- The Imperial History Wars: Debating the British Empire by Dane Kennedy
Dane Kennedy’s The Imperial History Wars: Debating the British Empire provides insightful and compelling analysis of the historiography on the British Empire, one of the most contested topics in the discipline of history. Far more than a simple overview, the book offers a fascinating and astute investigation of the culture of historical discussions about the British Empire and the ways in which they have evolved over the last half century. The introduction and chapters 5 and 6 are new pieces, whereas the others have been published previously. Regardless, they work well together as a stand-alone volume, representing the author’s impressively broad intellectual engagement with the field. The focus throughout is on the developments of the last three decades, when the study of the history of the British Empire, which had “long remained close to familiar shores,” once again rose to scholarly prominence (2). Chapter 1, originally written in 1996, offers a “critical reconnaissance” of postcolonial theory (9). In the 1980s, this intervention prompted a reenergizing of scholarly interest in imperialism, but also catalyzed a fierce debate over its focus on texts and its employment of approaches drawn from literary and cultural theory. Kennedy’s tone here is critical, but constructively so, reflecting the author’s view that, although postcolonial theory had much to offer historians at the time, there were elements that made its full incorporation into historical approaches problematic. Chief among these were a tendency to essentialize the West, a recourse to specialized and nigh-impenetrable jargon, the abstraction of the colonized “other” as an “undifferentiated, unknowable category,” and the misapprehension that textual analysis alone could serve as a pathway to liberation from the cultural and political oppression of the West (16). Kennedy, at the time, was more persuaded by the work of literary scholars such as Mary Louise Pratt and Patrick Brantlinger, whose attention to historical context and respect for historical evidence dovetailed nicely with historians’ traditional penchant for archival sources, concrete analysis, and chronological specificity.
The relationship between history and postcolonial theory is revisited in chapter 3, which was written initially in 2013. The tone here is very different, reflecting how dramatically the interaction between the two had changed in the interim. As Kennedy explains, by that time the attitude of many historians of empire toward postcolonialism had shifted “from suspicion and antagonism to tolerance and even fraternization” (39). The contemporary engagement between postcolonial studies and history is most evident in the study [End Page 659] of identities, geographies, and epistemologies. This chapter benefits from both hindsight and a much broader embrace of the varied influence that postcolonialism has exerted on the historical analysis of topics such as gender, race, ideology, and modernity. Though less overtly contentious, the chapter is hardly uncritical, and Kennedy takes postcolonial studies to task both for its “preoccupation with individual consciousness” (47) and its insistence that “subaltern peoples have been rendered invisible in the archives” (54).
Chapter 2 is another standout of the volume, offering a keen critique of the more traditional imperial historiography that guides The Oxford History of the British Empire (1998–99). Kennedy contrasts the approaches embodied in that book with the new imperial studies, more formally known in North America as the new imperial history. While the OHBE still operates in the longstanding empiricist tradition of Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher—reflecting their interest in “informal empire,” the “official mind,” and the role of politics on the periphery—new imperial studies/history takes a much broader and more interdisciplinary approach to the historical analysis of imperialism (29). The latter has embraced the influence of gender studies, postcolonial theory, subaltern studies, and cultural studies. Incorporating these approaches, those working in the field have engaged the reciprocal influence of empire on domestic affairs and deepened the historical understanding of the culture of imperialism. The greatest contrasts between the OHBE and the new imperial studies, Kennedy concludes, lie in their disagreement...