Historians and Empire

This was intended for a journal, which however hasn’t got back to me. Sorry about the length.

You might think that as an ‘imperial historian’ I’d be itching to dive into the current debate over whether the British Empire was a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing: Jacob Rees-Mogg versus the statue-spoilers of Oxford. At present the statue-spoilers seem to be in the ascendant; with Churchill as their next target, and ‘imperialists’ in general being denigrated retrospectively as racists, exploiters, Nazis, and even Tories. Not only that, but anyone today who has a single good word to say for the latter, or is thought to, is subjected to the same vituperation. I don’t want to get involved in any of this. It’s too hurtful.

Apart from cowardice, however, I have another reason to steer clear. It’s one I think I share with most other professional historians, not only of imperialism, but of other things too. We regard the debate, as it’s pursued on this level, as framed entirely wrongly. It shouldn’t be a question of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘beneficial’ or ‘damaging’; but of understanding what it was, why it happened, and whether it could have been done better, or stopped. It’s almost a cliché to say that these events should be looked at in their contexts, and not only their ethical contexts – ‘standards were different then’ – but also the full political circumstances of their times. This involves looking at what the phenomenon we characterise as ‘imperialism’ meant at different periods; how both its practitioners and its subjects (or victims) thought of it; how it changed and varied; and chiefly – in my view – what other large historical factors lay behind it, which might be seen to share the responsibility for ‘imperialism’ more than a single factor called ‘imperialism’ per se. This is the sort of thing that historians – or good historians – do.

The problem starts with the word. ‘Empire’ and ‘imperialism’ are big words, both with Roman roots, which strongly imply power and control. It’s interesting with regard to the British Empire that the early and mid-Victorians avoided either word, refusing to apply them to Britain, in order to distance themselves from the leading – Napoleonic – imperialism of the recent past. It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that a number of politicians – both Tory and Liberal – took to ‘empire’ in a positive spirit, and started taking pride in it. (Ordinary people were generally unmoved.) Even then the British was regarded as essentially different from other empires; being founded on the accidental effects of British ‘free trade’ in the world – opening up and defending markets in Africa, India, China and elsewhere. If there was no intentional compulsion involved, at least in principle, then it couldn’t be termed ‘imperial’ as the word was generally understood.

Of course this rested on a very narrow definition of ‘imperialism’, as was pointed out by two leading imperial historians in the 1950s (one of them my Ph.D supervisor, as it happens), who coined the expression ‘free trade imperialism’ to cover this much wider phenomenon. This is now almost universally accepted. In my view it’s fair enough; empires can come in softer guises than Napoleon’s or Hitler’s; or the Romans’, come to that. But it’s important to recognise that in Britain’s case her imperialism always had this ‘liberal’ reputation attached to it; justifying it, albeit over-generously, to liberal-minded Brits, and even to their colonial subjects; obviously in the self-governing ‘dominions’ like Australia and Canada (the ‘white’ ones), but also among many of the non-European ones. Gandhi was taken in by it early on, for example.

Albeit transgressed in practice on many notorious occasions – slavery, the Indian ‘Mutiny’, Omdurman, Amritsar, the Kenya death camps, to name just a few – the liberal streak in British imperialism also fuelled substantial domestic criticism of all these tragedies – and incidentally also of King Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo, the movement against which was centred in Britain – and continual opposition to imperialism more generally. In this connexion it’s worth pointing out that ‘anti-imperialism’ – in the sense of opposition to imperialism generally, not just the imperialism you or your people are being subjected to currently (that rules out pre-1776 American revolutionism) – could be said to have been invented by the British, as imperialism of course was not. More important may have been movements for colonial reform; with most of the ‘reformers’ reluctant simply to abandon their colonies, on the grounds that this would simply leave them open to be exploited and oppressed by others: especially neighbouring empires, African slavers, and capitalists. In other words, there were worse fates than being ruled by others; so long as those others’ motives were pretty benevolent. Which was how the British conceived of theirs. This tradition – false, foolish, partial or hypocritical as it may have been, or is regarded today – was undoubtedly one of the factors behind the general acceptance in Britain after World War II of decolonisation; with the sting partly drawn by the idea – or myth – that this was what the British Empire had been driving towards during its whole existence. Its successor, the self-governing ‘Commonwealth’, was seen as the visible proof of this.

