Jim Downs’s Maladies of Empire studies the impact that colonialism, war, and slavery had on the field of epidemiology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its geographical focus stretches across North America, the Atlantic, West Africa, the United Kingdom, and its colonial possessions in the Indian Subcontinent. It addresses the inability of historians of science, until the 1970s, to question scientific thought and embrace what Warwick Anderson calls ‘universal knowledge’. Through this book, Downs, a professor of Civil War era studies and history, attempts to adjusts popular and academic perceptions of our medical past, as well as of our understanding of inventions, innovations, and intellectual achievements by highlighting the forgotten contributions of the colored, conscripted, enslaved, and oppressed in the production of new ideas about medicine. Downs’s overarching argument is that epidemiology ‘developed not just from studies of European urban centers but also from the international slave trade, colonialism, warfare and the population migrations that followed all of these’ (3).
I was cornered at a party recently by someone who had overheard that I was an historian of slavery and the British Empire. People like me, they had been warned, were teaching students about how uniquely evil the British were, how we should all be ashamed of our history. They were no cheerleader for Empire, but they also had no patience for the ‘woke’ activists rampaging across the country tearing down statues, cancelling people they didn’t agree with, and generally trying to erase the bits of the past they didn’t like. Above all, they wanted to impress upon me the importance of balance in historical analyses of Empire. Slavery was obviously A Bad Thing, but had I considered that we were the ones who abolished it, and also (here they hesitated for a moment, but pressed on), why don’t we ever hear about the African side of the slave trade? Perhaps I should teach that in my ‘course’. As I tried to respond to some of these points, wearily reproducing rebuttals that are by now so familiar to me that I’m never sure if I’ve already said them in any given conversation, the dialogue pivoted without me. Now we were talking about Hong Kong. Surely even I would admit that British imperialism in Hong Kong was largely benign? That’s the Empire, isn’t it? Some of it was good, some of it was bad. Why can’t people handle complexity nowadays?
Perhaps I am attending the wrong parties. But to be fair to my cross-examiner, they could hardly be blamed for their alarm. As Alan Lester skilfully vivisects in this forthright, illuminating, and hugely readable primer, a culture war over Empire is being assiduously propagated by a small but tenacious group of British politicians, academics, and journalists. Billed as ‘boldly confront[ing] apologists for the British Empire (including the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretaries)’, Deny and Disavow tackles the deliberate misrepresentations of recent calls for recognition and reform made by Black Lives Matter and other campaigning organisations, as well as the clear majority of historians working in the field. Lester intersperses an admirably dispassionate anatomy of the culture warriors’ various strategies to distance Britain from its own history with punchy ‘snapshot’ accounts of some of the key events and figures that are now, apparently, controversial.
Today activists in Pakistan, particularly ethnic Pakhtuns and Baluch, evoke the idea of colonial governance when criticizing the Pakistani state’s abuses in their war-torn and marginalized homelands. Take the words of leading Pakhtun activist Manzoor Pashteen: “When we demand our rights, equal rights, and protest against this colonial-like treatment of our people, we’re thrown [in]to jails indefinitely.” Colonialism’s legacy continues to dominate the lives of millions. ‘Pathan,’ or more properly Pakhtun or Pashtun, soldiers’ experiences in British service during the First World War are seldom given dedicated coverage. However, they can illuminate important developments in the formation of this colonial legacy in modern Pakistan: both its consolidation through indigenous allies, and resistance to it.
Lori Lee Oates (@drlorileeoates) Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador
In 2019, I had the opportunity to participate in public scholarship collaborations with political scientists, geographers, and community activists on the climate crisis. This led to lecturing to graduate students on the climate emergency and writing guest essays on the topic for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). The criticism from climate change deniers was swift and fierce but not unexpected. It was usually some variation of “What does a humanities scholar or historian know about climate change?” or “These are issues best left to business schools and engineering departments.” The response forced me to grapple with the question: what is the role of global and imperial history in providing commentary on the climate crisis?
The question hits particularly close to home for me; Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, where I teach in the Master of Philosophy (Humanities) program, is located in one of Canada’s petro provinces. The economy has always been heavily dependent on natural resource sectors and very much dependent on oil since 1997. The one economic golden age the province experienced was fostered by high oil prices. The province has also had a troubled imperial history as it went from being the home of the lost Indigenous people known as the Beothuk, to becoming European fishing grounds, used by imperial powers for its vast natural resources, then to a British colony, to Commonwealth dominion, back to commission of government, all before joining Canada as its tenth province in 1949.
