Rewriting the History of the British Empire

By Windschuttle, Keith | New Criterion, May 2000 | Go to article overview
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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.

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