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Reviewed by:
  • Rediscovering the British World
  • Elizabeth Jane Errington
Phillip Buckner and R. Douglas Frances, editors. Rediscovering the British World. University of Calgary Press 2005. 446. $54.95

Catherine Hall declares at the beginning of her article that exploring what it meant to be British in the nineteenth-century British world is a bit like opening Pandora's box. Rediscovering the British World certainly illustrates her point and makes it clear that this was not just a nineteenth-century phenomenon. Each of the nineteen essays in this collection pursues its own quite different line of inquiry and approaches its topic from a different vantage point. In the end, it is clear that what it meant to be British in this British world varied significantly, depending on whom one asked, when, where, and under what circumstances.

Rediscovering the British World is a selection of a few of the conference papers delivered at the third British World Conference held in Calgary in 2003. As the editors explain in their introduction, it was difficult [End Page 259] to decide what to include. Most of the 120 papers given at the conference had, in some way, centred on the broad theme – to bring what used to be considered the dominions back into the mainstream of imperial history. Organizers had also, however, encouraged participants to explore the complexities and contingent nature of the British world and to consider, among other things, issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and the place of minorities. This volume brings together five of the keynote addresses and an eclectic mix of articles that range from Wendy Webster's 'Imperial Identity on Radio and Film, 1939–1945' to Paul Pickering's 'The Campaign against Convict Transportation in Australia.'

It is impossible to do justice to each of the essays in a short review. Some of the highlights include Catherine Hall's exploration of the complexities of identity, as seen from the colonies (the West Indies) and the metropole (as understood by Thomas Macaulay), and James Belich's sweeping analysis of the extraordinary British migrations of the nineteenth century and his persuasive explanation of 'how and why WASPS swarmed.' A number of the articles consider how war shaped and reshaped personal, national, and imperial identities; many are explicitly comparative and remind us that the colonies were not just spokes on a wheel but linked by intricate networks of assumptions, ideas, and peoples. A few, including selections by Adele Perry, Satadru Sen, and Elizabeth Elbourne show how being British was not reserved for white Anglo-Saxon males, although as Douglas Lorrimer argues, for many at home, race was an important signifier.

The British world presented in this volume is certainly diverse and contested. It is also definitely 'modern' and an integral part of what used to be considered the second empire. But Rediscovering the British World is much more than a repackaging of traditional imperial history. Many of the articles here consider the complex and often rather ethereal networks that enabled and sustained the British world over time and space. They also explore the creation and reassertion of multiple identities. I do wonder if it would not have been more appropriate to order the essays by broad themes instead of a rough chronological order. And, for this reviewer, Stuart Macintyre's 'History Wars in the Settler Societies,' which highlights how differing assumptions about what it meant to be British continue to resonate today, would have made a more suitable conclusion and bookend to Catherine Hall's opener. Rediscovering the British World is nonetheless a valuable addition to the literature. Many imperial, colonial, and even national historians will find at least one article that elucidates or challenges their view of the Anglo world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of the articles here will also force us to rethink our own understandings of history and the primacy of national borders. It is clear, as Macintyre concludes, that 'our own academic exploration of the British World is [End Page 260] no idle enterprise, and I hope we will not shirk the challenge.'

Elizabeth Jane Errington
Department of History, Royal Military College of Canada


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