Always on Top

Edward Said

  • Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-67 by Catherine Hall
    Polity, 556 pp, £60.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 7456 1820 0

A generation ago the influence of Fanon’s typology of empire ensured that one could only be either very much for or very much against the great imperial structures that disappeared piece by piece after the Second World War; now, after years of degeneration following the white man’s departure, the empires that ruled Africa and Asia don’t seem quite as bad. The perplexingly affirmative work of Niall Ferguson and David Armitage scants, if it doesn’t actually trivialise, the suffering and dispossession brought by empire to its victims. More is said now about the modernising advantages the empires brought, and about the security and order they maintained. There is far less tolerance for the disorder and tyranny that people like Nkrumah, Lumumba and Nasser instigated in the name of anti-colonialism. A crucial tactic of this revisionism is to read present-day American imperial power as enlightened and even altruistic, and to project that enlightenment back into the past.

I am being impressionistic, of course. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the mood that produced public excoriations of classical imperialism – including the disastrous American adventure in Indochina – has largely disappeared. Attacking Soviet imperialism is a livelier sport, as is ‘realistic’ reappraisal of previous enthusiasm for the cause of anti-imperialism. How else to explain the astonishing reversal of Conor Cruise O’Brien, who wrote the first really devastating critique of Camus as an accomplice of French colonialism in Algeria, and then a few years later enlisted as a defender of Menachem Begin’s Israel, Ulster Unionism and South African apartheid? Gérard Chaliand performed a similar about-face in Paris. Then there are the many American intellectuals who followed Norman Podhoretz from the ranks of the liberal Left into reactionary self-bowdlerisation. For them American power is sacrosanct.

In the 1960s V.S. Naipaul began, disquietingly, to systematise the revisionist view of empire. A disciple and wilful misreader of Conrad, he gave Third Worldism, as it came to be known in France and elsewhere, a bad name. He didn’t deny that terrible things had happened in such places as the Congo, but, he said, there was idealism of effort, too (remember Father Huisman in A Bend in the River); and monstrous post-colonial abuse had followed. He didn’t actually say that King Leopold, bad though he was, was probably not much worse than Mobutu, or Idi Amin, or Mugabe, but he allowed one to think it. And when he sought to expose what he called ‘the great lie’ about colonialism by emphasising the miscegenation and transgressive sex (buggery, most of the time) associated with guerrillas and so-called freedom fighters, it didn’t seem entirely out of character. In his opinion it was principally Islam that plumbed the truly ghastly depths to which the ‘liberated’ peoples of Africa and Asia would sink. Not surprisingly, the Iranian Revolution and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie consolidated anti-anti-colonial feeling in the 1980s and 1990s, making it easy to see the Taliban as a natural consequence of native intransigence and misplaced Western liberalism.

Naipaul’s was only the most virulent example of colonial reassessment that emerged in the post-1960s, post-Vietnam atmosphere. The soft-core version included Raj revivalism, the cult of Merchant Ivory and interminable documentaries, coffee-table books, fashion accessories. By now Fanon and Aimé Césaire were reread as ambivalent Lacanian theorists caught up in all sorts of mirror games and secret flirtations with the white man. Nationalism, which had earlier mobilised vast numbers of people in the name of liberation, was now reconfigured as ‘imagined community’, a kind of naivety combined with fictional self-presentation borrowed from Europe itself. Its reputation gradually declined, not because it was too severe about the past but because it wasn’t severe enough. Nationalism’s bastard child was nativism, which was accused of papering over such local abuses as slavery, genital mutilation, home-grown despotism and racism. ‘We don’t have any problems with the blacks,’ an Afrikaner said to me out of the blue as I was standing in line in a cafeteria in South Africa in 1991, ‘it’s they who have problems with each other.’ Whenever nationalism brought about what seemed to be a successful revolution, as in India, questions remained about the inherent deficiencies of non-Western peoples, including their incapacity for truly civilised behaviour.

