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University of New South Wales
A B S T R A C T. This historiographical review considers recent developments in the writing of imperial
history, paying particular attention to the growing emphasis on cultural history. Such an emphasis reects
a close engagement with issues such as the formation of national identity in an imperial context and the
ways in which systems of knowledge including religion, science, and notions of gender were linked with
structures of empire. The extent to which cultural history intersects with concerns of literary scholars and
anthropologists in its engagement with travel literature, for example further indicates the increasingly
interdisciplinary character of imperial history. In conclusion, the review raises the issue of the limits, as well
as the strengths, that ow from the expanding scope of cultural history, as well as oering suggestions as
to why imperial history is likely to become increasingly important in a globalized world.
Time has now suciently elapsed for the receding tide of empire to leave its historical
debris more clearly visible on the shores of both former colonizers and former colonized.
The almost heroic determination to ignore the vast sea of imperial history in the wake of
decolonization has now given way to a greater recognition that edging around empire
leaves a map of the past that is the equivalent of those ancient charts with the legend here
be dragons to cover inconvenient ignorance. The study of empires has also waxed as
condence in the self-suciency of the nation state has waned. Imperial history has
provided an increasingly well-travelled route in quest of a more truly global history that
takes account of the fact that the nation state was a largely Western historical phenom-
enon, limited in time and space. Moreover, as A. G. Hopkins has trenchantly reminded
us, even for historians of a nation state, such as Britain, the imperial past must be given
due attention: domestic and imperial history cannot be assigned to separate, hermetically
sealed boxes.
Once imperial history was devoted to recounting the blessings of the civilizing mission:
the steady conversion of large parts of a red-coloured globe formed the theme, for example,
of The Cambridge history of the British empire
a collection that provided the only available
large-scale summation of the British imperial experience until the recent publication
of the multi-volume Oxford history of the British empire. In its recent incarnation, imperial
School of History, University of New South Wales, Sydney NSW 2052, Australia J.Gascoigne@
A. G. Hopkins, Back to the future: from national history to imperial history, Past and Present, 164
(1999), pp. 198243.
E. Benians, J. Holland Rose, and A. Newton, eds., The Cambridge history of the British empire (9 vols.,
Cambridge, 192959).
The Historical Journal, 49, 2 (2006), pp. 577592 f 2006 Cambridge University Press
doi:10.1017/S0018246X06005346 Printed in the United Kingdom
history is devoted more to the reciprocal character of the imperial experience and in
thereby detailing how it changed both the colonizer as well as the colonized. Issues of
cultural identity have therefore increasingly loomed large and such forms of cultural
history have been enriched by perspectives drawn from anthropology and literary studies.
The increasing emphasis on the need to retain the perspective of both colonizer and
colonized has meant, too, that imperial history has come closer to larger goals of global
or world history. For one of the recurrent themes of recent imperial history is the extent
to which this terraqueous globe is, and always was, an interconnected place in which
no man is an island and no people entirely an island race.
Empires often mean highly heterogeneous peoples and cultures coming into close and
prolonged contact and the result is inevitably some transmutation of both. Sometimes
nations try to disguise from themselves the extent to which they have borrowed from those
they have conquered: thus the reassuringly English names of Worcester sauce or Houses of
Parliament sauce were given to concoctions of Indian origin. But the avour of empire
inevitably seeps through to both sides of the colonial divide. In the wake of decolonization,
much attention was understandably devoted to the way in which subject peoples dened
themselves, or redened themselves, in the face of alien rule. Much was written on the
way in which older identities were often retained, even if they might be dressed in
temporary, and often borrowed, imperial robes.
Of late, the historiography has shifted its focus more to the way in which the imperial
experience also helped to shape colonizers own conception of who they were. Per-
ceptively, C. A. Bayly sensed this change of direction by writing in the historiographical
volume of the Oxford history of the British empire that [t]he Imperial history of the future will
have to take seriously the question of how far, and in what ways, the Imperial experience
contributed to the making of national identity and regional identities in the British
Isles itself .
As Bayly acknowledged, an early example of this attention to the issue of
national identity was Linda Colleys Britons.
Linking the imperial experience with such
overarching themes as prots or dominance, this was a book that gave due weight to
the importance of the imperial experience of the Georgian period in shaping a British,
rather than simply an English, identity. Appropriately one of Colleys former students,
Kathleen Wilson, has recently returned to this issue of the linkage between empire and
British national identity with a book of essays entitled with an ironic wave towards
Churchills bestseller The island race. Both Colley and Wilson emphasize the extent to
which national identity is a plural, rather than a singular entity, which has, in particular, a
gendered modulation. Wilson problematizes, too, the idea of nation pointing out the
extent to which, in the eighteenth century, it still retained older resonances that more
closely equated with common descent. Thus, as she writes, race and nation bore
intertwined as well as competing systems of meaning.
Though, as its title suggests, Wilsons book is focused on the inhabitants of the British
Isles it also explores ways in which the British empire was viewed from the subaltern
perspective. Just as those who increasingly regarded themselves as British rather than
C. A. Bayly, The second British empire, in Robin W. Winks, ed., The Oxford history of the British
empire, V: Historiography (Oxford, 1999), p. 71.
Linda Colley, Britons : forging the nation, 17071837 (New Haven, 1992).
Kathleen Wilson, The island race : Englishness, empire and gender in the eighteenth century (London, 2002),
p. 11.
578 H I S T O R I C A L J O U R N A L
English or Scottish or Welsh (though the Irish identity proved less malleable) nonetheless
still interpreted the empire in ways congruent with their locality, social position,
religion or gender so, too, the British empire meant dierent things to those ruled by it.
Conversely, writes Wilson, enslaved African, Native Americans and Pacic islanders
could also challenge, contest and recongure the categories of identity retailed by gover-
nors, settlers, merchants and explorers alike.
