Hanley on Lester’s Deny & Disavow: Distancing the Imperial Past in the Culture Wars (2022)

Alan Lester. Deny & Disavow: Distancing the Imperial Past in the Culture Wars. London: SunRise Publishing, 2022. ISBN 978-1-9144891-4-3. Softcover. 203pp. £7.99.

Reviewed by Ryan Hanley (University of Exeter)

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.

Continue reading “Hanley on Lester’s Deny & Disavow: Distancing the Imperial Past in the Culture Wars (2022)”

France and Britain – colonial rivals, or co-imperialists?

Martin Thomas and Richard Toye
University of Exeter

‘The struggle of races and of peoples has from now on the whole globe as its theatre; each advances towards the conquest of unoccupied territories.’ Tempting as it might be to ascribe such inflated rhetoric to Friedrich Nietzsche or Adolf Hitler, its originator was Gabriel Charmes, a disciple of leading late nineteenth-century French republican, Léon Gambetta.

In September 1882, Charmes was trying to persuade his fellow parliamentarians that France’s recent seizure of Tunisia was ethically imperative. Similar rhetoric could be found across the political spectrum, in Britain as well as in France. In 1888, the Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury described small imperial wars as ‘merely the surf that marks the edge of the advancing wave of civilisation’. But if Britain and France both claimed to be the spearhead of civilizing influences, what happened when their interests clashed, and what new arguments emerged to rationalize the struggle for power between rival ‘civilized’ nations?

That is one theme of our new book, Arguing About Empire, but in order to answer the question we need equally to ask what happened when Anglo-French interests appeared to coincide. How did the two countries’ respective elites justify their mutual collaboration in the face of challenges from other powers and, increasingly as time went on, from domestic anti-colonial critics and local nationalist opponents too? Continue reading “France and Britain – colonial rivals, or co-imperialists?”

“Playing Indian”: Exeter Rugby in a Postcolonial Age

Exeter chiefs3

Rachel Herrmann
University of Southampton
Follow on Twitter at @Raherrmann

On any given weekend, you might find yourself on a train platform, surrounded by sports fans wearing “Native American” headdresses and “war paint,” and waving inflatable tomahawks. They’ll be wearing apparel purchased from the team’s online store (the “Trading Post”), where you can also buy a “Little Big Chief” mascot. During the event, supporters will chant the Tomahawk Chop to get into the spirit of things, and afterward, perhaps they’ll rehash the game on the team’s message boards (“The Tribe”).

No, this isn’t the Atlanta Braves. It’s not the Washington Redskins. This is a rugby match for the Exeter Chiefs. And it evokes Britain’s forgotten imperial American past. Continue reading ““Playing Indian”: Exeter Rugby in a Postcolonial Age”

What can a First World War Adventure Novel Tell us About Empire?

buchanjoetext9639stp10Richard Toye

The Guardian recently ran a piece calling for Britons to confront their colonial past by way of now-forgotten empire adventure stories. Professor Richard Toye has done just that, uncovering the imperial side of a stirring adventure tale, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915).

John Buchan’s 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, with its dashing hero Richard Hannay, is just a bit of fun – isn’t it? Well, it’s fun all right, but behind it there lays a pretty clear political agenda. Most obviously it’s anti-German, with the plot revolving around a devilish Teutonic plot to steal British military secrets. But there’s also a strong imperial dimension. Continue reading “What can a First World War Adventure Novel Tell us About Empire?”