Red on maps, grey in minds

Britannia's Empire - The Absent-Minded Imperialists
May 27, 2005

Few Britons ever had any notion of empire, Gordon Johnson finds

Here are two books about the British Empire, a largely neglected subject.

In Britannia 's Empire, Bill Nasson takes on the difficult task of writing a historical narrative that stretches from the 16th to the 21st century. He succeeds in doing so elegantly and concisely, and his book is an excellent introduction to the subject. With The Absent-Minded Imperialists , Bernard Porter, in an outstanding display of the historian's craft, artfully disguised by a rather demotic, not to say chipper, literary style, takes an apparently narrower theme - what the British knew of empire - to write in stimulating ways about both British imperialism and British culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nasson's book has the briefest of bibliographies and notes, leaving the reader to take things on trust; Porter's has 108 pages of endnotes and 30 pages of "select" bibliography, giving the reader ample opportunity to go beyond the author's own text.

The books are written with rather different readerships in mind, but both have a common thread running through them: the difficulty of grasping the nature of the British Empire and the remarkable ambivalence with which it was regarded by the British themselves. They were never quite sure of what constituted the "empire". For Henry VIII, the empire was simply "this England"; for others it would include Scotland, Ireland and Wales, with their distinctive cultures being gradually, though not without dissent, brought under a single jurisdiction. Then the term came to relate more to overseas possessions - the "plantations" of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Empire was sometimes seen as a good thing, but it was never without its critics. After the trauma of the Napoleonic period in European history, the British were sceptical of empire as a political system: it stood too much for the suppression of liberties and for excessive centralisation of politics and the economy. The great advances made by Britain in the early 19th century - in the eyes of influential contemporaries - Jwere the result of dismantling monopolies and driving government out of the economy: this was an era of individual liberty and of international free trade.

Gradually - Porter pinpoints just how late in the 19th century - Britain became more conscious of the existence of its empire overseas, and in a simple way would colour the map red and be proud that the sun never set on Queen Victoria's realms. Even in the rosiest glow, however, there were critics arguing that empire exploited and corrupted, and many realists, responsible for making political or economic decisions, always kept a shrewd eye on the advantage or costs of developing it or even of holding on to it. Both the books under review imply the apparent looseness of the bonds holding a miscellany of places together within an empire; and both comment that its disappearance is largely unremarked. But both authors agree about the importance of understanding something of British imperialism, for in subtle ways it has greatly influenced the shape of the modern world.

The late-19th-century historian John Seeley (from whom Porter derives the title of his book) analysed the dilemma people have had in coming to terms with the British Empire in this way: "The same nation which reaches one hand towards the future of the globe and assumes a position of mediator between Europe and the New World, stretches the other hand towards the remotest past, becomes an Asiatic conqueror, and usurps the succession of the great Mogul. How can the same nation pursue two lines of policy so radically different without bewilderment, be despotic in Asia and democratic in Australia, be in the East at once the greatest Mussulman power in the world and the guardian of the property of thousands of idol-temples, and at the same time in the West be the foremost champion of free thought and spiritual religion, stand out as a great military imperialism to resist the march of Russia in Central Asia at the same time that it fills Queensland and Manitoba with free settlers?"

Britain's was not an imperialism driven by ideology, as one might argue for the great ancient and medieval empires, or for those underpinned by fascism, communism or a belief in liberal democracy in more contemporary time. Nor did it result even in an attempt to create a truly imperial government, with constitutional and administrative structures designed to give coherence and purpose to the whole venture, directing the use of economic and social resources to a common end. Moreover, Britain was never contained by her empire: so much of her economic and political interests and activities (indeed, for most of the time most of them) lay beyond its limits; and although there was much pomp and circumstance in the ritual display of empire, the sound of giggling was never very far away as the ostrich feathers tickled the noses of ludicrously uniformed proconsuls.

Porter's book is helpful in allowing us to come to terms with some of this.