Part of the fascination of empires was
that they provided liminal spaces in which the habits of thought or action taken for
granted by the metropolitan power could be contested, redened, or, on occasions, be
retained in ossied form. The topos of the colonial administrator who holds true to customs
long dead in the capital is one of the constants of colonial literature, as is the reverse, the
colonizer who goes native. Empires were often mirrors that refracted and magnied
the characteristics and foibles of the colonizing culture. In this sense, the empire was
almost a testing ground for the attitudes and practices that collectively make up a national
identity or, more accurately, the dierent types of identity that shelter under the same
national umbrella. This process of refashioning of identity is alluded to in Wilsons study
with the aid of the analytical category of transculture, as dened by the Cuban anthro-
pologist, Fernando Ortiz. The main merit of such a term, argues Wilson, is that it
gives us a sense of the confrontational dynamic of the process and the creativity of the
consequent production.
One aspect that Wilsons analysis adds to the older historiography of empire is a
consideration of the way in which gender added to the range of possible imperial
identities. No longer can the empire be largely regarded as largely a male preserve. Her
case study of the colourful Teresia Constantia Phillips, The Black Widow, provides a
cameo example of the way in which an imperial setting, such as the West Indies, provided
dierent spaces in which female (or male) identity could be played out in ways unavail-
able back in Britain. By doing so, this study adds to a growing volume of work on the
interplay between gender and empire. Such studies are, as Diana Wylie comments else-
where, doing much to loosen the divide between the public and the private in the study
of the workings of empire.
Among the recent companion volumes that deal with themes
given only cursory treatment in the Oxford history of the British empire, that on Gender and
empire provides a recent overview of the expanding study of the gendered dimension
of imperial history. Again, one of its themes is the way in which the imperial space
provided British women with opportunities that they would not have enjoyed at home.
The collections editor, Philippa Levine, notes in her preface, for example, that colonized
women worked in jobs that, in Britain, would not have been open to them.
In her
contribution to this volume of essays, Wilson brings together issues of gender and national
identity by stressing the extent to which national symbols often drew on gendered or
sexualized images.
Gender played an important role, not only in the establishment and
consolidation of empire, but also, as another contributor to this volume, Barbara Bush,
argues, in the redenition of British cultural identities as the Empire fragmented after
Ibid., p. 17.
Diana Wylie, Disease, diet and gender: late twentieth-century perspectives on empire, in Winks,
ed., Historiography, p. 284.
Philippa Levine, ed., Gender and empire (Oxford, 2004), p. vii.
Kathleen Wilson, Empire, gender and modernity in the eighteenth century, in Levine, ed.,
Gender and empire, p. 17.
Barbara Bush, Gender and empire: the twentieth century, in ibid., p. 109.
H I S T O R I O G R A P H I C A L R E V I E W S 579
By bringing together dierent cultures in widely dierent settings, the empire served as
a seedbed from which a multifaceted range of identities could grow. At the same time,
however, the experience of the inhabitants of the British Isles encountering large numbers
of peoples very dierent from themselves served to give form to a common British identity,
albeit one amenable to variations on a theme. The period of the rst British empire,
writes Wilson, thus consolidated a national identity, forged in over two centuries of
imperial adventures.
British national identity, then, was sharpened by the culture
contact that empire promoted. As C. J. Wan-ling Wees recent Culture, empire, and the
question of being modern argues, however, the interplay between empire and national
identity was an ongoing project with the empire serving as a point of reference against
which the British literary imagination continued to dene itself well into the twentieth
But culture contact is a rather bland term for the vast range of encounters between
Europeans and indigenous peoples that could range from trade to sexual congress. The
empire as an arena in which colonizers could indulge sexual behaviour that was
constrained at home has been a theme in imperial historiography since at least Ronald
Hyams Empire and sexuality,
though Levines recent essay on the subject emphasizes
the extent to which control of sexuality abroad remained an imperial preoccupation.
Wilsons Island race draws on recent work on gender theory to marry imperial history
with the history of the body. The results can be arresting especially when Cooks sailors
reach the South Seas. There, suggests Wilson, Polynesian women mapped their culture
onto the European male body using such bodies in the process of their own spiritual
and social aggrandizement .
Though the sailors thus involved may have been unaware
of the larger implications of what most regarded a simple cash transaction, Wilson here
underlines how much historians can learn from anthropologists. Recovering the thought-
processes of those who inhabited what Henry Reynolds, the historian of Australian
whiteindigenous relations, terms the other side of the frontier,
requires an ability to
read the documentary record with an eye to the way in which the largely European
account can include telling details that only reveal their meaning with a knowledge of
the dynamics of the indigenous culture under scrutiny. The enthusiastic sexual welcome
given to Cooks men suggests a possible border crossing between cultures : as Marshall
Sahlins emphasizes in his Islands of history,
sexual relations were a way of drawing those
of high rank into useful kin networks. What appeared as prostitution to the English
might, equally, to Hawaiian eyes, have been a way of making these strange visitors
become relatives. A further instance of the desire by the Hawaiians to draw these new-
comers into familial bounds was the puzzling practice whereby Hawaiian women placed
the umbilical cord of newborn babies into crevices of the Resolution and the Discovery.
Viewed through the lens of Hawaiian anthropology, as Caroline Ralston argues, this was
a practice which underlined the respect accorded to these strange European visitors
and the hope that they could carry with them the fortunes of such children and perhaps
Wilson, The island race, p. 53.
C. J. Wan-ling Wee, Culture, empire and the question of being modern (Lanham, MD, 2003).
Ronald Hyam, Empire and sexuality: the British experience (Manchester, 1990).
Philippa Levine, Sexuality, gender and empire, in Levine, ed., Gender and empire, pp. 13455.
Wilson, The island race, p. 186.
Henry Reynolds, The other side of the frontier : Aboriginal resistance to the European invasion of Australia
(Melbourne, 1982).
Marshall Sahlins, Islands of history (Chicago, 1987), pp. 67.
580 H I S T O R I C A L J O U R N A L
allow them to share in the elevated and possibly even divine status with which the
Hawaiians invested Cook.
The erotic preoccupations of British male empire-builders also served as a way of
testing theories put forward by Enlightenment commentators as to the stages by which
humanity developed. Wilson detects a particular preoccupation with the shape of the
female breast as a way of distinguishing superior cultures from inferior. But, ironically,
the Polynesians scored particularly highly in such a scheme, even though this did not
accord very neatly with the position they were accorded by Scottish social theorists.
