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The sixth issue of History in Focus presents resources that consider the subject of empire. While the focus of much of the material drawn together here is upon Britain, its colonies and imperial endeavours, the importance of studying empires in a comparative framework and of examining the consequences of imperial rule across the globe and across time, are ever more important, as our two feature-writers observe: Peter Marshall discusses the virtues of both 'old' and 'new' historical approaches to empire, while Katherine Hann of the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum, Bristol, argues for the relevance of knowledge of empire in modern multi-cultural society.


British Imperial History 'New' And 'Old'

British Empire & Commonwealth Museum

Empire Reviews

Empire on the Web



Web Sites

Reviews and Articles



Reviews: Empire

Imperial history was long viewed as merely a variety of British history, thanks to Sir John Seeley's 1883 Expansion of England, in which he projected the evolution of its empire as 'the great fact of modern English history', reflecting Britain's contemporary imperial apogee. However, in the century that has elapsed since that heyday, decolonisation and economic and political globalisation have recast imperial history as the history of empire(s), while histories of colonialism have sought to provide a counterpoint to the 'top down' emphasis of old-style imperial narratives. As Elizabeth Buettner writes of Britain in her review of Catherine Hall's edited volume, Cultures of Empire: Colonizers in Britain and the Empire in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: A Reader (MUP, 2000), 'It is now increasingly common to assert that empire was crucial to the identity of colonizers as well as colonized, that Britain's domestic and overseas histories cannot be disentangled, and that imperial dimensions continue to be relevant in Britain as well as former colonies in the wake of widescale decolonization after the Second World War.' Indeed, as Robert Harris observes, in considering the late Philip Lawson's collected essays in A Taste for Empire and Glory: Studies in British Overseas Expansion, 1660-1800 (Ashgate, 1997), 'The new history of empire is a history of representation as well as of administration, politics, trade and war. It is also a history that forces the historian to cross boundaries between countries within as well as beyond the British Isles.'

Accidental empires?

Book cover: British Colonial Wars 1688-1783

Seeley was perhaps less celebratory of British imperial achievement than his reputation allows; he did for example acknowledge the haphazardness of imperial expansion, in observing 'We seem . to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind'. Indeed, modern histories of imperialism have explored the uncertainty and instability behind overseas expansion with enthusiasm; for example, Bruce Lenman's England's Colonial Wars 1550-1688/ Britain's Colonial Wars 1688-1783 (Longman, 2001) stress, as Peter J. Marshall notes in his review that 'the outcome of England's and Britain's colonial wars was never predictable and their consequences were rarely what contemporaries intended.' Lenman, in his response, goes further still: the 'whole assumption that official British culture in the period 1688-1783 was stamped by a particularly imperialistic outlook is itself very dubious'.

This historiographic turn away from intentional imperialism is very marked in the field of late nineteenth-century European colonial endeavour, which is now more often studied through the lens of domestic politics, than it is considered as a globalising phenomenon. The thesis of Amanda Sackur's and Tony Chafer's edited volume, Promoting the Colonial Idea: Propaganda and Visions of Empire in France (Palgrave, 2001) is, William Gervase Clarence-Smith contends, 'that empire was more theatre than substance for the West. Expansion overseas was principally a way to paper over internal cracks in the political and social fabric of industrialised nation states' . A similar view is presented in Matthew Seligmann's Rivalry in Southern Africa: The Transformation of German Colonial Policy (1998), reviewed by Annika Mombauer, who rehearses the observation of the German politician, Bernhard von Bülow: 'the question is not whether we want to colonize or not, but that we must colonize whether we want to or not'

Governing empires

Book cover: Green Imperialism

Whether or not colonial territories have been intentionally or accidentally acquired, imperial government has also been subject to reexamination by 'new' historians of empire. The ambivalent status of commercial companies like the East India Company and its Dutch counterpart, the VOC in the territories where they operated, has been subject to extensive study; one of the more unusual investigations has been that of Richard Grove, in his Green Imperialism : Colonial Expansion , Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism , 1600-1860 (CUP, 1996), which Bill Luckin feels ably shows how 'the politics of environmental exchange [throw] revealing light on larger social and political issues - not least the highly complex and ambiguous status, in relation to formal state structures, of the Dutch and English East India Companies.'

