Historians – filmmakers, too – should always be careful about sweeping all particulars into a grand overarching narrative. Attitudes to race are a case in point. They are always complex, at both an individual and a societal level, but there does seem to be evidence from the historical record that over the course of the nineteenth century there is what we might describe as a hardening of opinions over questions of race.
At just over 10 minutes long, this episode cannot do justice to the complexity of the subject or the tremendous amount of research on the subject. In this introduction, I wanted to raise some points that hadn’t been properly addressed in the film or had only been touched on briefly. For that reason you may want watch it first and then read what I have written below. Continue reading “Ruling the Waves – Episode 5 – ‘The White Man’s Burden’”→
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? Continue reading “Ruling the Waves – Episode 2 – ‘Imperialists and Others’”→
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. Continue reading “Ruling the Waves – Episode 1 – ‘An Expanding Empire’”→