Entangled empires and the future of imperial intellectual history


Vichy propaganda representing Britain’s wartime imperial reach.

Alex Middleton
University of Oxford

The immediate future of modern imperial history seems certain to involve more books about the entanglements between empires. Writing on the seams that connected nineteenth- and twentieth-century empires with one another has gathered rapidly in momentum over the last decade, and conferences on the overlaps between imperial projects continue to proliferate.[1] So we can anticipate hearing considerably more about the flurry of new and rediscovered ‘hyphenated imperialisms’ which have been used to frame some of this work, pre-eminently ‘inter-imperialism’, ‘trans-imperialism’, ‘co-imperialism’, and ‘sub-imperialism’.[2] More such prefixes will doubtless emerge, and each will present slightly different conceptual and methodological challenges for the various imperial-historical sub-disciplines. This post outlines some possible future priorities for imperial intellectual history – the study of more developed ideas about the expansion, management, nature, and history of empires – as historians search for ways to organise ‘entangled’ histories of imperial thought.[3]

Imperial intellectual historians used to think between empires as a matter of course. Twentieth-century studies of European theories of empire habitually drew together figures from a relatively diverse range of imperial powers and nation-states, often treating their imaginative schemes at a high level of abstraction.[4] But this work never spent much time looking at thinkers’ impacts on one another. Twenty-first-century historiography, by contrast, reforged in the white heat of a ‘new imperial history’ that prioritised connections within rather than between empires, has mainly been organised around national-imperial intellectual traditions.[5] In some cases, historians juxtaposed these traditions with one another, but until recently there had been little research into their interconnections.[6]

Now, however, it is becoming increasingly obvious that political and social ideas were a vital commodity of inter-imperial exchange. As we learn ever more about the channels along which ideas moved – circulations of texts, social, commercial, and business networks, the diplomatic sphere, epistolary cultures, and latterly inter-imperial institutions, among other things – it is ever clearer that contacts across imperial boundaries must have played a central role in shaping developed visions of empire. So intellectual historians have a pivotal role to play in probing the intersections between nineteenth- and twentieth-century empires. What is most obviously missing from existing work is a vision of the larger structures and patterns involved. Historians need to think harder about how, or under what conditions, schemes of imperial political thinking were formed, modified, and challenged by the circulation of information, ideas, theories, and debates between imperial public spheres. This will require concerted effort, but four main preliminary problems suggest themselves. In each case, picking at them rapidly reveals multiple layers of new questions, and possible paths forward.

The first problem is to probe how imperial thinkers and propagandists understood other contemporary empires. There is a long tradition of intellectual-historical work on modern engagement with the empires of antiquity, but much less on the seemingly more urgent problem of what other extant empires were doing.[7] In fact, public-facing attempts to come to terms with competing imperial projects – to make sense of, criticise, and learn from them – were a principal vector for the inter-imperial dissemination of imperial ideas. In many cases such efforts involved lashings of distortion, misunderstanding, and political gamesmanship. In others, they were more sincere and scientific. What political, rhetorical, and intellectual purposes did engagement with foreign empires serve? What happened to general claims about ‘empire’ as a political framework when certain contemporary empires were taken more or less seriously, or some were prioritised over others? And what happens when we think beyond the bilateral frameworks within which most existing work is couched – empire X in the imagination of empire Y – to the multipolar frameworks within which imperial concepts and representations really moved? Doing so may help to break down some of the imperial binaries which shape so much intellectual-historical work – territorial versus seaborne, Western versus Eastern, settler colonies versus ‘tropical’ dependencies.

Second, we need to start exploring the intellectual history of imperial entanglement. Modern imperialism generated a growing body of meta-level thought and commentary on how the interactions between empires worked, and how they ought to work. Some of this has been covered in recent work on international law, and on how that contested category emerged from the empires which dominated the nineteenth-century world.[8] But there are wider intellectual histories of imperial intersection to be recovered, driven variously by the advent of the steamship, the telegraph, the increasingly intense inter-imperial circulation of periodicals, newspapers, and books, and the advent of ‘new imperialism’ in the closing decades of the later nineteenth century. What forms of exchange were contemporaries most conscious of? What kinds of entanglements and population movements were deemed safe and proper, and which harmful? How did new technologies affect these visions? [9] And how did new institutional arrangements, from nineteenth-century international conferences to twentieth-century inter-imperial institutions (not least the League of Nations) affect the imagining of imperial entanglements, as well as the entanglements themselves?[10]

An American representation of Britain’s attitude towards the Spanish-American war, in Puck, 1898.

A third theme which needs attention is the relation between inter-‘imperial’ ideas and other areas of political, social, and scholarly argument. What historians have come to call ‘imperial political thought’ was not, after all, a self-standing category. In different settings, it appeared as political philosophy, political economy, journalistic commentary, history, law, and anthropology, or as some combination of these analytic modes. These different (quasi-) disciplines each had their own distinct inter-imperial relationships and trajectories, tied to the ever-changing intellectual tastes of different imperial public spheres, and (in some cases) the preoccupations of their universities. Were some disciplines more entangled than others? Can we connect their shifting status with the changing international reputations of particular imperial texts and thinkers? And what can we learn from these intersecting disciplinary dynamics about the forces which pushed imperial political thought across imperial borders?