Neither the defeat of apartheid nor the return to democracy in many Latin American countries was seen as having much to do with colonialism’s ravages or with the liberationist moment in world history. They were regarded as isolated episodes, and appear not to have been absorbed into the new structure of feeling about empire. In effect, the past was over, and the time had come for non-white people to own up to their self-inflicted wounds. This was the Naipaulian injunction which was repeated in many parts of the First and Third Worlds, where the new post-Soviet realities signalled not only the end of history but the end of thinking about history in a consequential way. Over time the polemical venom of many former left-leaning, pro-liberationist, Third Worldist intellectuals increased, nowhere more sensationally than in France and the United States. Pascal Bruckner’s Tears of the White Man, first published in 1983, attacked liberal intellectuals for bewailing colonialism’s depredations. Legions of writers who had supported Algerian and Vietnamese resistance denounced their early befuddlement and romanticism. The coloured people hadn’t benefited enough from European enlightenment, they said; resistance to empire had bred a barbarous and xenophobic anti-Westernism; anti-democratic fanaticism and intolerance (of which ‘Islamo-fascism’ is an example) were home-grown products that had nothing to do with the white man. The growing presence in Europe and North America of wave after wave of non-white immigrants added considerable animus to the tirades. The events of 11 September tipped the scales definitively.

Oddly, from the 1980s, this process coincided with the rise of post-colonial studies in British and American universities. Much post-colonial criticism was written by former colonials who had the academic resources and training to reinterpret the so-called Western cultural canon that had once ‘represented’ the non-European world. What was new wasn’t only the ethnic identity of these critics, but the realisation that writers like Conrad and Kipling, or Jane Austen and John Stuart Mill, thought and wrote without the natives in mind as an audience. An Indian or Jamaican woman reading Kim or Jane Eyre was able to bring to light the usually unstated colonial and male-dominated ideological assumptions behind the form of the novel itself.

Post-colonial criticism, which began under the combative spiritual aegis of Fanon and Césaire, went further than either of them in showing the existence of what in Culture and Imperialism I called ‘overlapping territories’ and ‘intertwined histories’. Many of us who grew up in the colonial era were struck by the fact that even though a hard and fast line separated coloniser from colonised in matters of rule and authority (a native could never aspire to the condition of the white man), the experiences of ruler and ruled were not so easily disentangled. On both sides of the imperial divide men and women shared experiences – though differently inflected experiences – through education, civic life, memory, war. Despite the colonial effort to make Algeria French, and the decolonising battle to remake Algeria after 1962 into an entirely Arab country with no links to its French past, the two histories are inseparable; one could not be written without taking the other into account. It would be wrong to maintain that only an African could write the history of Africa, or only a Muslim the history of Islam, or a woman that of women. Afrocentrism, I believe, is as flawed as Eurocentrism; and although I also believe that the rhetoric of blame is neither intellectually nor morally sufficient, when Naipaul was recently quoted as being content that the Indians no longer blame the British for everything it seemed to me a typically superficial quip that hides the truly immense intellectual labour that is still required to understand how much the British really were responsible for.

Who decides when (and if) the influence of imperialism ended? In Africa, imperialism was a vast, dispossessing phenomenon that for decades comprised the theft of uncounted acres and resources from the African peoples, the killing of millions of ‘natives’, and of course slavery. Belgian rule in the Congo may have come to an end in 1960 but that doesn’t mean the effects of Belgian rule have also ended; and Belgian historians have only just begun to take account of what the country did in Africa. There seems to be no end to the aftermath of empire in the lives of the peoples most immediately affected by Britain, France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Russia and, now, the United States. Why is it acceptable to discuss reparations for the victims of genocide in some instances but not in others? Should Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas be ignored when they continue to draw attention to the ravages of colonial slavery a century and a half after it supposedly ended? These are difficult questions that are not best dealt with in tart formulas about self-inflicted wounds and imperialism being ‘over’. Indian and British, Indochinese and French, American and Native American: the histories are interdependent. Consider Britain’s savage war against ‘tribal’ insurgents in Iraq and its foundational role in creating that country, and how obscured that relationship is in present discussions about the impending war. Elazar Barkan’s The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices (2000) surveys the complex of issues involved in these questions, but it’s only a start.

