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THE CHANGING SHAPE OF THE MODERN BRITISH EMPIRE AND ITS HISTORIOGRAPHY
Author(s): TONY BALLANTYNE
Source: The Historical Journal, Vol. 53, No. 2 (JUNE 2010), pp. 429-452
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40865696
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The Historical Journal, 53, 2 (2010), pp. 429-452 © Cambridge University Press 2010
doi:io.ioi7/Sooi8246Xiooooii7
THE CHANGING SHAPE OF THE MODERN
BRITISH EMPIRE AND ITS HISTORIOGRAPHY
TONY BALLANTYNE
University qfOtago, New Zealand
abstract. This historiographical review assesses recent studies of the dev
British empire. It appraises works that explore the transformation of the em
pattern, and the forces éat radically reshaped the empire during the twentieth cen
clear shift towards cultural interpretations of the imperial past, three main area
taken shape: the importance of information and knowledge in empire building,
difference within imperial social formations, and the place of imperial networks a
exchange in the operation of the empire. The review suggests that the relationshi
cultural domains of empire require close examination and that historians of empi
the weight and significance of pre-cobnial structures and mentalities in mou
political and cultural terrains.
This historiographical review examines some of the mos
publications that chart the transformation of the British e
eighteenth century through to 1980. This assessment of a lar
offers a more considered evaluation of certain works th
analytical challenges or interpretative problems in imperial h
assessing the particular contribution of the volumes under r
some broad reflections on the changing shape of the analyt
important clusters of work, highlighting key historiograp
identifying some interpretative fault-lines. The review begin
recent work that explores the growth and transformation of
1 760s, before assessing a range of volumes that grapple wit
especially gender, religion, and knowledge. I then discuss a g
offer explicitly transnational analyses of the empire, befor
appraisal of a cluster of new scholarship that illuminates the
the empire in the middle of the twentieth century.
I
The rapid rise of the East India Company (EIC) in the second half of the eighteenth century has frequently been identified as a watershed in British imperial
Department of History and Art History, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand
tony.ballantyne@otago.ac.nz
429
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430 HISTORICALJOURNAL
history, as the EIC’s growing muscle began to tu
endeavour to the East at the very moment its At
crisis by the American Revolutionary War. In his
Dirks examines the changing place of the EIC in B
and sovereignty.1 Dirks attempts to demonstrate
which both imperial and capitalist expansion was
‘endemic’ to the operations of the EIC2 He co
condemnations of the former governor of Bengal
to the reshaping of empire’s meaning. He sugges
empire to be refashioned into a moral undertaking
commerce would be powerful engines for improv
of imperial exploitation. Ultimately, The scandal o
Hastings to scrutiny before the combined houses
empire safe for British sovereignty’.3
Most importantly, Dirks claims that the EIG
were shored up by the displacement of scandal f
agents of empire-building to the supposedly corr
tices of South Asians. There is certainly no doub
certain South Asian practices and the colonial stat
sah were significant elements in the political eco
in South Asia, but The scandal of empire does not
and is insufficiently grounded in archival analysi
Unfortunately, his use of scandal as an analyt
unconvincing: although he frequently asserts th
operation of the empire, he does not effectively
scandal actually drove wars of conquest or ena
authority on the ground.
Throughout the volume, Dirks draws direct p
century British empire-building and contempor
especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some of thes
to sew George W. Bush’s America and Edmund B
strips away the complexities of the 1780s and pr
reading of imperial politics. And in dismissing n
empire, but also the value of much contemporary
of recent historiography that is hectoring and o
engage with other important works on scandal an
sophisticated body of scholarship that has remate
in shaping British politics and culture.4 It is
1 Nicholas B. Dirks, The scandal of empire: India and the cre
MA, 2006). 2 Ibid., p. 8. 8 Ibid., p. 207.