I wouldn’t want to make too much of this – that is, of the essential beneficence of the British Empire – but only to say that this was how it was regarded by nearly all those who went out to rule it, in the Colonial and Indian Civil Services; who saw their task as a ‘service’, rather than an excuse to exploit (in fact they weren’t allowed to exploit their colonies materially) or to dominate. Foolish they may have been: callow youths straight out of Public school, and with many of those schools’ old-fashioned values. And ‘racist’ almost certainly: although their racism could operate in various ways. A sizeable minority of colonial administrators came to admire ‘native’ societies and people more than those they had come from, and to stay on in their ex-colonies after independence – and clearly not only because they could live there in a higher style, or with dusky mistresses. Others were active in colonial nationalist movements. Some of this stemmed from their partiality to the more ‘traditional’ – feudal? – ways they found in the colonies, endangered at that time by the cold capitalist ethic that was creeping in. That may have owed something to their class and their Public school education: noblesse oblige. Or, simply, to their personal experience living among other ‘races’. I don’t think a comparative study has been made of this; but I get the impression that non-imperial societies were more likely to be racist, out of ignorance, than ones like Britain’s. That might knock another common prejudice on the head.

Then we come on to legacies. Past ‘imperialism’ is both credited and blamed for a lot of the conditions in post-colonial polities and societies; but no good historian would argue in that ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ way. For a start it’s clearly difficult to say whether what followed the empire was genuinely the result of it, or in many cases of something – or some things – else. Not all legacies, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, were intended. Sometimes ‘bad’ effects were the results of ‘good’ motives, and vice-versa. (As so often in history, motivation and causation can be very different things.) So moral judgments have no necessary purchase here. And the complex relationships that formed between colonials and colonised during their different kinds of association together, when each side had both strengths and weaknesses, complicate things here even more.

Empire-side weaknesses are not often credited today; maybe it’s that big word ‘imperial’ that’s the problem. In truth, and despite appearances, Britain was never so powerful in her colonies as that word implies. Her army (except in India) was always tiny by continental European standards, and pretty incompetent overall. Her navy was better; but useless to impose order on dry land. Britain’s colonial service – the men (always men) who actually ruled the colonies on the ground – was minimal; about enough bods, all told, to police a moderate-sized English city. That made the empire dangerously dependent on indigènes, in junior administrative roles, and often on indigenous structures and hierarchies, to maintain order. (It was called ‘Indirect Rule’.) Colonial officers were always aware of the danger of provoking rebellion through cultural insensitivity; at least after 1857-8 (the Indian ‘Mutiny’), which taught them a bloody lesson in this regard. That usually inclined them to minimal government, and minimal social and political change – often too minimal for subjects who wanted to be changed. Those subjects – usually the ‘Western-educated’ ones – regarded attempts by their colonial masters to respect their customs and traditions not as signs of tolerance and multiculturalism, but merely as means of keeping them ‘down’; which they sometimes – but not always – were. Proselytization was a two-way, give-and-take, process. In these circumstances, and with the Empire’s numerical weakness on the ground, it was difficult for the colonial power to get things right. Generally, however, it made for inertia; which is perhaps the greatest fault that the British Empire as such could reasonably be accused of.

Inertia contributed to many of the atrocities that stained the reputation of the Empire both at the time, and subsequently. If Britain had been prepared to exert more control over events in the colonies, she might have limited the damage done by settlers, of all nationalities, who were the main (though not the only) perpetrators of the most egregious crimes. Of course it should have done. But that would have required more ‘imperialism’, not less. It is arguable that if Britain had exerted a tighter hold over India, and held its own (Christian) religious fanatics back – that was always its preference – it might have prevented the provocations that gave rise to the ‘Mutiny’.

