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?’”→
Historians – filmmakers, too – should always be careful about sweeping all particulars into a grand overarching narrative. Attitudes to race are a case in point. They are always complex, at both an individual and a societal level, but there does seem to be evidence from the historical record that over the course of the nineteenth century there is what we might describe as a hardening of opinions over questions of race.
At just over 10 minutes long, this episode cannot do justice to the complexity of the subject or the tremendous amount of research on the subject. In this introduction, I wanted to raise some points that hadn’t been properly addressed in the film or had only been touched on briefly. For that reason you may want watch it first and then read what I have written below. Continue reading “Ruling the Waves – Episode 5 – ‘The White Man’s Burden’”→
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’”→
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