- Rediscovering the British Empire
Rediscovering the British Empire is a collection of essays based on a seminar at the University of Texas at Austin in 1996. Conference proceedings tend to have a fairly limited shelf life, and doubts might well be raised about the currency of a collection of papers that are more than six years old. But by and large these essays stand up reasonably well. They are a selection of well-researched, well-written pieces, each with something original to say about their respective areas of expertise.
The theme of the volume is ‘rediscovery’, but it is a theme that is stretched so thinly across such a wide range of sub-disciplines that it never really acquires any substantive meaning. The editor seems to concede this himself, noting that the theme ‘has been interpreted broadly to include new interpretations of problems thought to be solved, second looks at issues in light of recent historiography, and interpretations drawing on nontraditional sources of evidence such as literature’ (1). Leaving aside the question of whether ‘literature’ constitutes a ‘nontraditional’ source of historical evidence, this rendering of the ‘rediscovery’ theme seems very broad indeed, suggesting little more than the kind of activity that historians are routinely engaged in.
And this is borne out by the essays themselves. The selection is notably disparate (even by the standards of edited works), and the essays as a whole address few common issues or problems. The book starts out with a carefully crafted piece by Sara Sohmer tracing the evolution of discursive imperial power in the relatively neglected colony of Fiji. It then rolls on with a crunch of the gears to an essay by Richard Bradshaw on official Japanese attitudes to British imperialism in Africa - a piece which, from the opening sentence, locates its subject squarely within Japanese, rather the imperial historiography. The imperial dimensions are equally incidental in Theodore Vestal’s discussion of the British occupation of Ethiopia during the Second World War — again, a real gem for anyone wanting to understand the present-day plight of that beleaguered nation, but not something that seeks to challenge or alter our perspective on the British imperial experience in any fundamental way. Next comes a workmanlike essay by John Allgood on the failure of the Aden federation, which makes a useful contribution to the old chestnut of the ‘official mind’ of decolonization, followed by two pieces on ‘The Great Game’of empire in Asia by Mark Jacobsen and Peter John Brobst — the only two essays that really link up thematically. The former suggests that the Great Game intrigues between Britain and Russia were perpetuated into the interwar years in British military-strategic planning against a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The latter pushes the ‘Great Game’ paradigm into the Cold War era, based on the papers and writings of former servant of the Raj and leading British strategist, Olaf Caroe. Both essays seem primarily concerned with establishing the case for ‘continuity’ (a case which is generally well-made), and offer only limited commentary on how the ‘rediscovery of the Great Game’ might affect our historical understanding of British imperialism in Asia — indeed Brobst stresses a far more general theme, namely that ‘students wishing to comprehend modern politics should keep South Asia front and center’ (96). From here, the book takes another U-turn in the editor’s own contribution, which is an attempt to bring a reading of Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson into a dialogue with the work of Daniel Headrick and others on empire and technology. It is an intriguing exercise, but one which stands out very much on its own in this collection, particularly in contrast to the previous two chapters.
The book concludes with a highly readable polemic by Bruce Westrate on Lord Bentinck and the abolition of Sati. It is only here that the book really engages with the ‘rediscovery’ theme in terms of a self-conscious attempt to combine a critique of recent trends in imperial historiography with an attempt to suggest alternative ways of looking at familiar problems. Had it appeared in print...