The Burdens of Empire: 1539 to the Present, by Anthony Pagden

Yvonne Sherratt on a study of how imperial history has been one of the most frequent and extensive elements of human experience

June 18, 2015
Book review: The Burdens of Empire: 1539 to the Present, by Anthony Pagden

The opening of this engaging, erudite and elegant book juxtaposes two very big claims: “empires are now no more” and yet “they have always been a more frequent, more extensive, human experience than tribal territories or modern nations”. Anthony Pagden’s aim is to consider how empires were delineated and legitimated, which is an inquiry that leads him to focus on political and legal argumentation. Even if empires have been found across the globe, he argues, the concept of empire is a more restrictedly European one that springs from ancient Rome. This Roman groundwork would be revived after the discovery of the Americas as new European empires were built and justified, and it is these modern empires that are the focus of Pagden’s study.

Although The Burdens of Empire runs in chronological sequence, it revolves around two key moments and their intellectual ramifications. The first was the discovery of the Americas. In the wake of this event, theologian Francisco de Vitoria and others in the School of Salamanca discussed (and profoundly doubted) the legitimacy of the emergent Spanish empire in the first half of the 16th century from a theological perspective. At the end of the century, legal scholar Alberico Gentili would be the first in a long line of theorists to tackle the same question through a juridical framework rooted in Roman law. Other debates engaged with the identity of the peoples of the Americas: were they Aristotle’s natural slaves or the offspring of the putative “other Adam” in the Book of Genesis? And did such an identity offer legitimacy for the building of empires? Finally, if Christopher Columbus showed that the oceans were a highway rather than a boundary, could European powers claim rights over the seas, as the Portuguese argued and as the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius denied?

The second moment spans the decades on either side of 1800. The diversity of the English settler empire in North America meant that its claims to independence could be couched in terms of continuity and English common law. By contrast, South American independence would be framed by Simón Bolívar as a recourse to ancient republicanism and virtue. Within Europe, the nature of empire came to be defined in terms of commerce rather than conquest by the political economists, and of international law instead of natural law by jurists and philosophers alike. It was in these new, purportedly enlightened, terms that the largest flourishing of empires ever seen in the 19th century would be justified.

Pagden skips over the era of European imperial apogee, preferring to focus on the present day to make two powerful and contentious points. First, he argues that the US does not exhibit the characteristics of an empire and that those who frame it thus engage in guilt by association rather than rigorous analysis. Having anatomised the various sleights of hand by which empire has been justified for half a millennium, he refuses to engage in similar elisions. Second, he argues that the idea of human rights emerges from the notion of a universal humanity on which European empire was predicated and that “this does not necessarily invalidate its claim to be in the long term interests of the majority of humankind”. As a champion of Enlightenment values, Pagden leaves us with the hope that while empires are no more, their burdens will in the end bring sweeter political fruits to all.

Yvonne Sherratt is senior lecturer in the department of human geography, University of Bristol. She is author, most recently, of Hitler's Philosophers (2013).


The Burdens of Empire: 1539 to the Present
By Anthony Pagden
Cambridge University Press, 296pp, £59.99 and £19.99
ISBN 9780521198271, 188289 and 9781316235720 (e-book)
Published 19 March 2015

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