Government in British India increasingly depended upon military enforcement, underlining what Ian Beckett, in his review of David Killingray and David Omissi, eds., Guardians of Empire: The Armed Forces of the Colonial Powers, c.1700-1964 (MUP, 1999) calls 'the necessity of military power as the basis for empire'. Beckett also praises Killingray and his contributors for pointing up two further military consequences of empire - the 'degree of collaboration ... upon the part of indigenous recruits' who were 'cheaper' to sustain and less expensive than domestic troops to lose; and, perhaps dependent upon this last factor, the 'increasing role of colonial manpower in the world wars of the twentieth century'.

The tension between imperial endeavour and government, and nationalist aspirations is highlighted by Geoffrey Hosking, in his Russia: People and Empire 1552-1917 (Harper Collins, 1997); as Peter Gatrell acknowledges in his review, 'In the process of creating an empire, the existing institutions of community that might otherwise have provided the basis for a "civic sense of nationhood" were weakened and crushed.'. By contrast, British urbanisation in the eighteenth century appears to have been positively framed by imperial pursuits and administrative and commercial agendas: Sarah Richardson, in her review of Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England 1715-1785 (CUP, 1995), a study of urban politics and opposition in Newcastle and Norwich, summarises 'Trade, empire and war supported the political and cultural infrastructure of the urban renaissance.'

Two works also attest to the problems engendered by colonial governance - both military and civilian - back in the 'homeland'. In discussing Sebastian Balfour's Deadly Embrace: Morocco and the Road to the Spanish Civil War (OUP, 2002), which considers the role of Spanish troops in the government of its hardwon Moroccan territories, Francisco J. Romero Salvadó praises Balfour for providing 'a valid model with which to understand the mentality and ideology of the colonial corps and its potentially destabilising role when confronted by metropolitan administrations.' Similarly disruptive consequences, which Robert Harris sums up as 'the corrupting effects of empire' are explored in Philip Lawson's explorations of what Harris terms the 'rapacity and greed of servants of the East India Company' and the impact upon the eighteenth century British polity.

Economics of empire

Book cover: Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World

The economic history of empires may be less fashionable than more culturally-framed approaches, but that has not stopped Niall Ferguson erecting a new history of how 'Britain made the modern world' on a superstructure of what he terms economic 'anglobalisation', rather than upon issues of exploitation, acculturation and oppression. Andrew Porter, in his review of Ferguson's book and television series, Empire (Penguin/ Channel 4, 2002/2003) with its emphasis upon Britain's unprecedented role in the 'optimal allocation of labour, capital and goods in the world' - is highly critical of what he sees as a retrograde development, back towards a Whiggish history of empire.

One of the areas which Porter sees Ferguson as neglecting is the complexity of imperial infrastructures like slavery. As David Richardson remarks in his review of Kenneth Morgan's Slavery, Atlantic Trade and the British Economy, 1660-1800 (CUP, 2000), 'The relationship between slavery, colonialism, capital accumulation and economic development has long been an issue that has exercised political economists and economic historians' . These are far from static debates, as continued attention to the issue of Britain's unique industrialisation in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the role of slavery in that industrialisation, witnesses. Richardson is indeed critical of Morgan's failure to explore this in more critical detail, especially since he does acknowledge other European countries' involvement in slavery and the lack of industrialisation that states like France achieved. Comparative analysis of Dutch and British experiences of imperial development via commercial expansion is the subject of David Ormrod's The Rise of Commercial Empires (CUP, 2003); in his review, Pieter Emmer broadly agrees with Ormrod's thesis that 'Britain seized the imperial initiative by centralizing its economic and governmental institutions at home and by decentralizing its commerce abroad', while suggesting further examples of how the Dutch commerce in the West Indies failed to be as dynamic as British ventures.

Experiencing empire

Book cover: Epidemics in History

Just as economic histories of empire are increasingly looking more comparatively and critically at the ways in which colonisation and imperial governments were funded and managed, so social and cultural historians have developed new routes into exploring experiences of empire, of colonisers and colonised - through studying contemporary media, cultural imports and exports, gender, education and more. Disease and medicine is one such route. Michael Worboys is intrigued by Sheldon Watts' approach in his Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism (Yale UP, 1997), which investigates the
'role of imperialism in creating the conditions in which major epidemics developed, and the weak responses that colonial governments made to these problems', across continents and chronology, while Watts feels that Worboys' comments show an insufficient appreciation of 'the extent of the cultural impact (to say nothing of the disease impact on non-immunes) which even a few well-armed colonialists could make on an indigenous culture.' More positively, Mark Harrison's review of Jane Buckingham's study, Leprosy in Colonial South India: Medicine and Confinement (Palgrave, 2002) , concludes that such a topic can provide 'many useful insights into the broader social and political dynamics of imperialism', by demonstrating 'the growing sense that disease was an imperial problem, rather than merely a local one'.

