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"Mr. Darwin's informative and intelligent book is ably written, and it is brimming with interesting statistics and acute observations." —The Wall Street Journal
"[A] remarkable history of the empire…. immensely important and useful. As an Englishman, Darwin declines to be either boastful or self-lacerating about the empire his country presided over, but simply examines it with a clear eye. This he has achieved to a laudable and indeed remarkable degree." —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
"A brilliantly perceptive analysis of the forces and ideas that drove the creation of an extraordinary enterprise … Bringing together his huge erudition, scrupulous fairness and elegant prose, Mr Darwin has produced a wonderfully stimulating account of something that today seems almost incredibly yet was, in historical terms, only yesterday." —Economist
IN HISTORY'S REAR WINDOW
We live in a world that empires have made. Indeed, most of the modern world is the relic of empires: colonial and pre-colonial, African, Asian, European and American. Its history and culture is riddled with the memories, aspirations, institutions and grievances left behind by those empires. The largest if not grandest of these was the empire laboriously assembled by the British across more than three centuries. No less than one quarter of today's sovereign states were hewn from its fabric. For that reason alone, its impact was second to none.
Its history has aroused deep and bitter disagreement: it could hardly be otherwise. A century ago, when the British Empire appeared as a great going concern with an indefinite future, the judgement of historians was usually positive. Mistakes had been made, injustice inflicted, abuses indulged in. Reform had come late. Misunderstanding had flourished. But all, or much, had come right in the end. For at the heart of the empire lay a self-correcting device: a liberal constitution through which political power answered to enlightened opinion. Indeed, this benevolent outcome seemed the best justification for the murkier aspects of the imperial story. The record of conquest and settlement, of the displacement and subjugation of peoples, so it was argued, could be seen as the price paid for progress among the barbarous and backward, trapped in their 'stationary states' and unable to grasp what was in their own interests. Redeeming peoples from superstition and savagery was bound to be messy and quite often bloody.
The history of empire contained a further assurance. For it showed that the British themselves had undergone a moral improvement. In a huge fit of conscience, they had thrown over the system of slavery that had made them so rich and launched a furious global crusade against those who upheld it. They had also abandoned the futile endeavour to impose London's central control on settler societies and by granting self-government won over their loyalty. Most wisely of all, according to liberal opinion, they had rejected commercial protection and embraced the path of free trade. Virtue and self-interest had been rewarded together. Free trade was the secret of British prosperity and was also the best lever for promoting world peace. It was perhaps hardly surprising that H. E. Marshall's popular history, published in 1908 as Our Empire Story, was relentlessly upbeat.
Indeed, that positive view was to last a long time – almost as long as the empire itself. A powerful lobby existed to promote the idea that, despite some imperfections, the British Empire was a 'force for good' in the world. When the 'white dominions' became sovereign states (a status made formal in 1931) while remaining part of the empire, this was held up as a model for international cooperation, of how a league of nations should work. This started to change in the depressed 1930s. The Marxist attack on capitalism's failings became much more appealing and it became intellectually fashionable to denounce empire as the tool of financiers and industrialists. John A. Hobson's great polemic, Imperialism: A Study, had made little impact when originally published in 1902 but now found an eager new readership. A black historian from Trinidad (later its prime minister), Eric Williams, then a research student at Oxford, wrote a doctoral thesis in support of the claim that Britain's Industrial Revolution – the principal source of its wealth and power – had been built on the profits of slavery, the labour system of empire. These were straws in the wind, but their wider influence was limited. A more reliable gauge of contemporary views was the reputation of Cecil Rhodes, the great 'empire-builder'. Rhodes, who died in 1902, had not entirely escaped his detractors. But his heroic status was sanctioned by royal approval. His grave near Bulawayo (in modern Zimbabwe) was visited by the Prince of Wales in 1925, and by the future George VI in 1934. The centenary of his birth in 1953 was marked by the visit there of the Queen Mother and the Queen's sister, Princess Margaret, amid a large gathering of dignitaries, and by the unveiling of a memorial tablet in Westminster Abbey. In Rhodes of Africa (1936), cinema-goers were regaled with a vision of Rhodes as gruff, manly and masterful, a true maker of empire.