4 In an endnote, Dirks does briefly note Anna Clark’s monograph on the con
sexual scandals and political culture : ibid., pp. 344-5 n. 37. But he ignores Clark’s
the important 2003 essay by Kirsten McKenzie on colonial scandal. Anna Clark, *
the sexual politics of popular culture in London, 1820′, Representations, 31 (1990),
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HISTORIOGRAPHICAL REVIEWS 431
‘the erasure of empire from the history of Europe’ remain
ignore the value of the large bodies of work on imperial qu
politics, the impact of slave trade and slavery on Britain, the
empire ‘ in British cultural and commercial life, and the inf
on British literary production.5 And, in a similar vein, we real
whole library full of monographs produced over the past t
to accept that ‘the devastations of imperial rule on the colon
to which the struggles and challenges of postcolonial regim
critical legacies of colonial rule are discounted’ in recent writ
British colonialism in India.6 These overreaching claims are
detract from some deft passages of analysis in the middle of
Ultimately, The scandal of empire will be primarily of value t
American intellectual life who want to assess the debates around the American
invasion of Iraq, but this is not a work that really pushes the historiography of
colonial India or the British empire in any new directions. The analytical tone
and temperament of H. V. Bowen’s Business of empire stand in stark contrast
to Dirks’s work.7 In this important monograph, Bowen examines what
P. J. Marshall characterized as the transition from ‘trade to dominion’ in British
endeavour in Asia or what Bowen identifies as the EIC’s shift from being ‘a vast
empire of business ‘ to becoming an organization that was ‘ devoted to the business
of empire’.8 Bowen reconstructs this transition with great care, in particular
tracing the relationships between the EIC and influential moneymen and
politicians in Britain whose influence powerfully shaped the EIC’s institutional
development.
The business of empire offers a rich and nuanced picture of the changing structures
and practices that shaped the EIC’s operation between 1756 and 1833. Essentially,
Bowen’s work demonstrates the ways in which the EIC’s access to land revenues
from India exposed it to new pressures and how, in response, the EIC created new
managerial structures, decision-making systems, and relationships with investors,
stockholders, and key political figures. Bowen has little to say about the workings
of the EIC’s operations on the ground in India and he also avoids any sustained
engagement with questions relating to the EIC’s place in reshaping global
patterns of trade. His focus is firmly on the metropolitan element of the EIC’s
development : but there is no doubt that the resulting work is an important study
‘The Chevalier d’Eon and Wilkes: masculinity and politics in the eighteenth century’, Eighteenth-
Century Studies, 32 (1998), pp. 19-48; Kirsten McKenzie, ‘Discourses of scandal: bourgeois
respectability and the end of slavery and transportation at the Gape and New South Wales,
1830-1850 ‘ Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 4 (2003), http://muse.jhu.edu/joumals/journaL
of_colonialism_and_colonial_history/voo4/4. 3mckenzie.html.
5 Dirks, Scandal, p. 29.
Ibid., p. 329.
H. V. Bowen, The business of empire: the East India Company and imperial Britain, 1756-1833
(Cambridge, 2006).
8 P.J. Marshall, ‘The British in Asia: trade to dominion, 1700-1765’, in P.J. Marshall, ed., The
Oxford history of the British empire, 11: The eighteenth century (Oxford, 1998), pp. 487-507; Bowen, Business of
empire, p. 298.
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432 HISTORICAL JOURNAL
of institutional transformation that casts great li
connected London to the provinces and increasi
economic and political life.