Finally, there is work to do on the relations between ‘entangled’ imperial ideas, and the practice of imperial government and rule. This junction has not featured prominently in most twenty-first-century imperial intellectual history, presumably because of the mass loss of scholarly interest in the once-alluring subject of imperial administration. But it offers a distinctive window onto the endlessly tricky problem of the interfaces between the ambiguously connected worlds of political ideas and practice.[11] Which ‘foreign’ imperial texts, thinkers, and sets of principles – if any – were drawn on by imperial politicians, administrators, officials, and judges, to form and justify their preferences and actions?[12] Since imperial authorities in many cases possessed awesome arbitrary power, the consequences of these entanglements could be profound. We know, also, that administrative practices and the philosophies behind them were often exchanged in the borderlands between different empires – in what circumstances were these transmitted back to debates in imperial metropolises?[13]

A British satire of France’s colonial project in Algeria, in Punch, 1844.

In all cases, historians need to be more aware of the (sometimes) rapidly changing global status of different empires. Britain, as the largest and apparently most successful empire in the nineteenth-century world, was the target of an outsized amount of contemporary interest and emulation. The emergence of new imperial hierarchies and models in the twentieth century created new frameworks for articulate admiration and distancing. European, Eastern, and American empires rose and fell and rethought and renewed themselves at different points in time, and with very different intellectual consequences. In other words, it is essential to bear in mind the geopolitical realities behind inter-imperial intellectual entanglements.

There will be other, perhaps even more powerful, approaches to ‘entangled’ imperial intellectual histories than the handful highlighted here. Historians have already begun to uncover how the political thought of colonised peoples responded to ideas drawn from, or (mis)represented as belonging to, other empires.[14] Empires were also, of course, in contact with non-imperial states, and those relations need attention too.[15] But the themes sketched out above will need concerted attention as part of the broader shift now firmly underway. They will help to give definition to an emerging new style of imperial intellectual history, which responds seriously to the challenges presented by global-historical frameworks.[16] The development of this new set of approaches may also help to connect the history of imperial thought more closely and productively with other forms of imperial-historical scholarship than tended to be the case in previous generations, when the project of recovering imperial ideas was often deemed to be separate from attempts to grasp the practicalities of empire.

Alex Middleton is Fellow and College Lecturer in Modern History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

[1] There is e.g. a major Singaporean congress projected for June 2023, on ‘Comparative Empire: Conflict, Competition, and Cooperation, 1750-1914’. See https://www.sgncscongress.com/ (accessed 05/11/2022).

[2] Example discussions of each of these frameworks can be found, respectively, in Stephen Tuffnell, ‘Anglo-American Inter-Imperialism: US Expansion and the British World, c. 1865–1914’, 7:2 (2014), 174-95; Kristin L. Hoganson and Jay Sexton, eds, Crossing Empires: Taking U.S. History into Transimperial Terrain (2020); Martin Thomas and Richard Toye, Arguing about Empire: Imperial Rhetoric in Britain and France, 1882-1956 (2017); Adrián Sotelo Valencia, Sub-Imperialism Revisited: Dependency Theory in the Thought of Ruy Mauro Marini (2017). See also the various books spotlighted at the ‘Transimperial History Blog’, https://www.transimperialhistory.com/ (accessed 05/11/2022).

[3] The title of this post deliberately echoes a book which deserves to be highly influential, Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, Entangled Empires: the Anglo-Iberian Atlantic, 1500-1830 (2018).

[4] E.g. Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Theories of Imperialism (1980); cf., on an earlier age, Anthony Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France, c.1500-c.1800 (1995). In retrospect, see also Philip Pomper, ‘The History and Theory of Empires’, History and Theory, 44:4 (2005), 1-27.

[5] Daniel Hedinger and Nadin Heé, ‘Transimperial History – Connectivity, Cooperation and Competition’, Journal of Modern European History, 16:4 (2018), 429-52.

[6] For the ‘juxtaposition’ approach see e.g. Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: the Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (2006). For moves in the direction of studying interconnections, see e.g. Duncan Bell, ‘Empire and Imperialism’, in Gareth Stedman Jones and Gregory Claeys, eds, The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Political Thought (2011), 864-92; Duncan Bell, Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America (2020).

[7] A particularly interesting recent contribution here is John L. Hennessey, Rule by Association: Japan in the Global Trans-Imperial Culture, 1868-1912 (2018).

[8] E.g. Jennifer Pitts, Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire (2018).

[9] See here Duncan Bell, ‘Dissolving Distance: Technology, Space, and Empire in British Political Thought, 1770-1900’, Journal of Modern History, 77:3 (2005), 523-62, which has not been as seminal as it ought to have been.

[10] Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: the League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (2015); and more recently, on the International Colonial Institute, Florian Wagner, Colonial International and the Governmentality of Empire, 1893-1982 (2022).

[11] See e.g. René Koekkoek, Anne-Isabelle Richard, and Arthur Weststeijn, eds, The Dutch Empire between Ideas and Practice, 1600-2000 (2019).

[12] See here, very recently, Tim Roberts, ‘The Role of French Algeria in American Incorporation of the Philippines and Puerto Rico’, Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques,  48:3 (2022), 90-110; and the highly suggestive sentence in Alan Lester, Kate Boehme, and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire (2020), 336: ‘The British empire would not be characterised by the supposed tawdry glitter of the French empire, the brutality of the Spanish, the ruthlessness of the German, the despotism of the Russian, the backwardness of the Qing, or the decadence of the Ottoman.’

[13] See e.g. Steven Press, Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe’s Scramble for Africa  (2017).

[14] Arthur Asseraf, Electric News in Colonial Algeria (2019).

[15] See e.g. Micah Alpaugh, Friends of Freedom: The Rise of Social Movements in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions (2021).

[16] On the changing relations between ‘global’ and ‘imperial’ history see Simon J. Potter and Jonathan Saha, ‘Global History, Imperial History and Connected Histories of Empire’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 16:1 (2015).