The legacy of imperialism on Newfoundland’s resource-dependent economy was explored back in the mid ‘90s by Valerie Summers in Regime Change in a Resource Economy: The Politics of Underdevelopment in Newfoundland since 1825(1994). In the intervening decades, Newfoundland and Labrador’s approach to economic development continues to be rooted in imperial ways of thinking, which arguably prevent its development as the global economy has moved away from localized natural resources sectors, and towards globalized service sectors. Political economists have effectively documented the phenomenon known as “the resource curse”. Overdependence on natural resources, or a single resource, are problems that afflict many former colonies, that have historically been used as a source for the extraction for their resources. This overdependence, then, is an imperial legacy.
Reviewed by George Giannakopoulos (Durham University)
In the summer of 1906, a young Scottish historian embarked on an eight-week journey across the Hungarian end of the Habsburg Empire. Travelling from Vienna to Bratislava and Budapest, and from Cluj to Zagreb and Fiume, Robert W. Seton-Watson prided himself for being among the first foreign observers interested in the national and ethnic diversity in the region. Seton-Watson’s sojourn launched a lasting crusade against the forced assimilation of non-Hungarian populations living under Hungarian jurisdiction which has come to be known as the policies of “Magyarization”. His writings fractured the Victorian edifice of Hungarian liberalism and laid the foundation for the academic study of the Slavonic world in Britain under the auspices of the School of Slavonic Studies in London.
Reacting to Seton-Watson’s polemic, Hungarian liberals drew parallels between Hungary and Britain. They argued that Hungary’s “Magyarization” policy did not differ from similar processes of national homogenisation enforced across the British Empire. Both imperial states, the argument run, included culturally and ethnically heterogeneous populations and made space for cultural autonomy to the extent that freedoms offered did not fracture the unity of the state, the raison d’état. Such an assertion irked the Scottish historian. In his view, Britain and Austria-Hungary were not on the same plane; the long history of liberty and toleration in the British Isles did not measure up to the Magyar policies of “tyranny” and forced assimilation. There was an insurmountable geographical and mental barrier separating an empire of liberty and toleration from a monarchy which had partly fallen under the spell of oriental despotism. Continue reading “Rethinking Empire and Ethnic Diversity in East-Central Europe”→
Empires ancient and modern are large, hierarchical organizations, structurally founded on deep inequalities of risk and reward. The British Empire in Asia was no exception. At the front lines of imperial power were, all too often, common men (and some women) who were tricked, cozened, misled, coerced, and whipped into serving as the cannon-fodder of Empire. The temptation to desert was often present and the thought of mutiny cannot have been absent. These plebeian men were ‘kept in line’ men of status who served as commercial agents and military officers. But even among them, kickbacks and commissions were omnipresent and could grow into serious leakages of revenue or foment major acts of treason. Furthermore the wholesale desertion of a dynasty by its elite subjects was not unknown. In Britain in both 1660 and 1688, the political establishment and key army units deserted their established government to side with an invader sponsored by a foreign power. We could multiply such examples.
Transoceanic empires built by corporations like the British and Dutch East India Companies faced even greater problems because they lacked the sacred aura that surrounded kings and helped maintain nominal loyalties. It took nearly half a year for an inquiry or command to reach a functionary in Asia and it took many more months before a report or an excuse would come back. The military, commercial, or political situation could change dramatically in the interim. Many readers will be aware, for example, that the British and Americans continued to fight for six weeks in 1815 after the peace treaty was signed between the two powers. One of these peace-time battles cemented Andrew Jackson’s reputation and propelled him to the presidency. Asia was much further away and across more dangerous waters. Continue reading “Did the British Empire depend on separating parents and children?”→
US Economic Imperialism within a British World System
Historians have been busy chipping away at the myth of the exceptional American Empire, usually with an eye towards the British Empire. Most comparative studies of the two empires, however, focus on the pre-1945 British Empire and the post-1945 American Empire.[i] Why this tendency to avoid contemporaneous studies of the two empires? Perhaps because such a study would yield more differences than it would similarities, particularly when examining the imperial trade policies of the two empires from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.
