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Reviewed by:
  • Understanding the British Empire
  • Aaron Windel
Understanding the British Empire. By Ronald Hyam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 576 pp. $116.00 (cloth); $40.97 (paper).

This volume brings together essays drawn from throughout the career of Cambridge University historian of the British Empire Ronald Hyam. The book’s title, Understanding the British Empire, suggests two meanings. As an intended capstone on almost sixty years of study in varied themes related to imperial history, the book admirably serves as an overview of the history of the British Empire. But these essays also offer readers glimpses of how Hyam has understood the field of British imperial history writing through its many methodological twists and turns over the past half century.

The volume includes eighteen essays, many of which were published previously as book chapters or as journal articles. Nearly all show the author’s preference for political history. Some are from the realm of high politics, as with chapters on Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts in which Hyam offers somewhat sympathetic views of the controversial statesmen. Other chapters find angles of vision on the imperial state from much further down, from the vantage point of minor officials. A great share of the research represented here comes from deep excavations of government documents that over Hyam’s career have yielded valuable clues into the dreams and perceived duties of empire builders and forgotten colonial servants alike.

There is more to this volume than political history. The essays range widely to offer insights on the history of British Christian missions abroad, to the question of whether economics was a constitutive factor behind the growth of the empire, and to the role of sexuality in British imperial policy and in the lives of members of the colonial service. While most of the essays work from the metropolitan center outward, some offer case studies drawn from locations in the empire itself. Chapters related to the history of Britain’s relationship with Africa are the most developed of these.

The author includes helpful reflections at the head of each chapter to put these in the context of their original publication and sometimes [End Page 714] to answer critics. Hyam’s work on sexuality in the 1980s was somewhat controversial then, and in his chapter preambles in a section titled “Sexuality,” he concedes some points to critics who contended that he focused too narrowly on the testimony of male imperialists. Critics aside, the chapter reprinted here on the official prohibition of concubinage in the empire in 1909 (by an order of the colonial secretary that Hyam publishes here for the first time as an appendix) remains a fascinating account of how sexual scandal could be a vector for debate and reform of colonial practice.

Other essays appear for the first time. One surveys the Colonial Office career of John Bennett, who, while not remembered in most histories of the end of the empire, was a constant dissenting voice in the Colonial Office. As early as 1947, and thus much earlier than most, Bennett was calling for rapid decolonization. Hyam assembles a composite of Bennett’s politics by reading the minutes and marginal notes found in Colonial Office records. Through the lens of Bennett’s career, Hyam is able to show how the internal machinery of imperial government was rife with class-based tensions and personal rivalries and how these could make a difference in which policies were promoted or abandoned.

The collection offers frequent glimpses of what Hyam views as wrong turns in recent interpretations of the history of the empire. The volume is peppered with what seem like parting shots at writers who have helped to take British imperial historiography first down a Marxist path and later through the linguistic turn. For instance, Hyam chastises the historical anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff for indulging the “speculations of Edward Said” in their work on missionaries in Africa (p. 183). In a new essay, “The Myth of ‘Gentlemanly Capitalism,’” Hyam takes aim at the influential economic argument proposed by P. J. Caine and A. G. Hopkins that the large landholders had forged an alliance with London merchants and bankers in the seventeenth century and thus...


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