He shows, by meticulous research through a huge trawl of letters, journals, newspapers, magazines, popular literature, school textbooks, manuals and reports just what metropolitan British society knew about its empire. And, although this is only modest oversimplification, the answer is not very much. Some social classes in Britain did have a vested interest in the colonies and knew a lot, but most did not. Staggeringly few Britons went to serve in the colonial outposts; and, turning to the wider movement of population, money and trade moving out from Britain to other parts of the world, we know that far more ended up outside the empire - in Europe, the US and South America - than within it. Moreover (and this is a particularly interesting part of Porter's analysis), what you knew of empire and how you thought about it, if at all, depended very much on what social class you belonged to in Britain. So there was not one idea of British imperialism, its meaning and values, but many: often in conflict or cancelling each other out; never truly permeating the whole of British society.

This makes understanding the empire that much more difficult: was it just a ragbag of historical phenomena, a chance grouping of power and finance thrown together, as Seeley saw it, in a fit of absence of mind? There is something attractive about this view, not least because it allows the darker and seamier side of the whole operation to be downplayed somewhat.

It is not surprising then that Porter, who despite being blooded into the field of extra-European history by an education at Cambridge University, tends here and there to wish coherence could be given to the whole story by a return to a Marxist or class-based set of explanations, thus aligning attitudes about empire with attitudes about class; but he cannot quite bring himself to make the facts fit the theory. Nasson, who came through the same historical school some 20 years later, is similarly foxed in his quest for an overriding explanation. With his wider readership in mind - he goes right from the first Elizabethan Age to the second - the wealth and diversity of the pieces of narrative he so ably marshals and includes in his book continually defy coherent analysis: and, indeed, what works for one situation within a period of 400 years will not necessarily apply to another.

Cambridge historians, from Seeley onwards, have, however, pointed a way forward. In trying to explain the highly improbable imperialism of Britain (and to a degree, that of Portugal and Holland as well - all three being dynamic countries yet bit players on the world stage), the focus might profitably be on tracking patterns of volatile and shifting relationships between countries and economies. Those relationships would ebb and flow, and they would be handled differently in different periods and circumstances. And, crucially, what was happening independently and internally with other societies and economies would be as important in explaining the nature of British imperialism as anything that was happening in Britain itself. If the British Empire is a species of global networking, then it requires for explanation not just the dynamism from the metropolis, but interaction with dynamic developments elsewhere. A better understanding of Britain's historic empire, ostrich feathers and all, might help us, therefore, to gain insight into what we bundle into "globalisation" in the contemporary world.

The British Empire can best be understood, in fact, within a wider context of global economic and political relationships. Power and wealth operate as distinct arms in a largely unseen and unconscious process of establishing and maintaining advantageous connections between dynamic centres and volatile peripheries. There are, inevitably, elements of hierarchy in all this, and, in some places on some occasions, very definite inequalities in the relationships. The connections, though, normally have elements of mutual benefit in them, even as they go from extremes of ruthless exploitation to exchanges on an equal footing. What is striking is the extent of the huge grey areas in between and of the continual adjustments taking place within them.

Empire is about power and the exercise of it; but no one can read about Britain's empire without being struck by the complexities of it, the difficulties of rational decision-making within it, and the many ways in which even the powerless had some capacity to constrain and subvert it. The opening paragraph of Paul Seabright's recent book, The Company of Strangers , demonstrates precisely the point, that the purchase of a simple cotton shirt involves the bringing-together of very separate but now interdependent social and economic processes in many countries. He refers to this not as an absent-minded process but as the "natural history of economic life". Unfortunately, as the world becomes more connected, the scope for conflict may be increased. We are never likely to comprehend fully the forces that shape our lives, whether they spring from the physical, social, political, cultural or economic environments; but that is no reason not to try to get a better grasp of them; and a deeper understanding of the British Empire is not a bad place to start.

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and general editor of The New Cambridge History of India .

Britannia's Empire: Making a British World

Author - Bill Nasson
Publisher - Tempus
Pages - 254
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7524 2958 2

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