The reason it didn’t do any of these things was its self-image – mentioned already – as an anti-imperial ‘guardian’ power, looking after more ‘primitive’ peoples until they proved capable of ruling themselves. This was why it saw no necessary contradiction, let alone hypocrisy, in opposing Napoleonic and other imperialisms, including in ‘King Leopold’s’ Congo (probably the worst), all the time that Britain was ‘imperialising’ world-wide herself. That’s difficult to credit, I realise; and even to understand today. Protestations of protection and ‘guardianship’ appear thin when we look back on many of the horrors that were perpetrated on British colonial subjects during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; but they were nonetheless the ideas that attracted most recruits to the Colonial and Indian Civil Services in those years. These young lads (no lasses) didn’t join up explicitly to oppress or exploit subject peoples, but to look after and ‘improve’ them. This was often against opposition not only from their new subjects, but also from the latters’ real oppressors and exploiters, who were the settlers and capitalists.

That they so often failed in this task was due to the greater real powers wielded by those two other categories of colonist, in the face of imperial inertia and parsimony. And the root cause of this was not the desire to dominate –  ‘imperialism’ in its strict sense – but a contemporary middle-class ideology that was far more potent, and not only with reference to foreign rule. That was the ‘liberal’ idea that all government – and this of course included colonial government – was unnecessary at best, and an incubus at worst. Societies worked best when they were ungoverned. Economies certainly did. At the very most they should only be controlled up to the point where they could function on their own, and no further. So Adam Smith permitted the ‘protection’ of ‘infant industries’, for example, before they were released into the ‘free market’. Colonial government was supposed to do exactly that for societies; and with as little material expenditure as possible. Colonies were to be ‘self supporting’, financially. And one way of achieving that was to leave other interested parties – settlers and capitalist companies, mainly – free to govern them, so long as they bore the expense of it themselves. It was an early example of what later came to be called ‘privatisation’. And, once established, it made it virtually impossible for the imperial government to regulate what was happening on the ground.

This is not at all to excuse imperial governments for the dreadful things that happened under them, only to help explain the latter; and, beyond that, to suggest that if we feel we have to make retrospective moral judgments, the bulk of those should fall on the back not of ‘imperialism’, per se, but of the economic system that rode it so effectively. Of course British imperial governments should have done more, not capitulated so easily to ‘inertia’ and to the settlers and capitalists; but you can see why they didn’t intervene, when it would have offended against principles that were so much more vital to the dominant class in Britain than ‘imperialist’ ones.

This is what distinguished nineteenth-century British imperialism from other European kinds; and what lay behind the curious fact – noted already – that anti-imperialism originated and developed earlier and more effectively in Britain than elsewhere. British imperialism always had this element of liberal denial within it – denying formal imperialism at least – which was one of the factors behind, for example, its role in abolishing slavery; its leadership of the ‘Congo Reform’ movement in the 1900s; its leading role in devising and developing an anti-imperial ideology for others (notably Lenin) to wield; the weakness – albeit disputed by some historians – of ‘popular’ imperialism in Britain itself; and, lastly, the general acceptance in Britain – even among self-styled ‘imperialists’ – of decolonisation, when that came after World War Two.

Does this make British imperialism easier to understand? It’s a very different understanding of it than informs both sides in the current debate over it, and a rather more complicated and nuanced one than you’ll find there. (And I’ve left out a whole load of other complexities. For those you’ll have to go to my books – starting perhaps with British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t, 2016 – the latest and shortest of them.) But I hope you can see from this brief account why we serious imperial historians are reluctant to dive into the present debate between defenders of and apologists for the old British Empire on the one hand, and its traducers. In the midst of all this simplification, misunderstanding and sloganizing, we wouldn’t know where to start.

To clarify my own position: I’ve always considered myself an ‘anti-imperialist’, even while the Empire was still going. I joined demonstrations over South African apartheid, ‘Rhodesia’ and Kenya. But that was on the basis of understanding, not shallow prejudice.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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2 Responses to Historians and Empire

  1. mickc says:

    Yes, I have read What the British Empire Wasn’t. For what it’s worth I agreed with the views (or possibly they just concur with my own present prejudices..), as I agreed with The Absent-minded Imperialists.

    Certainly I think the vast swathe of the “British people” gave the Empire no thought at all.

    It would be interesting to know if the “American people” give the American Empire much thought. I think they don’t even believe it to be an Empire, much less the most murderous and dangerous ( to other people) one in modern history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Evans says:

    Bernard, A grand posting….many thanks – I will read more fully again….. John Evans


    Liked by 1 person

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