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  • The Oxford History of the British Empire Vol. IV The Twentieth Century
  • Angela Woollacott
The Oxford History of the British Empire Vol. IV The Twentieth Century Edited by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

This fourth volume in the now well-known new series The Oxford History of the British Empire grapples with the formidable task of encapsulating the empire from the time of its greatest reach through the upheavals of the twentieth century, particularly the global struggles of anti-colonial nationalisms, to its diminished form at century’s end. Covering a major part of modern world history, the volume inevitably impresses the reader with just how vast, ambitious and powerful an enterprise the British Empire has been. No reader is likely to ingest all 773 pages consecutively. Rather, scholars will find this a useful reference work, with its chronology of events, bibliographies after each essay, and with each of the thirty-one essays easily read alone.

In his various introductions to the volume, Wm. Roger Louis lays out its organization and what he sees as the main themes. While individual authors have defined the twentieth century differently, the book is organized with the worlds wars as chronological watersheds, with roughly the first half of the book arranged thematically and the second geographically. The main themes of the first half of the volume include “(1) the importance of Ireland in the unfolding history of the Empire and Commonwealth; (2) emigration patterns and the consequences for the British economy; (3) the Empire as a field of opportunity for women, and for the Scots, Welsh, and Irish as well as English; (4) missionary activity; (5) champions and critics of British imperialism; (6) British rule in India and Africa, and the idea of trusteeship; and (7) the defence of the Empire.” (12) This list of themes can hardly suggest the span of essays, which range from “The Metropolitan Economics of Empire” by D.K. Fieldhouse, to “The British Empire and the Great War, 1914–1918” by Robert Holland, to “Migrants and Settlers” by Stephen Constantine, and “Critics of Empire in Britain” by Nicholas Owen. The second half of the volume, following Keith Jeffery’s essay on the Second World War, and Roger Louis’s on “The Dissolution of the British Empire,” aims at broad geographical coverage around the central themes of nationalism and decolonization. The geographical areas that seem obvious, such as India (by Judith M. Brown), West Africa (by Toyin Falola and A.D. Roberts), and Southern Africa (by Shula Marks), are complemented by essays on the “informal empire.” The latter include an essay by Alan Knight on Latin America and one by Jurgen Osterhammel on China.

Historiographically, the volume is something of a hybrid, yet political and economic history clearly dominate, as do traditional forms of analysis and styles of writing. Cultural history is represented almost only by John W. Mackenzie’s essay “The Popular Culture of Empire in Britain,” which covers such topics as the 1924–25 Wembley Exhibition, the 1938 Glasgow Exhibition, the Empire Marketing Board, the BBC, school curricula, popular fiction, Empire Day, and cinema.

Feminist scholars will appreciate Rosalind O’Hanlon’s thoughtful essay on “Gender in the British Empire,” which is to be augmented by a further volume in the series, devoted to the topic of gender, to be edited by Philippa Levine. O’Hanlon’s essay looks at ways colonial regimes deployed issues of gender towards their own controlling ends, but simultaneously the ways in which colonized women used colonial economic and political structures to better their conditions. Productive and reproductive labour, especially in India and Africa, comprise her first main topic; she succinctly comments on how the capitalizing forces of colonialism impacted labour patterns and household economies. O’Hanlon describes women’s agency in finding survival strategies in the interstices of colonial economic changes. She considers as well colonial regimes’ interventions in cultural practices structured by gender, and the gendered dynamics shaping anti-colonial nationalist movements in India, Malaya, Tanganyika, and Zimbabwe. A further topic is gender as ideology and how it operated, particularly in India within the nationalist movement, and within religious groups. O’Hanlon...

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