Rewriting the History of the British Empire

By Windschuttle, Keith | New Criterion, May 2000 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Rewriting the History of the British Empire


Windschuttle, Keith, New Criterion


In the new film of Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park, the writer and director Patricia Rozema includes an early scene that is not in the book. As Fanny Price departs from her family in Portsmouth to live in the grand household of her aunt and uncle, she hears someone wailing on a ship off the coast. "Black cargo, Miss," explains the coachman. The ship is a slave transport and it is meant to remind the audience that around 1800, when this scene takes place, England was still a slave-trading nation. It is also a portent of what the heroine will eventually discover is the dark side of her new home. Many among Jane Austen's legions of readers will be upset at the film taking such license with the novel because it imposes a controversial political issue onto the quintessentially domestic concerns of their favorite author. Those with a little historical and geographical knowledge will also find the scene outlandishly incongruent. Portsmouth is a harbor on the English Channel and, at the time, the transportation of slaves went by the "Middle Passage" that is, directly across the Atlantic Ocean from the Guinea Coast of Africa to the Americas. To be anywhere near the coast of England, a slave trader would have to be thousands of miles off course.

The scene is in the film because the literary critic Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism (1993) persuaded many readers that Mansfield Park and its author are deeply implicated in the question of both slavery and imperialism in the islands of the Caribbean, the location of the sugar plantations that funded some of England's grand estates, including that of the novel's title. Mansfield Park was published in 1814 and, according to Said, it was then the latest in a long line of literary products that had supported English imperial interests for the previous two-hundred years, that is, since the English Renaissance of the Elizabethan era. Said claims,

   Even a quick inventory reveals poets, philosophers, historians, dramatists,
   statesmen, novelists, travel writers, chroniclers, soldiers, and fabulists
   who prized, cared for, and traced these interests with continuing concern.

The British Empire effectively ended more than fifty years ago with the independence of India in 1947, an event that soon triggered a run of imitators. One might have thought that, at this distance, there would be little point in continuing the long and acrimonious argument between left and right over an empire that no longer exists, and even less point in seeking the high moral ground about its early accompaniments, such as the slave trade to the British West Indies that was ended by act of parliament nearly two-hundred years ago. The target of Said and other "postcolonial" critics who want to continue this debate, however, has shifted from England and its empire to the wider focus of Western culture. Hence the interest in censuring and doctoring the work of Jane Austen and her peers who produced the canon of Western literature. The British Empire might be dead, but postcolonial critics claim its culture of exploitation persists in the minds of those who have inherited it, especially in the United States. The imperialist imperative purportedly lives on today in an expansionist American foreign and economic policy, where it is validated by Western culture.

This argument, however, will become increasingly difficult to sustain once the findings of the new Oxford History of the British Empire work their way into the consciousness of those who shape opinion on these matters. All five volumes of a project that actually deserves that overworked term "monumental" have now been published.(1) The first two appeared in 1998 and the final three were released earlier this year. The work contains separate chapters by 150 authors, most of whom have impressive scholarly credentials for the tasks they undertake. And, as you would expect of an academic assembly of this size, a great many shades of opinion are represented.

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.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
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.

Cited article

Rewriting the History of the British Empire
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
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?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
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.

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.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?