- The Cultural Construction of the British World ed. by Barry Crosbie and Mark Hampton
The editors of this volume stress its contribution to two themes that have informed much recent scholarship about the British imperial world. One [End Page 231] is the mutually constitutive relationship between metropolitan Britain and its overseas territories, often labeled the “new imperial history.” The other is the array of cultural networks that connected the British and other peoples, creating what some have characterized as a “British world.” Integral to both approaches is the notion of culture, which the editors employ in a loose and capacious fashion, identifying it with “leisure, family organization, ideologies, legal cultures, religion, and scientific practice” (2). The eleven chapters that follow address these and other topics in a variety of chronological and geographical contexts, as well as across a range of disciplinary perspectives.
Among the regions of the world that garner attention in the volume are the Caribbean, China, India, the Ottoman Empire, and West Africa. The chronological scope of the volume extends from the mid-eighteenth to the late twentieth century. Contributors approach their subjects from intellectual, legal, literary, economic, and other points of reference. Philippa Levine, whose chapter opens the volume, traces the connections between nakedness and primitiveness in British visual representations of non-Western peoples. Next comes the late Christopher Bayly’s intellectual genealogy of British radicals who were critical of British rule in India and sympathetic toward its subjects. The third chapter, Philip Harling’s study of debates about sugar duties, reveals the tension between free trade and free labor in the post-emancipation British West Indies.
The rest of the book is no less varied. Michelle Tusan examines the growth of British humanitarian diplomacy in the late Ottoman Empire. Martin Wiener compares the legal controversies provoked by two late Victorian officials, one in Trinidad and the other in Bengal. Crosbie traces the development of Irish religious and administrative networks in India. John Carroll discusses what the British residents of early nineteenth-century Canton thought of China and the Chinese. Hampton follows with an analysis of Hong Kong’s reputation as a haven for Victorian economic values no longer welcomed at home in the decades preceding its transfer to China. Christopher Hilliard traces the influence of the Cambridge literary critics Frank R. and Queenie D. Leavis on New Zealanders and other colonial scholars. Tillman Nechtman shows how the nabobs introduced Indian dress, foods, animals, and architectural styles to eighteenth-century Britain. Lastly, Bronwen Everill points to a parallel development in nineteenth-century Sierra Leone, where Afro-Victorians introduced British norms and practices.
There are a number of insightful, rewarding chapters in this volume; taken together, they give a good sampling of current trends in British imperial historiography. Although it is unreasonable to expect the contributions to mesh as seamlessly as the editors’ thematic framework promises, the individual chapters expose strains in that framework, especially when read in conjunction with one another. The question that arises is whether it is meaningful to characterize the “fluid, porous and mutually influencing sites” of cultural engagement that appear so richly abundant throughout the volume as a “British world” (5). In other words, [End Page 232] can the “pluralized nature of ‘British’ imperial culture” be characterized as a “culture” at all (11)? By placing British in scare quotes in the preceding sentence, the editors themselves seem to concede reservations about the premise that underlies the title of this volume.