How should historians write about empire? Or, if you prefer, the imperial enterprise? The task is made difficult in part because many people still find it easy to confuse academic concentration on this phenomenon with approval of it. To some on the Left for instance – especially in the United States – imaginatively reconstructing the ideas and actions of the imperial powers in the past can seem dangerously close to condoning racism, brutality and Eurocentricity in the present. The only valid questions about empire, in this view, are why so many Europeans were so complicit in such an obvious evil for so long, and how non-Europeans came successfully to resist it. By contrast, sections of the Right in this country insist on a version of history that will trumpet Empire’s positive achievements, not least out of a present-minded concern to stress that Britain’s role is global not European. The forthcoming Oxford History of the British Empire, a massive and important work, has already been attacked by sections of the Tory press on the grounds that its American editor, international contributors of both sexes and striving for balance are bound to make it a subversive piece of multiculturalism. Yet rumour has it that this same project was initially denied American funding, because Foundations there assumed that its subject-matter made it ipso facto reactionary.
The problem though is not just one of politics, which has always governed discussion of empire, but of ahistoricity of different kinds. One of the most exciting advances in recent years has been the growth of multi-disciplinary approaches to empire. The downside of this development, however, is that not all the students of botany, anthropology, art, landscape and literature who have settled so profitably on this topic have a secure or comprehensive understanding of the past – any more than many historians do. Too often the impression has been fostered that empire was a uniquely European invention which became significant only in the last two centuries. That European overseas empires (depending on how one defines them) date back rather to at least the 15th century, that they owed much of their political thought and symbolism to the classical world, and that they nearly always coexisted with, and were anticipated by, equally violent and highly successful non-European imperial systems can be forgotten.
So can the fact that colonial struggles in the past sometimes involved far more complex alignments than invading Europeans ranging themselves against vulnerable non-Europeans, whites oppressing non-whites. Different European groupings overseas often fought against each other; non-Europeans often had their own reasons for collaborating. Consider the American Revolution. On the one hand, the American colonists (who were themselves a medley of Scots, Irish, English, Welsh and Germans) might never have won had they not secured aid and auxiliaries from the French, Spanish and Dutch empires. Conversely, British troops (who were also a medley of Scots, Irish, English, Welsh and Germans) fought alongside large numbers of indigenous Indians and Southern blacks who viewed the local white settlers and slave-owners as being more dangerous than the imperial authorities in London.
Such clashes but also collaborations between different peoples are surely what make imperial history (and we ideally need another name for it) such a compelling and vivid discipline. Properly approached, it is not simply about the dichotomy between Europe and the non-European other, nor can it be pursued in isolation from European history conventionally understood. Instead, imperial history should be massively broad and always eclectic. It should involve national, European and non-European histories being studied and written about in parallel, so that we may better understand how different parts of the globe have interacted with each other over time. But here of course is the subject’s greatest challenge. Few if any of us possess the necessary breadth of knowledge and skills which such a wide-angled view of the past would properly require. Those who have a stab at it – and we have to try – not only have to learn a lot themselves, they also have to work out how best to communicate their knowledge to others. A historian’s life is short; and so, desirably, are her books. Now that imperial history is no longer a monotonal tale of Britain or France or Spain or the Dutch against the rest, but rather a complex saga of the collisions, compromises and comings together of many different cultures, how is it to be chronicled so as to fit between the covers of monographs and become accessible to interested readers? A few scholars have solved this difficulty by adopting a narrow geographical format. Richard White’s The Middle Ground (1991), for example, is a brilliant history of how the French, British and American empires interacted both with each other and with native Indians over two centuries in the Great Lakes region of North America. But what if one wants a bigger canvas?
All three of the books discussed here are wonderfully ambitious though very different attempts to get beyond the old imperial history, and to do so with regard to huge territories and in the longue durée. It is no rebuke to the authors involved, but rather a measure of the challenge they face, that in each case they are able to achieve their ends only by supplying their readers with rather less than their titles promise.
Denis Judd’s pungent and attractive survey of the British Empire from 1765 to the present tries to solve the problem of a superabundance of material in two ways. Ostensibly he begins his narrative in the late 18th century ‘because this was when the British Empire became recognisably the greatest and most dynamic of European imperial structures’. In practice, however, he devotes a disproportionate amount of space – 19 out of 31 chapters – to the 20th century, and short-changes the earlier period. What this means of course is that the crucial stages whereby the British actually acquired ‘the greatest and most dynamic’ empire in the world, the Seven Years’ War and the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, can only be mentioned in passing, while the highpoint of British imperial confidence in the early and mid-Victorian eras also receives only limited attention. Instead, far more time is spent charting the Empire’s dissolution.