Nor did the more negative depictions of Australian Aboriginal women accord with the
admiration of Cook and Banks for the simplicity of that society. Nonetheless, explorers
accounts certainly gave an impetus to include gender concerns in theories of stadial
development with the position of women (as interpreted by European norms) being one
index by which social advancement was measured.
Along with the ways in which
empire served to loosen the bounds of heterosexual behaviour so, too, it could provide
licence for an otherwise forbidden homosexuality.
The greater tolerance of homo-
sexual behaviour in Pacic societies, suggests Wilson, destabilized some of the taboos
(appropriately a word of Pacic origin) against homosexuality among the British
visitors. To strengthen such a contrast, Wilson emphasizes the strong homophobic
traditions of the British navy with much linking of sodomy with the lash. However,
captains had a way of ignoring such oences rather than inicting punishments that
could kill or incapacitate their men. Cook was not particularly vigilant about such
matters and his punishment of uncleanliness very likely referred to another order of
oence: that of relieving oneself on board a very tempting practice when the alterna-
tive was to make ones way to the heads in a heaving sea. In any case, the doyen of
naval historians, Nicholas Rodger, remains sceptical about the extent of shipboard
seemingly drawing strong empirical support from a detailed medical
Sexual practice is one example of how travel literature such as the journals from
Cooks voyages can be used to expose the values of both the British and, to a degree, the
indigenous cultures they encountered. Cultures often reveal themselves most tellingly
when they have to dene themselves against what is unfamiliar and alien. Imperial
expansion brought with it, then, a clearer forging of national identity. But, as Martin
Daunton and Rick Halpern point out in their introduction to Empire and others : British
encounters with indigenous peoples, 16001850, the word forging has an interesting double
Caroline Ralston, Ordinary women in early post-colonial Hawaii , in Margaret Jolly and
Martha Macintyre, eds., Family and gender in the Pacic : domestic contradictions and the colonial impact
(Cambridge, 1989), p. 56.
A. Bewell, Constructed places, constructed peoples: charting the improvement of the female
body in the Pacic, in Jonathan Lamb, Robert P. Maccubbin, and David F. Morrill, eds., The South
Pacic in the eighteenth century, Eighteenth Century Life (special issue), 18 (1994), pp. 4950.
On the late eighteenth-century Pacic context, see Lee Wallace, Too darn hot : sexual contact in
the Sandwich Islands on Cooks third voyage, in Lamb, Maccubbin, and Morrill, eds., The South
Pacic, pp. 23242, and, for a recent general study of this theme, see Robert Aldrich, Colonialism and
homosexuality (London, 2003).
N. A. M. Rodger, The wooden world: an anatomy of the Georgian navy (New York, 1986), pp. 801.
B. Shuster and S. Shuster, Buggery in the British merchant navy in the mid-nineteenth century,
in J. Cocacevich et al., eds., History, heritage and health: proceedings of the fourth biennial conference of the
Australian Society of the History of Medicine (Brisbane, 1996), pp. 27783.
H I S T O R I O G R A P H I C A L R E V I E W S 581
sense connoting both manufacture and counterfeiting.
It is a reminder of how uid
a concept national identity can be, and how far the forms it took were the result of
contingent circumstance, rather than some foreordained outcome of particular class or
gender categories. This underlines again the extent to which imperial and domestic history
have become increasingly intertwined particularly in the quest for an understanding
of how the group sense that took the form of national identity was fostered and
consolidated by the spread of empire. One basic theme of Wilsons The island race is what
was once thought to be a perverse assumption: that empire mattered to ordinary people
in eighteenth-century England.
This view is reinforced by the work of other eighteenth-century specialists such as
Nicholas Rogers
and Bob Harris,
as well as by a work from a very dierent vantage
point and period in Jerey Richardss Imperialism and music : Britain, 18761953. Drawing on
a wealth of material that encompasses both elite and popular culture, the books essential
thesis is the extent to which the empire was an integral part of British national identity
up to the post- Second World War period. The term Britain is used advisedly, for part
of Richardss argument is that music helped to reinforce a sense of the way in which
Scotland, Ireland, and Wales along with England were linked to the larger imperial
project. Music, he persuasively argues, played a major part in fostering an emotional
attachment and commitment to empire whether through the elegiac strains of Elgar,
music written for lms with an imperial theme, or missionary hymns. Its reach and impact
was actually strengthened by the coming of modern technology such as the gramophone.
It was song, he writes, that brought the empire into the home.
In the nineteenth
century, particularly, music awoke the strong impulses of evangelicalism and chivalry
and gave them an imperial hue. Although the books focus is on Britain, it also deals with
the way in which imperially charged music could link what were then virtually neo-
Britains the white Dominions with the motherland. The Australian bass-baritone,
Peter Dawson, emerges as a major gure in conveying the sense of imperial exile by singing
of a bygone largely pre-industrial England or by disseminating Kiplings imperial verse
in musical settings. Dawson, writes Richards, became the veritable troubadour of
This original study, then, draws attention to one of the major vehicles for
fostering imperial emotion and attaching it to a popular sense of national identity. The
music Richards discusses is the music that gave the empire a widespread and popular
resonance with Britons at home and abroad. It captures one important side of the imperial
experience but, given its subject matter, does not provide a ready bridge across cultures
to explore the interaction between white, British culture and that of the indigenous
cultures over whom the British ruled.
Viewing empire from the dierent vantage point of exhibitions, Peter Hoenbergs
An empire on display provides some decentring of the imperial project away from that of
the metropolitan culture. Again, Hoenbergs is a work that explicitly addresses the
issue of national identity, taking as its theme the way in which [e]xhibitions were part
Martin Daunton and Rick Halpern, eds., Empire and others : British encounters with indigenous peoples,
16001850 (Philadelphia, 1999), p. 3.
Wilson, The island race, p. 15.
Nicholas Rogers, Whigs and cities : popular politics in the age of Walpole and Pitt (Oxford, 1989).
Bob Harris, American idols : empire, war and the middling ranks in mid-eighteenth-century
Britain, Past and Present, 150 (1996), pp. 11141.
Jerey Richards, Imperialism and music : Britain, 18761953 (Manchester, 2001), p. 324.
Ibid., p. 522.
582 H I S T O R I C A L J O U R N A L
of the self-conscious reworking of uid national and imperial identities during the
Victorian and Edwardian eras .
