Military Governors and Imperial Frontiers c. 1600-1800: A Study of Scotland and Empires

By A. Mackillop; Steve Murdoch | Go to book overview

FOREWORD

John M. MacKenzie

Nations imagine themselves through their histories. And the presentist orientation of such history ensures that, to subsequent generations, omissions are as significant as inclusions. The tradition of writing such national histories, often with a neo-Hegelian thrust embodying visions of a world order, has its origins in the nineteenth century. As a result, the histories of the major European nations also became, in effect, imperial histories. They were constituted of myths and memorials, key moments and images, all rendered coherent through the organising principle of progress. Most British histories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflect all these trends. And these committed histories filtered down through school texts, children's novels, and many other aspects of popular culture. In the major simplifications of such works, at both intellectual and popular levels, the disaggregation of home society, the stresses of its frontiers, the distinctive contributions of its ethnic constituents, and the instrumental and conflicting power of patronage networks had little place. It is only in comparatively recent times that these phenomena have become the subject of intensive study. This volume offers a good deal of detailed evidence for, and sophisticated analytical responses, to these hitherto largely hidden agendas.

A key myth of the older historical tradition, and the prime impulse to its simplification, was the myth of unity. According to European historical propaganda, other peoples were distinguished by their lack of unity, by their heterogeneity and inability to form nations on the Western model. In such ways did the British, for example, explain their rule in India to themselves. A united people was able to conquer a disunited one. This offered a historical explanation with a prime justification embedded within it. Looking out on a dangerously competitive world, the British could reflect upon other European states that had aspired to a unity matching their own. Only the French exhibited a centralised system embodying an alleged ethnic and cultural homogeneity which seemed to precede and even exceed their own. After the long era of Spanish and Portuguese decline, the

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