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. …

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