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Heroes and Villains of the British Empire: Their Lives and Legends

Heroes and Villains of the British Empire: Their Lives and Legends

by Stephen Basdeo


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From the sixteenth until the twentieth century, British power and influence gradually expanded to cover one quarter of the world’s surface. The common saying was that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”. What began as a largely entrepreneurial enterprise in the early modern period, with privately run joint stock trading companies such as the East India Company driving British commercial expansion, by the nineteenth century had become, especially after 1857, a state-run endeavor, supported by a powerful military and navy. By the Victorian era, Britannia really did rule the waves.

Heroes of the British Empire is the story of how British Empire builders such as Robert Clive, General Gordon, and Lord Roberts of Kandahar were represented and idealized in popular culture. The men who built the empire were often portrayed as possessing certain unique abilities which enabled them to serve their country in often inhospitable territories, and spread what imperial ideologues saw as the benefits of the British Empire to supposedly uncivilized peoples in far flung corners of the world. These qualities and abilities were athleticism, a sense of fair play, devotion to God, and a fervent sense of duty and loyalty to the nation and the empire. Through the example of these heroes, people in Britain, and children in particular, were encouraged to sign up and serve the empire or, in the words of Henry Newbolt, “Play up! Play up! And Play the Game!”

Yet this was not the whole story: while some writers were paid up imperial propagandists, other writers in England detested the very idea of the British Empire. And in the twentieth century, those who were once considered as heroic military men were condemned as racist rulers and exploitative empire builders.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781526749390
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Publication date: 10/05/2020
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Dr Stephen Basdeo is Assistant Professor of History at Richmond University (RIASA Leeds). His research interests include Georgian and Victorian medievalism, as well as the history of crime. He has published widely in these areas for both an academic and non-academic audience, and regularly blogs about his research on his website ( He has published two other works with Pen and Sword: The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018) and The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (2018).

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Preface: 'Checking Out Me History' x

Key Terms xvii

Chapter 1 At Heaven's Command 1

Chapter 2 Wholesome and Amusing Literature 28

Chapter 3 Play Up! Play Up! And Play the Game! 54

Chapter 4 For Right, for Freedom, for Fair Play! 82

Chapter 5 Over the Hills and Far Away 98

Chapter 6 The Bad Boys of the Empire 124

Chapter 7 'Desperadoes and Homicidal Madmen' 145

Conclusion: Heroes No More 181

Notes 198

Select Bibliography 210

Index 215

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