Empire: Yay or Nay

A disturbing feature of the ongoing public debate about the history of empire is the dullness with which the main question has been engaged, particularly by academic-cum-public intellectual apologists on the right. Was empire a good thing, or a bad thing? Survey says: good thing. Yay! I was right!

Another recent debate, over whether or not or how exactly historians should be pundits, suggests a couple of questions that bear on this. First, the main bone of contention in the latter discussion seems to me to have been not so much whether historians should talk to the public — all the main parties to the argument do that already — but rather how much “dumbing down” such engagement requires or should allow. Do ordinary people, whoever they are, have the patience or the wherewithal for the details and the nuances beloved of academics? Or do they prefer their stories to be simple — simpler than we know they really were — and to have equally simple morals? And second, if the public does indeed need its history to be oversimplified, how far should we scholars, masters of detail and nuance, oblige it?

To put these questions this way exaggerates the condescension of the discussion, but it also draws out some of the assumptions or questions lurking beneath. One concerns the purpose of public engagement. Is it simply instrumental? Do we need to engage the public so that people will do something specific — something we want them to do — with the knowledge we impart? Or do we do it because it is our job to publicize historical knowledge, whatever its implications — or lack of implications? Or do we share our knowledge because the public has paid for it and it is, in a manner of speaking, public property? I don’t imagine that these different options exhaust the possibilities; nor are they necessarily mutually exclusive. But they at least indicate that there is room for meaningful differences over what we are doing when we talk to the public. Our answers are usually thought to reflect our view of history and historiography, and no doubt they do; but of course they depend no less on our view of the public itself.

The view of the public evinced by the “pro-Empire” camp, in this regard, is revealing. “Empire built the railroads; Empire ended slavery; Empire cured diseases; Empire was a Good Thing.” This is the way one speaks to very young children. More specifically, it is the way one speaks to children whom one wishes to shield from potentially troubling or hurtful complexity, from the nasty details of real life. It is the language of pacification. (It’s no accident that public intellectuals who have accustomed themselves to speaking to audiences they regard as childlike often retain, as if from habit, the language of the playground when addressing their academic peers. “I won!”) On the other hand, I am not sure that fingering Empire as the root of all the present world’s problems is helpful, either — not because it is “unfair” to Empire, but because it turns a historically specific phenomenon into a simple, universal, and axiomatic explanation of our condition. Like imperial cheerleading, it tends to discourage critical questions.

It should be obvious that Empire is not simple. I study, among other things, the early English (later British) Empire; I spent much of my childhood in one of the last British colonies, Hong Kong, near the end of its time under British rule. Disentangling the beginnings of the empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from their surroundings, severing properly “imperial”  or “colonial” processes or phenomena from the social, economic, political, and religious changes that they both fed and drew upon, is not an easy matter. Nor is deciding which impressions of Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s belong strictly in the “Empire” box — or, indeed, which empire I might be talking about. The most impressive military presence in Victoria Harbour was invariably the visiting Seventh Fleet of the US Navy; the most visibly marginalized group, to my young expatriate eyes, was the 300,000-strong population of Filipinas present in the colony, overwhelmingly as “domestic helpers”. Their condition was and is bound up with the history of at least two empires, and with a great deal else besides.

So formulations that begin “Empire did…” or “Empire was…”, statements that treat Empire as a simple agent possessed of personal attributes and motivations, make me a little uneasy. For many parts of the world for the last five centuries and more, Empire has been a multifaceted set of conditions as often as it has been a neatly defined thing or group of things. It unquestionably makes sense to say that Empire, as a set of institutions, a collection of territories, a political or a legal entity, “does” or “is” certain things; but Empire as a set of conditions — interacting with other aspects of life in any given context — has acted as an opportunity for or a constraint upon the doing of many, many more. Simplistic assessments of Empire tend to ignore distinctions that made a great deal of difference in the lives of its subjects. Before very long, it becomes unclear what “Empire” means, or whether it means anything specific at all; anything that happened “under Empire”, geographically or temporally, simply becomes a point for or against. Whatever its political value — from what I’ve seen, it appears mainly to confirm preexisting prejudices — I don’t think this does much to advance anyone’s understanding of history.

All of which said, these distinctions enable a few simple points to be made, too. One is that few if any of the alleged “benefits” of empire stand up to scrutiny, at least when used as they have been in the latest public debate. To congratulate “Empire” for building railroads in India, say, is not only to assume that this would not have happened without Empire but also, much more importantly, to imply quite ludicrously that building railroads was somehow what Empire was about, when it had existed in one form or another for centuries before. This kind of caveat goes double for curing disease, something imperial expansion did a great deal more to spread — and on whose genocidal effects empire in many places depended — for the first three centuries after Columbus. But surely the most perverse, offensive defence of empire concerns slavery, something that was part and parcel of Britain’s Atlantic empire and economy for over a century. If we insist on personifying empire, let’s take the whole biography into account. How loudly do we applaud the pyromaniac who turns fireman, the fraudster who takes up the law, the mass murderer who dons a policeman’s uniform? If we really need a figure for empire, it should probably be one of these.

More seriously: if we want to assess empires historically, we need to look at their origins as well as their effects. These origins lie long before the age of railroads and vaccines. The fundamental imperatives of “Empire”, if it makes sense to speak of them, have to be inferred from the motivations and goals of the people who created it. These included, prominently, the desire to extract wealth from distant places and to occupy land inhabited by others; the compulsion to conscript the bodies and labor of strangers and perhaps to change their minds or save, by force if need be, their souls. They included, too, the desire or the felt need to attack, compete with, or circumvent European rivals; to strengthen the hand and fill the coffers of the Crown; to satisfy, in at least a few cases, a greedy curiosity. Perhaps the most striking thing about many early efforts of empire — if one can generalize — is the extent to which they were undertaken without any real thought to the human objects of conquest and colonization, the future subjects or victims of empire, at all. Certainly, the varied intentions of those who made Empire are hardly sufficient grounds on which to judge the impact of what they made; but so much less so are a handful of effects lifted without context from Empire’s last decades. It is unhelpful, from the point of view of historical analysis, to view the creation of an empire as an act of pure evil. But to portray Empire as some sort of altruistic showering of benefits on the benighted world is both analytically vacuous and morally vile.

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