- Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume V: Historiography
At some 731 pages long, the fifth volume of the Oxford History of the British Empire embodies the ambivalences and conflicts that are at the heart of the study of the imperial past. By turns stolid, lively, and polemical, this volume is simultaneously an uneasy tribute to the long history of writing on the empire, an uneven effort to survey the contemporary academic terrain, and an attempt to define a course for the future for imperial history in the wake of the ‘cultural turn’ and the rise of post-colonial criticism.
The organizational structure of the volume delimits the spatial, temporal, and thematic focus of each of the forty-one essays (including Wm. Roger Louis’s introduction). These chapters are organized along three basic lines. Three essays map the broad terrain of empire. P.J. Marshall surveys the historiography of the ‘First empire’ (to 1783) and C.A. Bayly the ‘Second’ (1783–1860), while (some thirty-two chapters later) John Darwin examines ‘Decolonization and the End of Empire’: oddly, there is no synthetic chapter on the period between 1860 and the middle decades of the twentieth century. These broad chronological overviews discuss the heart of the British tradition of imperial history, examining works (generally produced from the metropole) that conceived of the empire as a whole, tracing its emergence, growth, and consolidation, and its eventual demise. A second series of essays that carve up the empire into national (e.g. Australia, Canada, and Pakistan) and regional (West Africa, East Asia, the Pacific) historiographies make up the bulk of the volume. Many of these essays have a rushed feeling, as within fifteen or so pages they trace the development of historical writing from its genesis in the colonial period through to the most recent reorientations in the field. Two of the more effective pieces come from the often-neglected Pacific: James Belich’s chapter on New Zealand reinforces his position as New Zealand’s most important and irreverent historian, while the conclusion of Bronwen Douglas’s chapter entitled ‘Imperial Flotsam? The British in the Pacific Islands’ debunks the assumptions underpinning her chapter title, deftly undercutting understandings of Pacific history received from Britain. The third and final group of chapters is a rather strange mixture that examines the importance of long established historiographical concerns and the emergence of newer approaches to the field. Some of these essays, such as Thomas Metcalf’s essay on architecture and empire, Richard Drayton’s exploration of science and medicine, and Jeffrey Aueurbach’s on art have a clear focus and are useful introductions to the relevant literature, but other authors have a difficult task in stitching disparate fields together to provide some meaningful discussion: Diana Wylie bravely struggles with the unlikely trinity of ‘Disease, Diet, and Gender’ in her discussion of ‘late twentieth-century perspectives on empire’.
Wylie’s unenviable task is a stark indicator of the conservative spirit of the volume. While gender is squeezed into Wylie’s catch-all category, there are no essays that explicitly focus on race, ethnicity, or class, recurrent concerns in writings on empire from the very beginning and which (especially in the case of race and ethnicity) remain at the forefront on current debates over Britishness and the continuing legacies of empire. Even Gad Heuman’s essay on ‘Slavery, the slave trade, and abolition’ marginalizes race as it rehearses debates over the demography and economics of slavery, paying scant attention to the power of racial thought or the centrality of slavery in the construction of a larger Atlantic world.
Taken as a whole, this volume is resistant to the ‘cultural turn’ and tends to look backwards rather than forward. This antiquated feeling of the volume is in large part due to the long shadow of Robinson and Gallagher that hangs over the volume and the ‘revolution’ that they enacted peppers the essays and footnotes. Most of the volumes’ authors were trained in a period where Robinson and Gallagher’s work was paradigmatic and the lasting legacy...