By their nature, exhibitions tell us much about who
people thought they were and, since such exhibitions were connected with other such
throughout the empire, they were necessarily linked to conceptions of their place in the
larger imperial project. But, though linked by common imperial connections, the fact that
Hoenberg takes dierent foci of the empire England, India, and Australia enables
him to draw out the important local inections on imperial themes. This was even more
so because of the popularity of such exhibitions and the extent to which they were
obliged to appeal to a wide social spectrum. Exhibitions were meant to provide cultural
symbols that would rearm loyalties in the face of other types of expression that might
be used for resistance. The impact of the new such as industrialization could be
rendered less threatening by placing it in a setting that included neo-Gothic decorations
to emphasize continuity. Exhibitions generally made much of tradition and the sense of
legitimacy and order it conveyed. The image of India was a land of temples, spires, and
palaces and, with it, of a stability that could expunge memories of such upheavals as the
Indian mutiny.
Groups such as South Asian women who were normally in purdah or Australian
Aborigines who lived in distant isolation from the great bulk of the urban population
took their place in the local exhibitions. Their involvement was to indicate both to the
societies themselves and to the larger world that such groups, too, had been incorporated
into the empire. Direct participation by large numbers of people meant that they helped
to assimilate, and indeed create, the images of consensus and hierarchy under the imperial
banner that the exhibitions were intended to foster. But exhibitions could also indicate a
degree of local independence, as in the case of the late nineteenth-century Australian
and Indian exhibitors, who attempted to reduce economic dependence on Britain by
using these exhibitions to cultivate possible trading links with other countries. By contrast
with these local exhibitions, those held in London portrayed these outposts of empire as
being an integral part of a Britain-focused world of trade. Exhibitions were ways in
which networks of knowledge were put into a form that could capture the imagination of
large numbers of people. National and imperial identities were very much part of sharing
common bodies of knowledge and thereby also sharing common values. One of the great
balancing acts of the exhibitions as of the British empire more generally was the
attempt to reconcile a strong sense of tradition with an admiration for the scientic and
technological achievements of the workshop of the world. The linking of empire with
science and technology gave it one set of justications that could link the values of the
Enlightenment along with others drawn from quite dierent sources such as religion or
Hence one of the phenomena that linked the empire was a sharing of scientic knowl-
edge as specimens gathered from distant shores were gathered together in the great
storehouses of knowledge in London whether the British Museum, the Natural History
Museum, or Kew Gardens. It is a process that has been given theoretical form by Bruno
Latour with his concept of the way in which such imperial networks are linked by centres
of calculation that can reconstruct the imperial world in miniature at the metropolitan
Peter H. Hoenberg, An empire on display: English, Indian and Australian exhibitions from the Crystal
Palace to the Great War (Berkeley, CA, 2001), p. xiv.
Ibid., p. 155.
H I S T O R I O G R A P H I C A L R E V I E W S 583
Such a focus on the ways in which knowledge and empire could be linked
has proved a fruitful means of illuminating a number of recent works including David
Millers study of the activities of Joseph Banks in weaving together an imperial network of
collectors and botanical gardens,
Nigel Leasks study of the way in which travellers
accounts provided material for an image of India which could be reassembled at the
imperial centre,
and the account of the impact of exploration in shaping the British
Romantic imagination by Tim Fulford, Debbie Lee, and Peter Kitson.
One of Latours
favourite images is that of a map where the information is brought back to the centres
of calculation and there put into a form that enables the imperial power to take control of
hitherto unknown parts of the globe. The map can be literally a chart, or it can be a map
of the minerals, ora, and fauna of the lands thus encountered, or even of that indigenous
population. Such a map is made possible by the data or specimens brought back to the
centre and there classied in scientic terms which both widen the realms of knowledge
and make possible the more ready exploitation of such resources. Drawing on such
approaches, Matthew Edney has provided a major case study of the imperial uses of
mapping with his Mapping an empire : the geographical construction of British India, 17651843.
A criticism that could be made of Latour is that he does not take sucient account of
the way in which imperial forms of knowledge could be used at the colonial periphery as
well as the centre, which is one of the themes of Hoenbergs study. Another is that it does
not give enough recognition to the persistence of local knowledge systems. The concern
with retaining an indigenous perspective on mapping underlines, for example, David
Turnbulls analysis of the lack of commensurability between Tahitian maps and those of
the West as embodied in Captain Cook.
Similarly in his article in Georgian geographies a
collection that provides interesting perspectives on the construction of knowledge systems
by drawing on the perspectives of cultural geography as well as history Daniel Clayton
seeks to emphasize the plurality and diversity of centres and margins .
Such a view is
based on his analysis of the way in which knowledge of the north-west coast of North
America in the late eighteenth century was the outcome of complex and often locally
determined culture interchange between Europeans and indigenous peoples.
From a metropolitan perspective, when the dierent forms of knowledge that empire
made possible were drawn together, science was seen as an ally of empire and of the
sense of identity that the imperial project fostered a view pithily summarized by Jonathan
Bruno Latour, Science in action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society (Milton Keynes,
1987), pp. 21587.
David P. Miller, Joseph Banks, empire, and centers of calculation in late Hanoverian London,
in D. Miller and Peter Hanns Reill, eds., Visions of empire : voyages, botany, and representations of nature
(Cambridge, 1996), pp. 2137.
Nigel Leask, Curiosity and the aesthetics of travel-writing, 17701840: from an antique land (Oxford,
T. Fulford, D. Lee, and P. J. Kitson, Literature, science and exploration in the romantic era: bodies of
knowledge (Cambridge, 2004).
Matthew H. Edney, Mapping an empire : the geographical construction of British India, 17651843
(Chicago, 1997).
David Turnbull, Cook and Tupaia, a tale of cartographic me connaisance , in Margarette Lincoln,
ed., Science and exploration in the Pacic (Woodbridge, 1998), pp. 11732.
Daniel Clayton, From and for the margins: King George men on the north-west coast of
North America, in Miles Ogborn and C. W. J. Withers, eds., Georgian geographies : essays on space, place
and landscape in the eighteenth century (Manchester, 2004), p. 44.
