On Empire and Anachronism

anachronismRichard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

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Our free online course Empire: The Controversies of Imperialism has now been running two weeks; between them, the participants have already made thousands of comments, often arguing their respective points of view quite vigorously. One persistent theme of debate is the degree to which it is possible to pass judgements on the actions of people in the past, who were operating on the basis of standards that are different from those held today. This is an important and difficult issue for historians in general, although the contentious topic of ‘Empire’ seems to throw it into particular relief. Everyone can agree that we shouldn’t reach assessments that are anachronistic; it is much harder to reach agreement on what constitutes anachronism.

As I discussed with Dr. Marc Palen in our Week 1 feedback video, we do of course need to distinguish between moral or value judgements and theoretical concepts applied retrospectively by historians. Thus, the concept of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ – coined by P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins in the 1990s – was not in use during the late nineteenth century, but may nonetheless be helpful in trying to explain the dynamics of imperial expansion during that period. It would be almost impossible to limit ourselves purely to terms that were familiar to the people we study, and indeed I am not aware of anyone seriously suggesting that we should try to do so. It is, however, important to be aware of what kind of discourse was used by contemporaries, and how that is different from the language we use today.

Evaluative judgements offer a more difficult problem. Consider, for example, William Pitt the Elder’s description in 1739 of the Spanish Empire as ‘an usurpation, an inhuman tyranny claimed and exercised over the American Seas’. This comment was typical of the so-called ‘Black Legend’, which alleged that Spanish imperialism was unusually and horrifically cruel. Practically all empires, at some point during their lifetimes, have been subject to harsh verdicts of this type. It may be that these criticisms were often unfair or exaggerated; but we can’t rule them out of court on the grounds of anachronism in the sense that they were judgements that were unavailable to contemporaries.

One could take the absolutist position that we can’t pass any moral judgements whatsoever about people in the past. However, I doubt that many people would be willing or able to stick to it. Almost everyone, I think, is happy to condemn slavery even though many of the people who perpetrated it were doing so in line with what were then commonly accepted standards within their own societies. We might also ask: where is the cut-off date? If it’s not right to express moral opinions on what people did 500 or 250 years ago, are we also precluded from expressing them about what people did 50 years, 20 years ago, or even last week? Finally, if we are precluded from voicing negative views of what (say) was done in the name of the British Empire in the past, are not positive views of the Empire ruled out as well? After all, the claim that the British spread peace and civilization is just as much a moral view as the claim that it was brutal and highly oppressive.

I would, however, agree that we can’t simply assume that modern society has reached the ‘correct’ answers, or that we should look down on people in the past simply because they failed to grasp truths that now strike us as self-evident. Quentin Skinner, the eminent historian of political thought, contends that a major reason for studying past viewpoints is that ‘they address familiar questions but offer unfamiliar answers.’ Yet taking past historical actors seriously in this way requires us to engage with their arguments; and doing that involves something more than just saying ‘Well, of course, they couldn’t possibly have known better in those days.’ So for me, the problem of avoiding anachronism is not a simple rule that can be easily applied, but rather a constant journey of investigation and debate. How did people judge and argue in the past? What were the competing world-views that were available to them? Our responsibility as historians is not to take a position which claims that judgments can be avoided, but rather to engage in an ongoing process of trying to decide what types of judgements are actually possible.

20 thoughts on “On Empire and Anachronism

  1. When it comes to law and sentencing I have noticed that with crimes committed a while back, but the perpetrator only recently brought to justice, the sentence reflects that which would have been appropriate at the time the crime was committed. Obviously this doesn’t span a huge period, not more than a lifetime obviously. This only becomes a matter of public interest when the sentence is less than would be the case if the crime had been committed recently, not sure if it ever goes the other way. We expect the knowledge of the possible consequences of one’s actions to control one’s behaviour. This could be why so many people think that past imperial adventures should not be judged by our present day outlook. (Would anyone say that in 100 years about the recent Iraq wars, drones etc? It was okay at the time?)

  2. I was interested to see a letter from Chomskyin the independent touching on this point yesterday( (online today), but rather more focused on being more aware of misdeeds committed by the other side than one’s own

  3. I agree that it is important to have the debate, but grounded in what people’s world view and values were then, not in superimposing a modern consensus. For example racism — I would expect that in the Victorian Empire it would have been the natural consensus in Britain, the Dominions and throughout Europe that white civilisation and values were superior to black or ‘native’ cultures. So it is perhaps pointless for us to denounce Cecil Rhodes for his clearly racist views, which many of his fellows probably shared (but didn’t express so extravagantly). Where his contemporaries might have differed from Rhodes would be where racist or nationalistic views led to a breach of the peace — eg in the case where Rhodes helped foment and plan an unauthorised attack on the white but ethnically distinct Boers of the Transvaal — the Jameson Raid. In that case Jameson was imprisoned by the British and Rhodes was never trusted again by the British government.

