Empire's state and the legacy debate

The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire - Empire
June 7, 1996

Some years ago D. K. Fieldhouse asked doubtfully in an inaugural lecture whether imperial history could be "put together again". He was referring to the tide of regional and local studies of Britain's former colonies published in the 1960s and 1970s. These had cracked the earlier mould of imperial history and had apparently relegated to the margins the histories of colonial constitutions, viceroys and governors which had provided much of the subject's substance over the previous 100 years. Imperial history was scorned, its subject matter regarded as passe.

Today, 100 years after that high point of the "new" imperialism, Kitchener's expedition to the Sudan, Fieldhouse's worst fears can be laid safely to rest. Imperial history has survived in Britain, and in some areas it is showing healthy new growth as a viable field of historical study. Even in North America, Australasia and India, where anglophilia has tended to be politically incorrect of late, the huge explosion of work on postcolonial literary theory and the inheritance of colonial anthropology has inevitably covered much of the same ground.

The two contrasting and ambitious syntheses reviewed here have both been built up on the foundations of this new imperial history. In the 1980s, liberal opinion sometimes worried that a revived interest in empire was liable to be annexed by the new right in British politics. When Margaret Thatcher lectured the Commonwealth heads of government on the benevolence of the British imperial heritage, the sense of alarm deepened. Was imperial history in its senescence to become the playground of little Englanders?

In fact, there is very little jingoism in the new imperial history, as these books illustrate. Rather, the revival has taken the form of an export of specialist European and American historical interests to the world out- side Europe. Historians have realised the scope that imperial history gives them for studying from a comparative perspective topics as diverse as the history of the environment, art, architecture, urbanism, science, sexuality and literature. The apparently moribund history of colonial economies and politics has been energised by forays into the history of capital export, emigration and colonial political thought. Most unexpected of all, historians of England, hitherto characterised by adamantine insularity, have begun to discover the empire. Broadly, if the Americans now do global history through grand studies of "world systems", and the French through a kind of globalised gallic anthropology, imperial history has become the British way of doing comparative history.

Given the expansion of imperial history into these new areas, authors or editors of single-volume histories are faced with an almost impossible decision about what to leave in and what to cut out. Both the volumes under review exclude the empire before 1783, though The Cambridge Illustrated History provides an incisive five-page summary of earlier events. This restricted coverage is understandable, but it does create some problems of explanation. Until the early 19th century, the Atlantic empire, and particularly the Caribbean slave economy, was regarded as the critical realm of empire-building. That huge legacy was largely accumulated before 1782. The early history of empire also reminds us that British overseas colonisation was in part an extension of internal colonisation and settlement within the British Isles. These perspectives will be fully developed in the forthcoming Oxford History of the British Empire. In the meantime, Denis Judd and Peter Marshall have both provided valuable and sometimes innovative syntheses.

Of course, even a one-volume history of the British empire, since 1783 presents formidable difficulties. Judd resorts to a high-risk, but ultimately successful strategy in Empire. He builds his analysis around a key series of events from the American revolution to the present, devoting a chapter apiece to "imperial moments" such as the Jamaica rebellion of 1865, the Battle of Spion Kop of 1900 and the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. Not all the moments he chooses are narrowly political events. The chapter on the "Suicide of Sir Hector MacDonald, 1903" (MacDonald apparently feared exposure for liaisons with young Ceylonese boys) ushers in a discussion of the fashionable topic of sexuality and empire.

Each chapter begins with a vivid narrative of a key event, moves on to generalise about the related issues of imperial history and then returns to narrative. This creates some chronological difficulties. The chapter on the "Partition of India, 1947" starts with the subcontinent but then turns to a general discussion of the colonial policies of the Labour government through 1951, before returning to Wavell and Mountbatten in India.

Broadly, however, the technique works well. For most British people the "imperial experience" of the title was and is captured by memories of great events and pageants. The new European "history of memory" endorses this approach. A casual reader might also fail to register the skill with which Judd intercuts his narrative with lively but well-balanced summaries of even the most rebarbative current historiographical debates. Empire is thoroughly readable and can be recommended to students starting out in overseas history as much as to the general reader who might initially shy away from this apparently unfashionable topic.

Marshall solves the problem of structure by first presenting us with a series of four chronological narrative chapters taking us from 1783 to the 1960s. These he has written himself. This is followed by seven thematic chapters on economics, government, art, and so on, which cover the entire period. Finally, four retrospective chapters sum up the imperial experience for the British, Australians, Indians and Africans. Short boxed articles, on topics such as the Suez Canal, indentured labour and health and disease are scattered through the text and introduce particular themes and novel areas of study.

