- Archives of Empire, Volume I: From the East India Company to the Suez Canal ed. by Mia Carter with Barbara Harlow
One imprecise but revealing indicator of the standing of a particular field of study in a discipline like English or History is whether it has generated the ubiquitous “reader,” a published collection of canonical works or primary sources selected by their editors for classroom use. Generations of undergraduates in English courses have lugged around densely packed Norton anthologies, which now range from the old standards on English and American literature to volumes on world literature, women’s literature, African American literature, theory and criticism, and more. Though the main texts assigned to students in history courses are more often books authored by historians, documents collections are widely used in the American, European, and world history surveys. With the increased interest in recent years in imperial and colonial studies, the appearance of “readers” for courses in this subject is hardly surprising. Now, however, we have a mammoth new contribution to the genre, a work of such oversized ambition that it requires special notice.
Archives of Empire is the work of an enterprising editorial duo, Barbara Harlow and Mia Carter, both professors of English at the University of Texas, Austin. It consists at present of two volumes, both over 800 pages in length, with two further volumes said to be forthcoming. The entire project is a much-expanded version of Harlow and Carter’s earlier collaboration, Imperialism and Orientalism: A Documentary Sourcebook (Blackwell, 1999). It retains the basic organizational structure of the previous work, with similar topic headings and introductions. Moreover, essentially all of the documents from relevant sections of the original publication reappear in the two volumes under review, and one can assume that the remainder will appear in the forthcoming volumes. What makes the current publication more than a revised edition of the earlier book—though rather less than the “significantly different” work the editors profess it to be (vol. 1, xix)—is the wealth of new source material that appears within its pages and contributes to its gargantuan size.
As the title of the first volume suggests, From the East India Company to the Suez Canal focuses on two subjects that are only tangentially related to one another. Most of its pages are devoted to India under Company rule, with chapters on the institutional foundations of British control, European notions of “Oriental despotism,” the Parliamentary impeachment of Warren Hastings, the struggle against Tipu Sultan, Orientalism as a Western discourse, the fascination with the thuggee (thagi) cult, the controversy over suttee (sati), and the Indian revolt of 1857. The latter third of the volume turns to the construction of and competition over the Suez Canal, with chapters on the opening of the canal, its creator Ferdinand de Lesseps, the geopolitical tensions arising from the canal’s existence, British intervention in Egypt and overthrow of Arabi Pasha, and travelers” accounts of Cairo and surrounding lands.
In the second volume, The Scramble for Africa, Harlow and Carter focus on British imperial involvement in Africa. There are chapters on the Berlin Conference of 1885, European views on Africans’ character as a “race” and capacity for self-government, the agendas of British missionaries and explorers, the West African experiences and observations of Frederick Lugard and Mary Kingsley, Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company, the death of General Gordon and its imperial ramifications, the debate surrounding the Anglo-Boer War, and the humanitarian campaign against forced labor in King Leopold’s Congo.
From this summary of contents, several general observations can be made about the parameters of the project and the aims of its editors. Their geographical focus is on Africa, India, and, to a lesser degree, the Middle East, rather than on those parts of the empire where British settler communities predominated, such as Canada and Australia. The temporal focus of the volumes is the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, not the earlier period associated with the...