Colonial authors and invasion fiction

Christian Melby’s account of how invasion fiction portrays all four official nineteenth century British nationalities – English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh – as being inextricably bound to each other in the context of future armed conflict fits well with my perspective that colonial factors were very important in the production of invasion fiction (read Christian’s post). Many of the authors of key invasion tales had strong colonial connections, as if their greater exposure to the realities of life among the resentful or even downright hostile populations of colonised nations gave them a greater awareness of the potential dangers of invasion. Just to name a few relevant examples – Erskine Childers’ mother was from what is generally known as Anglo-Irish background, this contested term at very least signalling complex self-identification and divided loyalties, and Childers spent a formative period of his youth in Ireland. Though any Irishness is largely elided in the quintessential Englishness of the Carruthers and Davies characters of The Riddle of the Sands (1903), criticism of British imperialism yet emerges in Davies’s observation that the British can’t really be too critical of German aggrandisement: ‘We can’t talk about conquest and grabbing. We’ve collared a fine share of the world…’ (2011 Penguin edition, p. 93-4).

Even the seemingly straightforward case of the British Lieutenant-Colonel Chesney of Battle of Dorking (1871) fame is complicated by colonial factors and quite representative of their formative impact upon invasion scenarios. Though born in England, Chesney was also of Anglo-Irish origins and by the age of eighteen had left England to spend most of his life in colonial service in India as an officer in the British Army, The Battle of Dorking being penned from the India Office (see Patrick Kirkwood’s article listed here). Further, Chesney had fought in the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’, the major counter-colonial uprising of the mid-century. This traumatic event has been identified time and again as one which severely shook Britain’s complacency regarding its colonial holdings, causing them to be seen increasingly as a locus of threat as well as opportunity and fuelling a hardening of colonial policy towards dissent. That Chesney’s colonial background and experience of rebellion in India informed his novel of European conflict and ignominious British defeat is amply evidenced by his premise that it was the dispersal of British forces to colonial commitments around the world that facilitated the German invasion, including another outbreak in India, as Christian mentions. Here, as a representative statement of the potential negative consequences of imperialism that would be reiterated in much of the invasion fiction to follow, is Chesney’s explication of the causes of ‘the crash’:

First, the rising in India drew away a part of our small army; then came the difficulty with America … and we sent ten thousand men to defend Canada… Thus the regular army at home was even smaller than usual, and nearly half of it was in Ireland to check the talked-of Fenian invasion fitting out in the West. Worse still … the fleet was scattered abroad: some ships to guard the West Indies, others to check privateering in the China seas, and a large part to try and protect our colonies on the Northern Pacific shore of America, where, with incredible folly, we continued to retain possessions which we could not possibly defend. (1997 OUP edition, p. 6)

I think it’s particularly telling that Chesney describes a potential Fenian uprising in Ireland as a ‘Fenian invasion’, showing how conflated the two prospects – European invasion and counter-colonial conflict – were for him.

Also of relevance in this context is Northern Irish author Tom Greer’s A Modern Daedalus (1885), in which an Irishman invents a one-man flying device from which bombs may be deployed by hand against targets on the ground. Despite being a supporter of the moderate policy of Irish Home Rule he is forced onto the side of physical force Irish nationalism by heavy-handed British tactics and a squadron of flying Fenians wins independence for Ireland. The action is confined to Ireland but the potential for attacks on the island of England is clear throughout.

daedalus cover


This entry was posted in Colonial/imperial perspectives, Erskine Childers, General Invasion topics, George T. Chesney. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Colonial authors and invasion fiction

  1. harryjw1 says:

    Very interesting thoughts Ailise, particularly on ‘The Modern Daedalus’. Greer’s work seems to conflate Fenian anxieties with concerns surrounding anarchist violence, a relationship that Tony Taylor examines in his book ‘London’s Burning’.

    Developing your ideas on invasion literature and ‘colonial’ identity it is interesting to note how often authors of invasion-scare narratives drew on direct experience of imperialism, either as soldiers or administrators. To give a few examples: H. H. Munro (aka Saki) briefly served with the Burmese police; Edgar Wallace and Erskine Childers both held non-combative military roles during the South African War; John Dawson Mayne was Professor of Law at Presidency College, Madras; Frederic Maude served with the Royal Engineers in India.


    • ailisebulfin says:

      Thanks v much Harry, some v useful examples I wasn’t aware of – Wallace, Mayne and Maude. Come to think of it Arthur Conan Doyle, who contributed the 1914 short story ‘Danger!’ to the genre, volunteered as a doctor in the Boer War.


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