Multiple Kingdoms

Linda Colley

  • The Ideological Origins of the British Empire by David Armitage
    Cambridge, 239 pp, £35.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 521 59081 7

‘The history of England,’ Sir John Seeley declared in The Expansion of England (1883), ‘is not in England but in America and Asia.’ Like many aphorisms, this was at once consciously perverse and entirely apt. Seeley wrote as a fervid supporter of imperial federation, ‘Greater Britain’, but he was also taking issue, as in a preceding series of lectures delivered at Cambridge, with the introspection that characterised so much contemporary English historical writing. In his opinion, altogether too much attention had been devoted to a Whig narrative of purely domestic constitutional advance, to the story of Parliament, political parties and pieces of statute law, when ‘the great fact of modern English history’ was in reality the evolution of its Empire overseas.

In recent years, these arguments have become immensely fashionable again and even radical, but only in certain quarters. Salman Rushdie might almost have been quoting from Seeley when he remarked, some time ago, that the problem with the English was that so much of their history ‘happened overseas … that they don’t know what it means’. As this suggests, one reason Seeley remains worth reading (and if a modern, scholarly edition of his classic isn’t in production, it should be) is that in these islands the narrow vision he castigated has proved to be an enduring one. ‘British History’ is still generally understood and carried out here as though it were concerned only with domestic developments, while ‘Imperial History’ is usually practised as a separate, minority discipline and perceived as primarily to do with extra-territorial events.

Attempts to blend matters British and matters imperial into a more integrated history have been far more common in former colonial outposts, especially the United States. There are obvious historical reasons why this should be so. Until 1776, most white inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies shared religious and political ideas, patterns of consumerism, trade networks, secular culture, war efforts, as well as a king, with the people across the Atlantic. Consequently, Colonial American historians have long taken it for granted (as British historians rarely have) that their studies should have an Atlanticist scope, embracing aspects of Britain’s past as well as their own. More recent trends have also sharpened American interest in empire. British history is now such a minority discipline in American universities that narrow specialisation within it of the kind taken for granted here has become impracticable, and any young practitioner of the subject is almost routinely (and quite legitimately) expected to span the story of both the British at home and the British diaspora.

In addition, investigating the British imperial past is widely viewed as useful for the present of the United States. At one level, it casts light on, while also perhaps distracting attention from, the role of imperialism in Americans’ own state formation, foreign policy and self-image. At another, it has become an article of faith with many Americans that it was European imperialism which gave birth to the racial animosities and attitudes that so trouble their own society, and that only by a thorough and sceptical excavation of European and particularly British empire will the roots of racism be properly uncovered and exorcised. As a result, it can sometimes seem that there is no English language text, no British art work or other cultural artefact, and no event in recorded British history that is not being scrutinised somewhere across the Atlantic with the prior determination of finding evidence of latent imperialism and racial prejudice and/or anxiety.

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