Ruling the Waves – Episode 6 – ‘An Imperial People?’

imperial biscuits

Stefan Piotrowski
Against the Current Productions

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?’”

Ruling the Waves – Episode 4 – ‘Greater Britain’

Greater Britain exhibition

Stefan Piotrowski
Against the Current Productions

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’”