James Bond and the Fall of the British Empire

Matthew's book on Fleming's Jamaica
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For Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, the spectacular collapse of the British Empire after the Second World War was like a bereavement. It even followed — almost to the letter — the classic sequence of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance.

Fleming had been brought up in the years when the sun never set on the empire. His childhood was accompanied by dashing stories of buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan and naval hero Horatio Nelson. His first brush with expulsion from Eton was not thanks to girls — that would come later — but when he and a friend played hooky to visit the 1924 Empire Exhibition in London, a vast undertaking where 56 of the 58 countries then in the Empire showed their wares and entertained 27 million visitors. For Fleming, this empire was a huge source of national pride.

Nostalgia for the glory days of empire was part of the attraction of Jamaica. When Fleming built his house, Goldeneye, on Jamaica’s north coast in 1946, it could have been a hundred years earlier. Jamaica was an imperial throwback with a conservative and deferential people and rigid social and racial hierarchies.

At that time, the British Empire was nearly at its peak, ruling over the lives of 450 million people. But by the time of Fleming’s last annual visit to Jamaica less than twenty years later, it was all gone, shrunken to isolated outposts. And in Jamaica, a microcosm of imperial retreat, black Jamaicans had won independence. The James Bond novels reflect this huge change and reveal Fleming’s obsessive anguish at the empire’s demise. Here are his stages of grief for the empire:

Stage #1: Denial.

By the time Fleming wrote his second novel, Live and Let Die, in 1953, the empire had received a mortal blow with the independence of India and Pakistan, but the Jamaica Bond visits is portrayed as “unchanged for a hundred years.” Bond’s local helper Quarrel is reassuringly “childlike,” and they have a relationship like “that of a Scots laird with head stalker; authority was unspoken.” Here, then, at least in the pages of the book, deference and respect for the imperial masters is alive and well.

Stage #2: Anger

After the humiliating debacle at Suez in 1956, when the British were forced by Washington to abandon their invasion of Egypt, it was impossible to deny that the empire was doomed. When Fleming returns Bond to colonial Jamaica in the following year’s Dr. No, it is a different place. Colonial society is drifting, complacent and leaderless. Surveying the Queen’s Club, the heart of white society, Fleming comments: “Such stubborn retreats will not long survive in modern Jamaica. One day Queen’s Club will have its windows broken and perhaps be burnt to the ground.”

Part of the anger is directed at the power that had replaced the Empire: the United States. (Ian wrote to his wife on one trip about “their total unpreparedness to rule the world that is now theirs.”) In Diamonds Are Forever, Bond tours around the country, at every opportunity sneering at the “ghastly glitter,” and what he sees as a materialistic and crime-ridden society.

Stage #3: Bargaining

In From Russia With Love, there is hope that, however diminished Britain’s finances and reach, they can still bring something special to the table. In a long scene, the Russian villains rate the relative merits of their enemies’ secret services. In the end it comes down to the U.S. and Britain. The Americans have wonderful technical know-how, and of course resources, but “they try to do everything with money.” The British agents may be underequipped, poorly paid and few in number, but they are the best because of their “love of adventure.” Thus exceptional individuals — such as James Bond — can allow Britain to punch above its weight.

Stage #4: Depression

As Britain’s international importance lessened, Bond is confronted by the painful truth. American villain Milton Crest in the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity” tells him there are only three powers: America, Russia and China. Occasionally Britain would be lent some money “so that they could take a hand with the grown-ups.” In You Only Live Twice, Tiger Tanaka, the head of the Japanese secret service, taunts him, “You have not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands.” Bond has not the energy to disagree.

Stage #5: Acceptance

In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, there is a long scene in which Bond and M. spend Christmas together. Over glasses of wine, they reminisce about the glory days of the Royal Navy and “a great breed of officers and seamen that would never be seen again.” The tone is of melancholy acceptance.

Stage #6: A Final Flicker of Denial

When Bond is returned to Jamaica — now independent — for the last novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, Fleming is back in denial mode. No Jamaicans feature except as waiters, sex workers, musicians or comically self-important politicians. Everyone Bond encounters in influential positions is still English, and Bond is confident that reverence for the mother country is still strong, that “he would bet his bottom dollar that he statue of Queen Victoria in the centre of Kingston had not been destroyed or removed.”

Of course the whole Bond creation can be seen to be about denial. In the figure of Bond, Britain still bestrides the world, rescuing the United States on several occasions, and projecting British power like a modern-day gunboat. This was part of the appeal of the books in the UK, a consoling fantasy that denied the disappointing new reality.

Bond remains a British national icon, as underlined when he and the Queen opened the London Olympic games. But it was all fun and a bit silly, knowingly anachronistic. Acceptance has perhaps arrived at last.

This article was first published in HuffPost.