Shoot them to be sure

Richard Gott

  • The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. I: The Origins of Empire edited by William Roger Louis and Nicholas Canny
    Oxford, 533 pp, £14.99, July 2001, ISBN 0 19 924676 9
  • The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. II: The 18th Century edited by William Roger Louis and P.J. Marshall
    Oxford, 639 pp, £14.99, July 2001, ISBN 0 19 924677 7
  • The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. III: The 19th Century edited by William Roger Louis and Andrew Porter
    Oxford, 774 pp, £14.99, July 2001, ISBN 0 19 924678 5
  • The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. IV: The 20th Century edited by William Roger Louis and Judith Brown
    Oxford, 773 pp, £14.99, July 2001, ISBN 0 19 924679 3
  • The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. V: Historiography edited by William Roger Louis and Robin Winks
    Oxford, 731 pp, £14.99, July 2001, ISBN 0 19 924680 7

A new history of the British Empire might be expected to concern itself with such issues as the construction of military dictatorship through the imposition of martial law; the violent seizure and settlement of land; the genocidal destruction of indigenous peoples (and their culture and environment); the establishment of what is now called ‘institutional racism’; and the continuing coercion and induced movement of labour. The new Oxford History of the British Empire presents a more up-beat version typical of the age of Imperial sunset. An attempt to construct a positive memorial to Empire, these volumes engage only spasmodically with the ‘post-colonial’ debates of the last twenty years.

The editor-in-chief of this immense project is William Roger Louis, an American – though famously Anglophile – scholar. When he was appointed dismay was expressed in conservative newspapers at the thought that a quintessentially British historical experience was to be in the hands of some renegade colonial. In the event, he has proved a sensible choice, and perhaps an inevitable one. Without American scholarship and money, this particular millennium construction would not have seen the light of day for many years.

Louis has not produced an encyclopedia. Anyone searching for information about events in specific countries, or on the origins of current crises, would be seriously disappointed. Only Ireland gets a decent showing over the centuries – here, perhaps, the interests of the North American diaspora can be detected – and it is revealed for what it was: the model colony on whose pattern the entire Empire was based. India, too, is well catered for, but other parts of the Empire are treated more cavalierly. There is nothing about the dynamite dropped into the caves of Africans who objected to their land being seized in Rhodesia in 1896; very little about the Hut Tax War in 1898 in Sierra Leone, when two military expeditions were sent to quell enraged Africans in the hinterland; not much explanation of 19th-century Indian immigration to Ceylon and Fiji, promoted by British settlers as a means to secure cheap labour; nothing about Kashmir; and very little about the permanent dissent and disorder on the North-West Frontier with Afghanistan. Iraq and Palestine are inadequately subsumed in a chapter curiously entitled ‘Britain’s Informal Empire in the Middle East’.

In the first volume, on Imperial ‘origins’, there are ground-breaking contributions from Jane Ohlmeyer on Ireland and Scotland as ‘laboratories of Empire’, and from Peter Mancall on the troubled relationship between Europeans and Native Americans in the 16th and 17th centuries. The second volume, concerned principally with slavery and the American Revolution, has a sparkling chapter on Native Americans by Daniel Richter, and another on the ‘black experience’ of Empire by Philip Morgan. But broadly speaking, the radical historians of Empire – David Killingray, Peter Sluglett, Nicholas Tarling – have been confined to the final, historiographical volume, while the more conservative have been given the meaty chapters in the bulk of the History.

The purpose of the Historiography volume is to trace themes that were dealt with inadequately in the earlier narrative volumes, and it provides a vivid account of the way historians portrayed Empire during its final century. Discussing work in Canada, D.R. Owram describes how ‘older images of the British as a benevolent ruling society have tended to give way to darker pictures of indigenous peoples displaced.’ Contemporary Australian historians, we are told by Stuart Macintyre, have recovered ‘a forgotten history of genocidal expropriation of Aboriginal Australians’. These are welcome contributions, yet neither writer can explain why these issues are so neglected in the earlier volumes. C.A. Bayly, the Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History at Cambridge, dismisses as ‘fashionable’ or ‘anachronistic’ issues that have agitated Imperial historians for the past twenty years – famine and ecology, for example; the destruction of forests and tribal peoples.

We now recognise that the Empire was not established on virgin territory, as some of the older Imperial histories liked to suggest. Land – for tax collection, for production and for settlement – had to be wrested from indigenous peoples, who were driven away, sent into permanent exile, or exterminated. A familiar pattern in the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries, this destruction of native peoples became more purposive in the larger Empire in the 19th, and lasted well into the 20th. Colonial governors who had fought with Wellington in the Peninsular Wars, and were subsequently rewarded with jobs, often perceived native inhabitants of the Empire as an ‘enemy’ to be rooted out. In New South Wales and Tasmania, in India and South Africa, in the seas off Singapore and on the Arabian mainland, these officers helped create the circumstances in which British trade and investment could flourish without the tiresome physical presence of those unwilling to recognise its obvious advantages.

The most satisfactory exposition of this aspect of Imperial control comes in a brilliant essay by D.A. Washbrook about 19th-century India. In his account, the British conquerors turned what they perceived as a tradition of ‘oriental despotism’ to their advantage, organising a ‘military offensive against civil society’:

The Army was made highly visible through garrison policies which dispersed it widely across the country. Pacification policies were developed which treated the slightest manifestation of civil disorder as incipient revolt and punished it accordingly. Soldiers were deputed to attend many of the functions of civil government, such as revenue collection. Non-military departments of the state adopted military-style uniforms and rituals . . . Flogging came to be regarded as a highly appropriate punishment for an ever-widening range of ‘civil’ offences. Martial force – that is, torture – was also extensively used in such tasks as the collection of land revenue.

Washbrook also refers to the British search-and-destroy missions sent to Central India in 1817 to slaughter the marauding Pindari armies of Chitu, although he does not quote the remark of Colonel George Fitzclarence, an aide-de-camp to the Governor of Bengal, who underlined their real purpose. The Pindaris were ‘viewed as public robbers’, Fitzclarence wrote, and so ‘their extirpation was aimed at, and not their defeat as an enemy entitled to the rights of war.’

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