Debating the British Empire: An Interview with Jeremy Black


Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

Follow on Twitter @RichardToye

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 20.35.51How should historians tackle the controversial topic of imperialism? To what extent is it permissible to pass moral judgements on the actions of people in the past who had very different sets of values than we hold today? In his forthcoming book The British Empire: A History and A Debate, Professor Jeremy Black notes that the rights and wrongs, strengths and weaknesses of empire are a major topic in global history, and deservedly so.Focusing on the most prominent and wide-ranging empire in world history, the British empire, Black provides not only a history of that empire, but also a perspective from which to consider the issues of its strengths and weaknesses, and rights and wrongs. In short, this is history both of the past, and of the present-day discussion of the past, that recognizes that discussion over historical empires is in part a reflection of the consideration of contemporary states.

In this video, I interview Professor Black about his findings.

2 thoughts on “Debating the British Empire: An Interview with Jeremy Black

  1. While I do enjoy reading professor Black books and I have used them on my masters researching the British Empire, I can’t say the arguments he put forth in this interview are that strong. Yes, the debate on British Empire historiography is often anachronistic, and yes, there is a certain bias towards criticism of Empire. However, it is also true that the most controversial doings of the British Empire were perpetrated following the exact same logic in professor Jeremy Black argument: if we don’t do it, someone will; what we are doing may be evil, but the victims are evil themselves. To mention an extreme case, it was precisely like that in the Gladstone-Palmerston debate on whether or not to invade China in 1840 – where all moral arguments of Gladstone, the church and public opinion was defeated by the logic of “if we don’t do it, America or Russia will”. While I do agree with him that the debate needs better arguments, but I find it hard to believe that resurrecting old well-known arguments is what we actually need to go further today. But I reckon I might be misjudging the force of his defense, I will certainly read the upcoming book to get a better view of it.

Comments are closed.