FT Review from 2000 of Three History Books on the British Empire

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Another clipping I’ve kept is a review by the Financial Time’s David Gilmour, ‘World in the Pink’, of three history books on the British Empire. The books reviewed were The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Nineteenth Century, edited by Andrew Porter, The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Twentieth Century, edited by Judith M. Brown and Wm Roger Louis; and the Oxford History of the British Empire: Historiography, edited by Robin W. Winks. The review was in the FT’s weekend edition for February 19/20 2000. I’m putting it up here as some readers might find it useful, as after the Black Lives Matter protests the history of the British empire is going to come under debate once again. The review runs

Once upon a time the British Empire was an easy subject to teach. Pupils stood in front of the schoolroom map, identified two red dots in the middle, and were encouraged to gaze with wonder at the vast expanse of similarly coloured spaces stretching from Canada at the top left to New Zealand at the bottom right. If suitably awestruck, they could then learn about these places (and how they came to be red) in the novels of Henty and Rider Haggard and in the poems of Tennyson, Kipling and Newbold.

Stout histories were also available for serious pupils to study the process of conquest and dominion, the spread of civilisation and prosperity, and, in some cases, the splendid bestowal of certain freedoms. From them students would learn that “the British Empire existed for the welfare of the world”, a belief held by many but expressed in these particularly terms by Gandhi. Guided by Providence and Queen Victoria, Britain had assumed a grandmaternal role, the mother of Dominion daughters, the “mother of parliaments” and, even more stirringly, “mother of the Free”.

The uniformity of the vision – red is red whether in Canada or Ceylon – may have been useful for the schoolteacher and the recruiting officer. But the men sent out to administer different systems all over the globe understood its limitations. The appearance of theses impressive books, the last in the five volume Oxford History of the British Empire, demonstrates that historians, after a long time-lag in the first half of the 20th century, have caught up with them.

The previous attempt at a comprehensive survey, the Cambridge History of the British Empire (published in nine volumes between 1929 and 1959), retained the anglocentric approach of earlier works, as well as their assumptions of a noble imperial purpose. Without entirely demolishing those assumptions (indeed the editor-in-chief, Roger Louis, specifically endorses some of them), the Oxford History offers more cautious and rataher more sophisticated assessments of the imperial experience. As Louis points out, these volumes do not depict it as “one of purposeful progress” nor concentrate narrowly on “metropolitan authority and rule”; nor do they see its demise as “steady decline and fall”. Their emphasis is on diversity, on a “constantly changing territorial empire and ever-shifting patterns of social and economic relations”.

The chief inspiration behind this approach is the work of the late historian Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, who compared the empire to an iceberg, the visible section being the red-painted colonies and the submerged bulk representing the “imperialism of free trade”, a vast “informal empire” based on naval supremacy and economic power which extended into places such as China, Latin America and the Middle East.

Many of the contributors to the Oxford volumes apply this view to their own areas. In south-east Asia, stresses A.J. Stockwell, the demarcation between Britain’s formal empire and its neighbours was indistinct: “‘British pink’ seeped over the whole region: nearly indelible in some areas, it merely tinged other parts and elsewhere faded fast.”

The scope of these books is so large that there were bound to be gaps: Malta and Gibraltar are barely mentioned, sport and the “games ethic” are ignored, and almost nothing is said about training administrators to do their job. Yet the overall achievement is undeniably impressive. Under the magisterial guidance of Louis (a distinguished American academic whose appointment as editor raised predictable insular howls in the UK), a vast array of of historians has produced a solid monument of contemporary scholarship. Some of the contributions, such as those by E.H.H. Green on political economy and David Fitzpatrick on Ireland’s ambivalence towards the empire are brilliants – subjects that would justify individual volumes distilled into concise and lucid essays.

Naturally there can be neither a common view nor a uniformity of tone among the hundred contributors to these volumes. The assembled historians are certainly not apologists for imperialism but nor, in general, are they too apologetic about it. Several remind us of its humanitarian dimension, and Louis may have confounded his fogeyish detractors with his view that Kipling was “perhaps the greatest poet of the age”. In addition, while appropriate genuflections are made to all those contemporary “studies” (area, gender, cultural and so on), the faddish preoccupation with “discourse” (in its postmodernist and post-colonial contexts) is restricted.

Yet the work has some of the defects as well as most of the merits of current historical writing: too much drab prose, too heavy a reliance on tables and statistics, a sense (especially in Historiography) of colleagues complimenting each other while disparaging their predecessors. Few contributions show real historical imagination: several leave an aroma of seminars and obscure historical quarterlies.

The great historian Richard Cobb used to say that a good deal of French history could be walked, seen and above all heard in cafes or buses or on park benches in Paris and Lyon. But most of the academics in these volumes do not seem to share his view that history is a cultural and creative subject as well as an academic one. However diligent their research may have been, they do not write as if they have ever sat in a Delhi rickshaw or a cafe in Calcutta. Robin J. Moore directs readers to all his own books, but neither he nor any of his colleagues cite a work published in an Indian language.

Yet if these volumes have little feel for the imperial setting and its personal impact, they manage to convey the sheer scope of the enterprise, the scale of the endeavour, the means by which those little dots reddened a quarter of the map. More importantly, they demonstrate the need to study the empire’s history, not in order to glorify or denigrate, but in order to understand the centuries of interaction between the dots and their formal and informal empires.

Perhaps this history, the first to be written since the territorial dismantlement, will mark a new stage not just of reassessment but of acceptance of the empire’s importance, for good and for bad, in the history of our planet. The topic is unfashionable in Britain today – Bristol’s excellent British Empire and Commonwealth Museum has not received a penny of public money – but it might now, thanks to Louis and his collaborators, emerge as something more than a sterile debate between those who regard it as a cause for sniggering and those who see it as a reason to swagger.

Bristol’s Empire and Commonwealth Museum is no more, unfortunately. It packed up and left Bristol for new premises at the Commonwealth Institute in London, where it died the death. I believe its former collection is now housed in the Bristol’s M Shed museum. The Empire is going to be acutely relevant now with the debate over racism, social justice and what history should be taught in schools. There are parts of British imperial history that are indefensible – the conquest of the Caribbean, slavery, the extermination of indigenous Australians, the concentration camps of the Boer War, the Bengal Famine and the massacres in Kenya. Niall Ferguson in a discussion about the British empire on a programme on Radio 4 a few years ago admitted its dark side, but said that it was a benevolent institution, although he qualified this. I think he said something to the effect of ‘just about’. For a short history of the negative side of the British empire – its domination, exploitation and massacre, see John Newsinger’s The Blood Never Dried. But it was also responsible for bring modern, western science, education and medicine to distant parts of the globe.

And it did try to stamp out slavery worldwide, not only where it had established and exploited it, but also indigenous slavery and forms of servitude around the world. That shouldn’t be forgotten either.