The Scandal of Empire, by Nicholas B Dirks<br/>Victoria's Wars: the rise of empire, by Saul David<br/>Empire and Superempire, by Bernard Porter

Conquerors and criminals

Stephen Howe
Wednesday 01 April 2009 17:38

These are interesting times for historians of empire in both the positive and negative, Chinese-curse senses. The field has a new-found vigour and profile, on academic and popular levels. This renewed interest has some very obvious contemporary and political causes. At one level, it's driven by engagement with imperialism's legacies, and still more with its revival today. Historians' arguments, ostensibly about 19th-century Calcutta or Calabar, are "really" about 21st-century Fallujah or Ramallah.

Although there are also some more specifically intellectual roots to the revival of empire writing, these too have produced deep, sometimes bitter division. Historians of empire appear embroiled in a low-intensity civil war between exponents of a "new imperial history", often heavily influenced by postcolonial theory and by writers like Edward Said or Frantz Fanon, and those who, by default, must presumably be termed old imperial historians. The first camp sees the second as intellectually, if not politically, conservative - and as refusing to engage properly with colonial power and its continuing effects.

At worst, such arguments are reduced to a set of crude antitheses. Was empire, past and present, British or American, the central force in making the modern world, or more ephemeral? Was it driven by ideology and malevolent design or largely a contingent product of circumstance? Do its legacies play a central role in, say, Indian or British societies today, or a marginal one? Simplest and most unhelpful of all: was it a bad thing or a good one?

A little more productively, both historians and policy-makers are engaged in vigorous debate over the relevance to US global power of "lessons from history", whether the earlier history of the US itself, or older imperial systems. The British Empire is the favourite point of comparison. All three of these books address that debate: Dirks's and Porter's explicitly, David's seemingly as an afterthought - though actually he too is haunted throughout by what Benedict Anderson called "the spectre of comparisons".

Saul David is by some margin the youngest of the three authors, but he has written by far the most traditional book. Victoria's Wars is indeed the kind of popular, patriotic military history which has had ever-renewed appeal since the old Queen herself was around. It's a straightforward narrative of Britain's early-Victorian wars, from her accession in 1837 to Albert's death in 1861: the first Afghan war, two bloody conflicts with the Sikhs, the Crimea, the invasion of Burma, China's Opium wars, and the 1857 Indian revolt. David calls this last a "Mutiny", as he had done in a previous book and as the British themselves did at the time. Bernard Porter's comment is apt: it was "called that, rather than a rebellion, which is what it was, in order to diminish it".

Such issues of naming give a fair indication of David's stance. He's not uncritical of British imperial behaviour. When he comes to draw the obligatory parallels, he notes how Lords Melbourne and Palmerston lied to parliament about the reasons for invading Afghanistan in 1839. The real reason was regime change. And he's not entirely blind to British atrocities in colonial wars. Even Niall Ferguson, the most gung-ho apologist for Britain's imperial record among major historians, pays at least lip service to that theme.

But David's main emphasis is on the burdens, the dilemmas, and the sufferings of empire - not for the colonised, but for their conquerors. He wants to insist that governments in Britain rarely ordered or encouraged aggression, that by no means all Victoria's wars were unjustified, that empire brought benefits to the colonised, and that insofar as people in Britain supported it they did so because they thought it a philanthropic venture, preparing their subjects for civilisation and self-rule.

Nicholas Dirks is enraged - it's not too strong a word - by such stress on the imperialists' troubles and their good intentions. The Scandal of Empire is written in a tone of furious indignation: startlingly so for a book mainly, or ostensibly, about a half-forgotten 18th-century controversy over East India Company officials' corruption. Dirks feels such indignation should be obligatory for historians of empire: cool detachment is as inapt, even immoral, as when writing about the Holocaust or slavery. That's because the subject has such a hugely powerful present-day payoff.

Dirks says forcefully, indeed repetitively, that empire itself was the scandal, that British world power, wealth and, more, the very identities of Britain and of Europe were results of empire. As he asserts: "First Europe 'became' itself through imperial conquest; then it veiled its dependence on the world outside by legitimating" empire, ultimately as "at best nothing more than a burden and a terrible responsibility." All this is "the scandal that should not be allowed to repeat itself", either in interpretations of the past or present efforts "to appropriate this history for ... new forms of global domination".

Modern Britain was the product of its imperial power, but this realisation is, he says, "still strangely absent from both British national and imperial historiography". Power depended on repressing, then actively concealing all this, and thus historians are crucial political players. It's in an odd way flattering to historians of empire to accord them such importance, but surely exaggerated.

Dirks's picture of the current intellectual scene is of a stark and simple division: imperial historians who can never abandon their bad old ways on one side, postcolonial scholarship on the other. Indian historians like Tapan Raychaudhuri and Ranajit Guha had, long ago, made similar charges. Some Brits might, however unfairly, find such condemnations easier to take, or simply more effective, from an Indian than from an American. Less chauvinistically, the picture is just too simple to be convincing. There is a complex accounting to be done here, and the accounts are very far from settled.

Porter is alert to that complexity. His is the slightest of these three appraisals, and is marred by a rambling style and some careless mistakes. Dirks's and David's viewpoints clarify many issues involved in comparing Britain's past with America's present - in Dirks's case, aggressively so - but may not help much in resolving them. Porter's book, for all its many faults, offers a more nuanced, suitably ambivalent picture.

Stephen Howe is professor of the history of colonialism at Bristol University; his books include 'Ireland and Empire' (Oxford)

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