Ornamentalism Book Review

Ornamentalism Book Review
by Julie Lorenzen
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A modern world was emerging in Great Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of the previous authors we have studied tackled the subjects of modernity, which include urbanization, industrialization, capitalism and class consciousness. Fredrich Engles who wrote The Conditions of the Working Class, addressed all of the previous topics in his book and was particularly interested in the subject of social class. When he wrote of class he was addressing the working class and the bourgeoisie. Engels hoped to send the message that the working class was being exploited and that they should rise up   in revolt in order to create a better world for themselves. The traditional aristocracy and landed gentry was almost irrelevant in his book, written in 1847, which could be an indication that the aristocracy was in danger of becoming irrelevant in Great Britain. However, the aristocracy managed to become quite prominent in the years between 1850 and 1950. In his book, Ornamentalism, David Cannadine reached beyond Great Britain to the British Empire to explain how the aristocracy managed to stay prominent.

Social hierarchy is at the core of David Cannadine’s book Ornamentalism. His narrative was on the hierarchal system that existed in the British Empire. Although he tracks the system’s roots back to the eighteenth century, Cannadine claimed that the system flourished between 1850 and 1950.  While Great Britain was becoming an urbanized, capitalistic society, the empire remained largely agricultural which was an ideal setting for the aristocracy. The empire was so vast that the British liked to claim “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” The empire included the four dominions of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, India and parts of Africa and the Middle East. As the result of its vastness, the empire was varied and diverse. 

However, the empire converged because all of the societies in the empire involved some hierarchy. According to Cannadine, the dominions were rural aspirational, the Indian Empire was caste-based and princely, the crown colonies in Africa were chiefly and traditional and the realm in the Middle East was Bedouin and tribal. The British aristocracy saw the local leaders such as native princes of India and the tribal chiefs of Africa as their equals. They allowed the British Empire to be indirectly ruled by these native leaders. 

A main idea in Cannadine’s book was that social hierarchy remained a big part of British national identity up until the mid-twentieth century. Further, he claimed the social construct became visible by ornamentalism. In terms of ornamentalism, Cannadine meant the titles, honors, parades, celebrations (Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee), fancy clothes, and respect bestowed upon the elite. The titles, in particular reflected a layered hierarchal system. Cannadine wrote, “At the behest of the duke of Buckingham, who was colonial secretary, the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St. George, which had previously been confined to residents of Malta and the Ionian Islands, was re-established and enlarged as the pre-eminent order of chivalry for those who governed, administered and had gone to settle in the British Empire.” (86) In this order, competent administrators became CMG (Call me God.) Governors of second-class colonies were known as KCMG (Kindly Call Me God). Finally, the governors of first-class colonies were know as GCMG (God Calls Me God.” 

Though the hierarchal system remained prominent for a century, there were limitations, which Cannadine discussed in chapter ten. According to him, there was a lot of ignorance, self-deception and make believe in the hierarchal system. He wrote, “The supposedly settled herarches of the great dominions, stretching back to before the Conquereor, were recent creation, and Burke’s Colonial Gentry (a registry of aristocrats) was full of inconsistencies, inventions and mistakes.  The apparently  ‘timeless’ India of caste and villages and ruling princes , with their ‘traditional’ Indo-Saracenic palaces, was not only a partial vision in that it ignored towns, the middle classes and the nationalists; it also mistakenly assumed that these three pillars of ‘timeless’ India were unchanging, when in reality they were changing a great deal …(148) 

In conclusion, David Cannadine chronicled the rise and fall of the British hierarchal system. According to him, the system was as its height between 1850 and 1950. Though mostly internal, the system became visible through ornamentalism meaning primarily that those at the top of the hierarchy were celebrated with grand titles, parades, celebrations, etc. Further, the system helped to connect the vast empire and to create a British national identity. However, a changing world, and other limitations of the hierarchy led to its decline in the middle of the twentieth century.



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