The Sign of the Broken Sword and Persistent Lore of Empire: Chesterton’s knowing of colonialist immorality and his defence of postcolonial hypocrisy

Introductory remark: This is a reflection jotted down without much research – i.e. I have no claim whatsoever to any Chesterton scholarship and I have not checked whether anybody has not come up with a similar assessment of Chesterton’s story: a strong parable on Imperialist guilt and a highly problematic anticipation of the way the majoritarian postcolonials preserve Imperial nostalgia as a means to maintain a positive sense of self – also known as “doing a Gove”.
update: of course St Slavoj has used this story – how could I forget the notorious Defence of Lost Causes? Well – I’ve been trying to (mental economy: keep head clear from nonsense). And of course he affirms that it is precisely the immoral act of abandoning truth for the pursuit of a seemingly higher purpose that makes it interesting. This merits a few words, but really only very few, so I put some into a PS.

Strangely retrospective in style, Gilbert K. Chesterton’s Father-Brown story “The Sign of the Broken Sword” in which the crime to be solved is a historical one and the narration is that of a conversation between Father Brown and his companion, the ex-criminal turned private investigator, Flambeau, brings out the historically-investigative best and morally worst in the fictitious detective/priest. The crime (spoiler alert – if you want to enjoy what, despite being ideologically tinged – is an extremely well-constructed narrative – read it first here) is the following: the celebrated British General St Clare, celebrated for his role in the maintenance and extension of the Empire around the globe and very likely to be modelled on General Redvers Buller, murders one of his officers, Major Murray, while on campaign in Brazil. The Major had found out about the General’s immoral conduct and outright criminal activity. But while St Clare manages to kill him with a stab of his sword, the purpose of the crime is not achieved since the tip of the sword breaks off and remains in Murray’s body as evidence. St Clare ingenuously and callously covers up that crime by burying the corps in a forest of corpses, as Father Brown puts it:

“Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?”

“Well, well,” cried Flambeau irritably, “what does he do?”

“He grows a forest to hide it in,” said the priest in an obscure voice. “A fearful sin.”

He orders his troops to attack the insurgent and future President of Brazil Olivier from the river bank where he left the body of Murray, which happens to be an impossible position thus ensuring that his outnumbered and out-gunned men fall to the last one. Murray now appears only as one among many killed by the enemy while putting up a brave if failed feat of heroism. The surviving officers however find out about both the murder and the General’s past crimes it was meant to keep the victim silent about; they try him in secrecy and then brutally execute him. In order to preserve the honour of the fallen soldiers and the regiment they decide to cover up the story by pinning the death of the General on the future President, presenting it as an act of revenge. Instead of being disgraced the late St Clare finds himself the centre of a veritable martyr’s cult. The story is told the other way round, of course, with a statue of St Clare and his broken sword (allegedly destroyed in a heroic last stand against the enemy) as the starting point from which Father Brown explains how he finds fault in the official account and how he, bit by bit, has reconstructed the truth by the application of sharp logic and criminalistic imagination. In the end, however, Father Brown decides not to reveal his findings to the public and leave the hero worship around St Clare intact.

The story is a parable on the fatal criminality of Imperialism and on how the ideology of honour is used to cover it up under even more fatalities. The story is also an anticipation of how the metropolis after Empire will engage in a sanitised Imperial nostalgia leaving the heroes of imperial conquest intact allegedly without harming their victims or their descendants. Allegedly, that is.

The central insight is that a common way for those in power to cover up their murders is by hiding them behind the construct of honour in war. The irony of the story being that in the narrated case this only comes to light because the sacrifice of soldiers on the altar of imperial innocence was not instrumental to cover up the total crime that is empire itself but one individual crime that was to cover up one officer’s excess in that total crime. But the principle is exposed nonetheless. Examples in history abound. Chesterton’s own story displaces British imperialism by locating the action into an area where Britain never had a military involvement: Brazil.[i] This reminds the reader of the fictitious nature of the story while driving home its generality beyond the context of British imperialism: It applies to all state power that involves notions of soldierly honour. Chesterton does not intend an exculpation by generalisation though: that the story remains a parable on the British Empire, while also applying to all other empires (and nearly all “mere” nation states), is made sure by relating to General St Clare as “a soldier of the old religious type —the type that saved us during the Mutiny” (emphasis added – the “Mutiny” of course being India’s First War of Independence 1857). The adversary, the naive and noble rebel leader Olivier, described as “Brazilian patriot” clearly is modelled on Simon Bolivar, the serial hero of South American anticolonial struggles who, as a Catholic and Anglophile was more to Chesterton’s tastes[ii] than, say, a leader of the Indian First War of Independence, such as Bahadur Shah, who would have disagreed with the author’s vehement Orientalism (as it comes to full expression in “The Wrong Shape” in the same volume of stories, The Innocence of Father Brown).

