- The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall
The last few years have seen a flurry of books by scholars specializing, or dabbling, in comparative colonialism and imperialism. Timothy Parsons, a historian of colonial Africa, has thrown his hat into the ring with a straightforward and unnuanced thesis: empires are "unsustainable because their subjects find them intolerable," for imperial rule has "always meant denigration and exploitation." Parsons offers seven case studies of such empires "unbearable and eventually untenable": Roman Britain, Umayyad Spain, Spanish Peru, British India and Kenya, Napoleonic Italy, and, curiously, Nazi-occupied France (p.4).
Committed to presenting the experience of empire "from the bottom up," Parsons criticizes scholars and "imperial enthusiasts" who study empires from the top down and romanticize imperialism, celebrating its benefits while neglecting its detriments (pp. 4, 62). Parsons identifies four scholars who are guilty of this: journalist and diplomat Strobe Talbott, law professor Amy Chua, historian and international affairs professor Harold James, and economic historian (and Parsons's bête noire) Niall Ferguson. However, aside from Ferguson (and barely so with him), Parsons does not engage with their theses. He complains, too, about "conventional imperial histories" that "ignore the central role of [common] imperial subjects" (p. x). Presumably, these are works by respected scholars specializing in particular empires or comparative imperialism.
Given that subject peoples "must be the central focus of any true assessment of an empire or the feasibility of imperial adventures," surprisingly few of them are actually encountered in this work (p. 17). The book is largely a digest of newer secondary works on particular empires. The few primary sources Parsons does draw on rarely contain the voices of common imperial subjects, but are usually the accounts [End Page 416] of well-known writers from the conqueror's camp: for instance, Suetonius, Livy, and Tacitus, in the case of Roman Britain. For Spanish Peru, Parsons's main primary source is a work by a conquistador, Pedro Cieza de León. For Napoleonic Italy, the only primary work cited is the autobiography of the head of the imperial power himself: Napoleon. In the British Kenya chapter—Parsons's area of specialization—there are more primary sources, but only one by an African (Jomo Kenyatta). Finding the subaltern's voice admittedly is not easy, but not doing so greatly undermines Parsons's attempt at a "bottom up" analysis. When Parsons does occasionally quote the words of indigenous imperial subjects, such as the Kenyan Daniel Wambua Nguta and the Indian Rango Bapojee, he neglects to describe their class backgrounds (see pp. 1, 216). This is strange, given that the elite-commoner distinction is an important part of Parsons's exploration of societies under imperial rule. Bapojee, for example, was actually an elite Maharashtrian, not one of the exploited masses.
Parsons's choice of case studies is interesting, although idiosyncratic and somewhat restricted in scope, since all the case studies represent European-based empires, and four of seven deal with European territories. Still, Parsons draws novel and apt comparisons between conquerors' policies and subjects' responses across empires, making for an engaging read. He can also mix apples and oranges, however. To compare long-lasting or mature empires with ones that never emerged from the conquest phase—for example, the four-year Nazi imperium in France (during which German policies were shaped by the exigencies of a world war)—contributes little to our theoretical understanding of imperialism. Also, Parsons apparently employs a one-size-fits-all metric to gauge how much exploitation people are willing to bear before their condition becomes intolerable.
In terms of style, the book is a pleasure to read and void of academic jargon; however, Parsons's good writing should not lull readers into overlooking some serious inconsistencies between thesis and evidence. While the conquest phase of an empire can be brutal—as Parsons amply demonstrates—his case studies do not show that brutality and "unbearable" exploitation of...