Watching the sun go down

The Oxford History of the British Empire; Volume Three - The Oxford History of the British Empire; Volume Four - The Oxford History of the British Empire; Volume Five
March 10, 2000

The British Empire, upon which at one time the sun never set, is officially dead. Gordon Johnson reviews the latest volumes of OUP's funeral oration

The British Empire, once a power to be reckoned with in the history of the world, is now largely forgotten and little understood. At the start of a new century, only 100 years on from its heights of glory, its very existence is scarcely recalled. When not absurd - a matter of ostrich plumes and vain pomp and circumstance - it is seen as morally despicable: nasty, brutish and in shorts, as the science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss once put it. Those who seek to resurrect it do so either in a haze of misplaced romanticism or, more usually, to place the blame for some current ill on a dismembered corpse long mouldering in its tomb. This is all very well for the purposes of popular political posturing, but it results in serious study of empire and imperialism being pushed to the margin, and the anti-imperialists, who would once have bolstered their case with a barrage of statistics and the most rigorously conceived sociological models and political theory, are now content to dismiss the whole business with a contemptuous sneer.

This is a pity, because the process of expansion and contraction, the ebb and flow of power and influence, the making and breaking of networks and connections, the achievements and the costs of human interactions across the world, underlie many of the most interesting and important problems facing the modern citizen. In a dazzling and provocative inaugural lecture as Smuts professor of Commonwealth history (published as The Future of the Imperial Past , 1997), Anthony Hopkins argued that the study of empire could prove to be an exciting and exacting way of analysing a number of key issues: the real scope of British history, for example; the composition, stability and future of the nation-state as an agent of progress; the reappearance of virulent and assertive strains of ethnicity; and the spread of supra-national influences, bundled together under the label "globalisation", that have thrown up problems ranging from environmental to economic and from health to defence, and which throw into stark relief issues of cultural heterogeneity and the limits of international freedom and autonomy. For what was the British Empire, in its rise and decline, if not one of the first, and one of the most significant, early manifestations of the troubling progress of recent centuries?

That Hopkins was not a voice calling in the wilderness was proved by the publication in 1998 of the first two volumes of a superbly edited and beautifully produced Oxford History of the British Empire . These volumes (edited by Nicholas Canny and Peter Marshall) covered the 17th and 18th centuries. They had about them a freshness and sparkle that went far beyond the normal textbook fare. Not only did they bring to a general reader a great deal of new research, but they did so in a way that was stimulating and immediately comprehensible. The volumes were coherent and rested on the great revision that has been taking place in recent decades in our understanding of the history of the British Isles.

The analyses revealed a narrative whereby localities and regions were yoked together; where political and economic integration (albeit partial and incomplete) forged new appreciations of nation and being; where people moved into, laid claim to and developed acres of land hitherto bypassed by the mainstream of history. London, and the English, after years of struggle throughout the Middle Ages, effected a firmer and more decisive control, economically, politically and culturally, over the whole group of the British Isles. This was not a simple nor always a pleasant process: economies were destroyed as well as built, peoples were dispossessed while others were gaining lands; customs and cultures were subordinated; freedoms and autonomy were sacrificed by some in the broader interests of others. Ireland was the subject of new plantations; the Celtic regions of Great Britain felt some loss. But the imperial expansion within the British Isles had great vigour and momentum, and it ventured forth across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and, most significantly, to the shores of North America, drawing those territories into powerful economic relationships with the expanding society. By the 18th century, exploration by sea had taken the British, following the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Dutch, into Asia, there establishing a different sort of connection: an empire of trade and manipulation rather than one of conquest and settlement. Adam Smith, at the end of that century, would rightly perceive that the European arrival in the Americas and the discovery and exploitation of the sea routes to Asia were among the most profound developments of modern times.