While firmly rooted in economic and admini
volume offers valuable cultural insights. It makes
ongoing debates over the role of the empire in the
pole. His introduction offers a lively discussion of
history over the significance of colonial trade in
commercial patterns and the emergence of indust
EIC’s operations in Asia generated ‘stronger domes
have hitherto been recognized by historians’.9 By
circle’ of the EIC’s connections with Britain,
provinces, Bowen compellingly demonstrates the
entanglement of British domestic life with the em
undercuts recent work – which frequently appeals
that is sceptical of the domestic significance of th
People from all over Britain became participants in the p
expansion whether or not they actually went abroad, an
activity ensured that a commitment to trade and empire
public expression was given to attitudes and identities.10
Bowen also demonstrates the centrality of wri
underlining the absolute centrality of dispatches in
pretations of events in distant India as well as conv
from the EIC to its agents in India. This is a
the growing importance of the written word in B
later eighteenth century as well as a compelling ass
distance, time, and communication technologies m
Writing as an administrative practice is at the h
connections}1 This very important study produces a
shifting dynamics of imperial governance in the ‘A
long-established images of the Colonial Office. Lai
tours of the various personal networks that linked
politan politicians and opinion makers, and Col
earlier work on the Colonial Office, Colonial connec
of practices and debates in London with detailed a
sites, in this case New South Wales and the Cape C
able to produce a volume that judiciously balanc
while skilfully recovering the ‘traffic’ in ideas, inf
traversed the empire.
9 Bowen, Business of empirei p. 295.
10 Ibid, p. 261.
” Zoë Laidlaw, Colonial connections, 1815-1845: patronage, the informat
(Manchester, 2005).
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HISTORIOGRAPHICAL REVIEWS 433
It has been customary to seee James Stephen’s assumption o
permanent under-secretary of Colonial Office in 1836 as trig
revolution that rooted out ‘ Old Corruption ‘ and displaced
ditions of administration that were strongly dependent on p
Laidlaw offers a more sophisticated treatment of the transf
governance, drawing attention to two changes that had lon
wider implications for the empire. First, the key lines of po
creasingly shifted from the métropole to the periphery as infl
Colonial Office recognized the need for colonial communiti
stake in their own governance. Even as officials in Britain r
Britons in the colonies might ultimately refuse to recognize th
of the British constitution, they saw the benefits in allowin
increased stake in local administration. Second, there was a sh
governance as impersonal bureaucratic processes that institu
production displaced informal personal networks. A key mark
was the new authority attached to statistics within the colon
As tables and numbers flooded into the Colonial Office – r
patterns of migration, the progress of colonial land sales, th
culture in the colonies, and the state of the ‘Aborigines’ – a
servants were required to process this empire of informat
Office expanded, it also became increasingly professionalized
new civil servants further extended the reach of statistics in
official knowledge began to produce a regularized, abstract,
of the empire that was much less dependent on the connecti
shared service.
In reconstructing these shifts, Colonial connections offers many insights. Its
sustained treatment of the awkward position of colonial governors as mediators
between metropolitan institutions and colonial pressures is a particularly im-
portant contribution to our understanding of imperial political economy.
More broadly, the administrational sinews of empire are revealed by Laidlaw’s
examination of the changing culture of correspondence and the value attached
to statistics as instruments for assessing colonial progress and the efficiency of
governance. It will be interesting to see how work on other colonial sites
might enrich or challenge Laidlaw’s arguments, and the implications of her
thesis also deserve careful consideration for any future work on the imperial
crises of the 1850s and 1860s and the nature of subsequent imperial reconstruction.
II
While gender and sexuality were largely marginal to the original five-volume
Oxford history of the British Empire (OHBE), it has been absolutely central in recent
work on colonialism and empire building. Philippa Levine’ s Gender and empire is,
somewhat ironically, a ‘ companion volume ‘ to that series and it offers important
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434 HISTORIC AL JOURNAL
redress for the OHBE’s almost total occlusion of ge
ways, Levine’s introductory essay is the single mos
volume, as it offers a cogent and punchy case for th
analytical category. Kathleen Wilson, Catherine H
provide lean, yet comprehensive, overviews of the
twentieth centuries, but it is a shame that there is no
centuries of empire building. A comprehensive set o
the historical and historiographical terrain of gender
A striking feature of these pieces is the emphasis the
especially in the powerful essays by Jock McCu
Antoinette Burton’s closing essay on archives and t
tories of the empire can be profitably read alongsi
introduces some much-needed reflection on method
Oxford series.