The immorality of General St Clare is underlined by his ironic name – taken from the saint Clare of Assisi who is seen as the living image of humility and poverty and whose main concern was protecting those in her charge. This contrasts with the readiness of the General to sacrifice his men for his own interest to protect spoils of his Imperial greed. What he has in common with the saint is deep Christian faith but, as Father Brown reminds us:

Sir Arthur St. Clare, as I have already said, was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him. When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible? A printer reads a Bible for misprints. A Mormon reads his Bible, and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his, and finds we have no arms and legs. St. Clare was an old Anglo-Indian Protestant soldier.

Chesterton cannot help himself and gives the quasi-Marxist materialist observation a racist tinge[iii]: in a culmination of the both Orientalist and anti-Semitic undercurrents of his thought[iv]  he puts the blame of the General’s reading his Bible as collection of stories of “lust, tyranny and treason” on the General’s involvement in India which means he lived “under a tropic sun in an Oriental society” and thus “he read the Old Testament rather than the New”.

Despite of this, the insight remains that the Imperial enterprise is a criminal one and that its criminality, the exploitation and murder it stood for, is hidden beneath a further pile of corpses of the Empire’s own soldiers fallen in military adventures glorified as honourable and valiant, held up to the nation’s youth as examples to follow. Displaced as “Brazilian War” the parallel to the Crimean War and especially the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade is quite obvious. The honourable and brave conduct of the men of the Light Brigade as immortalised in Lord Tennyson’s poem (and echoed in Iron Maiden’s The Trooper) blanks out the incompetence in the chain of command – the poet laureate of the Empire, Lord Tennyson, casually deals with it in a half line (“Some one had blunder’d”) while focusing attention on the blind obedience and heroic sacrifice of the British cavalry. One could even say the blunder constitutes a welcome opportunity to give a fine example of British military heroism to provide evidence that Imperial power does not rest, as one could think, on industrial and commercial superiority giving a technological and logistical advantage, but mainly on superiority of character (an ideological feat to be repeated in the 1961 movie Zulu with Michael Caine in which the senseless slaughter ends in the victorious Zulu applauding the honour of the defeated Imperial unit – just like the “Brazilian” general admires the heroism of the perished British troops under which the treacherous protagonist buried his murder victim).

Chesterton, writing in 1911, in a way also anticipated on a small scale the definitive instance of the imperial powers of Europe creating the, up to then, highest pile of corpses, when three years later in the Great War the monarchs and hautes bourgeoisies of Europe buried the millions of victims of their colonial and industrial exploitation under the millions of European and Colonial soldiers whose sacrifice they went on to commemorate fondly. Until today the African, Asian, American and Irish victims of colonialism are swept aside by waves of poppies. In Germany the fact of defeat combined with the myth of the “undefeated soldier in the field” who, according to fabrication, was stabbed in the back by a conspiracy of democrats, socialists, Free Masons and Jews helped to forget altogether that there were German colonies at all (until today hardly anyone would be aware of the genocidal massacres committed against the Herero and Nama during the short German rule in South West Africa).   The principle was then driven to its utmost perversity when Nazi Germany buried the genocide of the Jews, the genocide of the Sinti and Roma, the enslavement of the Slavs, the “eugenic” mass murder and further crimes under the corpses of the Second World War “Landser”s – with the partial success that the “honour” of the Wehrmacht remained untouched in post-War Germany until their own crimes (and the role they played in enabling the Holocaust) was highlighted in a much noted  exhibition in 1995.

The scandal of Chesterton’s story – the twist in which he proves himself to be the reactionary who ultimately used the rhetorical device of paradox which often enough yielded surprising wisdoms to abandon his “duty to moral courage and historical truth” as Christopher Hitchens put it – that scandal is that Father Brown in the end decides not to reveal the truth of the matter which he so painstakingly uncovered. He does so out of consideration for the feelings of those who grew up (and those who are still growing up) in admiration for General Buller St Clare and for whom he is a role model that instils heroism and courage in the service of English patriotism:

“You will never have done with him in England,” said the priest, looking down, “while brass is strong and stone abides. His marble statues will erect the souls of proud, innocent boys for centuries, his village tomb will smell of loyalty as of lilies. Millions who never knew him shall love him like a father— this man whom the last few that knew him dealt with like dung. He shall be a saint; and the truth shall never be told of him, because I have made up my mind at last. There is so much good and evil in breaking secrets, that I put my conduct to a test. All these newspapers will perish; the anti-Brazil boom is already over; Olivier is already honoured everywhere. But I told myself that if anywhere, by name, in metal or marble that will endure like the pyramids, Colonel Clancy, or Captain Keith, or President Olivier, or any innocent man was wrongly blamed, then I would speak. If it were only that St. Clare was wrongly praised, I would be silent. And I will.”

Boil it down and this reads: turn innocent boys into cannon fodder who as they “lay forgotten and alone, without a tear” draw their “parting groan“. Not necessarily for the Empire (as Chesterton did not think Imperialism to be a good idea), but for King and Country nonetheless.

