reached her thighs, which were naked in the chill. The gentle curve of her calves ended in four-inch stilettos, a nice change from the huaraches and dance flats of the girls I knew. Sadly, I thought she would be the best-looking lay of my life.
I smiled mournfully.
“Sorry, I have no money.”
She looked at me with angry disappointment, as if the mention of money had violated a code I was not privy to.
“What do you think I am?” she demanded.
We can never be sure how to answer that question. We only know that empires end, and their people somehow must pick themselves, up, dust themselves off, and soldier on. Sullenly? Angrily? Liberated from the burden of empire to be free and creative, or weighed down by regret?
“All will see that so dear to me was my country that I was content to die not only in but with it,” Portugal’s Kipling, Luis Vaz de Camoes, wrote on his deathbed in 1579, a year after he had watched Portugal’s king, Sebastiao, lose his life and his entire army in the sands of Morocco’s Al-Ksar al-Kebir over the span of four hours.
That was supposed to be the end of Portugal’s global aspirations. But imperial desires … they have a way of stretching out a people’s agonies. The United States’ own imperial overreach in Iraq is still testing us. The debate among Republican presidential candidates over the wisdom of that military adventure still points to unfinished business that most of us thought was very much finished. The point is, defeat tends to linger, just as it did after Vietnam. And it’s in that lingering aftermath that nations show just what they are made of.