Signposts: New Directions in Britain's Empire Story

At its height, the British Empire was the largest the world has ever known. Its history is central to Britain’s history, yet, as Zoë Laidlaw shows, this imperial past is not an easy narrative to construct.

Cartoon of John Bull as an imperial octopus, 1888Though the sun has long since set on the British Empire, Britain’s relationship with its imperial past continues to be anxious. The education secretary, Michael Gove, recently noted that only two individuals, William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano, were identified by name in the national history curriculum for secondary students. What has been left unsaid in the ensuing debate is revealing. ‘Where’s Winston Churchill?’ is a pertinent question, but it leaves unremarked the reasons Wilberforce and Equiano were included. In fact, their presence is an acknowledgement that children should learn about Britain’s long and lucrative participation in the transatlantic slave trade.

Anxiety about the national past is not simply the preserve of the current government, however. The curriculum’s focus on two prominent abolitionists casts a difficult history in heroic terms: these are the Britons who opposed, rather than promoted, slavery.

Attempts to write the British Empire’s history began well before it ended. While few such works stand the test of time, popular narrative histories from the period after decolonisation abound. Grand narrative accounts of Britain’s imperial history, such as Niall Ferguson’s apologetic if impassioned Empire (Penguin, 2003), remain bestsellers. James Morris’ trilogy – Heaven’s Command, Pax Britannica and Farewell the Trumpets (Penguin, 1968-78) – is still a rich account of Britain’s imperial endeavours in the 19th and 20th centuries. Christopher Hibbert and Lawrence James have also produced widely read popular histories of empire. Denis Judd, recognising the futility of telling the ‘whole story’, instead deployed a series of carefully situated and revealing snapshots in his rollicking Empire (Harper Collins, 1996). The best of such recent histories is John Darwin’s The Empire Project (Penguin, 2010). Running from the mid-Victorian period through to the Empire’s eventual decline, Darwin’s analysis of Britain’s ‘world-system’ emphasises high politics, but impresses with breadth, detail and insight.

Historians, teachers, students and the general public seem ever more fascinated by the complexities and ambiguities of Empire. The popular and critical success of historical fiction set in the Empire, from Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies to Andrea Levy’s Small Island, emphasises this, as do the frequent imperial storylines in the BBC’s television series Who Do You Think You Are? Twenty-first century Britons know that they are descended from slave-owners and slaves, from Irish navvies and Indian sepoys, from Australian opera singers and Shanghai merchants, just as from Glasgow tenement-dwellers and the inhabitants of Suffolk workhouses.

These imperial genealogies, like the Empire’s history more broadly, can raise uncomfortable issues about the past. The British built railways and telegraphs, encouraged capitalism and trumpeted the benefits of British justice. But British colonisers also drove indigenous peoples off their land, incarcerated ‘half-caste’ children, profited from slavery, shot nationalists and imposed racial hierarchies today judged sickening. No single volume of narrative history can ever either explain or document these events sufficiently.

Increasingly historians are tackling these conflicting imperial narratives and the difficult questions they pose. Some of the best, but also most accessible, writing by historians on Britain’s imperial past does not shy away from the legacies of slave ownership, the opportunities taken up by Britons when they migrated, or the harsh reality of life for many colonial subjects. Instead of simply asking how and why Britain became so globally powerful, these historians are interested in a broader context, in connections within and beyond the Empire and with the ramifications of power and its abuse.

James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World 1783-1939 (Oxford University Press, 2009) takes a wide-angled approach, highlighting the booms and busts integral to the 19th-century expansion and the consolidation of British influence. Unusually, Belich does not excise post-revolutionary America from the empire story. Instead he compares the great waves of migration from the eastern to the western American states with Britain’s pouring of capital, migrants and technology into the ‘new wests’ that remained within the Empire: Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa and Canada. In short, punchy chapters Belich explains the rise (and decline) of Britain on the global stage, boldly connecting economics, migration and politics.

Both John Darwin and James Belich have written epic, expansive histories, if different in other ways. Within such sweeping accounts there is not much space for individual settlers’ life stories, let alone the experiences of those on the wrong side of colonialism. Another strand of recent imperial history has placed individuals – colonisers and colonised – centre stage, without adopting an overly pointillist approach. A Swindler’s Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty (Harvard University Press, 2010) is an excellent and gripping example. Here, Kirsten McKenzie explores the lives of Edward, Viscount Lascelles (a wayward Yorkshire aristocrat) and a Scottish convict, John Dow, who successfully masqueraded as Lascelles in the Australian colonies, duping status-conscious settlers and officials with embarrassing ease. Through these intertwined biographies McKenzie explains English debates over slavery and abolition; the challenge that convict Australia posed to the boast that Britain embodied – and exported – ‘liberty’; the myriad ways the Empire allowed Britons to reinvent themselves; and the brittle fragility of Britain’s aristocratic houses. Ostensibly narrow, this is actually a book of breathtaking scope.

Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully similarly turn historical detectives to assess what can and cannot be known about the elusive Sara Baartman (d. 1815). Born in southern Africa, Baartman was displayed on the stages of Georgian London and Paris as the ‘Hottentot Venus’. She lived at the whim of violent pimps, although sometimes, fleetingly, as with her 1811 baptism, she displayed poignant agency (Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography, Princeton University Press, 2009). This life of a colonised slave woman opens up the broader histories of slavery, science, race, misogyny and empire.

Such accounts show that powerful and revealing history can be written about those who left little trace in the historical record. The slaves who toiled and rebelled in the Caribbean; or Assam’s tea garden coolies; or the Mau Mau fighters demonised by the British press, are as much a part of Britain’s empire story as railways, abolitionists and gold miners. These histories won’t allay anxieties about Britain’s imperial past but they will help confront them.

Zoë Laidlaw is Senior Lecturer in British Imperial and Colonial History at Royal Holloway, University of London.