Legacies of Empire #1: academic debates

Recent conversations about the good, bad, ugly and indifferent legacies of the British Empire…

The debate about the legacies of the British empire does not go away. Various academic projects are devoted to it, while public discourse usually responds reactively to contemporary issues and debates such as Black Lives Matter.

This blog series will highlight some recent conversations on this topic, in both the academic sphere and in general public conversations.

Below are links to some academics in debate mode:

The British Empire and Race: A Debate with Robert Tombs | Snapshots of Empire (sussex.ac.uk) (sussex.ac.uk): leading scholar of the British empire, Alan Lester, recently invited a leading scholar of French and English history, Robert Tombs, to debate with him on his website the subject of ‘The British Empire and Race’. Lester commences his precis of this topic by stating that ‘the Empire cannot be reduced to racism but nor should the extent of its racism be denied as part of a backlash against Black Lives Matter’. And while empires have been the norm in history and Britain’s was possible only with indigenous collaboration, the British Empire was unique in maintaining the rule by ‘white people over people of colour’ on six continents, including the transport of 3 million enslaved Africans to the American and Caribbean plantation colonies and subjection of Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, the Xhosa and the Maori (to name but some). Lester concludes by stating that while the empire ‘secured prosperity for many people, but we should acknowledge that its legacy of racism is not a fiction of the Black Lives Matter movement’.

In reply, Robert Tombs argues that the British Empire ‘conferred certain benefits, including protection from foreign attack, access to international trade, modern administration, technology, capital investment and order.  It did so fairly cheaply: taxation was lower than in independent states.’ Tombs suggests many of the former colonies were ‘worse governed’ after independence during the period 1940s-60s – including by the nationalist elites that sought self-government. He argues that attacks on the British Empire or its legacy are almost entirely driven by present day politics and values; by contrast, he suggests the Ottoman and Mughal empires are assessed more dispassionately. He suggests dispassionate scholarship would employ a comparative method, assessing the British Empire against other contemporary empires, settler states, non-colonized states (China, Thailand, Ethiopia) and non-state societies, and with previous rulers and with successor governments. He states that ‘without at least a broad comparative perspective, judgments are arbitrary, even meaningless.’ He asks whether Britain today is institutionally racist as a consequence of empire, and points to recent EU studies that show racial harassment are lowest in Britain and Malta and that inter-ethnic group violence is lowest in Britain and Portugal, and various other comparatively positive racial indicators for Britain.

Alan Lester replies briefly: he argues Prof Tombs did not keep to the terms of the debate on the ‘British Empire and race’ and that Tombs arguments are equally if not more political than his own. This debate was also published on Debating the British Empire – History Reclaimed.

There are various other prongs to this debate about the British Empire, including ones that focus on the benefits and/or exploitative nature of the industrializing process. For example, 18th century scholar, Jeremy Black, argues that industrial technologies benefitted people and increased work and living standards the world over: Defending Our Heritage: Richard Arkwright – History Reclaimed

Below are links to interesting project websites:

Legacies of British Slavery (ucl.ac.uk): a mostly quantitative study of slavery ownership in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape Colony, its economic legacies for owners, and other cultural and historical outcomes; the project is now looking more intensively into the lives of enslaved people.

Inquiring Into Empire: a project on commissions of inquiry in the British empire, involving various UK and Australian academics.

A current project of Prof. Zoe Laidlaw at Melbourne University is the Western Australian Legacies of British Slavery project.

Below are some links to recent leading academic works on the subject:

Ruling the world | FifteenEightyFour | Cambridge University Press (cambridgeblog.org): this important work by Peter Mitchell, Kate Boehme & Alan Lester – Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire (CUP, 2021) – studies three slices of empire time in the attempt to describe what ruling an empire of global reach entailed: in 1838 the Westminster authorities were facing settler rebellions in the Canadas, a famine in India, the First Anglo-Afghan War, and the First Opium War with China (and more besides, including projected colonization of New Zealand); in 1857, it was the Indian Uprising and the Second Opium War (and more besides); by 1879, it was an empire of increasing distinctions along lines of race, with the Second Anglo-Afghan War and wars of imperial confederation in southern Africa (and more besides).

Protecting the Empire’s Humanity (cambridge.org): this very recent work by Zoe Laidlaw (Melbourne University, formerly University of London) explores the life of Dr Thomas Hodgkin and the campaigns of the Aborigines’ Protection Society to expose the treatment of indigenous peoples in Britain’s empire and colonies and to advocate schemes for their protection and “civilization”. It highlights the many failures and “occasional successes” of this enterprise.

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