Empires are visible most clearly on maps and in tables. In 1884, a tabulation of the British Empire found the following: It controlled nearly 10 million square miles of territory with 305 million inhabitants [35 million in Britain]; it had a yearly revenue of 203 million sterlings – with 1/4th coming from direct taxation; nearly a million soldiers – “300,000 are of the dark races and the remainder 700,000 soldiers being of the fair and dominant race”; it had 30,000 merchant navy ships manned by 270,000 sailors, thus having 49% of the carrying power of the world; it exported 241 million sterling worth of British produce, 65 million sterling worth of colonial produce and imported 413 million sterlings of produce; 46% of the world’s railway travel was done on British trains; it had one-fifth of the world’s telegraph lines and the majority of traffic [31 million messages each year]; it had 210,000 members in it’s police force [147,000 of which were in India]; there were 145,000 prisoners of the Empire [103,000 were Indian]; in the last hundred years, 7% [8.5 million] of its population had emigrated [5% to America]; there were 2.5 million kids in schools in Britain; one-third of the banking of the world was done in Britain; 39% of the world’s capital resided in Britain; the cumulative wealth of the British Empire counting “land, cattle, railways and public works, houses and furniture, merchandise, bullion, shipping, and sundries” amounted to 12,460 million sterling, making it the richest in the entire world1.
It was this empire, Bernard Porter provocatively claims in Absent-Minded Imperialists, that was “marginal” for most British people living inside Britain. Porter’s book is a direct response [and a much more effective one than Cannadine’s] to Edward Said and the generation of “code-breakers” looking for “hidden imperial signals” in the Victorian society. I am a historian, Porter says, and not a cultural theorists so I will look at the archives and see what it is that one can actually prove, and not “assume”, about the British Empire. In doing so, he seeks to render complex, what are for him, the two central categories of this discourse: Imperialism and the British.
Power, it appears to me, has always been in the hands of the elite. Policy, it follows, always got dictated whether by the King’s edict or the Parliament’s law. Masses, whether Indian or British, have never had a chance to play on the historical playground outside of the occasional game of Off With Their Heads. Cultures are diverse, belief systems are diverse, motivations differ, saturation of ideas vary, implementations of programs diverge. All these are self-evident declarations. Having said that, in balance, a historian is always making a case for one narrative over the other to render any given past. The question here is: Were the British an imperial society, in general? [of course, the words “British”, “imperial” and “society” need definations etc.] Sure, says Potter: “Of course they could all be said to be imperialists in a sense. Every one of them was complicit in the empire (as indeed were the workers). They tolerated it. There were no significant movements of protest at this time [late 19th to early 20th] against imperialism generally.” So what is the new here?
The study of Imperialism since Said, Porter believes, has become fashionable and trendy but it suffers from vague and over-generalized definitions of ’empire’, ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ all operating with the unhistorical assumption that there was a ‘national culture’ in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain. The first step, in his methodological framework, is to cut away all ancillary systems [exploration, translations, map-making, curry-eating or Dr. Watson’s adventures in Afghanistan] and concentrate on the central idea of Imperialism: “control or domination” over the dominion. Next, one has to take into account the range of “controls” exerted over a diverse geography by a specific “class” of people. The key argument of the book is the demonstration that the British society was straitified along class lines, leaving little or nothing to do about the empire to anyone outside of a thin segment of the upper-middle class. Porter sees no national culture to speak of during this time-period- rather ‘cultures’ distributed along the classes. The other classes did have knowledge of, and conception of, the empire but these were different kinds of undertandings – not the “domineering imperialism” that Porter is studying- and, thus, cannot be generalized onto the entire British society.
Porter is out to rehabilitate not just empire studies but the British themselves. He is tired of the broad stroke maligning of the British people. “One whole country does not rule another whole country. Each side contains its share of imperial masters and subjects”. As a “white, English, middle-class, male, and with rather old-fashioned left-wing proclivities” who grew up with “relative non-awareness of the empire”, he cannot identify with the Pom-bashing prevalent in the academy. By segmenting the knowledge of, engagement with, and control of the empire to a particularly powerful sub-class, Porter argues for the lack of culpability among the rest. Because – let’s not beat around the bush any longer – what we are really talking about here is ‘culpability’ [see his tiff with Ferguson in LRB: here, here and here]. He does not dispute that the Empire was a reality; that the Empire did terrible things [maybe, some good things?] but was this because the British society, at large, was sexist, racist, jingoist, missionary, and imperial? Postcolonial scholarship loves to lay into the Victorian mind for being all of those things. But, it also taints current British society: “This in fact may well be the empire’s major domestic legacy to post-imperial Britain, overshadowing all others: the reaction against it, the resultant constant apologizing for it, and the blaming it for everything”. Porter does not want to apologize for the Empire because the Empire was never there for the majority of the population in the late eighteenth to late nineteenth century Britain. What about the atrocities you ask? Porter disarmingly admits to all but suggests that careful historians should not be so indiscriminate in placing blame. The majority of the British people had no involvement with any of it. If racism, sexism, religious zeal existed it does not necessarily follow that imperialism was the root cause. In any case, it was all a “ruling-class imperialism”. And if the picture appears differently to those outside the colony, don’t despair, because everyone got played equally:
Absent-Minded Imperialists is, in effect, a historiographical critique of empire studies and an engagement with the public and private consumption of knowledge [or, lack of] about the empire created by the British state and the academy. The bulk of his argument, in this regard, rests on the curriculum of public and private schools and the work of historians during the Second British Empire. He finds that contrary to belief, there was no history or geography taught in public schools prior to 1880. The syllabi was entirely Greek and Roman classics. From 1880s to 1960s, he finds little evidence of imperial studies in schools or universities [this despite the lament of J. R. Seeley]. The textbooks did pick up discussions about the empire after 1880 but did so with a particularly anti-imperial outlook. Hardly one suitable to train generations of imperialists. The trend held across class-lines. The working-classes did not get the inculcation of patriotism that one expects to find. Instead they got examples of private virtue and dedication from history. It was only after 1900 that history became a routine subject, led largely due to public efforts of Imperial propagandists like the League of Empire. These were the early twentieth century history texts which created the geneologies of empire for popular memorialization. The inter-war period saw a new historiography of the empire emerge that white-washed [ahem] the British past. This historiography becomes problematic both for the British academy and the postcolonial one. There is much to appreciate in Porter’s handling of this historiography. I do not agree with his contention that the citizen or subject gets trained solely in the classroom but I do think that this history has not received the attention due to it.