Despite the fact that there was never a total barrier separating one historical experience from the other, it would be wrong to ignore the original and, I would say, enabling rift between black and white, between imperial authority and natives, that persisted during the entire period of classical imperialism. The problem, then, is to keep in mind two ideas that are in many ways antithetical – the fact of the imperial divide, on the one hand, and the notion of shared experiences, on the other – without diminishing the force of either: a task that is particularly important when dealing with works of art or culture. When it comes to understanding, say, Great Expectations or Les Troyens, one has to keep in view the facts of empire without at the same time losing sight of the facts of great literature or music. Kim is a sympathetic and profound work about India, but it is informed by the imperial vision just the same.

The best post-colonial writing necessarily entails this kind of reasoning, but what matters more is that it doesn’t depend on an easy, repeatable methodology but on a perspective derived from experience, a personal stake. To write well about colonialism you don’t have to have had a colonial or imperialist background, but as with any history of a complex experience that involved many actors, the worst thing – even in the name of critical impartiality – is to empty that history of its existential residue in the present: a dangerous temptation in writing about the legacy of empire, which sits like a menacing and metastasising cancer just beneath the skin of our contemporary lives. And to write imperial history from the standpoint of the coloniser as victim (as Linda Colley does in Captives, 2002) or to turn the whole business into a peripheral episode in the history of the eccentricities of the British upper classes (as David Cannadine does in Ornamentalism, 2001) is unhelpful. In Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (2001), Nicholas Dirks does a first-rate job of summarising the debate between English historians of India, such as Christopher Bayly and David Washbrook, who downplay the corrupting nature of empire by assigning a good deal of the blame to Indian ‘agents and accomplices’, and a substantial number of post-colonial Indian and non-Indian historians who hold the Empire responsible for much that still goes on.

Some of the excesses of post-colonial writing – pomposity, jargon, self-indulgence – are avoidable. During his last years Pierre Bourdieu railed against American academic multiculturalism. What struck him was how easily writing about race, gender and empire according to a programmatic idea about ‘multiculturalism’ as the view ‘theoretically’ opposed to racist and colonialist ideology could degenerate into abstract rant, with little connection to the problems affecting non-European immigrants in advanced neo-liberal societies, or disadvantaged women, or disempowered minorities. Bourdieu’s ideas about these groups (as expressed in The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, 1999) depended in part on complex post-imperial investigations that few of us can hope to emulate, but also on his personal engagement with the work he was doing. Recent academic thinking has used Foucault’s catch-all about the ‘little toolbox’ that his works are supposed to provide as an anti-humanist argument for critical detachment, but it should always have been apparent that the considerable urgency of his books on knowledge, power, incarceration and sexuality was also derived from his own sometimes very raw personal experience.

Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects begins with a detailed explanation of her own investment in the mid-19th-century symbiosis between colonial Jamaica and reform-minded Birmingham. The daughter of a Baptist minister father and a ‘budding historian’ mother, Hall was born in Kettering in Northamptonshire, where the Baptist Missionary Society was formed in 1792. During her school years, after her father had left his parish to become a roving minister, she came into contact with the larger Baptist community. In 1964 she moved to Birmingham and married the Jamaican-British historian and activist Stuart Hall. She visited Jamaica with him, and there saw the effects of Baptist missionary activity and liberal reform. She declares, with characteristic severity, that her own belief in ‘humanist universalism’ and her early Baptist beliefs about ‘the family of man’ were fixed in an ‘unspoken racial hierarchy’. She adds:

My reasons for choosing to work on Jamaica are perhaps self-evident by now: it was the site of empire to which I had some access. It was the largest island in the British Caribbean and the one producing the most wealth for Britain in the 18th century . . . It was through the lens of the Caribbean, and particularly Jamaica, that the English first debated ‘the African’, slavery and anti-slavery, emancipation and the meanings of freedom; and Jamaica occupied a special place in the English imagination between the 1780s and 1860s on these grounds. Jamaicans were to re-emerge as privileged objects of concern in Britain in the postwar period, but in a very different context. Now the Jamaicans were those who had left their island to come to Britain between 1948 and the 1960s, who had settled, had children and claimed full national belonging. In so doing they once again put Jamaica at the heart of the metropolitan frame: questions of identity and national belonging were again crucially in play, and Jamaica and England were part of the same story. But this was a repetition with a difference. England was no longer at the heart of a great empire, and its domestic population was visibly diverse. One historical power configuration, the colonial, had been displaced by another, the post-colonial . . . It was this new configuration with its repetition, the same but different, which made possible both the return to the past and a rewriting of connected histories.

