History Department, University of Exeter
In 1942, Arthur Waley – English orientalist and sinologist – described the first two decades of the twentieth century as ‘a great turning point’ in Anglo-Chinese relations. It was in this period that poets, professors and thinkers began to visit China instead of soldiers, sailors, missionaries, merchants and officials. These ‘men of leisure’ travelled ‘not to convert, trade, rule or fight, but simply to make friends and learn’. Over seventy years later, these sentiments were at the forefront of the international PhD symposium on ‘Imperial Expansion and Globalization’ convened to ‘mark the friendship between the Department of History at University of Exeter, Durham University and Peking University’ between 10 and 13 July 2015. Over the course of four intense days, twelve PhD students and three academics immersed themselves in debate, discussion and cultural exchange. While the topics of the papers covered Warley’s four core issues of imperial contact – belief, economics, governance and conflict – the atmosphere was always cordial and welcoming.
I felt privileged that my first visit to China was within this setting of cultural and academic accord. Spending time with our hosts, both in the formal setting of the symposium and during our “downtime” visiting some of Beijing’s most famous landmarks, gave me a good deal of time to reflect on what it meant to partake in intellectual exchange on the history of empire in a post-imperial setting. How far had we really moved into a post-colonial era? Was our academic relationship genuinely based on mutual respect and understanding? The remnants of Britain’s colonial relationship with China were never far away. This was both obvious – in the fact that the working language of the symposium was English – and more subtle; for example, the realisation that the phrase ‘I won’t kowtow’ originated from the British McCartney Mission to China in 1793. There were also gentle reminders of other European influences; as a vegetarian a staple (and delicious) food item during our visit was “danta” – miniature savoury egg tarts based on the Portuguese recipe introduced to China via its first and last European colony, Macau. Continue reading “Imperial History in a Post-Imperial Setting: Power, Patriarchy and Pardon”
Anthony Leon Brundage and Richard Alfred Cosgrove. British Historians and National Identity, From Hume to Churchill. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2014. 272 pp. £60.00 (hard back), ISBN 978-1-84893-539-6; £24 (eBook).
In the last two decades, historical studies focussing on themes of memory creation, mythmaking and national identity have burgeoned. Authors Anthony Brundage and Richard A. Cosgrove, in their 2014 book British Historians and National Identity, attempt to link a series of single-authored multi-volume histories to the creation of particular themes within British identity. The central thesis of the work is that British national identity was never, and is not today, a static concept: “Central to the manner that English people think of themselves was (and is) their history: real, imagined or invented; all categories of identity are rooted in some century or era of the English story”. By focussing upon British history specifically, Brundage and Cosgrove have been able to narrow the scope of their ambitious work to the development of an historical framework in which historians themselves advanced and influenced the exceptional island story.
This particular study is unique in that it links the work of a series of historians, from David Hume to Sir Winston Churchill, with the goal of demonstrating how “history (and historians) provide the collective memory for the nation.”  Fascination with the idea of identity construction, particular within a British, or more often, specifically English framework, has previously been taken up by a number of scholars. Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation (2009) represents particularly well the extent to which British identity was constructed around or indeed, against the idea of an enemy ‘other’: namely, the French. Likewise, as is evident with Anglo-French scholar Robert Tombs’ recent publication The English and Their History (2015), this is a topic that continues to draw intellectual scrutiny. Engagement with memory creation and identity within the context of war and conflict remain popular areas of research, with Samuel Hynes and Mark Connelly, in the last decade or so, analysing the process of selection through which shared memory and personal narratives become collective. Jonathan Rose’s The Literary Churchill (2014) and David Reynolds’ In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (2004) in turn take a specialised and extremely personal approach in working to shed light upon how one political actor and historian understood and interpreted their own achievements. Continue reading “British Historians and British Identity”