Concentrating on British imperial decay rather than dominion plays to Judd’s proven expertise as a 20th-century scholar and, one suspects, to his personal politics as well. This must rank as one of the most ironical appraisals of Britain’s past imperial pretensions since Ronald Hyam’s survey, a work it often resembles. Something of its overall tone emerges from the ‘imperial moments’ which Judd has selected to begin each of his themed chapters. We are given successive snapshots of various British defeats (Majuba Hill, Spion Kop, Suez), massacres (the Indian and Jamaican rebellions of 1857 and 1865, and Amritsar), plus more peaceful incidents in which the British played up, but hardly played the game. Thus the tale of poor Sir Hector MacDonald, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Ceylon, driven to suicide in 1903 after being discovered romping with four Sinhalese boys in a railway carriage, leads into a broad discussion of sex and masculinity in the Empire. And an evocation of the MCC’s controversial Bodyline tour of Australia in 1932 develops into an analysis of sport’s role both in spreading imperialism and in colonial nationalism.
As in this case, Judd’s second strategy for managing his topic’s intrinsic unmanageability is to lead into successive themed chapters by way of anecdotes and set-pieces, so as to advance, complicate and thicken the chronological narrative. On several levels this works extremely well. Using a series of crises and embarrassments to signpost his tale successfully conveys one of the recurrent paradoxes of the imperial experience. Empire was omnipresent in Britain’s culture for centuries, to the extent that it influenced what its people ate, infiltrated their language, distorted how they looked at the world and at themselves. Yet, as both Judd and Peter Marshall demonstrate, neither Parliament nor the public ever gave Empire much conscious and sustained attention except when things were going hideously wrong and/or when they themselves were directly involved. Thus there were English colonies in America from the early 1600s. But this country rarely bothered to produce its own really comprehensive printed maps and coastal charts of North America until huge numbers of British troops had to be sent out there after 1755. By the same token, we all know about Falklands fever. But how many people in these islands even knew of the Falklands’ existence before the Argentinians invaded? Or have spared them a thought since? Judd explores this ambiguity while also unpacking what kept such a far-flung and in many ways fragile empire going for so long, and – behind the anecdotes – expertly summarises current debates about the domestic impact.
His analysis inevitably has much in common with that advanced in Peter Marshall’s Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire. Both omit the so-called first British Empire, though as an 18th-century specialist Marshall recognises that distinguishing between a first and second phase of imperial activity makes only limited historical sense. Both argue that the 20th century should not be viewed simply as a period of relentless and predictable imperial decline. Both believe that anti-imperialism, meaning active commitment to dismantling the Empire, rarely won much support before the Second World War from either the public or any of the political parties. Both feel obliged to devote conclusions to determining in a rather old-fashioned way how far the Empire was a good and a bad thing.
Partly because it is a collaborative volume, however, Marshall’s history is less idiosyncratic than Judd’s, more multi-disciplinary and more subtle. Marshall’s own contributions, in particular, bristling with expert knowledge but also invariably conservative and cautious, should be essential reading for those wanting to advance sweeping, angry or flamboyant interpretations of empire. Not because such interpretations are unwelcome (far from it), but because those who devise them need to take on board and wrestle with the awkward facts. Consider, for example, these two works’ rather different analyses of Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout movement. Judd connects this with its founder’s sexual repression, and his desire to construct ‘a sure defence against the insidious demands of socialism, trade unionism, feminism, liberalism and libertarianism’. But Marshall makes the important point that later editions of Scouting for Boys urged boys to be ‘a friend to all the world. Friends don’t fight each other.’ So what seems at first glance just a component of Edwardian jingoism and militarism can also be viewed in the long term as a movement contributing to international understanding.