    1. To point out that what Rhodes was behind the Jameson Raid is the historian’s duty. So is it to describe the Raid’s consequences and the historian’s view of the motives behind it, be they distaste or fear of black people or otherwise. All of that is in the realm of the historian. But what in the world is added by finishing with something to the effect of, “ In my opinion that was a wicked thing to do”? Not only does that intrude on the reader’s right to consider and conclude but it tends also to weaken the impression made by the otherwise careful, balanced and erudite presentation .

  4. A fascinating article. But I wonder if the distinction between value judgements and ‘theoretical concepts applied retrospectively by historians’ is really as simple as is claimed. Surely many theoretical concepts used by historians are implicitly (but heavily) value-laden – the concept of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ being a particular case in point! The differing values and world-views of historians themselves must make the ‘constant journey of investigation’ an even more fraught endeavour.

  5. Intriguing stuff. What concerns me is TV history with its hallmarks of guesswork, assumptions and cavalier claims. Here there is no prospect at all of historians making ‘the constant journey of investigation’.

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  7. RE Anachronisms and evaluating the past, it seems to me that because history has learnings for the future, we should not draw a curtain over it but face it honestly, warts and all. Humankind remains the same essentially, and a great deal of what we are, today, is because of experiences and lessons learnt, or not learnt, from our past. As we run the mile, it helps to know where the pitfalls are.
    As T.S. Eliot put it:
    Time present and time past
    Are both perhaps present in time future
    And time future contained in time past.
    ( Burnt Norton )

  8. I recently offhandedly criticised Teddy Roosevelt for his imperialistic foreign policy aims with regard to Hawaii, Cuba and the Phillipines in 1898 and my view was challenged as anachronistic. I rebutted by saying the imperialist view is presented in the first place by the victors as the only acceptable view and then becomes the received view. Even a vociferous opposition is often forgotten because those who lost the argument are simply overlooked and, as lives were lost by the victors, may well be considered disrespectful and unpatriotic. Two books which seem to demonstrate that ideas of contemporary opposition to American imperial expansion are not the product of anachronistic imaginings alternative history fantasies are

    James Bradley
    The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War (2010)

    Evan Thomas
    The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 (2011)

    At one point, Evan Thomas ties his interest in Roosevelt’s warmongering to issues about President George W. Bush’s mindset when invading Iraq. Bush would be the throwback kid and Roosevelt the throwforward cowboy. Blair’s idea of going to war, of course, is also often seen as being a throwback to (imaginary) days of Imperial glory.

  9. Historians would do well to confine their efforts to portraying what happened, attempting to explain how it happened and, perhaps, theorizing as to why it happened. They should not attempt to make moral judgments. Their skills as historians impart no qualifications to do so. Theirr opinions on who was morally right and who morally wrong in another age are entitled to no more weight than anyone else’s. They do not belong in learned papers and dissertations. Historians should not use their skill and prestige as guardians of the past to foist upon their readers their moral predilections. It calls to mind rock stars or ace footballers endorsing political candidates.

    1. Agree Herb.
      Moral judgements can perhaps only be made by theologians and moral philosophers and other similar disciplines, but not historians.

  10. I would want to distinguish between the general question of how to approach moral judgements within historiography, on the one hand, and the way students on this course are asked to engage with moral questions on the other.

    Concerning the first question, I would agree with Bob Duif above: often, those who sternly interdict retrospective moral judgement forget that people at the time may well have had contrary opinions. In the case of slavery and of imperial invasion, the slaves and the invaded may also themselves have had opinions concerning their rights and the duties of others towards them. All too often, the demand that we should not make retrospective calls is a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for the ‘winners’ – and ‘our ancestors’. One of the historian’s tasks would be to tease out these lines of thought from the deep graves in which they have been buried. Where this cannot be done, they could at the least point to the now empty spaces from which those voices would have come.

    Concerning the course, however, I have had the feeling that students are being pushed into forming rather simplistic moral judgements on the basis of quite sketchy evidence. It’s all a little Sellar and Yeatman. Such judgements should, I feel, be allowed to emerge from our reading of and listening to the course materials, rather than being forced out by prodding fingers. And please rethink those little polls; speaking as someone who has some knowledge of how to carry out social inquiry, they bring me out in spots.

  11. “So for me, the problem of avoiding anachronism is not a simple rule that can be easily applied, but rather a constant journey of investigation and debate. How did people judge and argue in the past? What were the competing world-views that were available to them? Our responsibility as historians is not to take a position which claims that judgments can be avoided, but rather to engage in an ongoing process of trying to decide what types of judgements are actually possible”. The conclusion illustrates one of the more unfortunate characteristics found in the academic world….the “constant journey” the ‘ongoing process”. Fence sitting is a pain the arse.
    Avoiding judgements by the “ongoing process ” argument will not stand in the court of those who suffered, often, so far from Exeter. With several hundred from the “native population” shot to death under the orders of some British Governor gifted into authority (there are several examples but Eyre in 1865 will do) there is no moral judgement to be made-there is criminal sanction, reparation, & academic condemnation.

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