Skip to content

Response to Review of The British Empire Debate

After working on a large imperial project for more than 15 years, almost entirely in isolation, it is matter of some relief to find one’s eventually published book being greeted with interest and seriousness by a knowledgeable reviewer like Dr Jackson. I had not realised that Reviews in History had established such an admirable tradition of helpful and positive reviewing (rather different from the practice in the public prints), and I am very happy to have been the beneficiary.

It might be useful to explain why I embarked on such a daunting enterprise in the first place, for, as Dr Jackson rightly remarks, ‘this book is partisan’. I wanted to write about those who resisted imperial conquest rather than those who sought to impose it. At an early stage my agent had asked me, ‘Haven’t you anything to say in favour of the Empire?’ That is not the point, I replied, ‘I’m trying to write about the downside of empire, about the people who said we don’t want to belong to your beastly empire, please go away.’

I thought this was an important project because so many people in Britain today no longer trace their own personal history back, as I do, to a victorious imperial tradition. My provisional title for the book was ‘Our Empire Story’, partly in homage to that wonderful pioneering work by Henrietta Marshall published in 1908 (and still in print), and partly because I wanted people coming from other cultural traditions to share in ‘our’ joint history. (Alas, my publisher would not permit the title, saying that it would confuse the American market and lead them to think it was ‘their’ empire that I was writing about!)

Although I was educated as an historian and practiced the trade for some years, I have spent much of my life as a foreign reporter and as a student of contemporary history. Latin America rather than the British Empire has been my principal area of expertise. So I have come to this subject as an outsider, largely unfamiliar (and certainly not up to date) with the specialist discussions and debates that the historical profession have maintained over the past half century. I am not proud of my ignorance, but possibly it has had some advantages – in daring to tread where others might have been more cautious. I have of course read and reviewed many of the great imperial volumes published in recent years (1) , and I have even reviewed Niall Ferguson’s Empire (a surprisingly favourable review!).(2) There is no mention of Ferguson in my book, yet I am obviously pleased that Dr Jackson thinks that its endless tales of imperial violence might be used by those seeking to take up an argument with him. I am also pleased that he thinks my book might presage ‘a new course, away from well-worn narratives’.

What I liked most about his comments was his reference to the need ‘to reappraise the heritage of empire’. If the British of today are to construct a convivial patriotism open to all, they will at some stage have to incorporate the evil experience of empire into their portrait of their national past. The Germans seem to have managed it; the British are still a long way from even recognising that there is a problem.

Notes

  1. ‘“Shoot them to be sure”, Review of the Oxford History of the British Empire’, London Review of Books, 24, 8 (April 2002).Back to (1)
  2. ‘”A talent to provoke”, review of Empire: how Britain made the modern world’, New Statesman, 27 January 2003.Back to (2)