Ruling the Waves – Episode 2 – ‘Imperialists and Others’

victorian

Stefan Piotrowski
Against the Current Productions

The title for this film was adapted from a chapter title in Bernard Porter’s Absent Minded Imperialists (as you may know Prof. Porter’s book was – and still is – the subject of quite considerable debate, and I will return to this in a later section). Following Prof. Porter’s lead, I have in this chapter examined the relationship of different social groups to empire – and how their socio-economic status back home shaped their interaction with empire.

Class, a word out of favour with today’s sociologists, although a broad term, is still a useful categorisation from which to explore the British relationship to Empire. Attitudes formed within a certain social milieu at home were very often carried outward into empire and had considerable influence over how individuals interpreted this new space and their place within it.

But I would also want to stress, that although it might be a powerful factor in shaping them, social class didn’t automatically define or limit attitudes towards empire. People from the within the same social group could have conflicting attitudes towards the spread of capitalism, technology, or even the Christian faith. When Britons came into contact with Empire there was no simple uniformity of imperial experience.

Did the settler on the Canadian prairies share the same worldview as the opium trader, or the plantation owner, or the shipping magnate? What about settlers who came to the cities looking not for land but for work? What about the factory worker whose mill processed Indian cotton? Were they motivated by the same things? Did they share the same ideology or set of principles?

Whatever disagreements people may have with some of the conclusions drawn in Prof Porter’s book, it does bring to the fore some fundamental questions: What do we actually mean when we use the word ‘imperialist’? Does it make sense to use this word to describe all these different groups of people?

2 thoughts on “Ruling the Waves – Episode 2 – ‘Imperialists and Others’

  1. Think that when trying to define imperialists attitudes to Empire we should first make the subcategory “colonialists”, meaning those who actually left the isles. Think we could find a bit more homogeneity there.

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