After 1960, a great reaction set in. The dismantling of empire, foreshadowed in the independence of India in 1947, was now well advanced. Colonial rule had lost what remained of its moral legitimacy as a form of enlightened trusteeship. The postwar idea of world order, embodied in the United Nations' Charter, rejected all forms of colonialism in favour of the universal ideal of the sovereign nation-state. To progressive opinion in Britain, the imperial tradition now seemed an incubus. Its outdated values of order and hierarchy blocked cultural change and social mobility. The burdens of rule had wasted resources far better spent on modernizing Britain's economy. The 'soft' markets of empire had feather-bedded manufacturing with disastrous long-term effects. It was easy to see the history of empire as irrelevant at best; at worst a disturbing reminder of an obsolete vision that had left Britain beached in a post-empire world. This mood of disillusion was highly receptive to the genre of 'nationalist' history that decolonization encouraged in the newly independent societies. Just as imperial history in Britain had once celebrated the acquisition of empire and the deeds of its makers, so nationalist histories applauded the achievement of nationhood and the arduous struggle for freedom against the imperialist oppressor. In a happy consensus, historians on high horses could break their lance on the cold corpse of empire.
Indeed, the further that empire receded from view the more severe grew the verdict. In the 1970s, the apparent dislocation of the global economy lent renewed credibility to a Marxian history of exploitation and class conflict. Scrutinized in this light, the imperial past seemed an extreme version of this universal travail. Colonialism had imposed a cruel yoke of economic dependency that locked much of what became the 'third world' into exchanging ever cheaper raw produce for imported manufactures in a cycle of growing impoverishment. Revolution and class war were the only escape. In settler societies, where indigenous labour and land were seized by the colonists, exploitation and empire seemed perfectly fused. For historians of (and in) South Africa, the inhuman apparatus of apartheid in all its manifold forms was the more or less inevitable consequence of white colonization. What South Africa's grim history also revealed – indeed this might be proclaimed as its principal 'lesson' – was that colonization and empire were invariably constructed on a platform of racial privilege and oppression. In a decolonized world in which race discrimination and inequality were still deeply entrenched (not least in the West's richest and strongest society), the evil of racism became empire's great legacy, the ideological core that drove all imperial endeavour, the vital ingredient of the imperial economy, and the guiding principle of imperial rule.
This depiction of empire as (more than anything else) a system of racial oppression was the sharpest prong of a much wider attack. Here empire became a systematized means of imposing repression on a range of 'subaltern' groups (the term was borrowed from the Italian Marxist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci). Subaltern history described the social and economic injustice sanctioned by empire against those without access to political power: peasant communities; marginal groups, such as 'tribals', forest-dwellers, and out-castes in India; migrant labourers in Africa; nomads, travellers and transients; women workers and prostitutes; and women more generally. Empire represented a pragmatic conspiracy between a locally dominant class and the imperial regime. This subaltern formula could be extended to the empire 'at home'. Here too was a mass population taken in by the wiles of an imperialist elite, paying in taxes and blood for the prestige, profits and pleasure enjoyed by the few. Here was a world of disempowered women, whose secondary status in a male-dominated society was reinforced by the masculine ethos of pioneer settlement, colonial wars and imperial rule.