The course of history never runs straight, however, for, as a 16th-century divine so wisely noted, "nothing is so well devised, or so sure established, which in the continuance of time is not corrupted". The political and cultural diversity within the imperial authority, coupled with the huge distances involved and the breaking-out of newer dynamisms that were only partially compatible with the initial urge to colonise abroad, led to the loss to Britain of North America and the rise of a new British empire in India (although these changes are better, and less dramatically, understood as shifts in the existing relationship between Britain and the 13 colonies and the forging of new links with existing interests in Asia). Moreover, towards the later 18th century, the whole force of European expansion moved up a gear: previously, it could be argued that in the grand order of things the scale and impact of Europe on the world beyond was pretty minimal; but from the 19th and into the 20th century this would no longer be so. A massive migration of settlers occurred; an expansion of world trade took place under European (for a time, largely British) hegemony; there were huge flows of investment capital to establish, support and develop regions of the world distant from northern Europe; naval and military power was deployed by Europeans in the non-European parts of the world, often with ambiguous results but always with ruthless intent; and European diplomacy established, with at least some success, an international world order based on the nation-state for those fortunate enough to belong to one, and on their inclusion in the European empires for those not so lucky.

So one turns with high expectation to see how empire fares in the volumes of The Oxford History covering the 19th and 20th centuries. The report is more mixed than for earlier volumes. Certainly, the standard of research and the quality of the writing remain very high. Neither volume contains an inferior essay, and many of the contributions are quite outstanding. All can be read with pleasure and profit, and they will, quite rightly, become texts to be used enthusiastically by university teachers for some time to come. But somehow the sharpness of focus on the British Empire itself has been lost.

This is, no doubt, mainly because "empire", from around 1800 until its final formal demise by 2000, had become such a complicated and varied thing: no longer a story that can be held together by an analysis of the achievements and tribulations of the fractious British peoples. And it is here also that we see demonstrated most forcefully our late 20th-century ambivalence about empire. It is difficult to study something that is so complex but which is so demeaned in contemporary society. Moreover, historians who have studied empire in the past 50 years have nearly all been persuaded to shift the emphasis of their work away from the capital and into the colony. And what wealth they have found there! As the scholars have seen how Europeans became embroiled with other societies, and as they have been caught up with the excitement of trying to understand those societies, they have themselves been captivated and have gone native. Who could resist the challenge of trying to understand something of the richness and diversity of human experience in those great centres of population outside Europe? Faced with India, China, Africa and the Americas, and more latterly with a growing appreciation of the earlier colonisers of Australasia and the Pacific, who would not be tempted to try to see those societies not refracted through the imperial prism? There have been tremendous gains from this shift in the historiography, but also a loss, for the pursuit of the truly indigenous has let in the charlatans from every discipline, and has put at a discount the value of studying interactions and relationships.

My point is made clearer when one turns to volume five of The Oxford History . This volume is in many ways disappointing. True, the book contains excellent individual essays, but as it turns to consider the writing about the past 200 years it tends to offer up really rather routine accounts of what has been published (which is on the whole fair, although occasionally academic vendettas force their way through, either by the odd disparaging remark or, more usually, by omission: currently inconvenient or unfashionable work being brushed out of history, as it were). Any attempt at an organising principle is abandoned in favour of country-by-country surveys; judgements are inclusive and bland, and evaluation of work is low-key. Moreover, in attempting to meet a narrow brief about taking account of "empire", the contributors often overlook important work about the country concerned that, though not imperial history in a strict sense, does actually help to illuminate the imperial process. The editor's introduction and conclusion are exempt from these remarks, setting out as they do the main trends in the historiography and relating them to the development of historical understanding in the West more generally; and it would be difficult to better John Flint's measured consideration of the literature about the scramble for Africa, or A. P. Thornton's rather whimsical and agreeably ironic essay about the shaping of imperial history, which supplies some real insights from an older generation. Hopkins's article trails in less polemical form some of the ideas about how to approach imperial history that he developed in his inaugural lecture. It might have been appropriate to follow these leads in a more thorough-going way and to have attempted a more thematic treatment of the literature throughout the book. This might have produced a shorter volume, but it could have been more stimulating.

