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  • The Absent-Minded Imperialists: What the British Really Thought About Empire
  • Antoinette Burton (bio)
The Absent-Minded Imperialists: What the British Really Thought About Empire, by Bernard Porter; pp. xxii + 475. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, £25.00, $35.00.

This is by turns an astonishing, puzzling, and disappointing book. Bernard Porter sets out to challenge the presumptive claims of the "new imperial history"—namely, that empire [End Page 626] was everywhere at home in Britain and that Britons from the early Victorians through their post-World War II descendants were as conscious as they were supportive of imperialism. Readers of Victorian Studies will recognize this effort from his recent salvo in these pages, "'Empire, What Empire?' Or, Why 80% of Early- and Mid-Victorians Were Deliberately Kept in Ignorance of It." There, Porter took direct aim at those "theorists" who have, in his view, conspired to produce an utterly false and thoroughly distorted vision about the true impact of imperialism on domestic society. The Absent-Minded Imperialists is a book-length version of this position, which, to borrow from the language of contemporary geopolitics, amounts to a rather unsophisticated argument about plausible deniability. Rich in evidence but weak in interpretive power, Porter does little to advance the debate about what role empire had in shaping metropolitan culture, even as he materializes a wide-ranging empirical base for students genuinely interested in pursuing the kinds of questions raised by that debate.

There is, from the start, not much that inspires confidence in Porter's methodological approach. His definition of imperialism meanders for several pages, resulting in vague generalizations about territorial expansion, "enslavement," and the frankly incredible observation that the tendency toward domination is "as old as Adam" (11). His tack throughout the text is to select a subtheme—representations of empire in school books, for example—and rehearse all the ways in which references to imperialism were statistically minimal, ideologically marginal, and therefore historically insignificant. Inevitably, the examples he uses produce evidence for the very case he wants to deny, and time and time again he is forced to explain them away as exceptions that prove the rule. More than anything else, the catalogue approach that structures the entire book lays bare the methodological limitations of the kind of percentage history Porter advocates. What do we know about Victorian history when we learn that, say, five out of twenty-five English history books cited India or Australia between 1850 and 1875? What do we gain by conceding that if images of and engagements with empire are not either "ubiquitous" (that is, quantifiable in proportions that satisfy some statistical standard) or "perfervid" enough (presumably, offensive to modern sensibilities) for Porter's own highly idiosyncratic taste, then empire had no impact? Porter's quest for precision in such matters is distinctly at odds with his inclination to make generalizations of the kind that would make a graduate student blush. Elites, for example, "preferred not to share the empire" with the working classes "if it meant sharing other things, like 'citizenship' and 'national identity,' as well" (225); "most geography schoolbooks from this period made a conscious be non-racist" (76); for "most Britons," empire "was entirely outside their experience and even knowledge" (37); and "the effect of the empire on women imperialists have 'unsexed' them" (289), to give some variegated examples. One cannot help but ask how (and why) readers at Oxford University Press allowed such a plethora of overblown and unsubstantiated statements to pass—especially in a work that calls attention to the failure of other historians of imperial culture to corroborate their claims about empire's constitutive character. Even when Porter concedes empire's impact, which he sporadically does, he attaches so many qualifiers to his conclusions that it is impossible even for him, let alone us, to evaluate their validity. Having suggested persuasively that many modern metropolitan policing techniques were drawn from colonial examples and experiences, for example, he ends up dismissing the importance of this reverse flow as "questionable" at best (294). [End Page 627]

This is not a study completely without merit. Porter's suggestion that the 1880s marks...


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