By Simpson, William (1823-1899) via Wikimedia Commons
The politician and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay imagined, in 1840, the fall of a great empire. He conjured a future “when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s”.
This was a nod by Macaulay to Edward Gibbon’s hope 60 years previously – expressed in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – that great scholars might eventually arise from the Maori population as a result of the civilising influence of British colonial rule. Book-ending 1780 and 1840, therefore, are reflections on the rise and fall of empires and civilisations, metaphorically and literally illustrated by their successors – travellers who sit among the crumbling ruins recording the ultimate failing of even mankind’s greatest achievements.
The loss of America, the French revolution, Napoleonic adventuring and a radical climate in which the middle classes were alarmed at the sight of Chartist crowds marching in the streets, also suggested disquieting visions of the future for British elites. The Greco-Roman empires had fallen, Hindu culture and Mogul power had declined in India. Was the British Empire inevitably destined to crumble, like Shelley’s Ozymandias?
Linking these concerns was British self-identification as successors of Greco-Roman antiquity – as having inherited the mantle of the “cradle of civilisation”. In their 2010 paper on Gibbon, British academics Adam Rogers and Richard Hingley note how: