- Responding to the Outside World
Existing—and, even more, increasing—knowledge of the outside world leads to pressure on the existing typologies and analyses by which information is understood, organized, and utilized. These books, though different in their subjects, are united in offering thoughtful accounts of this process. They also indicate the way in which the British empire became a framework for intellectual power-politics and cultural engagement. The empire was both the means of such interaction and its subject. Moreover, there were crucial sites and conjunctures. The loss of much of Britain’s North American holdings greatly changed the nature of its empire. The extent to which the overseas subjects of the Crown were of British (or at least European) descent, Protestant (or at least Christian), white, and granted a measure of self-government diminished; instead, the empire became increasingly inhabited by people of non-European descent who were not Christians, not white, and not consulted. This tendency increased during subsequent decades, notably as the British made major gains in South Asia in the 1790s–1820s, although, in turn, large-scale British migration to settler colonies in the nineteenth century, combined with the creation and spread of Dominion status as a form of self-government, altered that situation.
The loss of America joined with the developing British position in India to push issues of colonial governance to the fore in the 1780s. These issues were linked to disquiet about the nature and fate of the empire, and a strong sense of decline. The reception of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88) reflected this, as did the trial of Warren Hastings for corruption in India and George III’s support for moral rearmament in Britain. Gibbon’s work invited attention to the theme of imperial transience and decay; wealth, especially from India, was seen as a source of political corruption and pernicious, effeminate luxury. Although empire would come to be seen as a site and source of manliness in the High Victorian period, it was a source of anxiety a century earlier.
India was increasingly the pivot of much British imperial activity, and was also highly important to the changing conception of empire. Intellectual and cultural life was also affected, notably because William Jones’s retrieval of Sanskrit texts and reconstruction of India’s past helped introduce a significant oriental strand to the development of Romanticism.
The gain of an Indian-based oriental empire beginning in the 1750s encouraged comparison with imperial Rome—like the latter, though unlike Britain’s North American empire, the new British empire in India had no ethnic underpinning and was clearly imperial. Comparisons also drew upon the Greek construction of barbarian inferiority and oriental despotism—the Hellenistic period, “when civilized empires ruled over inferior Orientals”—in contrast to Roman imperialism. Writers in the tradition of civic humanism, as well as later Romantic writers including [End Page 319] Byron, Shelley, and de Quincey, searched for points of reference for discussing and resonating their anxieties about the effects of empire upon metropolitan culture; imperial Rome was an obvious parallel.
The excellent series of essays in Mark Bradley’s volume, based on a 2005 conference, locates the continuing relationship between the classics and imperialism over the last three centuries; the earlier situation is not covered. For readers of this journal, there is one essay that is particularly significant, Kostas Vlassopoulos’s “Imperial Encounters: Discourses on Empire and the Uses of Ancient History during the Eighteenth Century.” Focusing on the writings of intellectuals, rather than the works of government, Vlassopoulos discusses how Enlightenment thinkers argued that modern European states, by combining naval empire, commerce, and representation, could avoid the fate of the Roman empire.
That, of course, was not possible in India, and Michael Franklin probes the often disconcerting process by which the British responded to its cultural heritage. Having made his reputation translating Persian works in...