Another growth area for imperial history is gender. As Clare Midgeley notes in her review of Julia Bush's Edwardian Ladies and Imperial Power (Leicester UP, 2000), gendered responses to empire were crucial to harness, at a time when 'leading imperialists of the period were increasingly turning their attention away from military conquest - the province of men - towards building a settled, civilising Empire - a project to which women were seen as vital'. And such approaches are also important for the wider field of gender history: as Julia Bush stresses in her response, the predominant support for empire amongst upper-class women and 'their refusal to fit comfortably within the established paradigms of modern feminist history is a challenge to those paradigms themselves'.

Yet there is some concern among historians that the perspectives from which imperial experiences are drawn are becoming too clearly set as opposites: the oppressors and the oppressed, or the supporters and opponents. As Peter Marshall writes in his review of David Cannadine's Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire (Allen Lane, 2001), 'Historians have written a great deal about imperial enthusiasts ... and a fair amount about the opponents of empire. They rarely write about the great mass who were neither enthusiasts nor critics, but 'went along'.

Colonial decline and decolonisation

Book cover: Russia: People and Empire

With the dismantling of empires - whether Roman, Mughal or Soviet - comes the need to study how and why such break-ups occur, as well as critical attention to what happens after imperial administrations have ceased to function. The consequences of British imperial decline and decolonisation in the middle of the last century are debated in Frank Heinlein's book, British Government Policy and Decolonisation 1945-1963 (Frank Cass, 2002), in particular the management of what is termed 'informal empire'. Its reviewer, John Kent, commends Heinlein for his 'perceptive analysis of why the formal empire was abandoned' in favour of a more informal network of influence: 'the appearance of this influence was perceived as desirable by British policy makers in ways which reflected something more than power measured in military or economic strength.' Heinlein, in his response to Kent, critiques the latter's use of terms like 'loss' and 'abandonment' in discussing British decolonisation, arguing that the central tenet of his book is to show how this informal empire survived upto and beyond the end of the period under study, 'albeit in a strongly reduced form'.

A resurgence in nationalism is perceived as a natural corollary to 'the movement away from dreams of imperial self-sufficiency' (William Gervase Clarence Smith); at the same time as there has been, in Europe at least, a movement towards greater federation of, and cooperation between states. As Geoffrey Hosking notes in his response to Peter Gatrell's review of Russia: People and Empire 1552-1917 (Harper Collins, 1997), it is geography that has in part wrought this change: for post-Soviet Russia 'There is no major geo-strategic threat ..., such as requires it to remain an empire, still less to try to recreate a former empire.' Perhaps it is geography - human, political and economic - as much as trade, culture and religion, which will shape historical approaches to empire in the early twenty-first century, a factor which will surely mean that the traditional identification of imperial history with British history alone, will be left far behind.


British Imperial History 'New' And 'Old'

In the 1970s it was commonplace to assume that the study of British imperial history, like the British empire itself, was on its last legs. Students, it was supposed, no longer wished to study an irrelevant past; they were concerned now not with vanished empires but with the history of the peoples who had attained independence and for whom the imperial experience had been a transitory interlude. The situation at the end of the twentieth century is very different. British imperial history is in apparently robust health, widely studied in one form or another in schools and in higher education.

In 1999 the North American Conference on British Studies issued a report on ‘The State and Future of British Studies’ in the United States and Canada. In general, this report sounded an anxious note about the decline in the study of British history. The history of the British empire was, however, seen as an exception, where interest was still running at a high level. In an uncertain world for would-be academics on both sides of the Atlantic, there seem to be clear indications that university departments feel a need to employ historians of the British empire. In Britain at least, it is posts in the pre-colonial history of territories once incorporated into the empire that now sadly go unfilled. British people of a certain age and intellectual disposition tend to bewail the ignorance of British school children of the British imperial past about which they are said never to be taught. Such lamentations are not well founded. The National Curriculum allows provision for the study of imperial history at a number of levels and the subject appears to be widely taught.