Subaltern history raised another large issue. Its exponents insisted that coercion was central to imperial authority, and brutality more commonplace than sanitized histories of empire admitted. But it was obvious that the use of force or its threat could not be the whole explanation for the acquiescence in empire, at home and abroad. In Britain's South Asian Raj, Europeans were hugely outnumbered by Indians and except in 1857–8 faced only very localized rebellions, and not many of them. It would be even harder to claim that the 'imperial idea' depended on coercion at home, either against women or any other subaltern group. But this explanatory gap could be filled, so ran a new argument, by invoking the impact of Britain's 'cultural imperialism'. This suggestion derived from the insight, highly influential elsewhere, that command over how people and ideas were represented was the secret of social and political power. Accepted prescriptions of what it meant to be criminal or insane, moral or immoral, progressive or primitive, could exert a silent dictatorship over thought and behaviour. They could also be manipulated by a cultural elite to protect its own privileges. It was easy to see how this could be extended to empire.
Histories of cultural imperialism portrayed empire as the systematic disparagement of the values, social practices and religious beliefs of its subject peoples, and of 'oriental' peoples in general (a category that included almost all non-Western societies). The transparent intention of this cultural assertiveness was to justify rule by outsiders as a triumph of truth, progress and freedom over superstition, stagnation, despotism and slavery, the elements of barbarism. Cultural imperialism's founding precept was the patent superiority of the European (in this case the British) over the non-European 'Other'. Generations of scholastic ingenuity and pragmatic double-think had ensured that almost every dimension of a given colonial society was screwed up and squeezed into an illustration of backwardness. This was the task (to take one example) of colonial ethnography and its official practitioners, the authors of the gazetteers and reports, surveys and censuses, at which the British in India excelled. In a vast work of imaginative re-creation, they constructed an image of stagnant or regressive communities, saved from disaster by imperial intervention, but too unprogressive to be released into freedom for an indefinite time. As a charter for mastery (and an excuse for rough methods) this was bad enough. What made it worse, so the argument ran, was cultural imperialism's pervasive effect upon the peoples ruled over. For in destroying the authority of indigenous cultures, and imposing its own, it wrecked the self-confidence and creative capacity of local elites and drove a deep wedge between a collaborative minority seduced by the charms of imported ideas and the rest of society. Here then was empire at its most durably destructive. It erected a false notion of 'traditional' society and shored up its allies against social or political change. Even more damagingly, it created an 'educated' elite of Westernized poodles, while condemning indigenous cultures to a frozen, fragmented and inferior existence, the exotic remains of an immobile past.
As all this suggests, in histories of empire the sound and fury of the ideological battlefield are rarely absent for long. We should not complain about this. Since histories were first written, the aim of the writer has invariably been to 'correct' our view of the past, and to align it more closely with the writer's view of the present, and the way it was reached. The remotest of times have been annexed and 're-conquered' in such 'history wars'. For many of those who have written (and still write) about empire, there has been a missionary purpose. It springs from a deep sense of moral unease about the impact of empire, and often from the presumption that the worst ills of our time (racism in particular) can be traced to its influence. On this view of its task, the history of empire should adopt a strict method and present a clear message. It should treat the historical evidence that the imperialists bequeathed – official documentation, private papers and records, scholarly works of the period, newspapers, maps, paintings and photographs and all other forms of visual representation – as unavoidably tainted by an imperialist agenda: the relentless insistence upon their racial and cultural superiority, upon their right to rule and control, and upon Europe's world-historical role as the source of civilization and progress. Instead imperial history should set out to show that this imperialist mentality was deluded and false and deeply immoral. It should strip away the nostalgia that still colours our image of empire and reveal the imperial assumptions that still pervade British and Western thinking about non-Western peoples. A truly post-colonial history would allow us to see the imperial past for what it was: a shameful record of economic exploitation, cultural aggression, physical brutality (and periodic atrocity) and divisive misrule. Indeed for some Western historians, it remains de rigueur to insist that for them, empire was 'evil'.