584 H I S T O R I C A L J O U R N A L
Lamb with his remark that [m]aps, names, lists and taxonomies were the plunder of
the late eighteenth century.
Similarly in his contribution to the eighteenth-century
volume of The Cambridge history of science, Larry Stewart argues that [a] role for science
was embedded in the imperialist doctrines of commercial and political advantage.
Elsewhere, Tony Ballantyne emphasizes the particular importance of the late eighteenth
century as a period when such knowledge, whether scientic or more specically carto-
graphical, was drawn together in ways that created the beginnings of a fully global
perspective. By the end of the eighteenth century, Europe, and Britain in particular, had
a full map of the globe and the beginnings of an imperial strategy including networks
for the gathering of further information that reected such knowledge. Ironically,
however, the creation of a complete map of the globe was accompanied by increasing
dissemination of maps based on national borders.
Alan Frost, too, takes the last decades
of the eighteenth century to be a nodal point when the fuller exploration of the Indian and
the Pacic Oceans eliminated the last remaining major dark corners of the globe. The
result for Britain was a truly global empire that, as Frost draws out, brought with it the
need for such strategic planning as the worldwide provision of adequate naval bases
and supplies. As early as 1758, British statesmen were beginning to adopt a global
perspective; hence the remark of the duke of Newcastle in the early years of the Seven
Years War: Ministers in this Countrey, where Every Part of the World aects us, in some
Way or Other, should consider The Whole Globe.
Such a global perspective owed much to the growing respect for scientic knowledge,
whether in the form of cartography or natural history, but what of the period before the
Enlightenment when science did not enjoy such cultural authority? One source of secular
justication for imperial expansion came from that great authority system for European
society, the Roman classics the importance of which for guiding both thought and action
had been rearmed by the Renaissance. Such is the central thesis of Andrew Fitzmaurices
closely argued Humanism and America: an intellectual history of English colonisation, 15001625
which draws out the importance of classical precedent in reconstructing the imperial
ideology employed by the Virginia Company.
It draws attention to the way in which
knowledge of the key humanistic texts led to a tension with the Companys commercial
goals. The Roman authorities had pronounced on the dangers as well as the merits of
imperial expansion and had much to say on the way in which an empire could
foster corruption: the Jacobeans were well aware of the extent to which honestas and
utilitas honour and prot could be in tension. While Fitzmaurices study usefully
draws attention to one possible strand of imperial justication (at least among the thin
layer of the elite who were well versed in humanistic learning) it does not purport to
provide an overview of the full range of justications employed in early stages of the
formation of the British empire. This more general goal is the subject of David Armitages
Jonathan Lamb, Introduction, in Lamb, Maccubbin, and Morrill, eds., The South Pacic, p. 5.
Larry Stewart, Global pillage: science, commerce, and empire, in Roy Porter, ed., The
Cambridge history of science, IV: The eighteenth century (Cambridge, 2003), p. 828.
Tony Ballantyne, Empire, knowledge and culture: from proto-globalization to modern
globalization, in A. G. Hopkins, ed., Globalization in world history (London, 2002), pp. 11440.
Alan Frost, The global reach of empire : Britains maritime expansion in the Indian and Pacic oceans,
17641815 (Melbourne, 2003), p. 39.
Andrew Fitzmaurice, Humanism and America: an intellectual history of English colonization, 15001625
(Cambridge, 2003).
H I S T O R I O G R A P H I C A L R E V I E W S 585
The ideological origins of the British empire which explicitly seeks to integrate imperial and
domestic history through an analysis of the ideological wellsprings of empire and one of
its major themes is the extent to which the origins of the early British empire were
also linked to the creation of an entity called Britain. In Armitages account, as in
Fitzmaurices, such an early imperial ideology included recourse to humanistic learning
and classical precedent, but he also examines the important and complex issue of the
religious justications of empire. Most empires have been linked to a religion but one of
the interesting features of the British empire was the extent to which it was religiously
pluralist (as was Britain itself). Nor, argues Armitage, did religion provide a clear
ideological justication for empire. The newly created seventeenth-century British
Protestantism did little to foster an explicit ideology of empire though it did produce an
intense anti-Catholicism that was largely incorporated into the British national identity
at home and abroad. There were elements of Christian doctrine that provided an
incentive for migration and expansion: the Bible bade believers to make the world fruitful
and to go forth and multiply but these were not specically Protestant injunctions
nor, argues Armitage, did they provide a foundation for exclusive dominium (p. 96).
Others have, however, argued for a close association between religion and the expansion
of the British empire. Peter Harrison links the seventeenth-century origins of English
colonization with a tradition of Biblical exegesis of the Old Testament in particular a
tradition which he sees as reected in Lockes formulation of the view that ownership of
the land requires active cultivation.
In both his chapter in the Oxford history of the
British empire
and, more fully, in his book, Natures government, Richard Drayton contends
that the economics of Genesis, with its insistence on rendering the earth fruitful, provided
the ideological wellspring of empire.
Moreover, in its post-Enlightenment form, it gave
a religious sanction to the work of rendering the world more productive by the appli-
cation of science. Christian providentialism, writes Drayton, the ideological taproot
of British Imperialism shaped both the quest for knowledge and the push for trade
and colonies.
Recently, Sujit Sivasundaram has given such a view a more specically
Protestant character by linking such agrarian patriotism with the language employed
by the evangelical missionaries of the London Missionary Society who drew parallels
between improvement of the land and the spiritual improvement of individuals.
But the general thrust of much of the literature on the British empire is to downplay
the signicance of religion, at least for the eighteenth century. In their contributions
to the Oxford history of the British empire, both Boyd Schlenther and Jack Greene argue
that religion was less than central to the British imperial identity. For Schlenter, Great
Britains eighteenth-century Empire was driven by market-place rather than meeting
while, for Greene, Protestantism was less important in shaping British identity
David Armitage, The ideological origins of the British empire (Cambridge, 2000), p. 96.
Peter Harrison, Fill the earth and subdue it : biblical warrants for colonization in seventeenth
century England, Journal of Religious History, 29 (2005), pp. 324, at p. 9.
Richard Drayton, Science, medicine, and the British empire, in Winks, ed., Historiography,
pp. 26476.
Richard Drayton, Natures government : science, imperial Britain, and the improvement of the world
(New Haven, 2000).