Everyone recognises, however they might qualify it, that two historians in particular - John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson - have wielded enormous influence over successive academic generations: indeed, it is a testimony to their importance that nearly all of the contributors in these three volumes of The Oxford History are, consciously or not, writing under the spell woven by this duo in a single article, "The imperialism of free trade", published in the Economic History Review of 1953, and their one book, Africa and the Victorians , published in 1961. They were both wonderful teachers, at undergraduate and graduate level, and between them supervised dozens of doctoral dissertations. What made their work so illuminating and so liberating was their coherent view of the expansion of Europe: explanations for it could not be contained within a single cause, and you were on the road to ruin if you looked only within Europe for an explanation. It was necessary, rather, to view empire within a wide context: you saw only part of the picture if you believed that Victoria's empire consisted simply of the territories coloured pink in the school atlas. Informal as well as formal relationships had to be considered as part of the analysis - not just where the British strutted about in feathered hats, but countries where "mere influence" achieved a British end. The rise (and then the fall) of empire was also to be understood in terms of shifting material relationships between the centre and the periphery, between the imperial capital and the distant colony. These were relationships that were conditional and always in flux. It was also important to recognise the great diversity of imperialisms, in any given case to see where decisions were actually made (or, as Gallagher and Robinson would have been more likely to say, "who called the shots") and to handle with care what the consequences of a decision were. Gallagher and Robinson were strong on the importance of the non-European contexts for explaining the expansion of Europe, and gave full credit to the significance of non-European reaction, resistance, and accommodation to the pressing forward of imperial claims. They recognised that decisions, even the most seemingly rational, were made with incomplete and inaccurate information, and they viewed with a sort of post-imperial envy the advantage that could be taken (or the damage done) by the "man on the spot".

All this seems common sense now, in 2000; but to those thinking about empire and bearing some of the responsibilities of its aftermath at a time when imperialism was still real flesh-and-blood politics, it was an invigorating and creative approach.

Not unnaturally, the new stress on relationships, and the new importance assigned in historical explanations to the colonised, were perhaps the most powerful forces driving historians to study in greater detail the domestic histories of the places raked so improbably together into empires. But Gallagher and Robinson themselves never lost sight of the fact that empire was about the exercise of power, and that the imperial relationships were unequal ones. What recent scholarship has inadequately retained is the importance, for understanding imperialism, of analysing these material relationships and of keeping as close an eye on the metropolis as on the distant plantation. It is, of course, a nonsense to say that India won freedom because British politicians examined the books and found it was too expensive to retain, or that Africa was decolonised because the loss of India made Britain's continued presence in the continent unnecessary; but there is a grain of truth in both propositions.

The excellent essays by P. J. Cain and B. R. Tomlinson in volume three of The Oxford History offer salutary lessons about getting the economics of empire right, viewed from the perspective of the imperial power. We look at a sliding scale, a profit-and-loss account, a congruence of interests among many parties, in order to understand what was happening in the relationship between Britain and the wider world. Perhaps Hopkins is right: we need more about the empire as part of British history (so fruitfully demonstrated in the first two volumes of this work); we need more about real economics, and a return to the study of power and its use - both domestically and internationally. The costs of power should be added up realistically (think of how much was expended on the Royal Navy in order to maintain free flows of cheap colonial produce and ready access to dominion markets). Somewhere along the line, these studies should inform the history of ideas and the history of culture; we recognise that they all play upon each other randomly and unpredictably. It is a cop-out to say that the British acquired their empire in a fit of absence of mind, but serendipity and opportunism do have a role to play in the understanding of empire.

These volumes are greatly to be welcomed because they move the study of the British empire into a new era. Perhaps they will persuade a rising generation of historians that, in their duty to liberate rather than to colonise the past (the late Eric Stokes's telling phrase), questions of empire can be approached without guilt, and that good and challenging work can be done using imperialism's historical framework to identify and propose solutions to difficult questions of continuing human interest. And, besides, who can fail to appreciate the irony of an empress claiming to rule a third of the people of the world rarely venturing further from her London capital than the highlands of Scotland or across the seas to the Isle of Wight?

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

The Oxford History of the British Empire; Volume Three: The Nineteenth Century

Editor - Andrew Porter
ISBN - 0 19 820565 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 741

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