Empire Week II: The E Word

in univerCity

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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