This qualification prompts another. Since the foundation of the Boy Scouts was soon followed by the Girl Guides, can we really regard the movement as inherently anti-feminist? Indeed, can we regard imperialism in general as being incurably masculinist? Judd seems to concede the case by devoting considerable space to sexual violence and notions of masculinity in the British Empire, while saying very little about the role of women except as victims. Marshall’s book, by contrast, has nothing to say about sex and the Empire but contains valuable snippets about women. Of course they were always in a minority. As late as 1901, the ratio of British women to men in India was only 38 to 100. And of course they were jealously guarded. One of Marshall’s most shocking photos is of an innocent Indian being forced by British soldiers to crawl along a street where other Indians had dared to assault a British woman. But because their history devotes far more space than Judd does to white emigration and missionary work, spheres in which women always had a place, Marshall and his collaborators are able to suggest how women as well as men could sometimes use empire as an escape from convention. Women could even construct a place in imperial ideology, though far more work is needed on this. The female author of The Complete Indian Housekeeper (1904) surely chose her words carefully: ‘An Indian household can no more be governed peacefully without dignity and prestige, than an Indian empire.’
The Cambridge Illustrated History provides both a guided tour of the chronology of Empire, and excursions into detailed themes and controversies. Its first four chapters tell the story from the late 18th century to the Sixties. Part II contains several essays by different specialists on the life of the British Empire. David Fieldhouse examines how far it promoted economic development or under-development. Ged Martin and Benjamin Kline discuss emigration and identities. John MacKenzie supplies a piece on imperial art. Finally, Marshall, followed by an Australian, an African and an Indian, offer their own, inevitably different, verdicts on Empire’s legacy. Throughout, we are reminded that British power to control events was severely limited. Indeed, A.J. Stockwell actually begins his valuable essay on authority in the Empire with a quote from Harold Macmillan. Power is illusory: ‘when you achieve it there is nothing there.’ The British of course enjoyed a lot more than nothing. But – whatever ideas or initiatives were devised in the metropolis – the Empire was always in practice made by the ruled, and not just by its rulers. It involved ‘interactions between the British and other people’ rather than just the former effortlessly impacting on the latter.
This point is made not just in the text but via the illustrations. An Indian miniature of Warren Hastings, Governor of Bengal, is reproduced so as to stress that while the British began seriously to rule Indians in the late 18th century, they did so partly by mimicking existing Indian élites. A Nigerian souvenir of George V’s jubilee superimposes their majesties’ heads onto bodies sketched out in conventional Islamic fashion, converting the King Emperor and his consort into something very different from their squat Anglo-Germanic selves. Even when British aesthetics were imported into colonies wholesale meanings shifted. Thomas Metcalf remarks that the Parliament building in Ottawa, like Westminster, is an exercise in runaway Gothic: but whereas British Victorians favoured Gothic because they viewed it as their own indigenous style, Canadians might have employed it primarily to distinguish themselves from Americans, who liked classical designs for their public buildings.
There were other unpredictable interactions. The British Empire – like every other empire there has ever been – scarcely needed Michel Foucault to tell it that assembling knowledge might enhance power. The men who mapped the Empire, who photographed and named its various peoples, plants and animals, who imprisoned hitherto free-floating local dialects between the covers of neat, printed dictionaries, knew that ordering things could consolidate political order – whether or not this was their prime purpose in carrying out these tasks. Andrew Porter’s essay shows how the British (like the Spanish and the Dutch) used print as a prime imperial auxiliary. It spread their language and religion. It fuelled their bureaucracies and propaganda. And by deciding that certain local languages should be preserved and propagated via printed grammars and dictionaries, men like William Carey in India and Heinrich Schon in West Africa effectively influenced which colonial peoples and cultures became more influential. Moreover, in the process of being reduced to order by translators, clerks and printers, indigenous languages were filtered through European thought-patterns, becoming subtly changed. Like so many other imperial mechanisms, however, print was promiscuous. By the late 19th century, the colonial printing presses that the British had fostered had proliferated beyond their control and could cater instead to proto-nationalist groups, who used varieties of English for their own cultural and political purposes.
One of the great strengths of Marshall’s collection is that its contributors regularly devote attention to the ideas behind empire. As scholars such as David Armitage, Peter Miller, Anthony Pagden, J.G.A. Pocock and Richard Tuck have reminded us repeatedly in recent years, the absence of mind which was sometimes in the past attributed to imperialism was, rather, a characteristic of some of its historians. Pagden reinforces this message in Lords of All the World, a learned, wide-ranging and important revision of his Carlyle Lectures at Oxford in 1993. Despite the title, he is not in fact concerned with all the European imperial powers, nor with all the world. The Dutch and Portuguese empires are omitted; and Pagden leaves out Asia, as well as Africa and the Pacific, from his analysis. He argues that the ‘European empires have two distinct, but interdependent histories,’ and confines himself to what he views as the first phase: the Spanish, French and British exploitation of the Americas.
