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  • Debating Empire1
  • Tony Ballantyne

This special issue, dedicated to assessing David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, is part of the ongoing debate over British imperialism that engages scholars, activists, and various communities in many parts of the world. The sources, nature and legacies of British imperialism have been the subject of renewed interest over the last decade and the question of empire has come to occupy an increasingly central place in cultural and political life in this post-colonial moment. In their very different ways, settler colonies such as Canada, Zimbabwe and New Zealand have been grappling with questions of indigenous sovereignty and land rights, while the question of ‘native title’ sprung to the foreground of Australian politics after the landmark Mabo decision in 1992 (which transformed Australian legal and political culture by recognising the existence and persistence of Aboriginal land ownership). The legacies of colonialism have also been at the forefront of political life in South Africa following the dismantling of the apartheid regime, framing many of the histories of racial exclusion and violence produced by the 20,000 witnesses that testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In South Asia the role of British colonialism in engendering the region’s ‘underdevelopment,’ environmental degradation, and religious and ethnic conflict is the subject of constant debate in bazaars, newspaper editorials, and classrooms. The pressures of post-colonialism has also been felt in the United States of America where activists and scholars alike have increasingly drawn attention to that nation’s status as a settler colony and the centrality of imperialism, both formal and informal, in the making of American cultures and identity.

In Britain itself, many saw the transfer of power in Hong Kong in 1997 as marking the final act in the great drama of the rise and fall of the empire; but such a nostalgic view ignores the persistent legacies of British imperialism which are at the heart of ongoing debates over Northern Ireland, immigration, and the very nature of Britishness itself. During the 1990s the imperial past was increasingly scrutinised by scholars from a range of disciplines and studies of colonial discourse (enabled by Edward Said’s path-breaking Orientalism), imperial science and medicine, gender and sexuality, and popular culture jostled with the analytical staples of imperial history — high politics and economics. Partly as a result of this new interdisciplinary interest in empire, imperial history, a once moribund field that seemed near obsolescence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, has re-emerged as an important and rejuvenated academic field and even a topic of public concern. The publication of the five volumes of the Oxford History of the British Empire in 1999 and 2000 marked the culmination of this rebirth. Wm. Roger Louis, the editor-in-chief of the series, argued that shifting ideological currents meant that a reassessment of the British empire and its historiography was much needed:

The time [the mid 1990s] was ripe for a reappraisal. The ideological wars of the 1960s, the emotions raised by issues of nationalism and decolonization — all of these had diminished, and we were able to recruit historians of India and of Asia and of Africa as well as Britain to participate in the project. 2

Such an account of the significance of empire, which suggests that imperialism is of declining political importance and equates anti-colonialism with emotion, is disputed by several of the essays in this forum, but there is no doubt that the new Oxford History found wide academic and public support.

Jointly funded by the Rhodes Trust and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Oxford History was enabled by a huge (and continually expanding) body of research produced in dissertations, journal articles, edited collections and monographs. It also followed on the heels of other significant works of synthesis, most notably A.G. Hopkins and Peter Cain’s magisterial two volume study of the economics of empire, Dennis Judd’s Empire, P.J. Marshall’s The Cambridge illustrated history of the British Empire, the dictionaries of empire edited by Alan Palmer and James Olson and the historical atlases edited by Chris Bayly and Andrew Porter. 3 The Oxford History...