One of the earliest films to be shot and then screened throughout India were scenes from the Delhi Durbar between 29th December 1902 and 10th January 1903. The Imperial Durbar, created to celebrate the accession of Edward VII as Emperor of India following the death of Victoria, was the most expensive and elaborate act of British Imperial pageantry that had ever been attempted. Nathaniel Curzon, as Viceroy of India, oversaw the construction of a tent city housing 150,000 guests north of Delhi proper and what occurred in Delhi was to be replicated (on a smaller scale) in towns and cities across India.
The purpose of the Durbar was to contrast British modernity with Indian tradition. Europeans at the Durbar were instructed to dress in contemporary styles even when celebrating an older British Imperial past (as with veterans of the ‘Mutiny’). Indians, however, were to wear Oriental (perceptibly Oriental) costumes as motifs of their Otherness. This construction of an exaggerated sense of Imperial difference, and through it Imperial order and Imperial continuity, was significant. It was a statement of the permanence of Empire, of Britain’s Empire being at the vanguard of modernity even as the Empire itself was increasingly anxious about nascent nationalist movements and rocked by perpetual Imperial crises.
It’s unlikely that Stephen Frears watched these films from 1902 or 1903 upon finalising the screenplay and then shooting Victoria & Abdul. They have only recently been digitized and archived by the British Film Institute. But his recent movie, filmed when most visions of the past are obscured by the myopia of the present, is an unconscious reproduction of films produced and shown when Empire was an idée fixe in the British mind. Abdul Karim, one of several Indians at Victoria’s court during her long reign, is a cypher throughout the film who has no emotion or sentiment or stirring rhetoric except when genuflecting before his Empress – kissing her feet upon their first meeting, stoically holding her hand upon her death, sitting as a sentinel by her statue in Agra into his dotage. Continue reading “Victoria & Abdul: Simulacra & Simulation”→
The Obama administration’s engagement with the Cuban government has led politicians and pundits of all stripes to reflect on the relationship between commerce and politics and, in so doing, to reanimate the concept of ‘the open door.’ Marc-William Palen, a Lecturer in Imperial History at the University of Exeter, argues that this concept has been misunderstood and misapplied by historians of American foreign relations from the 1960s to the present. Building on his work on the global impact of the highly protectionist McKinley Tariff of 1890, Palen sets out to rethink the characterisation of American power at the end of the nineteenth century by outlining what he describes as the “imperialism of economic nationalism,” as distinct from the “imperialism of free trade” (163).1
What is striking, he suggests, is not the American commitment to liberalised trade and the free movement of goods, people and capital, but rather the tenacity with which a band of influential Republican statesmen married their commitment to a high tariff to a programme of reciprocity and, ultimately, to an imperial foreign policy in the late nineteenth century. Convinced of the maturity of American industry but anxious that the U.S. domestic market had become saturated, these statesmen sought a solution in what Palen calls “an expansive closed door,” as administration after administration “coercively enforced a policy of closed colonial markets in Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.” (163).
Palen opens this sharp article with a smart pair of quotations. The first is from William Appleman Williams, arguably the single most influential historian of American foreign policy in the second half of the twentieth century. “The Open Door Policy,” he writes, “was America’s version of the liberal policy of informal empire or free trade imperialism” (157). The second person quoted is Benjamin B. Wallace, long-time member of the U.S. Tariff Commission, who would not have recognised Williams’s characterisation. “The open door does not and should not mean free trade,” he bluntly stated in March 1924 (157). These two interpretations offer a neat frame for Palen’s study, and highlight a basic but important historiographical insight that informs the article. Historians have long noted the protectionist credentials of the late-nineteenth-century Republican Party, yet the analytical purchase of ‘free trade imperialism,’ formulated in the context of British imperial history by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson and imported to American historiography by Williams and others, has endured.2 Why have so many insightful historians persisted with such an obviously ill-fitting concept?