One note of criticism must be entered at the outset. This book is an illustrated history. Many of the illustrations are indeed well-chosen and some of them will be new to specialists. But their presentation and reproduction leave something to be desired. By comparison with the striking illustrated works of some of its academic and commercial rivals, the page design and artwork of Cambridge University Press looks old-fashioned and unappealing, which is perhaps the result of under-investment in the visual side of production.

Nevertheless, the first 11 chapters of the Illustrated History represent a first-class introduction to imperial history, written at the highest level and well based on current scholarship. They are probably directed at more advanced undergraduates than Judd's book, but general readers will also find in them expert summaries of the state of play in the field. Marshall's own narrative chapters are written with his usual elegant caution. There is hardly a trace of the polemic and passion which has customarily been invested in imperial history, let alone postcolonial studies. In general, Marshall says less changed over time than we are wont to think. He does, however, accept that the British empire periodically operated as an international system during and immediately after periods of global war: in the course of the Napoleonic wars, the first world war and, notably, during the second world war and after, when the Labour government exploited the empire in Britain's interest more vigorously than ever before.

D. K. Fieldhouse cuts through the flim-flam about economic imperialism with his equally well-known common sense. The dull clash of theoreticians is here replaced with a useful discussion of the mechanics of empire: railways, canals, trade, plantations, and so forth. Nationalists and leftists will no doubt dissent from Fieldhouse's conclusion that, before 1914, empire was "probably more beneficial than harmful" to the colonies. But this is a cautious judgement hedged with exceptions and, as Fieldhouse acknowledges, it is less applicable to the tropical colonies than to the colonies of settlement.

Ged Martin and Benjamin E. Kline likewise put together a great deal of scattered material to present a concise summary of British emigration to the settler colonies. It is complemented by Marshall's study of the diaspora of Asians and Africans within the empire. Thomas R. Metcalf's study of "Imperial towns and cities" does much more than it promises, covering sanitation, architecture and local government, but also the life-styles of the new indigenous elites, racism and social urban conflict. Metcalf's discussion of colonial architecture is complemented by John M. MacKenzie's chapter on art and the empire. This usefully brings together a discussion of European landscape and history painting across the world with some considerations of the emergence of nationalist art.

Andrew Porter writes about "Empires in the mind", charting the impact of British religion, ideologies and languages on dependent territories. Of all aspects of the imperial impact, this is probably the least studied at a comparative level and the one which offers the greatest scope for future research. There is, of course, a distinguished tradition of writing about the imprint of ideology on government in particular imperial regions, notably India and South Africa. But Porter's chapter initiates a comparative discussion of the expansion of the English language, the creation of regional vernaculars, Christian missions, education and the response of indigenous elites.

What will be needed in the future is a more sophisticated understanding of the way in which people in both the settler and dependent colonies appropriated and used these ideas and institutions to challenge, subvert or sometimes to prove their affinity with the metropolis. Imperial historians will need to engage quite directly with the debates among anthropologists and literary theorists about the relations between knowledge and power in a colonial context. A. J. Stockwell begins to do this in his essay on "Power, authority and freedom". His daunting task is to bring together issues such as techniques of imperial government, bureaucratic cadres and the growth of "responsible government". Stockwell briefly considers the nature of indigenous resistance and the growth of nationalism, but the volume would have benefited from a more consistent treatment of these themes throughout.

The final section on "imperial experience", where nationalism and the postcolonial inheritance might have been considered more broadly, sits less happily with the rest of the Marshall volume. It is no accident either that Judd's final chapter, which launches on a similar exercise of stocktaking, is also problematic. Moralising and drawing up balance sheets for an international system that lasted more than 250 years is an exercise of limited value; who would now attempt it for the Roman or Holy Roman empires? Judd's elder relatives, as he tells us, entertained sharply contrasting views about the legacy of empire. Perhaps in deference to them, he concludes uncomfortably, in the manner of a headmaster's address to the school at the annual prize-giving, that the British "did their best" in the empire.

The Illustrated History ends with a kind of "nationalists' corner" where Tapan Raychaudhuri denounces the inheritance of the British Raj and Toyin Falola reflects on the distortions of British rule in Africa and the disappointed hopes of independence. K. S. Inglis takes us back again to Gallipoli and the decline of British identity in Australia, while Marshall argues that the experience of empire merely strengthened trends already emerging in British society.

These chapters are no doubt true reflections of current national views of the empire. The shot of adrenaline and whiff of polemic after the seamless judiciousness of earlier chapters are welcome, up to a point. But a systematic study of colonial resistance and of the legacy bequeathed by the empire to the ideologies and institutions of the successor states would have been more useful. Still, the empire itself ended in diminuendo and these books remain excellent introductions to their subject.

C. A. Bayly is professor of imperial and naval history, University of Cambridge.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire

Editor - P.J. Marshall
ISBN - 0 521 43211 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 400

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