The opportunism might even have been legitimate were what the fictitious General (as opposed to the real one) a virtuous cause[v] (as long, as Father Brown puts in, the wrong praise does not lead to unjustified defamation). But even in the story this is not true – for the provincial Englishmen the (according to Chesterton’s standards) morally impeccable President Olivier is a vile villain while Empire stands as a noble cause. Which delegitimises any complaints of the colonised. Today we are seeing an ever less restrained racism resurfacing in the very same publications that some time ago have started crying “unfair” about the vilification of Empire.

The book in which the story appeared is, as mentioned, called The Innocence of Father Brown. The story of the Broken Sword testifies to the nature of that “innocence” which denies the victims of European imperialisms recognition and thereby maintains the superiority of those privileged by descent from the profiteers of conquest and colonial exploitation. A BBC South West report celebrating General Redvers Buller’s Victoria Cross for valour (that valour consisted of the killing 50 Zulu fighters – people defending their lands against occupation – to save one of his own men) cannot find any fault in the man except, maybe, that he should have refused taking command in the Boer War because he knew it would involve high losses – high losses among British soldiers. And it is only the 20,000 British whose death concerns that report. The corpses of the fallen Africans Buller left behind lie safely cached beneath those sacrificed British soldiers who, of course, themselves were also victims of imperial politics (and the deceitful ideology of national honour). They are to be disregarded in a history that appeals to little boys (such as Adam Wayne in the Sheriff of Notting Hill). The “innocence” of Father Brown is borrowed from the next generation and serves as a legitimisation of the infantilisation of history with the moral aura of grave responsibility.


Of course I was bound to have overlooked something here – and that is the inevitable Slavoj Žižek’s (a Chesterton admirer) take on the story. I will not waste space (nor energy) on recounting how he builds it into his frivolous defence of Martin Heidegger. The use or abuse of Chesterton here can be easily dismissed because, as usual, Žižek bends his witnesses’ accounts to suit him. For example he proposes that for Chesterton it is specifically the Protestant reading of the Bible that corrupts the General – while in the story it is the stern Protestant Ulsterman Murray who cannot bear that corruption and confronts him, while the corruption itself is blamed on the very victims of Empire (the “Orientals”) and of Christianity (the Jews and their Old Testament).[vi] Žižek handily “overlooks” Chesterton’s racism and antisemitism as these are, apparently, small matters when it comes to the greater metaphysical cause of “salvaging” the (through and through antisemitic) philosophy of St Martin on the Mountain. In the end Žižek, like Tony “neither apology nor hand-wringing” Blair and Michael “I am a great fan of Ferguson” Gove, calls for a celebration of (in his case: intellectual and revolutionary rather than imperialist) valour in order to invigorate the project. To focus on the corpses that project has so far produced is kind of detrimental and that they happen to be a truth is beside the point for him.  The infantile irresponsibility of such disregard of dispensable victims (that is shared in Chesterton’s fantasies of a return to a more warlike state which drove him into the vicinity of Fascism) is summed up in Astrid Lindgren’s helicoptering miniature Chesterton Karlson-on-the-Roof and his catch phrase “that’s mundane” (“det är en världslig sak”), i.e. not worth bothering about. The grand gesture with which the metaphysician wipes away those who perished for the greater good he sets out to “salvage” from Stalinism and Nazism – Father Brown salvaging the idea of soldierly honour from the crime that was Empire of course is a nice template here to be used on even bigger crimes to salvage even greater nonsense. A pattern, since  one of Žižek’s preferred rhetorical devices is scaling down the vast violation (e.g. Stalinism) to a precedent (e.g. Jacobinism) that is easier to sell as it is part of the founding myth of a more commonly accepted violation (e.g. secular nationalism), a världslig sak given the greater good we may expect from it.  Whenever I think of Žižek now, he’s got a little propeller on his back… and a toy machine gun in his hands.


when I call “secular nationalism” a violation I intend to mark out nationalism, not secularity…

[i] The exception being the UK supplying training to the Brazilian interrogators who were involved in  the torture of the then guerrillera and now President Dilma Rousseff in the 1960s – a strange echo of the fictional character Oliveira in our times…

[ii] Chesterton was developing Catholic sympathies while writing his Father Brown stories, but converted only in 1922, eleven years after having published the first volume of Father Brown stories.

[iii] although it has to be said that Marx himself with his botched theories on the “Jewish Question” and “Oriental despotism” (which Chesterton will not have known) delivered a precedent here.

[iv] undercurrents whose more frequent and sustained surfacing in a full-out turn to Fascism was held in check not by better insight but by an intuitive commitment to Romantic occasionism.

[v] I am doubtful of such reasoning – there are political movements that still today tell the story of Soviet democracy under Stalin and who, under his image, fight for democracy. One could hope they fight for the right thing under a wrong banner, but the denial of uncomfortable historical truth does not bode well for what will happen if such movements are confronted with uncomfortable truths in the present

[vi] As Hitchens shows that is a typical move in Chesterton’s paradoxism – ultimately he manages to blame the Jews for Hitler.

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