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Response to Review no. 747

I’m grateful to John Marriott for taking the time to review my edited collection of essays on the British Empire and for his generous comments about individual chapters and the volume as a whole. He none the less makes pertinent points about coverage to which I shall return. But I would like to begin with the preliminary issue he raises of the book’s value and originality.
While I am naturally glad that Mariott considers the collection ‘most certainly worthwhile’, he considers this to be for reasons other than those he states I emphasized. Marriott asks whether in the light of the existence of both the original and more recent thematic and country volumes in the OHBE series we need another edited collection on empire. He concludes in the affirmative but goes on to suggest the real value of my own collection lies not in the fact that it is a one-volume publication but because my contributors adopted a less empirical, more historiographical approach than contributors to the OHBE. Although I undoubtedly invited comparison with the OHBE volumes by reference to them in the preface, my own book bears resemblance to them only in so far as it is an edited volume. The multi-volume OHBE format permits extended treatment of centuries and themes (and indeed of historiography, most obviously in the case of volume 5 of the original series) with which it is impossible to compete in a single volume. In fact I see my book’s place as being alongside other single volumes – albeit mostly single- authored – on empire and its originality as being in its thematic approach. Histories of empire organised chronologically or around a central narrative can offer excellent introductions to their subject, but don’t necessarily lend themselves to the study and teaching of particular themes and issues in a way that one might wish. When I was asked to edit this volume I saw it as an opportunity to produce a book that would do something distinctively different to most existing histories of the empire and which would result in the kind of book of which I myself have often felt the need.

But the value of a book such as this lies not simply in its adoption of a thematic approach per se but of course in the selection of themes and in their execution. In this respect, my own perception of the volume’s originality was twofold: that it married what have sometimes been see as the concerns of an ‘old’ with the preoccupations of a ‘new’ imperial history, and because alongside chapters on essential, but more established themes were some comparatively novel arrangements. Although we agree that Jon Wilson’s chapter on agency represents a valuable and novel approach, I am more surprised at the list of topics he implies are more standard fare. These include Stephen Howe’s chapter on ideology and empire: the subject of some focused studies and at the heart of much of the wider historiography of empire, but not generally surveyed in relation to empire as a whole. Similarly, although the ‘colonial state’ enjoyed a starring moment in imperial and colonial historiography a couple of decades ago, the British state  – while like ideology clearly an essential presence in much writing about British imperialism – has, as Andrew Thompson argues, been surprisingly neglected by historians of empire as a subject in its own right. Religion and empire (the subject of Elizabeth Elbourne’s chapter) is a more obvious theme, but through her very inclusive approach and avoidance of what could easily have been a narrower focus on missionary activity, she also offers a fresh perspective.

As Marriott acknowledges tough decisions did indeed have to be taken about the selection of themes. Inevitably in a collection of this kind there are gaps, and some subjects which as editor I naively anticipated might be represented in particular chapters proved impossible for contributors already facing the challenging task of writing about several centuries of British imperialism in a tight word limit to incorporate. It is true that there is no separate or extended discussion here of slavery and abolition. I would accept also that race and gender received more prominent treatment in some chapters than others: but given their centrality in the chapters by Catherine Hall and Tony Ballantyne in particular I don’t feel that this detracts from the volume. For my part, I regret the absence of a chapter on violence and empire, aspects of which I (unrealistically) originally assigned to one of the chapters.

I am unconvinced by Marriott’s observations about periodisation. Of course it would have been pleasing to address a yet larger period but to have done so would have been beyond the scope of this book and have stretched the existing chapters beyond credibility. That said, John Darwin briefly traces the historical roots of the modern British empire to early English empire-building within the British Isles – which could be said to address the point that Marriott makes about ‘an earlier phase during which Britain as an internal empire was secured under English hegemony’. Darwin does this with appropriate economy, for this theme remains essentially outside the chronological remit of this book. It was in part to overcome the difficulties inherent in asking contributors to discuss such a broad swathe of the history of British imperialism that the decision was taken to include two more period-specific chapters. Eliga Gould’s chapter tackles the years 1763–83 through an innovative focus on the legal geography of empire. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, if some chapters devote comparatively less space to the 20th century (although given the discussion in Dilley, Thompson and Darwin, as well as in Ward, I am not sure that I agree with Marriott that this is really the case) it is as much as anything because the second half of the century is given separate treatment in my own chapter. Moreover, while I take the very valid observation about Ireland as ‘laboratory’ the distinct Irish, Welsh and Scottish contribution (to respond to a further of Marriott’s points) – at least in terms of overseas settlement – to British imperialism lay at the heart of Kent Fedorowich’s chapter on emigration. Their experience of empire and the impact of imperial retreat on the Union is a theme taken up by Andrew Thompson. Indeed it is because Thompson takes up this theme and also that of immigration to Britain that my own chapter on ‘ends of empire’ excludes these in the discussion of the domestic impact of decolonisation (although I would like to think that in giving more or less equal weight to this aspect of the history of end of empire, and especially of how imperial retreat impacted on various ‘stake holders’ in empire, it offers a comparatively fresh approach).

Finally John Marriott comments on the choice of contributors. Although the net was cast reasonably widely, it could of course have been wider still. But I’m reassured that Marriott finds that otherwise the volume comprises chapters by a ‘pleasing mix’ of younger and older historians who collectively constitute ‘an impressive array of leading scholars’. Marriot remarks at one point in his review that only a fellow editor will appreciate the work involved in getting a volume like this together: equally only a fellow editor will appreciate how much one is at the mercy of contributors asked to deliver specific essays on themes chosen by the editor and in this respect I was very lucky.