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  • Wider and Wider Still?: Racial Politics, Intra-Imperial Immigration and the Absence of an Impreial Citizenship in the British Empire
  • Daniel Gorman

In the introduction to Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, his recent foray into imperial history, David Cannadine advances the claim that, “the British Empire was at least as much (perhaps more?) about the replication of sameness and similarities originating from home as it was about the insistence on difference and dissimilarities originating from overseas.”1 Arguing that the empire constituted “a complex social hierarchy…a social organism,”2 Cannadine seeks to explain Britain’s imperium through the nexus of class. His attention to the essentially Burkeian nature of the empire is well-placed, and a valued corrective to a historiography whose attention to the tensions and conflicts of empire can leave the reader curious as to how the institution survived for three centuries. However, Cannadine overestimates the putative bonds which held together Britain and the dominions. It was not just the dependent colonies which constituted separate and distinct polities. The dominions, too, despite cultural allegiances to Britain3, and accounting for their inability to direct their own foreign relations, were by the end of the nineteenth century largely autonomous nations. The Imperial Conferences of the early twentieth century were marked by nothing if not the dominions’ stated desire not to stand alongside Britain in political federation, not to harmonize citizenship legislation. Bonds of sentiment did not stand the test of politics and burgeoning sovereignty. Indeed, the absence of any notion of imperial citizenship poses a challenge to the claim that the empire constituted a unified political or social whole. Ornamental ties were of undoubted significance in perpetuating British imperial ties. But they were also just that, ornaments. Colonial societies were not simply simulacra of Britain, nor, in Sir Charles Dilke’s oft-cited phrase, a “Greater Britain”5; their very antithesis to such positions explains the empire’s lack of concrete political and social unity. One means of explaining why notions of imperial citizenship failed to resonate throughout the empire is to examine the problems presented by intra-imperial immigration, a defining feature of the empire in the years before 1914.

Immigration issues are a particularly appropriate topic of study for historians of empire because they reveal attitudes and ideologies of citizenship, and help illustrate how imperialism was constituted, whom it impacted, and how it perpetuated itself. This article addresses the development of an ideal of imperial citizenship during the two decades preceding the First World War, and suggests that the ultimate failure to achieve this ideal was itself the most significant factor in maintaining imperial unity. Through the examination of select examples of intra-imperial immigration conflicts and citizenship laws to illustrate tensions between proponents of a “wider patriotism” and those of “colonial autonomy,” it is argued that Britons’ inability to create a consensual notion of imperial citizenship resulted in a sense of equilibrium, where the centralist imperatives of imperial decision-makers in Britain were balanced by the often independent actions of colonials. This equilibrium in part helped maintain imperial unity.

Historical discussion of imperial unity in the late-Victorian and Edwardian period has most often concentrated on burgeoning colonial nationalism, the emergence of imperial advocacy groups such as the Imperial Federation League or the Round Table, or initiatives to generate greater military and economic cooperation.6 While these factors were central to the development of empire, it is important to remember that none came to fruition in this era. Colonial nationalism was still being forged, while the campaigns for imperial federation, an imperial Zollverein, and a unified imperial navy all ended in failure. Rather than concentrating on these themes, which have received their due historical notice, the institution of citizenship, which was of course at the base of any discussion of imperial unity or cooperation, deserves closer scrutiny. The notion of imperial citizenship can provide historians with a partial map of the imperial mind of the pre-Great War period, offering insight into the political development of empire, as well as the vast discrepancies in the benefits and status of different classes of “citizens.”7

The term “citizen” was an ambiguous concept in the...

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