Far from being seen as dated and irrelevant, the history of empire now seems to be intensely relevant not only for understanding the historical evolution and present state of countries once subjected to British imperial rule but to the understanding of Britain itself. There are many reasons why this might be so. The increasing ethnic diversity of British society, the interest of so many British people in family history that often involves an imperial connection, the apparent similarities between a contemporary global economic order underpinned by American power and the role once played by Britain or the disillusionment with the nation states that emerged from colonial rule now felt by many Asian and African intellectuals – all encourage the study of Britain’s imperial past. A self-consciously ‘new’ imperial historiography has contributed much to the present vitality of the subject, proving extremely attractive to students in higher education.

Boundaries between ‘old’ and ‘new’ interpretations of a subject are usually somewhat nebulous, existing largely in the eyes of their practitioners. So it is with imperial history. Nevertheless, in crude terms, the concerns of imperial history can be said to have traditionally focused on political or economic domination: that is, on the one hand, on military force, civil administration and systems of rule and the eventual transfer of power, and, on the other, on economic development or ‘exploitation’, the special concern of a powerful Marxist tradition of writing about imperialism. Cultural issues, such as education, religious change or language policies, have also long been the staples of imperial history. Indeed, Professor John MacKenzie, who, through his own writing and the Manchester University Press series 'Studies in Imperialism' of which he is editor, has done so much to stimulate the cultural history of modern British imperialism, has distanced himself from the canonical works of the ‘new’ imperial history. Cultural history is, however, the defining concern of the new historians. For them, political and economic domination are assumed, but what interests them is cultural domination, which they see as having had a decisive effect both on the ruled and their rulers.

They start with the unexceptionable proposition that domination involves more than physical or economic coercion; it exists in the minds of the dominated and those who dominate them. Obvious systems of domination are the ordering of the world into hierarchies based on assumptions about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ races, separated by immutable physiological differences, or about stages of human progress, some peoples having attained ‘civilisation’ while others remain sunk in ‘barbarism’ or ‘savagery’, from which they will only escape by outside intervention. Such assumptions confirmed the rulers in their sense of superiority and in their mission to bring about change, while convincing, it was hoped, the ruled of their place in the scheme of things.

The new imperial history, however, goes far beyond these overt systems of mental domination. An imperial presence is revealed in central works of the English literary canon, such as Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre. Virtually all claims to knowledge about the non-western world and all attempts to ‘represent’ its peoples in descriptive writing or in any form of art are exercises of power and are assumed to be tainted by imperial assumptions. Underlying such arguments is a rejection of claims to knowledge that purport to reveal an objective reality. Such claims constitute no more than the prevailing ‘discourses’ about a subject, which ultimately reflect the dominant power in society. The mapping of colonial territories, the writing of the history of their peoples or the collection information about them through ethnographical or anthropological researches – all were (and for many critics still are) exercises of power.

Imperial ways of envisaging the world are thought to have had a profound effect both on its colonies and on Britain itself. Colonial elites of course rejected those aspects of British thought that overtly consigned them to inferiority. But they willingly imbibed its underlying assumptions. British political and cultural norms became their political and cultural norms. They suppressed their own traditions or, more commonly, adopted distorted versions of them, derived from British teaching. Their nationalism, with its objective of a nation state, demonstrated the intellectual thrall in which they were still held. Identities are a prime concern of the new imperial history, which sees nations not as primordial entities existing from remote ages, but as imagined constructions, constantly being reimagined with shifts of power. The colonial past enabled the elites of new nations to define themselves, but the imperial experience also defined Britain. The British sense of themselves as a people came to depend on the exercise of imperial power over others, whose deficiencies highlighted Britain’s national virtues. Empire, for instance, helped to shape British ideals of masculine and feminine roles. With some justice, historians of Britain are often accused of insularity in either ignoring Britain’s imperial involvement or keeping it segregated as a separate topic. For the new imperial historians, British history without the empire makes no sense at all.

New imperial historians are concerned not only with exposing the all-pervasive influence of empire throughout the world, but also put forward a programme for countering that influence. The historian should not be content with seeing the past through the eyes of the dominant elites, but must try to recover the points of view of those suppressed by imperial systems and their heirs, that is of ‘subaltern’ groups of the poor and dispossessed and of women. The ultimate implication is that those who understand the dead hand of the imperial legacy that has outlived the empire in their own countries will be able to free themselves from it, just as the British can free themselves of the racism and chauvinistic nationalism they adopted with empire.

