- Settlers and Expatriates: Britons over the seas ed. by Robert Bickers
Settlers and Expatriates is a wide-ranging and useful addition to the Oxford History of the British Empire companion series. Building on a burgeoning scholarly interest in British migration, identity and imperialism, this volume traces the social and cultural trajectories of British communities “over the seas.” More specifically, it is concerned with the diverse experiences of those Britons who, according to Robert Bickers, “generally fall outside the major categories of research”—those “non-officials and unofficials” who moved to, between and within sites of “formal empire and informal influence” outside of the dominions (1–2).
Individual contributors consider a “cross-section” (2) of such communities, which might be placed somewhere along a spectrum from “settler” societies (made up of Britons who might have expected to stay in a place, and thus to establish a more permanent presence and distinct identity, though did not always) to “expatriate” societies (made up of Britons who might have expected to leave a place, and thus to maintain a stronger sense of connection with a distant “home,” though did not always). Organized geographically and focused on one site each, chapters move eastward from South America (Argentina) to Africa (Egypt, Kenya, Rhodesia and Natal) to Asia (India, Ceylon, Malaya and Shanghai). Elizabeth Buettner’s especially fine chapter examines the fraught “returns” of settlers and expatriates to Britain, while the book opens and closes with thought-provoking conceptual and historiographical discussions by Robert Bickers and John Darwin. While spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the volume takes particular interest in tracing the “afterlives” of these communities during and following processes of decolonization.
Individually and collectively, chapters look to interrogate the connected but locally specific ways in which migrant Britons navigated changing meanings of self, place, home, empire and community. While generally grappling with these shared issues, differences in approach seem to reflect the states of current scholarship on each location; David Rock’s chapter on Argentina, for example, reflects fruitful work in piecing together the very nature of British communities there, while David Washbrook’s chapter offers a rich discussion that distils an ever-growing scholarship on Britishness in India. Scholars and students concerned with specific sites should, in this sense, find the volume very helpful for background, historiographical context and analysis in different measures.
Taken as a whole, the structure of Settlers and Expatriates—with each place considered in careful detail—highlights the sheer diversity of experience, both within and between what were at least nominally British communities. This is perhaps best represented by the acknowledged difficulty in finding an adequate term to capture the subjects of this book: “settlers,” “expatriates,” “sojourners,” “colonists,” “migrants,” and ultimately the inclusive if baggy term “overseas Britons.” Even this fails to capture the complexity and fluidity of the subject, with Washbrook suggesting that “there was less a British community in India than there were multiple social arenas in which people who came (at some point) from the British Isles variously participated” (186). By examining the histories of “people who came (at some point) from the British Isles,” contributors take Britishness as a meaningful concept, but not an inevitable one. What emerges is the particular significance of local inflections, often deeply fragmented, contradictory and shifting, of “British” identities and experiences; as in the literature on empire and identity more generally, we see here the porousness, diversity and instability of this category as it was claimed and performed in place. At the same time, while the place-based organization of Settlers and Expatriates allows for this careful attention to local particularity, it also raises critical questions about the interconnectedness of the British imperial world. More specifically, while there is exciting possibility for a wide-ranging comparative and connective interrogation of Britishness, the geographical compartmentalization of the book can make it difficult to see this broader picture, while it also risks reifying what were mobile people and experiences by their very nature.
That said, one of the critical contributions of this volume is its attention to “settler” identities in such a...