Durba Ghosh’s Sex and the family in cobnial India is an important work that
exemplifies the ways in which gendered analysis can illuminate the interfaces
between the worlds of the family and politics and add considerable depth to our
understanding of how cultural difference was imagined and ordered.13 Ghosh
reconstructs the changing shape of the families constructed by British men in
India in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, examining the family
as both an affective formation and a socio-economic structure. Her particular
focus is the mixed family of a British husband, native wife, and mixed-race children : this unit was fundamental to the operation of the EIG in the formative years
of colonial rule. At the same time, these families were a potentially destabilizing
presence that called the whiteness and Britishness of the Company into question.
Ghosh shows the pressures that were brought to bear on these mixed families as
Governors Cornwallis and Wellesley strove to make empire-building respectable
by preventing the formation of new mixed families and stopping mixed-race
subjects entering the civil service and military. She carefully demonstrates that
this attempt to create social distance and confidently inscribe cultural boundaries
was powerful, but never totally effective. She also undercuts arguments that see
the racialization of colonial rule in India as the outcome of the 1857 rebellion and
the subsequent reconstruction of British authority. Her study shows that foundational elements of colonial racial hierarchies were put in place much earlier as
the bodies of native women became the site upon which the probity of colonial
rule and the boundaries of Britishness were established.
Elizabeth Buettner’s Empire families can be usefully read against Ghosh’s
volume.14 Empirefamilies makes effective use of a range of English language sources
and images to produce a substantial appraisal of middle-class English families
in India during the first half of the twentieth century. It examines colonial
12 Philippa Levine, ed., Gender and empire (Oxford, 2004).
18 Durba Ghosh, Sex and the family in colonial India: the making of empire (Cambridge, 2006).
14 Elizabeth Buettner, Empire families: Britons and late imperial India (Oxford, 2004).
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HISTORIOGRAPHICAL REVIEWS 435
childhoods, the separation between children and their par
accompanied schooling, and the return of families ‘home’ t
Cheltenham, and Eastbourne. Buettner is a sympathetic in
transitions and her book is certainly an important contri
standing of the extended spatial and social domain that the
British families. But by focusing so firmly on the middle r
and not exploring the ‘poor whites’ that were the foc
pioneering work, Buettner’s ability to explore class
categories is inhibited.15 Empire families tends to quarantin
South Asian worlds in which they lived and, as a result, i
engaged with a robust South Asian historiography aro
though she offers a great deal of evidence about British
relationships with South Asian servants, Buettner sees these
existing outside the family where important studies in th
emphasize the centrality of servants in the socio-econom
family.16 It is very unfortunate that servants, and other
reduced to the status of ‘ significant others ‘ in this study,
notes that her work ‘does not pretend to provide Anglo-I
spectives about their encounters with British private life a
While Ghosh lacks the rich archives that Buettner uses to c
work proves more effective in reading the colonial family a
South Asian traditions.
Ill
The work of anthropologists and historians of colonialism has
focused on questions of religion and landmark works, by John and Jean
Susan Thorne, Catherine Hall, Jeffrey Cox, and Elizabeth Elbourne,
questions of religious belief and identification to the centre of
ographical field.18 Norman Etherington’s edited collection Missions a
another of the so-called ‘ companion volumes ‘ to the OHBE – is a v
15 David Arnold, ‘Poor Europeans in India, 1750-1947’, Current Anthropology, 20 (1
and idem, ‘European orphans and vagrants in India in the nineteenth century’, Journa
Commonwealth History, 7 (1979), pp. 104-27.
16 Pamela G. Price, ‘Kin, clan, and power in colonial South India’, in Indrani Ch
Unfamiliar relations : family and history in South Asia (New Brunswick, NJ, 2004), pp. 192
Banerjee, ‘Down memory lane: representations of domestic workers in middle-class
tives of colonial Bengal’, Journal of Social History, 37 (2004), pp. 681-708.
Buettner, Empire families, p. 10.
18 John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Of revelation and revolution (2 vols., Chicago, …
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