What Did They Know of Empire?

Bernard Porter argues that, through most of the nineteenth century, most Britons knew little and cared less about the spread of the Empire.

The idea that British society was thoroughly infused with ‘imperialism’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has gained broad currency in recent years. Influential here have been John MacKenzie’s works on the wide spread of imperial propaganda in the later part of this period, at least; and the late Edward Said’s exposure of the hidden imperial content of much of the ‘high’ culture of the earlier nineteenth century. Some have taken these findings much further to justify imperialist readings of just about every feature of modern British society before the 1960s. Travel, science, exhibitions, zoos, boys’ adventure stories, even nude paintings (Empire as rape), were all essentially imperialist activities. Modern film and TV adaptations of Victorian novels and documentaries about nineteenth and early twentieth-century subjects regularly interpolate imperial references, even when they do not appear in the original texts, on the ground, presumably, that the Victorians must have been thinking about their Empire even when they did not talk or write about it, rather like sex, and that this needs to be brought out for a modern audience.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email digital@historytoday.com if you have any problems.