Empire Week II: The E Word

I started the Empire Week thinking it would be a cool showcase for talking about Porter’s book but I have gotten seriously sidetracked. Some stuff at work and other things have intruded rather rudely. So, today’s entry is a tad late and also quite scatter-brained [who said I knew anything about empires?]. Before the week is over, I would have liked to talk a bit about conceptions of Empire in Middle East and South Asia. I think there are rather interesting variations that can inform the way we look at empires in general. Let’s hope I get that far.

From the Latin imperium came Empire and Imperialism, often used interchangeably and, as Bernard Porter contends, with a bit of stigma attached to them. The Left loves throwing the e-word around. Postcolonialists see one hidden in every jane austen novel. There is, also, the neo-Imperialism of America that keeps others up at night. Empire is a now a dirty word where it once was, and in living memory here, a proud one. Also while we are on the subject of words, let’s just list the other C-family: Civilization, Capitalism and Colonialism. From this petri dish of ideas and agents [ancient, medieval and modern] came the ascendancy of the West and the establishment of the greatest of modern empires: The British Empire.

The question before us is: What did it mean? That is, what did the British Empire mean from 1600 [when EIC was founded] to 1947 [when Britain left] ? What did it mean to the people at the center and to those in the colony? What did it mean to those with power and those subjected to that power? And from which particular world-views and self-views were these various understandings of empire emerging?

Empire means, according to the OED, An extensive territory (esp. an aggregate of many separate states) under the sway of an emperor or supreme ruler; also, an aggregate of subject territories ruled over by a sovereign state and refers, traditionally, to that Imperium sine fine. It gave two related sets of beliefs to the citizens/believers. One was about the territoriality of the Empire – a dominant ‘core’ that ruled over a conquered ‘periphery’. The other was the right of the Emperor to create and execute laws universally, i.e. absolute sovereignty. Here is a list of them. Empires cast their shadows in the future – e.g., Greeks to Romans, Byzantine and Sassanian to Umayyad, Abbasid to Mongol, Byzantine to Ottoman, Roman to British, British to American – as the each of the latter explicitly construct their mythology in the light of the former. The British claim to Rome being rather obvious.

The rat-race of conquest and colonialization between France and England had a lot to do with the ways Britian saw itself. At various points in the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, we find England [/Scotland] call its colonial administration as the Old Colonial System. By the 1690s the term gets phased out and specific references to “Empire” crop up in maps etc. It is not a complete process nor is it an uncontested one. For example, Edward Littleton, one of the largest landowning planters in Barbados, wrote a pamphlet titled, The groans of the plantations, or, A true account of their grievous and extreme sufferings by the heavy impositions upon sugar, and other hardships relating more particularly to the island of Barbados (1689) in which is one particular sales pitch for the British “Empire”:

To conclude, there needs no other Argument, That Empire may be raised sooner at Sea, than at Land, than by observing the Growth of the United Provinces…But England seems the Properer Seat for such an Empire; … The Monarchy is both fitted for Trade and Empire … and if the Subjects increase, The ships, Excise and Customs, which are the Strength and Revenue of the Kingdom, will in Proportion increase, which may be so Great in a short time, not only to preserve its Ancient Soveraignty over the Narrow Seas, but to extend its Dominions over all the Great Ocean: An Empire, not less glorious, and of a much larger Extent than either Alexander’s or Caesar’s

In earlier historiography, the period up to the American Revolution was called the First British Empire with its chief feature being mercantile self-interests tied to the power to enact laws in the colonies. This was followed by the high imperialism of the Second British Empire [1776-1918]. During this period, we get the representations of imperialism as crass exploitation, and the empire with the belligerent civilizational mission. By late nineteenth century, things were also getting a tad introspective. In 1880, at the height of the bombastic imperium, Cambridge historian J. R. Seeley’s The Expansion of England quizzically proclaimed: We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind. The anti-Imperialists surface around the late nineteenth century as well. The Boer War had a lot to do with that; see the Fabian Society or J. A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study].

The twentieth century dawned to find Britain internally and externally contested over its Empire and its Imperialism. I am fond of asserting that manifestations of colonialism in India were distinctly divergent from 1757-1956 and from Afghanistan to Bengal to Mysore. The other side of the equation is just as valid that ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’ were contested categories that were constantly negotiated within the metropole just as much as in the colony. What kind of historian would I be if I didn’t endorse complexity?

tomorrow-ish: Bernard Porter’s The Absent-Minded Imperialists: What the British really thought about the empire.