Drayton, Science, p. 233.
Sujit Sivasundram, Natural history spiritualized: civilizing islanders, cultivating breadfruit, and
collecting souls, History of Science, 39 (2001), pp. 41743.
Boyd Schlenther, Religious faith and commercial empire, in P. J. Marshall, ed., The Oxford
history of the British empire, II : The eighteenth century (Oxford, 1998), p. 149.
586 H I S T O R I C A L J O U R N A L
than their pride in their political and legal inheritance with its commitment to liberty.
Given the growing emphasis on integrating domestic and imperial history, there is
room for further consideration of the extent to which Britains eighteenth-century empire
reected some of the religious preoccupations which have been recently emphasized
by historians of Englands old regime such as Jonathan Clark.
Indeed, Clark himself
addresses such issues in his The language of liberty which argues for the importance of religious
debate in explaining the emergence of the American Revolution.
Moreover, in the face of recent preoccupation with the clash of civilizations and the
role that religion plays in fostering such a sense of what constitutes a civilization,
is an area of the history of empire that warrants further investigation. As with other
Europeans, the British dened themselves as Christians in contrast to the non-European
peoples they encountered. Overlying this Christian identity was that of being generally
Protestant, though one should not overlook the number of Irish Catholic servants of
empire. However, this Protestant identity was more likely to surface when encountering
Catholicism which was not a major presence in much of the British empire, even though
imperial strategy had long been shaped by rivalry with Spain and France, Britains
traditional Catholic adversaries. In his account of the early colonial history of Australia,
Alan Atkinson draws attention to the importance of Christianity as a component of
British identity: The membership of Christendom (generally proved by skin-colour) gave
men, and women in some circumstances, the right to think for themselves, the right to
argue and the right to refuse.
The very term, Christendom, draws attention to older
identities largely shaped by the conict with Islam which has been the subject of a recent
convenient overview by Franco Cardini
a work which does justice to the occasional
meetings of the two cultures as well as the more pervasive conict. As this book and other
recent works such as Philip Jenkinss insightful study of the renewed importance of
religious identity in the modern globalized world
underline, the recent Islamic revival
has brought with it a renewed impetus for the West to redene its own identity and values.
The historical ancestry of such questions is, then, worth further study. How far was the
British empire still linked with a lingering sense of the expansion of Christendom and
how integral was this to the imperial project ?
Overshadowing such issues of one cultures view of another remains the important
presence of Edward Said whose immensely inuential Orientalism has done so much to
shape post-colonial studies.
The impact of the work owes much to the way in which it
underlines the ideological uses of knowledge and how issues of power have helped to
shape the way in which a dominant culture models the world in ways that suit it. While
such an approach has done much to foster a willingness to peel away the outer garments
of imperialism to reveal more naked motivations of power and wealth, there are,
unsurprisingly, a growing number of studies that have drawn attention to the limitations,
Jack P. Greene, Empire and identity from the Glorious Revolution to the American
Revolution, in Marshall, ed., The eighteenth century, p. 227.
J. C. D. Clark, English society, 16881832 (Cambridge, 1985).
J. C. D. Clark, The language of liberty, 16601832: political discourse and social dynamics in the Anglo-
American world (Cambridge, 1994).
A central theme of Samuel P. Huntington, The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order
(London, 2002).
Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia, I (Melbourne, 1997), p. 17.
Franco Cardini, Europe and Islam (translated from the Italian by C. Beamish) (Oxford, 1999).
Philip Jenkins, The next Christendom: the coming of global Christianity (Oxford, 2002).
Edward Said, Orientalism (Harmondsworth, 1985).
H I S T O R I O G R A P H I C A L R E V I E W S 587
as well as the merits, of the Saidian method. Ironically, enough, one criticism is that
Said invests too much authority in the Western observers with the assumption that their
view of the world is the most likely to prevail. As Nigel Leask has pointed out, such a
corrective is particularly necessary in the period before the Industrial Revolution when
the balance of power between European and non-European was much less pronounced
than it was to become later. Furthermore, where Said would argue that the imperatives
of imperialism largely shaped the form of Western writings about other cultures, Leask
would wish to underline the stubborn strain of empiricism that could not always be neatly
contained within a larger ideological framework.
Leask closely links such travel writing
to the empiricism fostered by the strong antiquarian tradition within Britain that was
institutionalized in the Society of Antiquaries (granted a royal charter in 1751). It was a
body with close connections to the scientic Royal Society and shared its strong commit-
ment to the dissemination of appropriately veried empirical information. Yet the forms of
empiricism themselves, argues Jonathan Lamb, had their rhetorical uses by lessening the
travellers need to distinguish between fact and ction and by establishing a closer bond
between writer and reader especially when discussing unfamiliar material.
Another recent study based on nineteenth-century travellers accounts of North
American Indians also underlines the need for caution in following too closely the Saidian
strong programme. In his Aristocratic encounters, Harry Liebersohn argues against the
view that there was a pure projection of Western power onto non-Western societies .
Travellers and the peoples they encountered were in a much more reciprocal relationship
where both sides were open to the unexpected and the surprising and, accordingly, were
obliged to reshape initial assumptions. The frontier was a place where easy packaging of a
culture could soon come undone. It was also a place where both sides learned from each
other and one of the dominant trends of colonial studies has been to emphasize the extent
of indigenous agency. In his study of the early contact between the New Zealand Maori
and the British, James Belich emphasizes the extent to which the Maori used British goods
for their own purposes : the ultimate symbol of this was to be the Maoris fashioning out
of bar iron a patu, a traditional weapon of war, as early as 1815. The anthropologist,
Marshall Sahlins succinctly summarizes such a perspective by writing that the rst com-
mercial impulse of the [indigenous] people is not to become just like us but more like
themselves .
Though we have learned to treat travellers accounts with increasing caution both as
to what they tell us about their authors and their subjects, their popularity among present-
day historians and cultural critics of empire grows apace, thereby also reecting something
of their past bestseller status. As the preface to a recent anthology of Pacic travel
acknowledges, [i]n recent years, travel has emerged as a key topic in the humanities .
Intersecting with a number of prevailing currents in the study of the humanities, travellers
Leask, Curiosity, pp. 14, 1617.
