The British Empire

By Beloff, Max | History Today, February 1996 | Go to article overview

The British Empire


Beloff, Max, History Today


I would like to begin by referring to the famous passage in the autobiography of Edward Gibbon:

It was at Rome on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing among the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plans were circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire.

I do not know whether similar musings were responsible for the decision to embark upon a new Oxford History of the British Empire which is to deal not only with its decline and fall, but with the entire four centuries between the first and second Elizabeth. In any case, the particular problems that will confront the editors and authors in their task are very different from the challenges that faced Gibbon.

Gibbon himself was by modern lights an amateur - he wrote the whole book. The Oxford history is to have a general editor and editors of each volume, with individual authors for each chapter. It is indeed an apt illustration of the adage that the advance of scholarship - computers, databases, instant communication and the rest - simply means knowing more and more about less and less.

Of course there are perfectly good reasons for this use of many authors, for seeing historical writing as subject to the laws of industrial production - for seeing Adam Smith rather than Gibbon as the herald of the future.

One explanation for the reliance upon collective endeavour is that the materials for the British Empire, even in its earliest stages, are so much more abundant than for the Roman Empire. The coming of the age of printing made a permanent difference to the record of events, and British archives and most of those preserved overseas are continuous in their coverage and enormous in their range and bulk.

What Gibbon had at his disposal were the accounts of a few ancient writers which happen to have survived in manuscript form, and the evidence of the Roman monuments still extant in his time. No doubt the labours of the archaeologists and the consequent ability to make use of inscriptions and other data has increased our understanding of the Roman Empire in its early centuries, but still the gaps in our knowledge remain enormous. We have only to compare what we know of Roman Britain with what we know of the British Raj in India. Consider Agricola, and the guesses that have to be made to fill in the narrative of his admiring son-in-law Tacitus, with the way in which we can follow the daily doings of Lord Curzon through his official and private papers.

Gibbon was writing more than three centuries after the fall of Constantinople brought the Eastern Empire to its fatal conclusion. After such a long time, a measure of detachment was possible. Can we have such detachment writing about a structure which the older ones among us knew in our own lifetimes as a going concern, and which was indeed a going concern when the Cambridge History of the British Empire was launched in 1929? Is it possible to avoid taking sides in the controversies to which the post-imperial era has given birth?

In the year of my birth in the consulate of Herbert Henry Asquith, before the First World War broke upon us, the British Empire, loved or reviled, was as much part of the order of things as the moon or the stars. Atlases with much of the world's surface coloured red were the staples of my consciousness of a wider world. I was eight years old before the British Empire reached its maximum extent. How then envisage its disappearance? Wider, still and wider, shall thy bounds be set. Why not?

Of course, it was possible for someone like the late Sir Nicholas Mansergh, my senior by some three years, to accustom himself to the disappearance of the British Empire by stressing the continuity of British Empire into British Commonwealth and of British Commonwealth into Commonwealth. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The British Empire
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.