Against the Current Productions
There seems to be a tendency for some public figures and media commentators to make sweeping assertions about how ‘the Empire’ did this or that to ‘the British’, as if both could somehow be easily defined and the relationship neatly described.
A central theme of these films – perhaps the central theme – is that the relationship between domestic society and Empire was always a complex one, and that this complexity was the result of the diverse nature of Britain’s overseas territory on the one hand, and the diversity of British society on the other.
This first chapter tries to make some sense of the former, that ‘patchwork quilt’ of colonies, protectorates, dominions and so on, that made up the British Empire. The different types of territory, the tremendous variety in the way in which the different parts of it were governed, all made – and still make – the Empire very difficult to understand as some kind of conceptual whole.
At times the acquisition of overseas territory was planned, or sought, or lobbied for, and at other times British rule seems to have come about unintentionally, as an unforeseen consequence of other actions – the spoils of war or something akin to what today is called ‘mission creep’.
Expansion might be sanctioned by the foreign secretary, but it could also be driven by special interest groups back home or by ambitious men on the ground. Territory might be sought for strategic, commercial, religious or even social purposes. These motives might well overlap – but they could also be a source of conflict.
Whilst a speculator might see a plot of land as an opportunity to make a quick return, a settler might see that same patch as a chance for a better life. To the social theorist this potential farmstead might represent one part of a more complex whole; a society of new men transplanted and reborn on virgin soil. As a result Empire is defined, justified or explained away by different people at different times in different ways.