These six chapters were originally parts of a single film which sought to explore whether, during the nineteenth century, the Empire allowed Britons to transcend their other differences and embrace a shared sense of national identity. (The title of this three part series is Britishness: In Search of a National Identity – you can find part one Fragile Beginnings online) The preceding five chapters have laid the groundwork for the argument advanced in this final section, featuring Bernard Porter, John Mackenzie, Andrew Thompson, and Duncan Bell.
The subject of the film and the position I have taken in it have brought me into the middle of what has been an often quite heated debate. Rather than present a simple introduction here I have tried to sketch out the contours of this disagreement and my response to it. In very reductive terms, on one side of the argument there are historians who say that imperialism was a core ideology providing Britons with a shared worldview and sense of unique mission, and on the other side historians who say that it wasn’t. Continue reading “Ruling the Waves – Episode 6 – ‘An Imperial People?’”→
In his 2004 book The Absent-minded Imperialists, Bernard Porter argues that there was little sustained general interest about the British Empire in British domestic society. The supply of products from the Empire to Britain and references to imperial matters in British cultural activities did not mean that society was steeped in the Empire, he suggests. His book is one side of the argument between “minimalists” and “maximalists”, the protagonists in the historiographical debate about the magnitude of the effect of Empire on society in Britain.
The protagonists of minimalism and maximalism, although taking strongly opposing views, have in common a desire to answer the question: how widespread was awareness of the Empire in British society? This question quickly leads to two more: How might this be done? And is it possible to quantify imperial awareness? The seed of a mechanism for answering these questions can be found in Porter’s book in which he lists some of the “imperial associations that mushroomed” in Britain at the end on the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. By examining a wide range of imperial groups and their memberships, I have been able to estimate the extent of imperial activism, identify the aspects of Empire activists cared about, and examine the class structure of groups’ memberships.Continue reading “Fully-Aware Imperialists”→
was mainly a response to certain scholars (and some others) who, I felt, had hitherto simplified and exaggerated the impact of ‘imperialism’ on Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after years in which, except by empire specialists like myself, it had been rather ignored and underplayed. […] the main argument of the book was this: that the ordinary Briton’s relationship to the Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was complex and ambivalent, less soaked in or affected by imperialism than these other scholars claimed – to the extent that many English people, at any rate, possibly even a majority, were almost entirely ignorant of it for most of the nineteenth century. Continue reading “A Decade of ‘Imperial Absent-Mindedness’: A New Talking Empire Podcast”→