Jonathan Lamb, Minute particulars and the representation of South Pacic discovery,
Eighteenth-Century Studies, 29 (1995), pp. 2867.
Harry Liebersohn, Aristocratic encounters : European travellers and North American Indians (Cambridge,
1998), p. 8.
Belich and Sahlins cited in Philip D. Morgan, Encounters between British and indigenous
peoples, c. 1500c. 1800, in Daunton and Halpern, eds., Empire and others, p. 51.
Jonathan Lamb, Vanessa Smith and Nicholas Thomas, eds., Exploration and exchange : a South Seas
anthology, 16801900 (Chicago, 2000), p. xiii.
588 H I S T O R I C A L J O U R N A L
tales provide the possibility of erecting micro-histories in the face of increasing scepticism
about traditional grand narratives , whilst also oering a personal and biographical
focus to the complexities of cross-cultural study. Moreover, as the literary canon has
widened beyond the traditional stock of ction, travellers tales have become of increasing
interest to literary scholars pursuing an often wavy line between traditional concepts of
ction and non-ction. Literary scholars have brought new perspectives to the way in
which travellers accounts reect literary forms and rhetorical strategies. Lamb, for
example, has recently argued that accounts of the South Seas need to be understood as a
particular literary genre which stood at the conuence of older traditions of chivalric
and utopian romance on the one hand, and a new branch of ction on the other.
Meanwhile, the work of Neil Rennie and Rod Edmund have also shown how commonly
held European stereotypes of the Pacic could be the outcome of a process of literary
Travellers accounts, too, provide a telling site for exploring the ways in which the world
has been constructed using language and concepts that reect a European perspective
while, at the same time, oering a vantage point on the societies such European travellers
encountered. In doing so, travel literature provides the increasingly historically minded
anthropologist, as well as the literary scholar and the historian, with a foundation for
the study of the dynamics between cultures. Anthropologists rediscovery of the importance
of the literature of exploration and discovery has a nice historical irony since this provided
much of the raw material out of which the embryonic social scientists of the eighteenth
century attempted to construct a Science of Man. As Peter Gay writes in his classic work
on the Enlightenment : [t]he prehistory of the social sciences had its beginning in the
emergence of cultural relativism, the bittersweet fruit of travel travellers reports were
the ancestors of treatises on cultural anthropology and political sociology.
As Laurent
Tissots work on Switzerland and English tourists in the nineteenth century also re-
minds us, however, such travel could be within Europe as well as beyond. European
travellers not only brought their Orientalizing gaze to bear on peoples of other hues, but
also on other Europeans. Through a detailed account of the way in which the English
learnt increasing amounts about Switzerland from a range of literature that culminated in
mass-circulated travel guides, Tissot provides a solid foundation for his study of the
emergence of the Anglo-Swiss travel industry in the late nineteenth century. It is a work
that draws together the perspectives of cultural history in fashioning an image of
Switzerland in the minds of the British with a close attention to such economic realities as
the impact of the railways and the establishment of hotels even if a description of what
these hotels oered for breakfast on such package tours is, perhaps, an empiricist bridge too
far. Tellingly, he parallels the colonial expansion of the major European countries in the
nineteenth century with a general movement towards recreational travel that included
European destinations such as Switzerland.
The wealth that industrialization produced
Jonthan Lamb, Preserving the self in the South Seas, 16801840 (Chicago, 2001), p. 58.
Neil Rennie, The point Venus scene , in Lincoln, ed., Science and exploration, pp. 13546; Rod
Edmond, Translating cultures: William Ellis and missionary writing, in Lincoln, ed., Science and
exploration, pp. 14762, and Missionaries on Tahiti, 17971840, in Alex Calder, Jonathan Lamb, and
Bridget Orr, eds., Voyages and beaches : Pacic encounters, 17691840 (Honolulu, 1999), pp. 22640.
Peter Gay, The Enlightenment : an interpretation (2 vols., London, 1973), II, p. 319.
Laurent Tissot, Naissance dune industrie touristique: les anglais et la Suisse au XIXieme sie `cle (Lausanne,
2000), p. 6.
H I S T O R I O G R A P H I C A L R E V I E W S 589
was thus paralleled with a form of tourism that was almost industrial in its scale and
It is the literature of travel concerned with the interaction between the European and
the non-European that has, however, attracted most attention, reected in part by
the growing number of modern editions of travellers accounts being published. Leicester
University Press has, for example, established a series, The Literature of Travel,
Exploration and Empire, that includes, among other recent works, F. E. Manings vivid
and beguiling account of early colonial encounter, Old New Zealand and other writings. Alex
Calders useful preface sets Manings work in its historical context and points to the way
in which Maning shaped his material to dene more closely the border between European
and Maori.
In doing so, Calder emphasizes the need to treat its status as an historical
document with caution. Other recent editions of major travellers accounts include the
sumptuous editions of two of the great accounts of Cooks second voyage by the Forsters
(father and son) with prefaces and detailed notes by Nicholas Thomas and his fellow
This close interest in the literature of travel and exploration underlines the extent to
which the vibrant and rapidly growing literature on imperialism is drawing on perspectives
of the literary scholar and the cultural theorist. The dominant movement in the study of
imperialism is, as A. G. Hopkins has noted, towards cultural history as scholars attempt
to wrestle with issues of national identity, cross cultural exchange, and the way in which
Western accounts of imperial encounter reect the culture from which they originated
as much as the culture they described.
The growing ascendancy of cultural history is
underlined by the recent collection tellingly entitled The new imperial history, edited by
Wilson. Indeed, Wilson suggests that the new style of history embodied in this collection
with its interdisciplinary character and emphasis on issues of culture and theory provides
a model for history tout court. For, in her view, the need to take account of multiple
perspectives from above and below brings with it a fragmentary and provisional character
in the writing of history that is nearer to the reality of lived experience than the traditional
attempts to arrive at a denitive narrative.
