- The Borderlands of the British World
This review article seeks to explore the benefit that might result from bringing two hitherto separate theoretical frameworks into conversation with each other. These two frameworks are the British World and borderlands theory. The British World is a relatively new development in the historiography of the British Empire. The framework was conceived and developed over the course of a series of conferences held between 1998 and 2007 and the edited collections that these conferences produced.1 This approach took its cue from J.G.A. Pocock’s 1973 call for a “new British history” that would bring into closer propinquity the hitherto largely separate histories of the British Dominions and the wider British Empire. Thus the British World’s chief remit was to “bring the old Dominions back into the mainstream of imperial history and to examine their connections to the United Kingdom and with each other.”2 Borderlands theory initially began by examining those regions of interface between “Anglo” North America and Hispanic South America. It has since been adapted to any number of similar “borderlands” regions around the world and in world history. Through reviewing recent books that utilise these separate theoretical frameworks, this article will propose that the transposition of borderlands theory to the British World offers a means for redressing certain blind spots within the British World framework.
By and large, the British World framework has as its object of study the British sphere of influence created by the mass emigration of Britons to settler colonies like Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand in the approximate period of the 1850s to the 1940s. By bringing Britain and these Dominion colonies within the same frame of reference, British World studies has aimed to transcend the parochial and insular nationalist histories that have tended to dominate the historiographies of settler colonies like Australia and Canada. To this end, the British World framework is more concerned with exploring the networks and flows of people, goods and ideas that connected these various settler colonial spaces and places. As such, the British World framework fits within a broader field of scholarship which contends that the British Empire, ca. 1850s–1940s, was a precedent to the globalisation/transnationalism that is of such interest to scholars of contemporary society. Viewed in this way, the seeds of transnationalism are imperial rather than postcolonial.3
The adoption of such an explicitly transnational perspective fulfils a couple of functions. First, it sets the terms of reference beyond the parameters of the nation-state. As such, a settler colony like Australia is not viewed in terms of a nation-state-in-waiting, as has frequently been traditionally depicted in Australian historiography, but rather as one of many “nodes” dotted around the British World web. These nodes could operate as regional centres to their immediate hinterland or periphery while simultaneously occupying a peripheral status to other centres, the most obvious and dominant one being Britain.4 Furthermore, although a number of important administrative, commercial, humanitarian and bureaucratic networks had been established in the early nineteenth century,5 it was in the late nineteenth century that a whole new plethora of networks in these and other non-elite spheres (labour and itinerant workers’ networks; familial and community networks; various religious, educational and professional associations, even crime and prostitution networks) appeared. These networks were the concomitant of a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century...