It is not difficult to see why an intellectually ambitious approach to the past, with obvious relevance to present discontents, has proved so attractive. Yet those who cannot accept its suppositions and who perforce are left as practitioners of an ‘old’ imperial history need not feel antagonistic to it. Still less need they fear that it will make them redundant, unless it can be countered. They should rather welcome the stimulus that the new imperial history has given to the study of the British empire, while also recognising that huge areas of their subject remain largely outside its concerns; and that within its chosen ground of cultural history there is room for constructive disagreement and debate.

The military, political and above all the economic history of the British empire cannot of course be taken as simply the given background to cultural history. They are of perennial interest in themselves and require constant reassessment. Although the new imperial history, with its scepticism about what can be known of the ‘real’ world, seems to have difficulty in engaging with economic history, a discipline pre-eminently concerned with concrete knowledge, imperial history without an economic dimension is a very poor thing. Studies that draw on the new imperial history have, for instance, convincingly demonstrated connections between British medical doctrine about ‘tropical’ diseases and other assertions of imperial authority. Nevertheless, the medical history of the British empire is much more than the analysis of discourse. It has to explain the inescapable reality of mass mortality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

On the cultural history of empire, historians who are outside the pale of the ‘new’ have much to learn from those within it, especially a proficiency in the close reading and interpretation of texts. They can also welcome recent developments that have moved on beyond the analysis of colonial knowledge, as in Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), as purely a construct of western dominance, towards a view that accepts that the ruled as well as the rulers took parts in producing a ‘hybrid’ knowledge of western and indigenous constructions. The British in India did not, for instance, invent caste, but put their own interpretations on existing doctrines and practices.

There is, however, still room for disagreements. These are mostly likely to arise from ‘old’ historians’ concern for context. However ingenious or convincing the interpretation offered in ‘new’ studies of particular texts or case studies, they seem on occasions to be used to support generalisations that cannot easily be sustained. The debate about empire and changing national identity in Britain is, for example, still open for that reason. Studies of individuals or even of localities have revealed a high degree of awareness and commitment, but they have to be set against other evidence of mass ignorance or indifference. The subject as a whole can, however, only gain from such debates. There seems to be abundant room for both new and old within the spacious mansion of a vibrant imperial history.

Professor Peter J. Marshall, CBE, FBA, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History Emeritus, King's College London.

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British Empire & Commonwealth Museum

British Empire & Commonwealth Museum - portrait

Imperialism and empire are words suddenly in vogue again. There is a burgeoning of courses on empire and colonial studies in the UK as well as in the US. In 1990 there was an annual number of 47 historical publications relating to empire. This had increased to 164 by 2000, and to over 1000 by 2003 reflecting the changing political climate as well as the general increase in history-related publishing.

This growing interest has been fuelled by media exposure, notably Niall Ferguson's Empire TV series and book. Following the Prince of Wales 2003 summer school, calling to reinstate Britain's imperial past at the core secondary school curriculum, an article cited a teacher's opinion that 'tales from the imperial past would mean nothing to the many Balkan refugee children she teaches' (Nicholas Pyke, The Guardian, 5 July 2003).

I would endorse the call for the return of empire as part of the history curriculum, but more importantly, would urge all educators to consider contextualising their teaching and seek relevant links between the past and the present. The past did not happen as a series of disconnected events that have somehow stopped to make way for the present, even though the way the National Curriculum is taught may make it seem that way. It is dispiriting that teachers (hopefully a minority) do not see the general relevance and issues raised in a 500-year period that was so globally significant, affecting a quarter of the world's surface and people. Perhaps it is not a lack of vision, but a continuing unease with the issues raised by the imperial legacy? Embarrassment aside, it is a surprising lack of insight not to recognize some of the patterns of the past resonating in today's Pax Americana and in global issues of the displacement of people and asylum seekers. There is also a startling failure (fuelled, I believe, by ignorance) to understand the legacy of the British empire reflected in the multi-cultural Britain in which we live today and to which refugees continue to come to be assimilated . or not. Both historians and our museum visitors seem to be further ahead in their thinking. Linda Colley was quoted in the Times (17 August 2003), in the context of Iraq as saying:

History has a way of reminding you and it would have been useful if people had thought more about the British empire in the Middle East in the early twentieth century and how difficult that had been before embarking on this. I think George Bush, and indeed Tony Blair, should sit down with a history book.
British Empire & Commonwealth Museum - clock

And a comment on the visitor’s board at the museum refreshingly states: ‘At last a museum which examines the empire in context! This has a place in our history. Let’s use this and learn from it.’

