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  • The British Empire: Themes and Perspectives
  • Katherine Foxhall
The British Empire: Themes and Perspectives. Edited by Sarah Stockwell. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 355 pp. $35.00 (paper).

This highly successful collection of twelve essays provides a comprehensive and valuable overview of the historiographical themes and approaches to the history of the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Undergraduate students encountering the topic for the first time, postgraduates, and experts on modern and imperial British history alike will find this an invaluable resource for teaching and research.

Stockwell states that The British Empire is designed to serve as a "companion" to the "old" and "new" historiographies of the British Empire (p. xii). It succeeds, showing the extent to which constitutional, political, and economic histories can and should speak to issues of culture, gender, race, and discourse. The twelve historians who contribute to the volume come from very different viewpoints, and this combination of approaches and writing styles creates a well-balanced exploration of themes and "concepts" across a remarkably comprehensive geographical and chronological scope. The essays explain both the possibilities and problems of the empire itself, but also of the different historiographical approaches to empire. Throughout, the volume incorporates, rather than isolates, themes such as gender, race, business, religion, and migration.

The British Empire starts with a short preface and four useful maps that show the extent of the empire in 1830, 1900, 1930, and its "ends." Endnotes and a page suggesting further reading support the body of each of the twelve chapters. There is a substantial consolidated bibliography and index at the end of the volume.

The first chapter, by John Darwin, describes four broad manifestations of empire: settlement colonies, dependencies, India's "double government," and "informal" empire. The chapter provides a succinct chronological overview of British global expansion and introduces many themes that the following chapters take up.

Darwin's attention to the multiplicity of empire is taken up by Eliga H. Gould's examination of eighteenth-century legal foundations of nineteenth-century empire. Gould highlights how questions of rights, responsibilities, and imperial jurisdiction over settlers, colonists, and indigenous peoples were as valid in the North American colonies as they were in East India Company territories. This is not a progressive "grand narrative" of rights and liberties; Gould depicts a period of maritime and territorial lawlessness and an "unchecked liberty" that [End Page 293] continued to sanction slavery and colonists' confiscation of indigenous land.

Andrew Thompson's clearly structured chapter explores the relation of the state to the empire overseas and at home through fiscal-military, laissez-faire, professionalization, Whig-Imperial, and legislative themes. Thompson's chapter asks what it was about the domestic British state that propelled and compelled it to project its power abroad. To conclude, Thompson suggests the imperial roots of contemporary British racism and the challenges of a new "multicultural" state.

The fourth chapter, titled "Empire on the Move," encapsulates the strengths of this volume. Kent Fedorowich writes in a concise and coherent style, providing data on a variety of themes such as the private and philanthropic funding of migration within a chronological narrative. Fedorowich references key historiographical debates and geographical trends such as the Scottish, Irish, and New Zealander experiences of free and forced migration, placing these trends within European and American contexts of both empire and slavery, and supporting the chapter body with useful footnotes and suggestions for further reading.

Andrew Dilley's chapter, "Economics of Empire," swiftly moves through a history of imperial economic theory from Adam Smith to globalization. Dilley introduces questions of dependency and world-systems theory in an informative and engaging style, and his use of case studies such as forced labor in Rhodesia balances the focus on economic theory.

Elisabeth Elbourne's chapter questions what "religion" is and emphasizes the importance of differentiating between histories of institutions, emotions, beliefs, and ideas. She contrasts beliefs based on texts with the worldview of oral cultures, and highlights the problems of translating texts and beliefs between contexts and languages. Although Elbourne focuses on Christianity, the chapter ranges widely from missionary movements and imperial religious politics to African independent churches, prophetic movements in Xhosa societies, Chinese millenarianism...


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