- Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past by Tony Ballantyne
Webs of Empire brings together a collection of intelligent and provocative essays by noted imperial historian Tony Ballantyne. As the title indicates, they all extend and develop an idea that has been at the heart of his work since the publication of Orientalism and Race: Aryanism and the British Empire in 2001. In describing this landmark work, he explains, he offered “a distinctive model for understanding the spatial organisation of empire.” In place of older hub-and-spoke models, which often privileged the imperial centre, he imagined a web, emphasizing the circulation and exchange of ideas crucial to the formation of empire between, and through, multiple colonial settings.
This innovative reimagining of the dynamics of empire building proved hugely influential, especially within the “new” imperial history, and the web idea has subsequently been deployed by scholars of other empires and different eras. Given its impact, then, a collection of Ballantyne’s [End Page 539] subsequent work is appropriate. But it is timely in another way. In a world now awash with networks and nodes—Ballantyne’s own reimagining of empire as a web came at the time of the rapid expansion of the World Wide Web and the subsequent dot-com boom—it is second nature to see the world as connected, and easier than ever to make plausible-seeming arguments for the importance or influence of those connections. However, as Ballantyne argues, the power of the web metaphor is dependent on very careful and specific research. The opening essay, “Race and the Webs of Empire,” not only explicates his central thesis but models the way its intricate threads must be traced.
However, with empire reimagined as filigree, historians must be attentive to which threads can bear real causative weight. Not all colonial connections may be as revealing as those examined in this collection. Indeed, the potential problem of superficiality appears, perhaps unconsciously, in Ballantyne’s writing, which repeatedly insists on the “profound,” “rich,” or “deep” importance of his chosen connections. A series of chapters that probe the role of the archive in forming, not simply recording, imperial history offers a more satisfying solution. Drawing on an extensive South Asian historiography, Ballantyne traces “the function of archives as nodes within the extensive knowledge-producing networks fashioned by empire-building.” This shift in emphasis gives new weight to otherwise lighter threads. With archives positioned as repositories of power, not just paper, the materials within them, and the trails they trace (however faint), become blueprints for the extension and maintenance of empire. The fundamental importance of this reconceptualization to the wider web thesis is compellingly explored in “Mr Peal’s Archive,” which charts Ballantyne’s own archival epiphany as he exhumes a forgotten nineteenth-century ethnographer from the dusty depths of the Polynesian Society’s files. Among these archives, he recovered not only Samuel Peal and his Indo-centric diffusionism but “a restless and seemingly ceaseless shuttling of paper” that, in spite of hub-and-spoke models, seemed to move freely across imperial sites and just as easily through the usual categories of imperial analysis.
Other chapters follow that ceaseless shuttling of paper across the imperial world. New Zealand is his locus of study, and many of the chapters worry away at specific issues in its historiography. But Ballantyne’s innovative approach to the connections between colonialism and knowledge creation, transmission, and storage is much more widely applicable. For example, words become implicated in the formation of settler “place,” not in the familiar form of land deeds but through the sociability created by newspapers, libraries, and improvement societies. Illiterate sealers and whalers (the historio graphical equivalent of Canada’s fur trappers) find themselves afloat on a sea of words, their working lives dictated not only by wind and weather but also by instructions, charts, and contracts [End Page 540] that brought far frontiers, their peoples, and their resources into the orbit of empire.
Ballantyne, then, spins empire’s power from the brittle sheets of paper, sepia ink...