Hall’s focus is on Birmingham, and its position as a political centre and a centre of Baptist missionary activity before, during and after the First and Second Reform Bills. At the heart of her study are the 1831 and Morant Bay rebellions, which made Jamaica’s repressive proconsul, Edward Eyre, a colonial cause célèbre, much as Warren Hastings had been seventy years earlier. She borrows creatively from Stuart Hall’s distinction between ‘cultural differentialism’ and ‘biological racism’, allowing her to examine gender, sexual identity and difference. Her real achievement, though, is her insistence on the dynamic self-making of empire, an unending enterprise which had to be constantly worked on, argued over and affirmed – as much through its personalities as in discourse. The book is prefaced by a ‘cast of characters’, and characters rather than abstractions govern its course. There are abolitionists, missionaries, political leaders (Eyre, Joseph Sturge, William Morgan and John Angell James); major cultural figures such as Anthony Trollope, Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill, all of whom took part in the public debate about the events in Jamaica; as well as officers, scribes, landowners, creolised whites, metropolitan intellectuals. Like her Baptist missionaries, they all became identified with (their interpretation of the cause of) their mission: they were, as she describes them, ‘imperial personalities’. Eyre, for example, had come to Jamaica from a posting in Australia – his whole life, like that of India’s and Egypt’s Lord Cromer, was directed by the imperatives of empire. And of course a hidden imperial economy sustained these people, as it sustains Jane Austen’s characters.

Civilising Subjects tells a compelling story about the various generations of Baptist missionaries in Jamaica and carefully plots the changes in their attitudes towards their black parishioners, both slaves and freedmen, uncovering in the process contradictions determined by the irreducible everyday realities of imperial rule. Hall describes Joseph Sturge’s unstinting efforts as missionary and abolitionist on behalf of Jamaican blacks, and notes his humane engagement and unfailing belief in human freedom, but she also stresses his fundamental ambivalence, and the ambivalence of people like him, who identified with black people as members of the human family but held that view ‘in tension with racial difference, a marker of distinction which could be drawn upon at any moment. Were black people really like white people? Or were they, as the pro-slavery lobby believed, fundamentally different? Anxieties and ambivalences clustered around this issue: sameness and difference, identification and disavowal, were constantly in play: the meanings of “black” unresolved.’ The consequence was that later abolitionists had only a slightly improved ‘stereotype of the new black Christian subject – meek victim of white oppression, grateful to his or her saviours, ready to be transformed, the kneeling figure of the enslaved man in the famous Wedgwood cameo that was so widely circulated’. Hall sees cycles and patterns in the attitudes she examines: decent affirmations were leavened by racism; abolitionist views were succeeded by developmental theories that refused to allow the colonies the improvements that were taking place in Birmingham. What was good for reform-minded England was unsuitable in Jamaica. Mill thought so, as did the lesser-known liberal William Morgan, who believed that ‘being on the island changed how men thought.’ ‘The distance from the metropolis,’ Hall writes, ‘secured the peripheral relation of the colony in metropolitan thinking. The gap between Birmingham and Jamaica’ – especially during the great debates in Birmingham about the Second Reform Bill – ‘was invoked as a gap in both space and time: the miles to cross the sea to the West Indies were configured as a journey back to an earlier time, and a less evolved society. Jamaica was imagined as immobile without British help, its life dependent on that input.’

Hall dexterously handles polarities of ideology and thought – between appalling racists, such as Carlyle and Robert Knox, and enlightened liberals, such as Mill and James Mursell Phillippo – but also manages to connect these bodies of thought to the changing circumstances of location, climate, daily life and general social history. Partly because the reader has been primed early on that what Hall is describing is an archaeology of herself as a woman, the wife of a Jamaican-British intellectual, the child of Nonconformism and radical Dissenting politics, nearly everything in this long book is charged with the existential urgency of lived lives, hard-won insights, embattled causes and epochal transformations. Great meetings are re-enacted and we are the engaged and informed spectators of the clash between different personalities and styles of oratory. This is history-writing that is dialectical in the best sense. Hall shows that conquest, slavery and, above all, emancipation are transacted by individuals engaged in contradictory processes determined by a range of institutions: church, academy, trading corporation, bureaucracy, family. And while she plainly admires the effort of idealistic men and women trying to help others, she also knows that, in the end, imperial conquest is anything but melioristic in its course.

