One thing I cannot appreciate is a historian (or journalist or whoever) who writes up a thesis than goes out in the wilderness looking for “evidence” – if it fits, it is in; if it doesn’t, just toss it and hope no one notices.
David Cannadine is a solid historian who wrote a book a few years ago called Ornamentalism. Cannadine was at Columbia while Said was holding court there and must have grown irked at the slander on good British character in Orientalism. One reason, I think, that Cannadine wrote his slender volume that suggested that the British weren’t racists, oh no, but were classists. Now, it is not easy to put class, front and center, in colonial historiography and to do that, Cannadine had to, basically, ignore a lot of history. Cannadine argued that the men who governed the British Empire from the 18th century through the decades after World War II approached the task of empire with class hierarchy in their blood. The members of the British imperial elite were far more comfortable with the indigenous nobility of the lands they controlled than they were with the greengrocers and industrial workers of modernizing Britain. But, such a theorization of colonialism ignores that the hierarchical class distinctions depended on particular racial and cultural understandings of the exotic East. Class distinctions do not explain the British fetishization of the “noble races” or the “warrior races”â why Bengalis were dismissed as “babus” and the Pathans praised as a “true martial race”. So, Cannadine had to downplay, or dismiss, all the evidence of anthropological surveys, census bureaucracy and countless narratives of English and Scottish administrators concerned, chiefly, with the racial make-up of the native, for his thesis.
Now, why would he do that? Because of the legion of South Asian and American scholars who, taking their cue from Said, have carried out a full-frontal attack on the once-glorious English Empire as a racist, exploitative entity. And someone has to defend the ole Union Jack against such attacks. Start singing Niall Fergusson’s empire hey / empire ho / empire was the way to go chant.
Add to this a new entry into the Empire Rehabilitation Studies by Bernard Porter called The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain [via Ed at Gnostical Turpitude]. David Cannadine reviews it quite amicably in the Times. Big Surprise. Let me try to recap here. Ferguson: Don’t blame us, the Empire was good. Cannadine: Don’t blame us, the Empire wasn’t racist. Porter: Don’t blame us, No one knew about the Empire!
Before the 1880s, he insists, only a tiny fraction of the nation’s population had any first-hand experience of empire, and they were mainly middle-class families with a dynastic commitment to service overseas who largely kept themselves to themselves and when they retired congregated in such places as Cheltenham and Tunbridge Wells. But the majority of the population, Porter argues, knew little of empire: it rarely made the political headlines, or featured prominently in art or novels or music, and most history textbooks just ignored it. Most Britons did not know where Gibraltar was, let alone Ceylon âˆšâ‰¥ or the Falklands.
Now, this is just silly people. I haven’t read Porter so I don’t know which evidence he chooses to ignore – but there is LOTS of it. The British people never knew about the Empire? Ever heard of the American colonies and the, uh, loss? What about the parliamentary and editorial fights picked by Lord Macaulay concerning Empire in late 1820s? Or his famous Minutes on Education from 1833? This was a very public affair with intense debate followed closely in op-ed pages. Oh heck! just look at the subaltern journal being serialized at the CM! Written and published in the 1840s in three different newspaper and, then, in a bonded volume. Vanity publishing? Don’t think so; there was serious demand by the public to “know” about life in the colonies. What about the Great Exhibition of 1851? With its floors of Chinese and Indian exhibits in the Crystal Palace. Guess, no one attended. Demand of news of the colony was a easy sell for dailies and evenings. The peak of such interest was the 1857 Uprising which generated immensely florid and gory accounts in penny novelizations of native barbarians raping and pillaging white Christian women. The “Masssacre of Kaunpur” alone demanded a harsh and severe backlash from the London public against the rebels. The famous images of rebels strung from trees or tied to the front of the cannons were just as much for consumption in London as lessons for the natives. The Raj came into effect because after 1857 John Company lost the PR campaign amidst the English – who demanded “Direct Rule”. The list goes on….
Anyways. Here is another take by Amardeep Singh who is less bothered by it all.
update: Caleb points out Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects: Metropole and the Colony in the British Imagination 1830-1867. Something Porter should have read, maybe. Also see, Matthew Edney’s Mapping an Empire : The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843. And, Mukherjee’s Crime and Empire: The Colony in Nineteenth-Century Fictions of Crime.