Legacies of Empire

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The second of the two Longman/History Today Prizewinning essays on the topic `Is distance lending enchantment to the view historians have of the British Empire and its legacies'.

The sun may finally have set, but as darkness falls the storytellers perpetuate the myths... With such anniversaries as the centenary of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and fifty years of Indian and Pakistani independence -- not to mention the handing over of Hong Kong -- it is hardly surprising that the past few years have seen a spate of published works about the British Empire. It is noticeable at first that most of the volumes published in this country and almost all of those intended for a popular readership are anglo-centric in nature. In a review of three books in History Today in August, 1996, for example, David Washbrook commented that even the text which followed Saidian analysis was anglo-centred. This is perhaps inevitable due to the availability of extant sources (and indeed, the further back in time one goes, the more likely the indigenous voice is to be lost); but clearly the story of empire will vary enormously depending on differing perspectives and experiences; and it would appear that most of the history which is more readily available -- and certainly that aimed at a wider readership -- is that from the perspective of the rulers and possibly their agents rather than the ruled.

Anglo-centricity is acceptable of course so long as the historian states his parameters and objectives at the outset so that we, the reader have some idea of what to expect. In his 1996 work Empire, for example, Denis Judd outlines his themes, the first of which is the impact empire had on British identity. Discussing the problems associated with this issue he goes on to say `We are perhaps on safer ground when we consider the imperial impact upon the constituent countries of the Empire'. However, this is surely equally contentious with the debate occasioned by such commentators as Walter Rodney on the effect slavery had on Africa and the historical speculations about how differently a region may have developed had it not been colonised. In evaluation of empire and its legacies, there can be no certainties beyond platitudes and one would hope that the invective of the 1960s and 1970s is no more seen as adequate in explaining empire today than the national self congratulatory paeons of the early years of this century. It is the task of the historian to be objective rather than use study to perpetuate convenient mythologies; it is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate that with the passage of time the British Empire and its legacies are largely in the process of reassessment where the old mythologies are being re-evaluated rather than rehashed; but that there is nevertheless a danger that these reassessments are not permeating effectively enough into popular histories.

Even if Ronald Hyam is overstating the case when he argues, specifically in relation to the nineteenth century, that, India apart, there was no such thing as the British Empire, merely `a rag bag of territorial bits and pieces, some remaindered remnants, some pre-empted luxury items, some cheap samples', the British Empire was nevertheless a fluid, changing and complex phenomenon and any comments on it as a whole throughout its history must necessarily seem simplistic. Hence John Keegan in his foreword to the Daily Telegraph's popular and mainly narrative publication on the British Empire; `Should the British be proud of the Empire they left behind? Of course they should. Should they be proud of their history as an imperial people? Of course they should.' It could be argued that such sentiments might be expected to be welcomed by the anticipated readership of such a publication: so here is a case of the historian perhaps reflecting the assumed biases of his audience. It may not be surprising, moreover, that the work in question begins with the celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee, in popular parlance the apogee of empire and British self-confidence; and yet even here there is no attempt to downplay the darker side of Britain in 1897, particularly the poverty and social deprivation and the threats to the continuation of its pre-eminent position as presaged for example by Kipling's famous lines `Lest we forget'. …