By the end of the period Hall covers, in the late 1860s, racial theory had taken over from the ‘structure of feeling dominated by the familial trope and a paternalist rhetoric’. Now there was ‘a harsher racial vocabulary of fixed differences. In the constant play between racism’s two logics, the biological and the cultural, biological essentialism was, for the moment, in the ascendant, and race occupied a different place in English common sense.’ The salutary implicit references here to Raymond Williams and Gramsci (‘common sense’) are carried over from earlier parts of Hall’s study in which she uses their subtle materialist cultural criticism to great effect. What her book makes plain is that, while empire was never straightforward, and entailed suffering on all sides, it required an abiding consent among its English adherents. And that consent was always based on the subordination of the native and the colony to the English, individually and collectively. No undertaking as far-flung as the British Empire (even before its apex in the 1850s) could have been sustained without the willing and perhaps often implicit approval of the English ‘senso comune’. Linda Colley shows empire as bumblingly pathetic in its earlier phases: Hall takes a stricter line, showing that empire is always on top of what it rules, no matter how much the enterprise appears to falter or fray.

Hall’s book is the culmination of work which I’ve found very useful over the years: in particular her collection White, Male and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History (1992), and her contribution to a volume edited by Iain Chambers and Lidia Curti, The Post-Colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons (1996). Much of what she says about missionary women and their domestic background is well elucidated in White, Male and Middle Class, in many ways a metropolitan companion to Civilising Subjects.

There are, however, two issues that Hall’s work hints at but unfortunately does not address directly. One is representation. Since she deals with a variety of written records – sermons, polemics, letters, sermons, travel books, theoretical manifestos – I was made uncomfortable by the fact that she herds them all under the general rubric of ‘evidence’ without making sufficient allowances for their different intentions, provenance and status. A missionary’s diary and Mill’s philosophical writing don’t occupy the same discursive space (or do they?) and they certainly have different functions. What does one do about the representation of undocumented experiences – of slaves, servants, insurgents (such as those at Morant Bay) – for which we have to depend on socially elevated, literate witnesses who have access to official records? Ranajit Guha and the Subaltern Studies group, whose work Hall mystifyingly doesn’t draw on, are extremely useful here.

My second criticism is the status she assigns to ‘culture’, which acquired its first important layer of extra-political and extra-social insulation during the period she examines. One need only look at Matthew Arnold or Carlyle to see the use that was made of culture to camouflage and disguise the inhumane goings-on in the colonies (specifically India, Ireland and Jamaica in Arnold’s case, as he droned on about culture and sweetness and light). What about Dickens’s novels, which Hall alludes to, but had a more complicated effect than she allows, both affirming and undermining the collective English identity he was so passionate about, not least where the peripheral regions were concerned? Mr Dombey, Abel Magwitch and Mrs Jellyby come to mind, as do characters in Thackeray, Kingsley (whom Hall briefly discusses), Trollope and George Eliot. These are relevant issues, especially since Hall’s reference to the overrated and simplistic work of John MacKenzie leaves her discussion here at a primitive level, of culture as propaganda. She could also look more analytically at narrative, considering its centrality to the missionary outlook (in the journals they kept, the letters they wrote, the sermons they preached with salvation as their telos); as well as at the narratives of contemporary politicians, social scientists, historians, fiction writers and race theorists such as Knox.

She has developed a few unfortunate habits in her new book. One is excessive use of the verb ‘to map’, a word which should have concrete, geographical precision, but is misapplied by scholars trying to describe ways of linking together different echelons of experience – a fuzzy tic inherited from Fredric Jameson. And there’s a gratuitous reference to Derridean différance in her discussion of the changing power relations between coloniser and colonised, when ‘difference’ would have been sufficient.

Nevertheless, Hall’s excellent book is likely to inspire more debate and more excavations among imperial historians and political activists for whom it cannot be a joke that George Bush’s main constituency, as he sets out first to punish and then to remake the world with American power, are seventy million evangelical and fundamentalist American Christians, many of whom are Southern Baptists.