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5 thoughts on “Empire Week II: The E Word”

  1. On behalf of my abolitionists, I have to speak up and say that there were critics of empire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century too, even though they were still stuck in some of its discursive residues:

    E.g., Angelina Grimke, a Southern slaveholder turned Northern abolitionist, writing to Elizabeth Pease, a radical and wealthy Quaker living in Darlington, England, in 1839:

    “What a curse have Civilised nations invariably been to the barbarians among whom they have settled–what a hissing & a by-word must we be among the heathen! Look not only at India, but look at the World–Have we not always robbed the ignorant & the defenceless of whatever we wanted. In Africa we wanted men, so we organized a regular system of war, kidnapping, & plunder in order to get what we wanted–In South America we wanted gold & silver and precious stones–here too we resorted to violence & blood. In No. America we wanted land–and here we had recourse to extermination, fraud, persecution, force & fear–rooting up the Aborigines from the land of their fathers & casting them headlong into their graves, or driving them beyond the Rocky Mountains in the midst of cold & hunger, nakedness & disease & death–In Asia we wanted revenue–there heavy taxation was resorted to–and who can paint the horrors which have followed the Conq[u]eror’s [car?], wherever civilized man has set his foot upon the soil of the Savage, & planted the standard of his Christian sovereign.”

  2. Wow, this is shaping up to be a great series. Can’t wait for more. Although re: Porter, I think you’re just a little tease. I shall believe it when I see it.

  3. You are right to emphasize the extent to which all medieval, early modern, and modern empires in the West are haunted by the ghost of the Roman Empire. Rome was the touchstone for all imperial imaginings in the early modern period, and, to judge by the buzz of the last few years, seems pretty pertinent today.
    Other roots of empire: the relationship among kingship, empire, and papacy. A medieval European kingdom could be subject to another, greater lord, but an empire was subject to no one but God – and, natcherally, his vicar on earth, the pope. The Holy Roman Emperor and the papacy struggled throughout the eleventh and twelveth centuries over who should appoint bishops, with their considerable estates. There was more to the bad blood between emperor and pope than the turf war of the Investiture Controversy, though. The Emperor might have kings for vassals, but no Emperor was properly Emperor until the pope anointed him. Was this ceremony merely a confirmation of the imperial status, or a sign that the Empire was the gift of the Pope, a gift that could perhaps be revoked? Nor was this merely a medieval concern: when Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French, he was careful to arrange the ceremony to avoid any suggestion that the French Empire was the pope’s to grant. Pope Pius VII merely blessed the crown. Napoleon set it on his own head.
    So what does this have to do with the British Empire? England’s self-conception as an empire was shaped by fundamentally similar tensions between crown and pope. King John’s 1205-1213 dispute over the selection of the Archbishop of Canterbury caused the pope to place England under the interdict, which forbade all church services throughout the country. Fourteenth-century tensions with Rome led to various statues of praemunire , which forbid appeals to foreign rulers (and popes) for justice in a controversy with the king. Henry VIII’s rejection of papal authority was behind an early formal declaration that England was an empire:

    An act that the appeals in such cases as have been used to be pursued to the see of Rome shall not be from henceforth had nor used but within this realm. Where, by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and king having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same, unto whom a body politic, compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of spiritualty and temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience (he being also institute and furnished by the goodness and sufferance of Almighty God with plenary, whole, and entire power, pre-eminence, authority, prerogative, and jurisdiction to render and yield justice and final determination to all manner of folk residents or subjects within this his realm, in all causes, matters, debates, and contentions happening to occur, insurge, or begin within the limits thereof, without restraint or provocation to any foreign princes or potentates of the world … );
    Act in Restraint of Appeals (1533)

    And let’s not forget England’s neighbors to the north. The Declaration of Arbroath, one of the most stirring documents of national independence I’ve ever read, was an appeal for papal support in a struggle for “freedom” from English overlordship. To this day, Scotland’s greatest cathedrals have a crown-shaped spire in honor of a papal pronouncement that Scotland had a “crown imperial.” In medieval and early modern Britain, the pope could create an empire, but the possession of an empire nevertheless came signify the rejection of papal authority.

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