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"England Swings Like a Pendulum Do?...." Africanist Reflections on Cannadine's Retro-Empire
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“England Swings Like a Pendulum Do?....” 1 Africanist Reflections on Cannadine’s Retro-Empire

We owe most of what we know about the connections between class and race to scholars whose primary research interests are in “Third World” studies. To better understand the disparate and divisive visions of empire that battled for hegemony on the colonial ground, literary critics, historians, and historically minded anthropologists have been increasingly drawn on to European historiographical terrain. 2

Susan Thorne

The success of African historians in showing the importance and integrity of Africa’s history now allows a return to questions about colonial regimes that acknowledges their complexity and contradiction. But the pendulum should not — and indeed cannot — swing back, for colonial thinking and policies can neither be considered determinant nor independent of the agency of their erstwhile subjects. European policy is as much a response to African initiatives as African “resistance” or “adaptation” is a response to colonial interventions. 3

Frederick Cooper

Let me begin these brief reflections with some true confessions. I am not and have never been an historian of the British empire and I readily admit to not having the expertise to situate David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism within a specific historiographical trajectory when it comes to British history or the history of the British empire. My training, my research and my expertise are in African history and, as Fred Cooper and others have pointed out, we African historians have spent a great deal of time making sure to “distinguish ourselves from an earlier tradition of ‘imperial’ history and to show how focused on Africa” we are. 4 This has been the case for a very long time: from the emergence of African history as a recognized discipline in the western academy in the 1950s, through the nationalist historiography of the 60s, to the dependency/underdevelopment approaches of the 70s and on through the burgeoning of social history in the 1980s and its focus on the daily lives of ordinary folks.

But the winds of change started blowing in the late 1980s. Africanist historians like Fred Cooper and anthropologists like Jean and John Comaroff began to insist that empire, that the colonial, could not be taken for granted as the tabula rasa upon which African historical subjectivities were written. Empire needed to be complicated, interrogated, problematized and historicized. In short, it was time for African historians to engage empire, to talk empire, to bring their work into direct conversation with historians of Europe and of European imperial projects from the firm foundation of African history. And in the past several years, many have taken up this call and our discipline is all the richer for it. 5

David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism, quite simply, reads as an admonition to this new, burgeoning scholarship: the conversation is now over; this is our empire and we will imagine it as we will. It is aimed at forcing Cooper’s proverbial pendulum back to the time when the empire didn’t talk back, when “the Bantu” were “a tribe,” 6 when men were men, white was white, and gender was something that French nouns unfortunately had. There is a nostalgia for empire and for the old imperial history in Cannadine’s work that is unmistakable and unapologetic. It is a call for looking at “status” and “hierarchy” from the center outward to the margins of empire, as if such concepts had not been complicated by decades of rich historical investigations both in Britain and beyond into the national and transnational dynamics of race and gender. Cannadine’s is not a rewriting of history; it is an un-writing.

Would any deny that medals and orders of chivalry, or plumes, pomp and pageantry did not constitute some of the outer trappings of empire? Surely not. Nor would any refute the notion that “social ranking,” as Cannadine vaguely and alternatively terms “status” and “class,” shaped how Britons, particularly those directly involved in colonial projects, viewed and sought to construct the “extra-metropolitan” world. But should we take these imaginings, these profoundly ahistorical, static myths of empire and reinscribe them as metanarrative, as history, even when Cannadine himself admits that there “was a substantial element of...