Clashes and Collaborations

Linda Colley

  • Empire: The British Imperial Experience, from 1765 to the Present by Denis Judd
    HarperCollins, 517 pp, £25.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 00 255237 X
  • Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire edited by P.J. Marshall
    Cambridge, 400 pp, £24.95, March 1996, ISBN 0 521 43211 1
  • Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France, c.1500-c.1800 by Anthony Pagden
    Yale, 244 pp, £19.95, August 1995, ISBN 0 300 06415 2

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.

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