Surprises of the Empire

One of the eccentricities of the historical profession is its tradition of explaining very complicated events by means of very simple formulas. For decades historians tried to explain the French Revolution through the actions of monolithic classes—the “aristocracy,” the “bourgeoisie”—until Richard Cobb and a few other scholars suggested the events were easier to understand if you treated people as individuals rather than as members of a class (acting in unison), a crowd (rioting for the same motives), or, worst of all, a list of statistics.

Even more eccentric is the treatment of the British Empire. Stretching over three centuries and six continents, you might have expected that its extent, duration, and diversity would have made it immune to facile interpretation. Not at all. Indeed, while the interpretations themselves change, the facility seems almost permanent.

A hundred years ago, the history of the empire was widely seen as a steady march toward beneficent dominion, a gradual reddening of the schoolroom map from Canada in the top left corner to New Zealand in the bottom right, a progress that brought with it good government, order, prosperity, and (eventually) liberty to those fortunate enough to belong to the expanding red zones. Many of its subjects agreed with this view: in his autobiography even Gandhi admitted he had believed “the British Empire existed for the welfare of the world.” Guided by Providence and by Queen Victoria, Britain assumed extravagantly maternal roles. It (or she) was celebrated as “Mother of the Free” in “Land of Hope and Glory” and as “the mother of Parliaments” by the politician John Bright.

Even when atrocities against subject peoples had to be admitted—like Governor Edward Eyre’s repression of a rebellion in Jamaica in 1865 or Brigadier Reginald Dyer’s massacre of 379 unarmed civilians at Amritsar in 1919—the overall benefits were seldom questioned. You only had to compare the constitutional histories of enlightened Canada and benighted South America to understand the point.

A century later, the simplicities are on the other side. Many historians who call themselves “postcolonial” have taken it for granted that colonial rule was always evil and colonialist motives always bad. A reading of their work leaves the impression that the best of the colonialists was less worthy than the worst of the colonized, unless the latter was an ally of the imperial power, in which case he is dismissed as a “lackey” or “collaborator.” As Maya Jasanoff recalls in her scholarly and imaginative book Edge of Empire, most of the contemporary histories she read while writing “drew a detailed if rather insidious picture of white European colonizers trying to supplant, appropriate, or denigrate the non-European peoples and societies they encountered.”

Most postcolonial writing has no room for altruism. If the British were exploiters, how could they also be altruists? If there is evidence of benign motives—as there is in the letters and diaries of hundreds of civil servants who spent their careers in India—they are very seldom …

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