restricted access Pairing Empires: Britain and the United States, 1857-1947
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Pairing Empires:
Britain and the United States, 1857–1947

The Kipling poem known by every good student of empire begins with a seasoned empire advising a nascent one:

Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed– Go bind your sons to exile To serve your captive’s need; To wait in heavy harness On fluttered folk and wild– Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half devil and half child. 1

The poem reads like an imperial recruitment drive, with its pretense of sacrifice (who’s wearing the harness?) alongside its invitation to administer, instruct, and build. Little wonder that the “white man’s burden” would become a catch phrase for paternalistic colonial rule in general and for British sway in particular.

But the occasion for Kipling’s poem was the United States’s colonial war in the Philippines, and the poem imagines colonization’s effects and its audience in ways totally unlike such classic documents of the Indian Empire as, for example, Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education.” Macaulay cares primarily about what effect a “single shelf of a good European library” 2 can have upon those whom David Malouf has labeled “British objects.” 3 His interest is confined, that is, to his subalterns in training. But in Kipling’s 1899 poem, squarely in the middle of the period explored by this special issue of the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, the implied audience, both for the act of colonization and for Kipling’s own poem, is radically different. The poem concludes:

Comes now, to search your manhood, Through all the thankless years, Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom, The judgment of your peers! 4

It is not “natives” here but peers who matter, Britons whose dear-bought wisdom allows them both to pave an imperial way and to judge America’s success in following it. Joseph Conrad’s exactly contemporaneous Lord Jim proposes a similar kind of evaluation in its prolonged debates about whether the central character possesses the internal fortitude to be “one of us.” 5 The careful eyeballing that Kipling here promises constitutes what academics will recognize as a peer review. America faces judgment based upon its ability to make its practices resemble those of Britain. Lord Jim must perform just as we would have performed in that situation to be “one of us”; so, too, the United States is expected to establish its resemblance to, even its identity with, the judges who promise to search (with chilly fingers) its manhood. It is not the colonized but the colonizer who is here practicing that mimicry that Fanon found buried at the heart of the colonial experience. 6

If even that old saw, “The White Man’s Burden,” turns out to be intimately concerned with the world of imperial comparison and the spaces between empires, the recent emergence of scholarship attentive to such topics, some it published here, is overdue and welcome. Divided up by area studies and language, the apparatus with which scholars approach imperialism tends to leave each empire freestanding. Too often, the dyad of metropole and colony overpowers analysis of how empires were entangled with each other in literary, imaginative, social, political, military, and economic interactions. 7 Participants in empire, from Kipling and those he inspired to his many opponents, knew better. Empires were rivals for territory and commerce; they formed diplomatic as well as cultural alliances; they traded and adapted models of rule; they imagined their own histories as empires and nonempires with templates borrowed from others. The “judgment” that colonial peers extended each other, along with their supports and threats, deserve a more intense scholarly scrutiny than they have generally received to date.

It was to this end that we organized the November 2000 conference “Pairing Empires: Britain and the United States, 1857–1947” at the Johns Hopkins University, from which these papers are drawn. The goals of the conference were open-ended: to ask both what might be gained by juxtaposing the British Empire and the United States within one analytic frame and to inquire what scholars working on imperial themes might learn from each other across traditional academic boundaries of both...