The emperor of imperialism

The Statecraft of British Imperialism
April 21, 2000

The two scholars who here survey the career of Roger Louis hesitate to call this collection a Festschrift . They write from the two academic bases of Louis's activities, Robert King from the University of Texas at Austin, where Louis is Kerr professor of English history and culture, and the late Ronald Robinson from Oxford, where Louis is a fellow of St Antony's College. King notes that the customary associations of Festschrift are absent - "end of career, retirement, final milestone". Robinson observes that Louis is "not yet strictly entitled to a Festschrift ", as he is far from retirement, there are still several major works to come, and another tribute will be required in a few years. King adds that neither he nor his co-editor and initiator of the venture is a former student of Louis's. Neither are the 14 other contributors to the volume, who are, rather, "his colleagues in the vocation of writing history". They include two former vice-chancellors, the president of the Royal Historical Society, the president of a Cambridge college, three past or present incumbents of named chairs in imperial history, and professors from such far-flung locations as New Delhi, New Zealand and Nova Scotia and the universities of Duke and Columbia. The range and eminence of the contributors suggest that this volume is a very special tribute, whose necessity surpasses the customary forms of the Festschrift . What then has Louis done to merit this, for some, precocious volume?

In his warmly affectionate preface, which introduces the person as well as his work, King explains for the benefit of those who have not known him on his home turf that Louis's "most lasting contribution to the intellectual life of the University of Texas" is the British studies seminar. For a quarter of a century he has drawn leading world figures to discuss their work at the seminar in the opulent Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. In recent years Louis has edited two volumes of these "adventures with Britannia". King speculates that Louis's enthusiasm for archival research might lead him to consider his proudest accomplishment to be his completion this year of his 39th consecutive summer at the Public Record Office.

Robinson's authoritative survey of Louis's career distinguishes four major achievements. The first, as "the grand impresario of symposia", was to edit, or usually co-edit, for he has "a genius for collaboration", more than a dozen collective volumes on imperial history. Louis's second major contribution was, as "arbiter" in the major post-war controversy in imperial historiography, to compile a volume that dissects the ideas of Gallagher and Robinson and their critics. Robinson describes his third and "greatest" contribution as "writing the original basic narratives of the post-war empire". In two massive tomes, Imperialism at Bay 1941-1945 , and The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945-1951 and, apparently, a third in progress, Louis chronicles the revival, decline and fall of the British Empire from 1940 to 1967 in the context of the rise of America's global hegemony. The fourth of Louis's achievements has been to mount "a symposium to end all symposia". As general editor and contributor he has raised a "historic monument to four centuries of empire", a five-volume Oxford History of the British Empire that brings together well over a hundred historians to sum up the present state of British imperial studies. If Festschrift is understood in its dictionary sense as a volume of essays in honour of the completion of a stage of achievement in a scholar's career, then it is to celebrate the recent publication of the OHBE that this volume is most perfectly timed.

The Festschrift 's most radical revision to imperial historiography is proposed by the late Lord Beloff in an essay on "Empire reconsidered". For Beloff, "informal empire" is "a contradiction in terms", the core of empire was not profit but governance", and the whole notion of a post-war imperial system regenerated by American wealth and power suggests "a very curious perspective". Several other contributors write on themes that Louis has pursued, notably Ronald Hyam on geopolitics; Sarvepalli Gopal on All Souls and India; Diane B. Kunz on Anglo-American defence and financial policy; Kenneth O. Morgan on British labour and decolonisation; Toyin Falola on West Africa; John Darwin on the Middle East; and Avi Shlaim on Palestine. There are essays by Judith M. Brown, John W. Cell and John E. Flint on nationalist challenges to imperial authority. P. J. Marshall writes on the 13 colonies and W. David McIntyre on dominion status. There is a useful bibliography of Louis's writings and an index.

Here is an attractive volume that changes some existing emphases, suggests new directions, and revisits old controversies. It is sufficient comment on its quality to say that it is worthy of its intention to honour Louis as a master historian of British imperial statecraft.

Robin J. Moore is professor of social sciences, Flinders University of South Australia.

The Statecraft of British Imperialism: Essays in Honour of Wm. Roger Louis

Editor - Robert D. King and Robin Kilson
ISBN - 0 7146 4378 5
Publisher - Frank Cass
Price - £17.50
Pages - 2

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