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  • Greater Britain and the Imperial OutpostThe Australasian Origins of The Riddle of the Sands (1903)
  • Philip Steer (bio)

Winner of the 2008 Hamilton Prize

The relations between Great Britain and its settler colonies during the Victorian period are drawing renewed attention from historians of imperialism. J.G.A. Pocock first argued in the 1970s that the history of Britain was inseparable from its relations with what he would later term the "neo-Britains"1 but as Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich have outlined in a recent review article, only now is the writing of that history "in progress" (3).2 To a large extent, writing such a history involves recovering a specifically Victorian form of imperialism first named by C.W. Dilke in the title of his travelogue, Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries During 1866 and 1867 (1868). To assist his British readers in comprehending the vast scope of the empire and the sources of its cohesiveness, he invoked the concept of "Greater Britain" to emphasize the transnational homogeneity of its language and institutions: "I followed England round the world: everywhere I was in English-speaking, or in English-governed lands. If I remarked that climate, soil, manners of life, that mixture with other peoples had modified the blood, I saw, too, that in essentials the race was always one" (7). While Dilke included America and India in his narrative, the definition of Greater Britain was soon narrowed by J.R. Seeley in The Expansion of England (1883). Seeley's analysis of imperial history was underpinned by the careful differentiation between two modes of imperialism exemplified by India and the settler colonies:

The colonies and India are in opposite extremes. Whatever political maxims are most applicable to the one, are most inapplicable to the other. In the colonies everything is brand new. There you have the most progressive race put into circumstances most favourable to progress. They have no past and an unbounded future. Government and institutions are all ultra-English. All is liberty, industry, invention, innovation, and as yet tranquility .... India is all past and, I may almost say, no future.

(140-41) [End Page 79]

Seeley's racialized distinction between governing the population of India and settling the supposedly unoccupied lands of the colonies was vigorously taken up in the last decades of the century by writers and politicians who found in Greater Britain—that is, Britain and its settler colonies—the possibilities for an imperial political federation and a unified imperial defence strategy.3

Although historians have begun to recognize and respond to the widespread currency of the notion of Greater Britain during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, literary scholarship shows little evidence of a similar shift. Critics of Victorian literature have, in Seeley's terms, focused on "India" to the exclusion of "the colonies" largely because of the analytic models they depend upon. Informed by Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), the discussions of imperialism that moved to centre field during the1980s defined the relationship between the metropolis and its colonial peripheries primarily in terms of racial difference.4 Yet attending to Greater Britain requires diversifying the language and models used to discuss imperialism's role within Victorian literature precisely because of the racial homogeneity that was perceived to exist between the settler population and Britain itself.5 The perceived homogeneity of Greater Britain meant that ideologies and literary forms not only radiated out from the metropolitan centre to the settler colonial periphery but also were able to circulate between these sites and be modified in the process. In addition to materially enriching Victorian Britain and providing fodder for its internal debates, in certain cases, writing in the colonies by the colonists, influenced by local conditions, proved able to alter the very terms of those debates.

In support of these claims, I wish to demonstrate that attending to Greater Britain significantly modifies the genealogy of the invasion novel advanced by Thomas Richards in The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (1993). Informed by Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari, Richards claims that late-century literature proliferated the fantasy of an archive that could unite all knowledge in the...


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