This is, heaven knows, a massive enough topic, and Pagden’s willingness to examine the three empires in tandem is as rewarding as it is innovative. His central concern is to show first how Spanish, French and English/British intellectuals, jurists and writers all drew on the legacy of the Roman Empire to define imperialism and to implement and legitimise it. Secondly, Pagden sets out to demonstrate that these ideologues also modified their arguments in relation to each other. Referring back to Rome – both pagan Rome and the Christian empire of Constantine – gave Europeans a sanction for their own conquests. This reliance on classical precedents could even prompt rumours that Roman coins had been found in the Americas. More importantly, taking the Ciceronian line that rule over barbarians was just because ‘servitude in such men is established for their welfare,’ all three empires resorted to Christianising missions in part to validate their expansionism – though, as Pagden recognises, Protestant England was far less active in this respect than France or Spain. England, as well as France, also differed from Spain in making extensive use initially of the Roman law argument of res nullius – empty things. By this conceit, the first to use ‘empty’ land in the Americas became its legitimate owner. Gradually, however, not even the Europeans could persuade themselves that this land was genuinely empty. So they took refuge, as so often, in the sanctity of commerce, and after a fashion purchased the land they were pre-empting.
Roman borrowings came to seem a mixed blessing, more fundamentally, for the reason set out so ringingly by Edward Gibbon: ‘The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness ... the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.’ The problem of how these new European empires were to avoid the fate of their Roman predecessor was made more pressing because the Spanish Empire, too, began visibly to disintegrate. Consequently, Pagden argues, France and still more Britain increasingly made a virtue out of economic necessity. British America and New France had never enjoyed the rich mineral deposits of the Spanish colonies. Settlers there had concentrated instead on trade and agriculture. By the 1700s this necessary concentration was being reinterpreted as a proof of virtue, a guarantee that these colonies would neither disintegrate nor infect the metropolis with corruption. Even Spanish theorists, Pagden points out, came to argue that the only hope for their Empire lay in economic reform. By the end of the 18th century, all three empires stressed commerce and were ‘overwhelmingly concerned with undoing the deleterious consequences of the “spirit of conquest” and the military ethos of glory’. But who exactly in these empires was so concerned?
One problem, as Pagden occasionally half-concedes, is that in practice, though not in theory, the line between commerce and conquest was often permeable. The Dutch are excluded from this book on the grounds that, as a trading and maritime nation, they were not ‘an imperial power in any meaningful sense’. But as Charles Boxer has pointed out, as early as 1700, the Dutch East Indies Company employed 15,000 troops, just as it employed missionaries. To those in Batavia, Ceylon and Surinam, Dutch imperialism must have seemed meaningful enough. By the same token, it is certainly true that British polemicists sought to distinguish their own brand of commerce-loving empire from Spanish militarism. But then, they would, wouldn’t they? The realities were muddier. Far from ‘belligerent militarism’ only triumphing in British India in the mid-19th century, as Pagden contends, it was precisely in the second half of the 18th century that Bengal was bloodily conquered; the British East India Company’s army expanded from some 4000 men in 1740 to 112,000 fifty years later. Nor was this aggression confined to Asia. When James Wolfe marched on New France in 1759 he compared himself, quite deliberately, to Christopher Columbus.
Pagden is right of course to point out that many Enlightenment intellectuals were anxious to assert the primacy of commerce over conquest. But they did so in part precisely because they feared that a new phase of worldwide conflict threatened to engulf them. Hence Adam Smith’s sharp remarks about the expense of colonial warfare. Why, given that highly influential men like Smith, Turgot and Raynal were so insistent in condemning overseas conquests after 1760, did Europeans continue to accumulate them? There are obviously many reasons but Pagden himself cites one of the most compelling: ‘in a very real sense they could not stop.’ The fear and jealousy European states had of each other, the unsupervised activities of their respective armies and merchants on the colonial frontiers, the need to preserve what land they already held against the efforts of indigenous peoples to win it back, all ensured that expansionism went on even as powerful voices in the metropolis condemned it. Which is another way of saying that empire cannot be comprehensively understood – as Pagden seeks here to do – in a purely Eurocentric context. We come back to the importance of global interactions and the need for range. How can historians write about empire – or, if you prefer, the imperial enterprise? How can they not?
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