Innocents at Home

Posted by sepoy on November 24, 2004 · 6 mins read

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 √“ 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.


Aarjav | November 23, 2004

People who write theses and then go to find supporting evidence abound in CS too. Anyway, on a related note...I was discussing the role of the British in India with some friends a while back and some of them argued that without British colonisation, India would never have been a united country and would have continued to be a large number of backward warring kingdoms and without the English education system and English being made a major language, we would still have been disconnected from the world. I had two problems with this argument: 1) The British clearly took away a lot of the wealth - both as taxes and as looted gold, lost opportunities in business (textiles come to mind) etc. 2) The above argument is clearly in the realm of speculation, it is also possible we would have united on our own and possible there would have been one union like Europe instead of the uneasy India/Pakistan/Bangladesh. What are your thoughts on this? (So I can go back to them and say "My historian friend from U Chicago says..." :) ) Another united on a 'national' level was the revolt of 1857...was everyone just fighting the British together coz they were a common enemy and the mutiny presented a good opportunity or was there a real 'national' fervor? Sorry for the wordy comment :)

Sharon | November 23, 2004

I can only say to my British compatriots who somehow seem to feel personally affronted by the suggestion that our not-so-distant ancestors were racists and quite capable of exploiting those whom they considered 'beneath' them: get over it. Deal. And it's one thing to point out from time to time that imperialism was not through-and-through evil (in its aims or effects), but another to ignore evidence in efforts to make excuses for it. (I might add that I read _Orientalism_ as a MA student and (whatever its flaws) found it inspiring. So I'm obviously a traitor to my nation anyway.)

Caleb | November 23, 2004

Great post! Have you read Catherine Hall's Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867? It's another nail in the coffin you're building for Porter and company.

sepoy | November 23, 2004

Aarjav: Indian was "united" under the Mughals, under the Suris, under the Marathas. The Grand Trunk Road (Peshawer to Delhi) was build by Sher Shah Suri, a bit before the English. Administratively and, symbolically, Akbar ruled ALL of India. In the imperial case, such "unity" was achieved only after 1857 when the various Presidencies were subsumed (though, they continued as administrative units). The Uprising (i prefer that to revolt or rebellion) was localized around UP, Punjab, Northern borders. It was not coordinated enough to be considered a serious and united revolt. The accounts do suggest that not all the units that broke rank wanted the British out; some demanded better pay/treatment; some just wanted to desert. Still, it spread far and wide and took the Company almost two years to clean up. And, whatever Porter says, it created a immense backlash against the Company in London presses who demanded the heads of the executives for letting matters fall to this state. Sharon: I don't think imperisalism was evil through-and-through, either. And there is a good historical argument waiting to be made for it. But cherry-picking evidence ain't the way to do that. Caleb: Good call on the Hall! I had totally forgotten about that. Thanks, I will move that up to the post.

desesperanto | November 24, 2004

Administratively and, symbolically, Akbar ruled ALL of India. can you define "adminstratively"? my understanding is that akbar, like asoka, ruled the hindi belt and associated regions, but didn't get very far south. see map of the mughal empire at akbar's death. my understanding is that in the era of the british, the princely states or the french/port colonies were not under british admin rule, and it was the nationalist movement that brought india under one adminstrative rule (except the chopped bits). also, what is the relationship btw 1857 and the dismissal of bengalis as babus? i have heard various theories. The Uprising (i prefer that to revolt or rebellion) i prefer "late victorian holocaust" to "empire". j/k.

sepoy | November 26, 2004

desesperanto: By administratively, I mean that Mughal mansabdars were present in all conquered or affiliated courts in India. Even the southern kingdoms paid tribute to Akbar. The Mughals, in most cases, before Akbar were pleased with courtly presence (a prince from a kingdom would be "held" as a guest in the Mughal court). Akbar, though, embarked on a nice conquest of his own to bring more regions under his direct control. The notion of a united India is very easily found in Abu Fazl or Badayuni's histories or in the poetry from Akbar's court. Very similarly, the Company entered into treaties with most of the princely domains operating out of the three presidencies established in India. The french or portugese presence after 1757 was restricted to one or two port cities and dependent on continental policies of Britian. Under "Direct Rule" - after 1857 - the presidencies were dissolved under the Crown and more of the princely domains incorporated but the net effect was largely the same as before. And, I don't really know what you refer to in your babu - 1857 connection...

Bernard Porter | November 29, 2004

First rule of criticism: read what you're criticizing. Then I'll be glad - if you like, and if we both have the time - to discuss my book with you. (By e-mail, preferably.)

sepoy | November 29, 2004

I understand that, Prof. Porter, which is why this post is about Cannadine's review of your book and I state that I haven't read your book. I do plan on doing so and would be delighted to converse with you about it.

Indian | July 19, 2005

If the British did not arrive, India may not have been 'civilized', might not have 'united'or there might not have been 'English' schools. But NOBODY (including Indians) ask this question that how this would matter to foreign robbers anyway? India has 'fed' free meals throughout it's history including European, Arab, Mongol races. What is disgusting is that the British parliament and their monarchy did not apologize for their abominable acts of economic and social exploitation. -Indian