Journal of World History 24.2 (2003) 264-269
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Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire. By David Cannadine. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2001. 264 pp. $25.00 (cloth); $15.00 (paper).
"Empire" is back on our minds, although one might counter that it never truly left. Scholars from nearly all fields are surfing the recent tide, riding it for as long as the waves last. Among those surfers is David Cannadine, perhaps the most recognized and prolific historian of modern Britain over the past decade or so. Books, essays, and reviews have carried his name and scholarship in a wide trajectory on both sides of the Atlantic. Never bashful and never reluctant to join the fray, Cannadine once again publicly throws down the gauntlet in Ornamentalism, a study about how the British elite saw their empire at its height, between the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58 and the Independence and Partition of British India nearly one hundred years later. In doing so, the author achieves his objective of addressing "the British Empire as social structure, and the British Empire as social perception" (p. xviii). The empire was the vehicle by which (some) British men and women extended overseas their vision of the nation's social structures and perceptions. With the qualifier, that is not an unreasonable conclusion.
Cannadine comes to the historical problem of the British Empire as a social and political historian of the metropole's middle and aristocratic classes, high culture, and invented traditions. He also comes, in his own words, as a member of "the last generation to whom the British Empire really meant something . . . that hung, by its finger ends, on the coat-tails of empire" (pp. 196, 199). Intending to put "the history of Britain back into the history of the empire, and the history of the empire back into the history of Britain" (p. xx), Cannadine argues that the British viewed their empire as an extension of their own aristocratic, feudal, hierarchical social structures and perceptions. Imperialism was about individual status and not collective race, knowing the outside world ("the other") by social analogy, not by racial difference. Cannadine is not finished—at least one more parry before retiring. Even at its zenith, his British Empire was not about and cannot be understood as a single, pervasive ideology or project. It comprised many [End Page 264] different ideologies and projects, if not a "ramshackle" affair (p. 198). Watch out Edward Said, Marxists, and all postcolonialists!
This atavistic "hierarchical-cum-imperial world" (p. 174) was generated in the metropole and made most visible in the empire-wide network of titles, medals, durbars, and often highly personal relationships. Cannadine provides anecdote after anecdote (often accompanied by clever illustrations) about the creation and spread of pseudo-feudal orders and neo-Gothic spectacles at home and abroad to celebrate this imperial great chain of being. We meet African chiefs, Indian princes, and Australian governors, all of whom are dressed up like toadying Christmas trees, but with, in reality, nowhere to go, glow, and strut but their own increasingly small stages. The monarchy and its representatives rest comfortably in the center of this diminished galaxy, suns connected by codependent gravity to all orbiting moons and planets. Not all moons and planets were equal in those heavens, but all were inferior to the imperial king-emperor or queen-empress on the basis of status, not race.
Cannadine thus "reorients" Said's "Orientalism" as the idea and practice of difference to argue that the British, or at least some of the British, knew and understood their vast and varied empire by social analogy. Rather than imperialism as "orientalism," or the system of racial distinction and power, it is imperialism as "ornamentalism," or the system of status similarity and authority. This might surprise not only scholars and students, but also many imperialists and anti-imperialists at the time and since. The author's efforts to erase or minimize differences between metropole and periphery, as well as those between settler and subject colonies—Australia and India, among others—...