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Josh Gabert-Doyon reviews a revisionist history of the dash and dare of British imperialism and colonialism.

Jeffrey A. Auerbach, Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire (Oxford UP, 2018). 320pp.

Concentrating on boredom, it seems, often looks a lot like concentrating on labour. Psychologist Joseph Ephraim Barmack is frequently cited as the first scientist to study boredom, conducting research on bored factory workers in the late 1930s and concluding that amphetamines could be used to treat boredom and improve productivity. In a more contemporary context, we might imagine the mass of ping pong balls lost to Silicon Valley’s efforts to stave off startup boredom and remedy alienation with “workplace culture”. It’s easy to forget that there’s a historical precedent to this affect – that we are the inheritors of boredom.

Jeffrey A. Auerbach’s new book, Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire, investigates the prevalence of boredom among British colonizers. Driven by the prospect of adventure, economic opportunity, and the glory of British expansion, those who embarked on the task of empire building found themselves “deflated by the dreariness of their imperial lives, eager to escape the tedium of the empire they had built”.

During the 17th century the British Empire sustained itself on the story that the colonial experience was both righteous and unbelievably exciting. Sea voyages were difficult, and when one eventually did reach landfall there was a good chance of violence, but the exotic foreign cultures, the landscapes, and the wildlife made the trip worthwhile. The British colonialist was meant to be swashbuckling. Advertisements for even the most banal household goods offered colourful and robust propaganda for life in the colonies. Travelogues and illustrated accounts of colonial exploration were wildly lucrative for London publishing houses. All of this attracted a crowd of young Brits eager to escape the drudgery of life in the metropole.

By the 19th century, expectations were catching up. “As for Kangaroo Island, it seems a very uninviting place. Nothing but cliffs, sand, and scrubs,” remarked one British traveler visiting the Australian coast. The weather, the length of colonial travel, and the fears of racial contamination were all among reasons for boredom. Picturesque depictions of the colonies helped to amp up the promise that life abroad would be a bit more interesting. But more than simply tracking the discourse around colonial experience, it’s Auerbach’s attempt to describe the texture of boredom that makes this such a rich contribution to colonial history.

Auerbach’s research (mainly composed of diary entries and letters) is filled with a surprising amount of zingers. “Except for the inexpressibly dullness and junglyness [sic] of the place…one might almost exist without being miserable” writes Sir Frank Swettenham, who served as a colonial officer in Malaysia. In the personal accounts of boredom in the colonies there are feelings of melancholy, nausea, exhaustion, and frustration. Boredom is shown not to be a kind emptiness or lack, but a mode of experience intimately bound up with notions of work.

For Auerbach, recuperating boredom means reframing the experience of empire as one of failure and disappointment. In the context of colonial scholarship, which tends to focus on the violence of colonialism and the myth-making that went along with it, Auerbach’s book is rather counter-intuitive. He drains the power of these myths, looking instead at the accounts of those responsible for building empire from the ground up: “What if they were not heroes or villains, builders or destroyers,” he writes, “but merely unexceptional men and women, young and old, rich and poor, struggling, often without success, to find happiness and economic security in an increasingly alienating world?” The agents of colonialism struggled to find any semblance of agency in the work that they were doing. Imperial time stretched out, deadened over decades of appointment in far off islands and desert outposts: Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” in paradise.

While idleness certainly contributed to boredom, it was often the labour of maintaining colonial control that proved to be the most dull. Increasingly professionalized, the management of the colonies became characterised by strict report-making, bookkeeping and low-stakes decision-making related to staff. Lord Lytton, who had a stint as Governor-General of India, describes the colonial administration as “a despotism of office-boxes tempered by the occasional loss of keys”. Records were copied and recopied, and months were spent waiting on instruction from London. The few encounters with colonized subjects came in the form of long, drawn-out formal events. Lytton was required to bow 1230 times during one particularly ceremonial reception with the Viceroy.

The wives of these officials were encouraged to run their households in a similar way, managing a large domestic staff and keeping a meticulous watch on financial expenditures. Socially, they were faced with constant garden parties and dinners with whatever small group of colonial families lived nearby. It’s difficult to imagine just how dull the existence of these administrators must have been, yet in reading these colonial accounts, the temporality and the totalizing effects of boredom feel undeniably similar to the way that we describe the monotony of work today.

The experience of these Colonial officials – those in power during periods of monumental violence and oppression – were characterized by loneliness and banality. Soldiers were no better off, although their stories of boredom tended to feature more booze. Drunkenness, Auerbach writes, was considered one of the more damaging symptoms of boredom. If colonial administrators felt trapped, the accounts of boredom from those who served in the military more closely resemble a state of existential dread. “I tried in vain to lose myself, so that I might have something to break the monotony of my daily rides in trying to find myself again” writes the officer R. B. Cumberland, who spent time in the Bengal Army. Nation building was boring, constant war was boring. What these accounts of boredom describe, essentially, is the process of reification. Primitive accumulation was alienating even for the agents of accumulation. “Boredom represents the moment when the barrier between the self and the world has broken down, when the subjective and the objective align,” writes Auerbach.

So what are the implications of all this boredom? Auerbach’s gambit is that boredom works as a means of registering resistance to the project of empire. In certain moments, boredom reveals itself as a form of doubt and anxiety. Lord Lytton confesses in his diary that “the permanent maintenance of a great empire is incompatible with our present institutions. Either the empire must go, or the institutions. Very probably both will go eventually”. Rather than decadence or disorganization, it’s sheer boredom that spells the decline of British greatness. Auerbach’s focus on boredom reveals not only a great deal about the history of colonialism, but about the way that capitalism transformed itself in response to the boredom of modern life.


Josh Gabert-Doyon is a London-based freelance writer and radio producer. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement as well as Dazed, The Capilano Review, Clash, and Adbusters

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