17 March, 2014Issue 24.5HistoryPolitics & Society

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Writing an Imperial(ist) History

Dominic Davies

John Darwin
Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain
Penguin Books Paperback Re-Issue, 2013
496 pages
ISBN 978-1846140891

Only a year after its first publication in 2012, John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire has been re-published in an attractive paperback version by Penguin. The book is not Darwin’s first attempt to cover the uneven, cross-national and tumultuous terrain of the British Empire in a single volume. In fact, casting an eye across his extensive oeuvre, it appears to have become a preoccupation. Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 (Penguin, 2008), the book that made Darwin’s name as a global historian, made a comprehensive argument for the imperial underpinnings of the modern world. This was followed by The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (2011), which, though less ambitious in its temporal scope, offered a more thorough archaeological project, excavating multiple social strata and conducting a wider geographical survey. Unfinished Empire, by contrast, appears as a more self-conscious attempt to encapsulate the British Empire in a single volume—a view clearly shared, and indeed promoted, by Penguin. This paperback edition packs the five hundred pages into a neat and tidy pocket-size text, whilst the endorsements on the front re-emphasise that Darwin’s latest is the book to read if you want to understand the British Empire: it is “the best single-volume guide”, we are told, offering “an unmatched overview of imperial Britain’s rise and fall”.

Penguin have thus deployed a series of marketing strategies designed to tap into what they imagine to be contemporary British nostalgia for, and pathetic determination to cling onto, its once global, imperial greatness—a lingering ideological perspective betrayed by David Cameron’s dismissal of extensive health and safety laws with the revealing quip that “Britannia didn’t rule the waves with armbands on”. Across various disciplines within the academy, from Anthropology to English Literature, there can be no doubt that the travesties of empire, as well as the social, economic, and cultural global inequalities that they instigated, have been systematically documented. Neo-imperial historiographies, too, have been rigorously deconstructed and corrected. But this huge and varied project has had a limited reach within the public sphere. Much of it is still, peculiarly, framed as a “history of the left”, or as “too radical” for public consumption—a move that fails to acknowledge the implicitly neoliberal values propagated by some of the most public historians today. It would appear that this is perpetuated by publishers. Penguin seem actively to be seeking out the sections of their potential non-academic readership that harbour neocon imperial nostalgias. What is especially unattractive, however, is the way in which these implicit political values are understood and represented, by publishers and some mainstream historians alike, as politically neutral—a move that serves both to legitimise these implicitly polemic historical readings, as well as to discard alternative, if more overtly political ones.

In the case of Unfinished Empire, these tendencies result in an unfortunate simplification of Darwin’s thesis: Penguin have designed the edition to attract a certain readership, but in doing so have reductively directed, or shaped, the way in which readers will receive it. The danger is that non-academic readers will plough through Darwin’s five hundred pages and expect to emerge—and more importantly, will believe they have emerged—with a complete understanding of Britain’s imperial history, and of how such history should be registered, documented and narrated. By imagining a nostalgic, implicitly right-wing readership, and by marketing Darwin’s book for that imagined audience, Penguin not only reproduce myths that Richard Gott, Priyamvada Gopal, Bill Schwarz, and many others have worked hard to deconstruct. They also misrepresent, in a public sphere, a broader academic assessment of the imperial past.

Unfinished Empire’s central thesis is that Britain’s Empire was always “unfinished”, in the sense that it was in a constant process of renewal and recalibration. Penguin’s marketing, along with certain textual frames which Darwin himself must have chosen, invite the reader to understand this “unfinishedness” in a temporally linear sense—Britain does, after all, still rule over a smattering of overseas territories. The contents page, for example, details a rigidly chronological narrative with which the book organises five-hundred years of history, echoing the “rise and fall” trajectory of Darwin’s earlier publications and erasing rather than emphasising the subtlety of his historical argument. A great deal is lost here. If we understand Darwin’s thesis that the Empire is “unfinished” in a spatial sense—an uneven and complex network of military violence, capital investment, differentiated policy making, and underhand dealing, all in a constant process of renewal and response to the political-economic circumstances of different situations—it is not only more academically original and socially valuable, but is probably closer to how Darwin’s thesis works itself out through his extensive research and primary material. By forcing the book into this “grand narrative”, determined both to understand itself and to be understood as a one-volume answer to a vast segment of global history, much of this valuable thesis is lost.