There is no need to take up a dogmatic position on the truth or untruth of these various claims (some of which are discussed later) to see their limitations as a depiction of empire and of Britain's in particular. The underlying assumption, on which almost all else hangs, is that empires are abnormal, a monstrous intrusion in a usually empire-free world. No error could be more basic, or perhaps more revealing of an unconscious Eurocentrism. Empire – as the assertion of mastery (by influence or rule) by one ethnic group, or its rulers, over a number of others – has been the political rule of the road over much of the world and over most of world history: the default mode of state organization. Nor was it just the modern world that was created by empire. This suggests that the conditions that give rise to empires are neither peculiarly modern, nor peculiarly rooted in European behaviour, technology or values. It also suggests – unless we dispense with our view of historical change as a whole – that empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those they ruled over. Indeed, historians of pre-modern or non-European empires show few qualms in conceding that, whatever their shortfall in political freedom, they were often culturally creative and materially beneficial. It seems strange to withhold this more balanced approach from the European empires as a matter of doctrine (of course an empirical finding might turn out to be negative). It leads (an additional problem) to a history in stereotypes; to a cut-and-dried narrative in which the interests of rulers and ruled are posed as stark opposites, without the ambiguity and uncertainty which define most human behaviour. It denies to the actors whose thoughts and deeds we trace more than the barest autonomy, since they are trapped in a thought-world that determines their motives and rules their behaviour. It treats the subjects of empire as passive victims of fate, without freedom of action or the cultural space in which to preserve or enhance their own rituals, belief-systems or customary practices. It imagines the contact between rulers and ruled as a closed bilateral encounter, sealed off from the influence of regional, continental or global exchange. Most strangely of all, given how much we know, it turns Britain itself into a cultural and political monolith, obsessed not just with empire but with imposing one version of it: cultural domination, economic extraction, coercive control.
Whatever its merits as a 'tract for our times', such history is a poor guide to the past, and a misleading base from which to imagine the future. We need a history of empire that explains more convincingly how Britain's imperial world was constructed. It will need to do justice to the extraordinary variety of colonial societies – and hence to the variety and complexity of their post-colonial successors. Barbados, Uganda, South Africa, Singapore, New Zealand and India were all British colonies. The British occupation of Egypt lasted for more than seventy years. It would not be easy to argue that their shared experience of empire has produced similar outcomes. A British history of empire also needs to acknowledge the pluralism and diversity of British society. The social and cultural complexity (the product of internal and external influence) sustained within the bounds of a single sovereign state may go far to explain Britain's global preeminence during the long nineteenth century before 1914. What made the British so adept as empire-builders was, in part, the exceptional range and variety of the interests, skills and activities mobilized by the prospect of expansion abroad. It was this versatility – in method, language and object – that gave the 'British connection' (the contemporary phrase used by colonizers and colonized) its kaleidoscopic significance, as a source of attraction to some and repulsion to others. But it also denied to British imperialism the ideological coherence and political solidarity with which monolithic accounts of 'imperial Britain' naively endow it.
Most of all, perhaps, we need an imperial history that pays close attention to the terms and conditions on which British interests and influence entered a particular region in search of trade or dominion. This was almost never possible without some form of local alliance or understanding with the rulers and peoples who claimed or controlled the area concerned. Indeed, there was rarely much point in going to a place that had (or was thought to have) no inhabitants unless to dump convicts: a barren land without people to trade with or produce to buy had little to offer. The bridgeheads the British established, sometimes extending no more than a mile from the beach, might be hemmed in by locals, determined to stop them from capturing their trade with the peoples and markets inland (for long the case in West Africa, India and China) and with the military means to prevent them. In this situation, it required a drastic upsetting of this local balance of power before the British could be more than a puny mercantile presence, usually a convenience for local rulers and traders, sometimes a nuisance, but almost never a threat. Sometimes this upset occurred because governments in London decided that British control must be real, and provided the force to make this effective. But this rarely occurred as a unilateral or spontaneous decision. The usual scenario was much more complex – and had much more complex results.
Excerpted from Unfinished Empire by JOHN DARWIN Copyright © 2012 by John Darwin. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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