New College of the Humanities

Legacies of Empire

The second of the two Longman/History Today prize-winning essays on the topic ‘Is distance lending enchantment to the view historians have of the British Empire and its legacies’.

The sun may finally have set, but as darkness falls the storytellers perpetuate the myths... With such anniversaries as the centenary of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and fifty years of Indian and Pakistani independence – not to mention the handing over of Hong Kong – it is hardly surprising that the past few years have seen a spate of published works about the British Empire. It is noticeable at first that most of the volumes published in this country and almost all of those intended for a popular readership are anglo-centric in nature. In a review of three books in History Today in August, 1996, for example, David Washbrook commented that even the text which followed Saidian analysis was anglo-centred. This is perhaps inevitable due to the availability of extant sources (and indeed, the further back in time one goes, the more likely the indigenous voice is to be lost); but clearly the story of empire will vary enormously depending on differing perspectives and experiences; and it would appear that most of the history which is more readily available – and certainly that aimed at a wider readership – is that from the perspective of the rulers and possibly their agents rather than the ruled.

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