‘I too am a creature of the empire world.’ The opening sentence of the last chapter initially sounds like a reluctant admission by the author, yet is there anyone who could deny such a label? Certainly not this reviewer, born in the ex-colony of Cyprus to a British mother and ‘native’ father, both grandfathers – Irish and Cypriot – having served the British Army in some capacity. Doubtless, many readers will also have some direct connection but might understandably shy away from such a proclamation as ‘Empire made me’. Indeed, the recent passing of the motion ‘This House Regrets the Legacy of the British Empire’ by the University’s Debating Union offers a partial confirmation of this.
An obsession that became a book, ‘Empire Made Me’ follows the story of one Briton, Richard M. Tinkler, from his birthplace of Grange-over-sands in 1898, through the trenches of WWI, his arrival in Shanghai in 1919, his employment with the Shanghai Municipal Police, and his controversial and ‘diplomatically noisy’ death twenty years later. Robert Bickers masterfully reconstructs this tale of a man (who would have otherwise remained a ‘nobody’, lost to posterity) through the letters saved by his sister Edith, the collections of photos taken by Mr. Tinkler himself, and the records in the Shanghai Municipal Archives. More than a simple biography, Bickers offers ‘a window into an otherwise closed world’ by writing about those non-elite settlers who had been deemed insignificant. One might reasonably argue that it would be more justifiable to examine the lives of the colonized rather than the colonizer. Nevertheless, in a historical field that increasingly appreciates the need to examine the relationships that existed between people (including their dimensions of power), both the lives of the (financially-speaking) ‘poor whites’ and the colonized peoples can bring out the full ‘complexity of experience of those in all parts of the web of world empire’. Shanghai, never formally part of the British Empire, but greatly affected by its networks and influence, is a well-suited location to examine.
An additional value offered by the book is in considering the act of writing history. Beyond ruminating on the ‘silence’ left by the absence of source materials so familiar to social historians, Bickers explores the humanity behind the functionary and so goes some way towards giving historical life to someone who would have otherwise remained a narrative function – simply an ‘imperialist’ or a ‘policeman’. That is not to say that Tinkler deserves our unquestioning sympathy. What can at times be a heart-breaking narrative can also reveal the ugliest of prejudice and character. Perhaps that’s what makes the book so appealing and a must-read for students of both Britain and Empire, as well as general historians.