Lumpers v. Splitters

Ferdinand Mount

  • British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t by Bernard Porter
    I.B. Tauris, 216 pp, £20.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 78453 445 5
  • Heroic Failure and the British by Stephanie Barczewski
    Yale, 267 pp, £20.00, February 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 18006 0

‘Those who make many species are the “splitters” and those who make few are the “lumpers”,’ Charles Darwin wrote in 1857 to his friend, the great botanist Joseph Hooker. This first recorded appearance of the handy distinction between those who bundle up the data into one big theory and those who prefer to lay out the exhibits on the table in carefully separated heaps has since spread from scientific classification into literary studies, philosophy, and above all, into historiography, most notably perhaps in J.H. Hexter’s attack on Christopher Hill for lumping together a biased selection of the evidence to fortify his thesis about the rise of capitalism and the English Civil War. The temperature always rises when the splitters take action against the lumpers (it’s seldom the other way round), because the suggestion of mere blindness to the diversity of the facts soon shades into an accusation of wilful distortion.

Bernard Porter is a lifelong splitter. His studies in the history of the British Empire are designed to unpack the bundles of accepted theory and to point out, in a manner which usually manages to be both pugnacious and good-humoured, what the actual facts were. As he says himself, British Imperial carries on the strand of thought from The Absent-Minded Imperialists (2004) and even from The Lion’s Share, which he published as far back as 1975, the year, as it happens, of Hexter’s celebrated onslaught in the pages of the TLS.

His harpoon is aimed at two opposing schools of lumper fish: the left-wingers who see the empire as a single ‘unconscionable evil – capitalist, racist, even genocidal’; and the right-wingers (these days a rather smaller fraternity, in academia at any rate) who regard it as the means by which Britain helped ‘civilise’ or ‘modernise’ the world. This, he claims, is ‘generally what the popular British debate about imperialism focuses on today’, and he regards both sides as mistaken, ‘because they get the whole nature of the phenomenon wrong’.

The language of ‘imperialism’ suggests a single driving force, to be compared with the force that fuelled the expansion of the Roman Empire. But the British version was created out of such a mixture of motives – the protection of trade, the migratory itch, strategic paranoia, unvarnished greed, missionary zeal, scientific inquiry, dishing the French (or the Russians) – and the forms it took were too hopelessly various to fit a single model.

The peopling of Australia with British emigrants, for example, had almost nothing in common with Britain’s rule – with a very small number of personnel – over countries like India and Nigeria, with different motives informing each of them, and very different outcomes. For Britain’s white Australian subjects, colonialism represented a liberation, with most of them (this of course excludes transported felons) becoming far more individually free than their sisters and brothers back in Britain, and at least as free as those – a majority, as it happens – who chose the US as their new home.

And even the felons in Australia were soon to enjoy more democratic rights than the most respectable merchants in India. Barely thirty years separates the landing of the last convict ship at Fremantle from the proclamation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

‘Frustrating though this may be,’ Porter argues, ‘confusion and complexity are generally a truer way of looking at things than certainty and simplicity.’ He proposes as a fanciful discipline that ‘we imperial historians agree to a moratorium on the “e”, “i”, and “c” words – “empire”, “imperial”, “colonial” and so on – for, say, five years, forcing us to see if we couldn’t understand our subject more, or at least differently, without them’. He doesn’t take his own advice, and he clearly suggests that some of his colleagues, such as John Darwin, have already imbibed the message of complexity, though the popular debate remains stuck in the crude old ruts.

Even John Seeley’s notorious claim, borrowed by Porter for the title of his earlier book, that ‘we seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind’ contains both an ambiguity and a dichotomy. Did he mean that the whole process of empire-building was entirely unintentional or that the intentions were chaotic, mutable and conflicting (‘mind’ here meaning single driving purpose) – or a bit of both? The wisecrack certainly distinguishes between the conquered and the settled lands, between India and the African colonies on the one hand, and the old white dominions on the other. This fundamental distinction permeates almost every aspect of governance and culture. The settler territories were treated, by and large, as terra nullius, no-man’s-lands, thus open to legitimate settlement by all-comers. To make this assumption a reality, the original inhabitants had to be removed or exterminated, or at the very least expropriated by forced treaties.

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[*] The exhibition was reviewed by Inigo Thomas in the LRB of 21 January.