For those imperial histories that have attempted such a side-by-side comparison, the so-called Open Door Empire of the United States is depicted as having copied the free-trade imperial policies of its estranged motherland by the turn of the century; these imitative policies reached new Anglo-Saxonist heights following US colonial acquisitions in the Caribbean and the Pacific from the Spanish Empire in 1898, followed closely by the fin-de-siècle establishment of the Anglo-American ‘Great Rapprochement’.[ii]
Gallagher and Robinson’s 1953 ‘imperialism of free trade’ thesis—which explored the informal British Empire that arose following Britain’s unilateral adoption (and at times coercive international implementation) of free-trade policies from the late 1840s to the early 1930s—has played a particularly crucial theoretical role in shaping the historiography of the American Empire. In The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), William Appleman Williams provided the first iteration of the imitative open-door imperial thesis, wherein he explicitly used the ‘imperialism of free trade’ theory in order to uncover an American informal empire. ‘The Open Door Policy’, Williams asserted, ‘was America’s version of the liberal policy of informal empire or free-trade imperialism’.[iii] The influence of Williams’s provocative thesis led to the creation of the most influential school of US imperial history—the ‘Wisconsin School’—which would continue in its quest to unearth American open-door or free-trade imperialism for decades to come.[iv] As a result, the contrasting ways in which the American Empire grew in the shadow of the British Empire have largely remained hidden. Continue reading “Empire by Imitation?”→
It took some time in 1852 to convince the Imam of the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul, but James Felix Jones eventually got the permission he needed to climb up the stairs of the famous “hunchback” minaret. It was from this vantage point that Jones, an Indian army surveyor and officer, started to take measurements. He established the leaning minaret’s longitude and latitude, one of the first fixed points from which it became possible to triangulate the plain of Al-Iraq and to begin an accurate mapping of the area with mixed results (fig.1).
In the early 1850s, Mesopotamia stood in the middle of the overland route to India and, surprisingly, no reliable map of this territory existed until Jones published an account in 1855. Austen Henry Layard’s discovery of Nineveh in the mid-1840s and Francis R. Chesney’s exploration of the Tigris and the Euphrates a decade before had helped placing the area from a European standpoint, but, all in all, many in France or Britain failed to grasp the geography of the Ottoman province. Some of Jones’s original maps were even lost in India and his pioneering work partly forgotten: a testimony to the disorderly nature of Western knowledge in the area. Continue reading “Of Maps and Empire: Charting an Evasive East”→
‘Our world mission is the maintenance and development of the heritage of Empire,’ the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), Sir Oswald Mosley, declared in the BUF’s journal, Fascist Quarterly, in 1936. Although often overlooked by scholars of British fascism, this pro-imperial sentiment was central to the ideology of the BUF. For the BUF, the maintenance of the British Empire was imperative – key to keeping Britain’s place within the world and ensuring living standards in the domestic sphere. Continue reading “Australia & the Fascist Idea of Greater Britain”→
Greece’s potential financial downfall and semi-colonial economic status monopolized the news this summer. Much ink has been spilled on the apocalyptic consequences the crisis might yet hold for European Union finances and for the global monetary system. However, much less is known of a similar situation that happened more than a hundred years before in Uruguay, the effects of which would also reverberate across the Atlantic to shake the very foundations of the global financial world. Continue reading “How Uruguay Helped Spark a Global Financial Crisis in 1890”→
Communications technologies have played a sizable role in the shaping of political communities – national and otherwise. Not only had the invention of the telegraph brought about an immediacy in communication with far flung parts of the globe, this so-called collapse of space and time had also – in some minds – opened up the possibility for the creation of a new trans-national British state. By the second half of the nineteenth century, individuals within Britain’s political elite had begun to try to come to terms with the Empire as some kind of conceptual whole.
These technological developments were accompanied by a more general shifting of attitudes towards Britain’s settler colonies. Whereas in the first half of the century these lands had been seen as places for criminals, the disgraced or destitute, from the 1850s and 60s they increasingly came to be seen in a more positive light, as extensions of a clearly superior British civilisation or even as better versions of a tired and degenerate motherland.
This second view of the settlement colonies – as places of improvement and transformation – captured the imaginations of those on both left and right. To socialists the development of democratic ideals in the southern hemisphere had the potential to renew Britain’s hierarchical and profoundly unequal political system. To conservatives the Empire could act as a safety value for industrial discontent and associated radicalism – emigration could transform an urban underclass into property owning settlers. Continue reading “Ruling the Waves – Episode 4 – ‘Greater Britain’”→
Featuring Andrew Thompson, Bernard Porter, and Stephen Howe, this film focuses on the curious absence of Empire – or what might be called an imperial perspective – in mid-Victorian Britain. The first part explores other powerful ideas of Britain that compete with and at times overshadow the idea of Britain as an imperial nation. The second examines the extent to which these national ideas – imperial or otherwise – reverberated with the wider population.
Following on from – and inspired by – Hume’s History of England, nineteenth-century historians set great store by the country’s domestic progress. The central British story was a political narrative; its main characters those great men who had been at the heart of the nation’s affairs. The violence and ongoing instability unleashed by the revolution in France – in my opinion – also played a part in strengthening this tradition. The British political system, now newly reformed, had, it seemed, managed to steer a steady course between the extremes of tyrannical monarchy and anarchic democracy. Continue reading “Ruling the Waves – Episode 3 – ‘The Workshop of The World’”→
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’”→