edited by: Sarah Stockwell
Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2008, ISBN: 9781405125345; 384pp.; Price: £60.00
University of East London
Date accessed: 3 December, 2023
The first question which may spring to the mind of any reader of this collection is: is it necessary or useful? Given the appearance in the not too distant past of the Oxford History of the British Empire, together with its themed volumes, can another edited collection on the empire contribute anything new or revealing? The editor is sensitive to this problem, and justifies the collection by claiming that the Oxford themed volumes are defined narrowly, and the series as a whole a multi-volume enterprise which, by implication, is unwieldy. I do not find this argument terribly convincing, not least because it fails to identify what for me is the potential strength of the collection, namely, an ability to stand back from the empirical record to reflect on the worth of recent scholarship in this field, and the current standing of the debates to which they have contributed. Judged in these terms the collection is most certainly worthwhile.
In confronting the challenge, Stockwell has gathered a pleasing mix of established figures and scholars at earlier stages in their careers. And only another editor can appreciate the work which must have been invested in providing stylistic integrity to the collection. Most of the chapters were therefore a pleasure to read; some provided fresh insight into what readers would consider to be familiar territory. Many of the themes addressed will come as no surprise. Thus are included Andrew Thompson’s discussion of the British state, Stephen Howe on the ideology of empire, Tony Ballantyne on knowledge, and Catherine Hall on culture and identity. I wish to return to the choice of themes later, but before doing so express particular enjoyments which some contributors offer.
John Darwin’s discussion of Britain’s empires is exemplary. As a necessary corrective to the idea that the empire somehow comprised a coherent whole, Darwin highlights the ‘extraordinary range of constitutional, political, economic, and cultural relationships contained within Britain’s multiple imperial connections’ (p. 1). Thus within the empire were to be found dominions, ‘dependencies’, and the informal empire of influence rather than direct rule. Such a seemingly chaotic configuration was very remote from any suggestion of a systematic empire built according to a master plan. He proceeds to trace out the course of events which underpinned the confusion, drawing careful attention to the different phases of empire building, how individuals, companies and arms of the imperial state were involved in promoting imperial strategies, and the differential impact on changing relationships between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’. Little of the historic detail is new, but what Darwin does with particular skill is to bring the complex narrative of empire formation together – a task to which a collection of this nature is well suited.
The economics of empire is cogently examined by Andrew Dilley. Making the complexities of the topic surprisingly accessible, he surveys how a variety of thinkers from Adam Smith to Cain and Hopkins and their critics have viewed the putative role of economics in imperial expansion. In considering the consequences of this expansion, and using comparative experiences, Dilley gives solid accounts of the diffusionist and dependency models, before moving on to examine the vital but still neglected problem of the extent to which imperialism facilitated the transfer of wealth and promoted industrialization. Overall, what prevails is a sensibly cautious approach to overarching narratives and categorizations which tend to mask rather than shed light upon the economics of empire.
Finally, there is Jon Wilson’s chapter on agency, narrative and resistance. Perhaps the least conventional, but most welcome of the themes, this chapter opens up important debates on the voices, actions and powers of resistance of the colonized. The question of agency, Wilson claims, has been around for some time – it was evident, for example, in the work of progressive historians such as E. P. Thompson as they sought to capture history from below – but in important respects these concerns were predated by Indian nationalist scholars including Tagore and Bankim Chattopadhyay who celebrated indigenous folk culture. More recently, the work of the Subaltern Studies collective has sought to dismantle the convenient link between agency and nationhood by looking to the lives of the poor, most notably the peasantry. However, historians who have hoped to recover the agency of non-European peoples ‘face a series of judgements about the particular kind of agency they wish to narrate’ (p. 254). Between aspirations of national liberation and senses of apathetic victimhood lie a complex range of responses to colonial rule which have to be taken into account without imposing their own narrative structures. The difficulty (perhaps futility) of this task is well captured by Wilson.
These thought-provoking chapters are among the best of what is a well conceived and executed collection which should be of much interest to scholars of empire. Even the most seasoned of them will find here something of value. Overall, the book provides an intelligent, at times challenging survey of the most recent historiography of the British empire; in this, it does what it says on the cover.
I cannot finish, however, without raising a few issues. First, although it is not easy for an editor to make choices on the themes to be included, or more importantly, those to be left out, and any choice is always vulnerable to charges that the selection is biased or myopic, I do wish to question aspects of the choice. There is no chapter on gender or race, the reason being that since these categories are ubiquitous and should therefore be integral to explorations of all aspects of empire they do not require separate treatment. In theory this is perfectly correct, but in practice this is not evident. As we might expect, the chapters on religion, ideology, knowledge, and culture and identity do touch on gender and race, but there is little to suggest that in the collection as a whole these categories are woven into the very fabric of our understanding. Similar remarks apply to class, which is even more conspicuous by its absence.
The failure to foreground slavery represents something of a missed opportunity. Again, there are passing references to the economics of slavery and the impact of abolition, but what I had hoped for was a serious attempt to locate the whole wretched episode within the broader experience of empire. Too often these phenomena are treated separately when what we need is a more highly developed sense of how their chronologies, geopolitics, cultures and economics were deeply intertwined. In this respect, collections of this nature have a responsibility not only to survey recent scholarship but equally importantly to identify areas that have been neglected and promise exciting new avenues of exploration. The British slave trade was of course abolished as Britain strove to build its ‘second empire’; with emancipation new sources of cheap labour were required, and a solution was found in the use of indentured labour. It seems to me that the South Asian diaspora so created was of immense historical import, and yet it too attracts hardly a mention in the collection.
Finally on the matter of silences, it was disappointing to find so little on the legacy of the British imperial experience. Stockwell herself contributes a characteristically well-crafted chapter on the end of empire, but this for the most part focuses on decolonization. The aftermath of empire has attracted a considerable body of stimulating work in recent years, and this is a timely moment to take stock. The continued turmoil experienced in former parts of the empire, and the dogged persistence of crises over ‘British’ identity serve to remind us that the legacy is tangible and not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future.
The second broad area of concern is that of periodization. It is clear that as far as the collection is concerned the British empire began in 1763, and for good reasons. This moment was something of a watershed, marking as it did victory in the Seven Years War and the acquisition of diwani rights in Bengal. Temporarily, Britain seemed to enjoy unassailable authority in the Atlantic system and was on the verge of a new wave of imperial expansion to the east. The problem is that by choosing to focus on overseas colonies, the previous phase of empire building is entirely neglected. Conventionally, the first British empire is seen to have its centre of gravity to the west, but arguably this earlier phase during which Britain as an internal empire was secured under English hegemony was of critical importance to the subsequent course of overseas empire building. Not only were significant sections of the Irish and Scottish aristocracy recruited to the ranks of Britain’s imperial elite, but Ireland in particular served as a laboratory for the development of imperial strategies in areas such as the military, land administration and finance.
In a similar vein we can inquire why imperial Britain seems to end around 1914. With the honourable exception of Stuart Ward’s chapter on the cultural underpinnings of imperial identities, the 20th century is comparatively neglected. This no doubt reflects the paucity of scholarship on the period, but here again an opportunity was missed to send out the urgent call for more work on vital issues including the imperial dimensions of total war, imperial roles in a changed world order, and the rise of nationalist struggles.
One final point relates to the contributors who, while collectively making an impressive array of leading scholars in the field, are from the western academy. Given the nature of the topic how much better it might have been to tap the rich intellectual resources of the former colonies to gain access to perhaps alternative and equally challenging perspectives.
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.