Nevertheless, Darwin’s knowledge, nuance, and comparative skill enable him to flit between geographical situations and historical locations with ease, and to generate extraordinarily valuable readings of Britain’s imperial history, without the dangers of reductivism that usually characterise these popular tomes—in truth, a worthy achievement. An unfortunate qualification, however, does need to be made. There is an uneasy dogmatism informing the philosophy that underpins his historical practice. At several points, Darwin steps back from the nitty gritty of historical detail to reflect more broadly on the motions, the politics, and especially the legacies and memories of the British Empire. What is strange about these moments is the mismatch between Darwin’s acknowledgement of the “shameful record” of the imperial past and his peculiar nostalgia for that same history, as it seeps through the political unconscious of his text. His attempt to contextualise some of the more brutal atrocities of the British Empire, as recently recovered by various historical projects within a relative historical paradigm at points reads like an awkward attempt to excuse them. Throughout history, the world has always been subject to different (and, Darwin points out, non-European) empires on different geographical scales, many of which, he claims, have been “culturally creative and materially beneficial”. At best, therefore, Darwin’s reading suggests that the British Empire was yet another global dispensation in an oft-repeated and not unusual history of geopolitical orders, and should be understood as such. At worst, this historical comparativism—with its implications that the British Empire, ultimately, “wasn’t that bad”—ignores the contemporary economic and cultural hierarchies and pervasive global inequalities that are direct outgrowths of what Walter Mignolo, amongst many others, understands as the explicitly European “modern/colonial world system”.

But there is a further problem at work here. Unfinished Empire takes up not only these problematic historical practices, but actively dismisses the work of various other counter-imperial and postcolonial narratives. This is undertaken through an uneasy recourse to what Darwin frames as his more “objective” and “historically accurate” view of the subject. These other historical methodologies are, Darwin argues, compromised by a certain ideological lens, their historical accuracy inflected with the political projects out of which they have arisen. He thus positions himself in relation to the valuable work of schools such as the Subaltern Studies Group, or the postcolonial writings of Edward Said, before departing from them. The nature of this departure is founded on a claimed “empirical” reading of historical evidence, an assertion that carries the unfortunate implication that those he disregards cannot read empirically. By explicitly outlining their politics and ideological perspectives, these historical and interdisciplinary schools are apparently lacking in, or undermine, their own capacity for the empirical (and thus “true”) history which Darwin claims for his own project. But as the Slovenian philosopher Slavok Žižek warns, ideology is at its purest in the phrase: “Let the facts speak for themselves”. The ideological underpinnings of Darwin’s perspective are buried beneath his surface claim to unfettered empirical truth and then ignored. The socio-cultural perspectivalism—or what might be called “historicity”, the historical location of the historian—which necessarily shapes historical practice, and to which we are all subject, is regretfully overlooked.

The result is that Darwin’s “unfinished” thesis becomes a disciplinarily imperial attempt to finish alternative histories of the British Empire, working to institutionalise a certain type of historical practice that dismisses other valuable, creative, and exciting—not least to say politically imperative—ways of reading and writing the past. Darwin’s history, though certainly not as gross as the neoliberal celebrations of the British Empire by historians such as Niall Ferguson, nevertheless ripples with resemblance to those sorts of historical-polemical tracts. His moments of disciplinary dogma—which make up only a small portion of the text—are unfortunately exacerbated by Penguin’s marketing decisions. This is, all in all, a great shame: the actual historical work undertaken throughout Unfinished Empire is thorough, refreshing, and engaging, and if it did not flaunt its burning of a number of political and disciplinary bridges, this book could have been an exciting contribution to the new interdisciplinary routes that are currently enabling a recalibration of the global origins of the current world-system, Britain’s place within it, and new historical methodologies more generally.

Dominic Davies is reading for a D.Phil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is the Executive Editor of the Oxonian Review.