And yet, though the diverse and high quality
essays that make up this collection do emphasize various forms of cultural history, they
assume a common centre to the imperial enterprise. The workings of empire might
be viewed, to take three examples, from the vantage point of the impact on womens
lives of the late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scal state, as in Margaret Hunts
article, or from that of the elite late eighteenth-century gentleman putting knowledge
arrived at from organizing the exploration of Africa at the service of the British state, as in
that by Philip Stern, or that of the Tahitian Mai on his visit to London, before returning
with Captain Cook, as analysed by Harriet Guest. But, though written from dierent
perspectives, the general outlines of an entity that we can still usefully call the British
Alex Calder, ed., Old New Zealand and other writings, by F. E. Maning (London, 2001).
Johann Reinhold Forster, Observations made during a voyage round the world, ed. Nicholas Thomas,
Harriet Guest, and Michael Dettelbach, with a linguistics appendix by K. Rensch (Honolulu, 1996),
and George Forster, A voyage round the world, ed. Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof (2 vols.,
Honolulu, 1999).
A. G. Hopkins, Development and the utopian ideal, 19601999 in Winks, ed., Historiography,
p. 648.
Kathleen Wilson, Introduction: histories, empires, modernities, in Wilson, ed., A new imperial
history: culture, identity and modernity in Britain and the empire, 16601840 (Cambridge, 2004), p. 22.
590 H I S T O R I C A L J O U R N A L
empire do not appear to have changed greatly, despite Wilsons emphasis on the
vulnerable, insecure and unstable character of the centre.
While this new historiography has brought many gains, there were aspects of the
older historiography that could be protably revived. There is an irony in the fact, for
example, that the volume of the old Cambridge history of the British empire that deals with
Australias political evolution was reprinted for the 1988 bicentennial an indication of
the extent to which the eld of Australian political history and its imperial connections
had been long neglected. Though constitutional history is now considered a rather dusty
pursuit, it does deal with the distribution of power which is the same concept that underlies
the work of the ubiquitous Foucault or, in dierent ways, that of Said. Though new
approaches to old questions are doubtless called for and particularly ones that allow
increased scope for the role of the colonized, as well as the colonizers the older histori-
ography did ow from those still familiar with the actual mechanisms by which the empire
was administered.
Together with studying the ways in which imperial power was controlled and distributed
there is also a need for more studies of the way in which another basic commodity, wealth,
was distributed. The work of P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins draws together an important
cultural perspective the way in which [t]he imperial mission was the export of the
gentlemanly order
with an acute appraisal of the economic foundations of empire.
Similarly, Tissots study links cultural issues of national identity with economic realities
such as railway lines while Frosts account of the increasing global consciousness of late
eighteenth-century Britain also devotes attention to such underlying realities as the supply
of naval spars. Such a merging of the cultural and the economic could provide some of the
more free-oating forms of cultural history with a more secure anchorage in imperial
structures. One of the great insights of new historiography is the extent to which it has
stripped aside many of the veils placed over imperial ambition: such forms of analysis
could oer new approaches to older questions of how far empires enriched some
groups and not others. Interestingly, Linda Colley, whose work has inspired many of the
studies concerned with national and gender identity in its imperial dimension, has also
urged the need for imperial historians to take account of economic, as well as cultural
One of the driving forces behind the revival of imperial history is an increasing need
to make sense of a world where global forces decreasingly respect the borders of the
nation state. Empires oer a fruitful route to understanding how the world has become a
much smaller place. Imperial structures, ideologies, and rituals oer insights into the
ways in which the world was refashioned to allow control by one culture over others. Such
a global perspective brings with it the possibility of constructing a less Eurocentric history
as events can be seen as the outcome of a range of forces and not solely European
expansionism. As Hopkins writes : imperial history does not have to be Western
Wilson is less sure, suggesting that the whole historical enterprise may not be
able to escape its Western origins, so that [t]he very notion of an imperial history,
whether old or new, may be but an artefact of European dominance and metropolitan
Ibid., p. 17.
P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British imperialism: innovation and expansion, 16881914 (London, 1993),
p. 34.
Linda Colley, What is imperial history now?, in David Cannadine, ed., What is history now?
(Basingstoke, 2002), pp. 13247, at p. 144.
Hopkins, Back to the future, p. 203.
H I S T O R I O G R A P H I C A L R E V I E W S 591
Historians have, however, recently employed considerable imagination
in using innovative forms of evidence such as oral history and anthropological data, to
construct forms of history which convey both a European and indigenous perspective
on the meeting of cultures. Such is the goal of Anne Salmonds monumental two-volume
study of the interaction between Maori and European in New Zealand or of Klaus
Neumanns account of the history of the Tolai on the island of New Britain, a part of
Papua New Guinea.
Two recent biographies of James Cook by Salmond and Nicholas
Thomas have even attempted, where possible, to provide something of the vantage point
of the peoples of the Pacic on the forms of contact that were the result of his great
The ineluctable need to continue to rely heavily on the documentary record
inevitably tends, however, to result in the European perspective receiving an asymmetrical
degree of attention.
As Europe expanded, it laid down pathways that drew the world closer together for
good and ill. As Drayton tellingly writes, [e]mpires, the children of the medieval world,
were the midwives of the modern.
With its use of the plural, too, the remark reminds us
that the European empires had to vie for supremacy with others especially in the period
before industrialization gave Europe a period of commercial and military advantage.
Imperial borders and strategies were shaped by both metropolitan goals and by the
response of the peoples over whom it was intended that power should be exerted.
Understanding such a balance of forces brings an accompanying capacity to view history
from plural perspectives and, in doing so, helps to make sense of the global forces at
work in our own world. Imperial history has been refashioned by a more globablized world
in a form that oers insight into both past and present problems. By doing so, imperial
history is likely increasingly to jostle for attention with the forms of national history
that empires both helped to foster and to subvert.
Wilson, Introduction: histories, empires, modernities, p. 2.
Anne Salmond, Two worlds : rst meetings between Maori and Europeans, 16421772 (Auckland, 1991),
and Between worlds : early exchanges between Maori and Europeans, 17731815 (Auckland, 1997) ; Klaus
Neumann, Not the way it really was : constructing the Tolai past (Honolulu, 1992).
Anne Salmond, The trial of the cannibal dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas (London, 2003), and
Nicholas Thomas, Discoveries: the voyages of Captain Cook (London, 2003).
Drayton, Natures government, p. xi.
592 H I S T O R I C A L J O U R N A L