- The Trouble with Empire: Challenges to Modern British Imperialism by Antoinette Burton, and: How Empire Shaped Us ed. by Antoinette Burton and Dane Kennedy, and: British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn't by Bernard Porter
More than a few observers have discerned echoes of Britain's imperial past in the June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union. The sense that British greatness lay beyond constraining [End Page 257] alliances and continental entanglements seemed to feed on pleasantly hazy memories of maritime dominion. From this perspective, it is the history of empire—rather than, say, the history of fascism—which holds the key to making sense of ethno-nationalism in the present. Perhaps Brexit is what happens when the obsolete self-image of a people destined to rule collides with the twenty-first century reality of a multipolar world.
Or perhaps not. An isolationist, "Little England" tradition of nationalism, quite distinct from the imperialist kind, could explain Brexit just as well. So could rage at inequality, with Brussels standing in for London as a despised symbol of the cosmopolitan elite. On this view, recent events might not bode so well for the relevance of British imperial history after all. On the contrary: Brexit only underlines Britain's diminished role in the world, its retreat into insularity, and the transitory character of its onetime dominance. Why should the history of the British Empire matter at a time when Britain itself looks so small?
The essay collection How Empire Shaped Us approaches this question, obliquely, through the ingenious lens of historiography-as-autobiography. Seventeen scholars of British imperialism—mostly, although not exclusively, with academic positions in the United States and the United Kingdom—offer first-person narratives about the personal and professional circumstances that drew them into the field. The contributors are too chronologically dispersed to be described as a generation: the oldest was born in 1934, the youngest in 1984. Taken together, however, their stories document an intellectual movement that has transformed the place of empire in historical writing over the past half-century.
At the start of that period, historians of empire had to fight for their place at the disciplinary table. Mirroring the history of other Western countries, British history was overwhelmingly inward-looking—one might say insular—to the point that even the British Isles beyond England received little attention. Although the Macaulayite narrative of slowly dawning constitutional liberty no longer held much sway by the 1960s, the social history of heroic proletarian rebels which replaced it was scarcely more cosmopolitan. There were exceptions, of course; Eric Hobsbawm's Industry and Empire (1967) represented a pioneering attempt to link the advent of industrial capitalism at home with conquest overseas. As Thomas Metcalf observes in his contribution here, however, the shock of decolonization drove many historians in those years to seek continuities with the present in a domesticated past. The sudden collapse of empire, that is, made imperial history appear alien and anachronistic. The growing number of historians working on [End Page 258] Africa, Asia, and Latin America, meanwhile, discovered that government-funded programs in area studies were more interested in the glittering promise of "modernization" than in the creaky scaffolding of European rule.
What changed, by the end of the twentieth century, to prompt declarations of an "imperial turn"? For some, events demonstrated that the apparent demise of empire around 1960 was greatly exaggerated—and that decolonization was less a turning point than a long, messy, and indefinite process. Dane Kennedy, for instance, arrived in Rhodesia to carry out dissertation research in the late 1970s amid a vicious counterinsurgency waged by white settlers against African nationalists. John MacKenzie recalls working on the inaugural volume of his storied Studies in Imperialism series against the jingoistic backdrop of the Falklands...