The British Empire: Themes and Perspectives

Sarah E. Stockwell, Sarah Stockwell
Wiley, 2008 - 355 páginas
This volume adopts a distinctive thematic approach to the history of British imperialism from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. It brings together leading scholars of British imperial history: Tony Ballantyne, John Darwin, Andrew Dilley, Elizabeth Elbourne, Kent Fedorowich, Eliga Gould, Catherine Hall, Stephen Howe, Sarah Stockwell, Andrew Thompson, Stuart Ward, and Jon Wilson.

  • Each contributor offers a personal assessment of the topic at hand, and examines key interpretive debates among historians
  • Addresses many of the core issues that constitute a broad understanding of the British Empire, including the economics of the empire, the empire and religion, and imperial identities

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The first question which may spring to the mind of any reader of this collection is: is it necessary or useful? Given the appearance in the not too distant past of the Oxford History of the British Empire, together with its themed volumes, can another edited collection on the empire contribute anything new or revealing? The editor is sensitive to this problem, and justifies the collection by claiming that the Oxford themed volumes are defined narrowly, and the series as a whole a multi-volume enterprise which, by implication, is unwieldy. I do not find this argument terribly convincing, not least because it fails to identify what for me is the potential strength of the collection, namely, an ability to stand back from the empirical record to reflect on the worth of recent scholarship in this field, and the current standing of the debates to which they have contributed. Judged in these terms the collection is most certainly worthwhile.
In confronting the challenge, Stockwell has gathered a pleasing mix of established figures and scholars at earlier stages in their careers. And only another editor can appreciate the work which must have been invested in providing stylistic integrity to the collection. Most of the chapters were therefore a pleasure to read; some provided fresh insight into what readers would consider to be familiar territory. Many of the themes addressed will come as no surprise. Thus are included Andrew Thompson’s discussion of the British state, Stephen Howe on the ideology of empire, Tony Ballantyne on knowledge, and Catherine Hall on culture and identity. I wish to return to the choice of themes later, but before doing so express particular enjoyments which some contributors offer.
John Darwin’s discussion of Britain’s empires is exemplary. As a necessary corrective to the idea that the empire somehow comprised a coherent whole, Darwin highlights the ‘extraordinary range of constitutional, political, economic, and cultural relationships contained within Britain’s multiple imperial connections’ (p. 1). Thus within the empire were to be found dominions, ‘dependencies’, and the informal empire of influence rather than direct rule. Such a seemingly chaotic configuration was very remote from any suggestion of a systematic empire built according to a master plan. He proceeds to trace out the course of events which underpinned the confusion, drawing careful attention to the different phases of empire building, how individuals, companies and arms of the imperial state were involved in promoting imperial strategies, and the differential impact on changing relationships between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’. Little of the historic detail is new, but what Darwin does with particular skill is to bring the complex narrative of empire formation together – a task to which a collection of this nature is well suited.
The economics of empire is cogently examined by Andrew Dilley. Making the complexities of the topic surprisingly accessible, he surveys how a variety of thinkers from Adam Smith to Cain and Hopkins and their critics have viewed the putative role of economics in imperial expansion. In considering the consequences of this expansion, and using comparative experiences, Dilley gives solid accounts of the diffusionist and dependency models, before moving on to examine the vital but still neglected problem of the extent to which imperialism facilitated the transfer of wealth and promoted industrialization. Overall, what prevails is a sensibly cautious approach to overarching narratives and categorizations which tend to mask rather than shed light upon the economics of empire.
Finally, there is Jon Wilson’s chapter on agency, narrative and resistance. Perhaps the least conventional, but most welcome of the themes, this chapter opens up important debates on the voices, actions and powers of resistance of the colonized. The question of agency, Wilson claims, has been around for some time – it was evident, for example, in the work of progressive historians such as E. P. Thompson as they


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Empire and the British State
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Sarah Stockwell is senior lecturer in Imperial and Commonwealth History at King's College London. Her previous publications include The Business of Decolonization: British Business Strategies in the Gold Coast (2000) and Imperial Policy and Colonial Practice 1925-1945 (1996).

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