My main objections concern Porter’s restrictive definition of ‘imperialism’ and his over-emphasis of ‘class’ to the detriment of ‘religion’ or ‘race’ or ‘civilizational’ factors. He does acknowledge that these areas would be problematic to some and he is willing to advance his argument. My complaint is that Porter goes into the other extreme in his effort to offer a corrective to Saidian-influenced cultural theorists. Where they see the hidden hand of imperialism in every Jane Austen line, he refuses to see it unless it comes with a bullet-pointed sub-heading ‘imperialism’:
“Whoever thought of the subcontinent, for example, in connection with ‘India Pale Ale’?” Whoever read India in the title?
“The mere fact that Britain ruled a particular market as a colony did not necessarily mean that she had only traded with it because it was a colony”. I am raking my brain but I cannot really come up with the scenario wherein Britain would NOT trade with a colony at all.
“The ‘Jingo Song’ implies imperialism – it refers to Britain’s ‘Road unto the East’ as a reason for resisting the ‘Russian Bear’; as do, for example, Fat Albert’s ‘We Mean to Keep Our Empire in East’ and Henry Rickard’s ‘Hats Off to the Empire’ from the same period, 1876-8. But such messages only appear at times of diplomatic excitement and crisis, and the ‘imperialism’ in them is clearly secondary to simple ‘John Bull’ boastfullness and Russophobia”. Did people stop singing the songs in times of diplomatic boredom and status quo? Did these songs disappear from cultures? How is John Bull boastfullness and Russophobia not imperialism? Is it not tied to nationalist jingoism? And doesn’t Porter use the lack of that as his argument against imperialism?
“Crusoe is perhaps the likeliest soil for empire-diggers, even that is ambivalent on the question…Contemporaries also could have inferred other morals from Crusoe, especially when presented to them in cheap, condensed and sensationalised ‘chapbook’ forms: the woodcut image of a naked Friday cowering before an imperious Crusoe that appeared on the covers of many of the latter might well have negated any more subtle messages.” Right. There you go.
“…Most working class newspapers content[ed] themselves with only token references to events in the colonies. How these struck their subscribers is difficult to say. A clue may be given by a later reader of working-class origins: ‘these were remote from our little sphere, and only affected us like stories in books'”. Stories being quite effective, in their own rights.
In essence, I am not convinced that Porter can separate racism or jingoism or exploration or translation so easily from Imperialism. I hope one can see from these almost-random quotes that Porter has had to do some strenous juggling. I can appreciate an asterisk next to the word but I cannot restrict Imperialism to Porter’s definition.
I will leave class aside for now. As to the question of race: Porter does acknowledge that he neglects it in large measure but states that the motivating factors behind racism did not necessarily need to be imperialism. I think that is a valid point but the application of racist ideology was imperialist. Latent or not, racism played an integral part in the formation of the empire narrative and however much of that narrative trickled down the class ladder, it brought the racism along with it. I could agree with Porter that an Earl would look at a Nawab with some amount of equality but I cannot agree that a london street sweeper would look at a bombay street vendor with any amount of equality. The language of poverty and dispossession is not quite that universal. Porter is largely silent in the matter of religion since he deems it outside the scope of his defined ‘imperialism’ – along with the curiosly discarded ‘map-making’ [I confess that I am at a loss for a snide comment to make here about Cyril Radcliffe and his “map-making”].
Despite my reservations about Porter over-shooting his target, I do believe that this is an important book on empires. It is clearly written and organized, though I would have really preferred footnotes over endnotes. It can easily serve as the starting point for a seminar on empires and I hope to make use of it myself – if given the opportunity. In conclusion, I can restate that Porter chooses to discard just as much evidence as he accuses the other camp of ignoring. He justifies his methodology by focusing on the semantic definitions of ‘imperialism’ but that is a three-card monte: “Everywhere we look we see the same phenomenon: the working classes sucking the sugar, then probably spitting the pill of imperial propoganda out” [emphasis in original]. There are a lot of probables, indeed.
For me, Porter’s imperialism is akin to a doughnut. Hollow in the middle and crushing the littoral colonies with it’s sugar-coated, white, fried dough.
1 Temple, Richard. “The General Statistics of the British Empire” in Journal of the Statistical Society of London. London, v. 47, n. 3, 1884, 468-484