The history of empires (including but not exclusively concerning the British), the control, the conflicts and the stories of migration involved in those histories are being mirrored throughout the world today and I believe are particularly relevant to refugees and asylum seekers. One of the most rewarding things as Head of Education at the newly-opened British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in Bristol is to see people - from all sorts of diverse backgrounds - finding something in the story that speaks to them. For many young people, particularly black and other minority groups, the school syllabus does not help them understand their own sense of self and their heritage: 'Thanks for showing me a part of history my school has completely ignored', Nick L., aged 12. The museum engenders in its visitors both an emotional response and a degree of empathy no matter what your personal perspective:

It is the first time I've been in a museum dealing with the subject of equity/inequity/ethnicity and seen black people presented with dignity (their own true voice) - particularly older black men and women. That more than any other aspect of the museum was very emotional for me. (Maria, Museum visitor)

The narrative of empire provides a framework for understanding many of the issues of the past, as well as those that continue to confront society today. In our active schools' programme we do not teach empire for empire's sake. Students can embark on one of our 'learning journeys' exploring historical topics such as Tudor navigation, Victorian trade, or war and the Commonwealth. They can take part in art and textile workshops, inspired by artefacts from India or Africa, or look at global education issues such as poverty and fair trade. The history of empire contextualizes so much else, and looking back to see what happened in the past can help us make sense of the present and look forward to the future: 'A wonderful museum. Our future is moulded by our past and it is so important for us all to understand where we came from. It is up to us all to move on and create a better world.' (Kim, Midlands)

British Empire & Commonwealth Museum - portrait2

The ongoing legacy of empire is, of course, the multi-cultural society in which we live, as well as our language, sport, food, dress and of course, our politics. Unlike many museums with a particular local or a national focus, the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum has a genuine international angle. It can therefore inform our understanding of how people perceive Britain today on the world stage. Tellingly, 58% of our visitors rank language and artistic culture as the most significant area of difference to preserve between cultures, compared with only 31% believing it is religion and moral values. One example of how shortsighted our view of our 'place in the world' is shown by the limited awareness there is among the general public regarding the historical basis of the Commonwealth. It exists as a significant non-political system for sharing education and technology, promoting international understanding and world peace across 54 independent states. It consists of 1.7 billion people - that is 30% of the world's population - and over a quarter of its land surface. Another example is the limited knowledge of the consequences of our colonial involvement in various territories. Very few Britons, for example, realize that Palestine is a former British colony gained after the First World War. Britain saw no solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict (which still continues today) and withdrew its forces in 1948. An oral history project on the Palestine police (drawn from Arab, Jewish and British backgrounds) carried out with Oxford University will help improve public awareness of some of this history and the ongoing issues that derive from this British involvement.

Given that the aim of the museum is to present neither a celebratory nor a condemnatory picture of the empire, the overwhelmingly positive press reviews since it opened suggest some measure of success. It has been described as 'a valuable and accessible narrative, imaginatively and carefully told' (Gary Younge, 'Distant voices, still lives', The Guardian, 2 November 2002), and 'a brilliant new museum' (Radio 4). Linda Colley suggested in the Sunday Telegraph (27 October 2002) that there are valuable lessons to be learnt from exploring such a history:

We may be in a post-colonial world but we are not yet in a post-imperial world. This museum could illuminate how empires work: how a small polity like Britain was able through its economy, navy and advanced communications to sprawl over vast stretches of the globe. America is doing the same thing today.

With such a vast story to tell, there is little space for celebrating the richness of multi-racial Britain today: over 300 languages and at least 14 faiths that exist among the population of 60 million. The Museum covers stories of mass movements of people, from slavery, to indentured labour, partition and the two World Wars. The current displacement of people throughout all parts of the world and the issues they face share much in common with this past. The issues are controversial - racism, economic exploitation, and cultural imperialism. But denial does not make them go away. Britons of all races need to know this history, to make sense of modern society and to move confidently into the future.

Katherine Hann
Head of Education and Interpretation,
British Empire & Commonwealth Museum
Station Approach,
Temple Meads,
Bristol, BS1 6QH

Tel: 0117 925 4980
Email: admin@empiremuseum.co.uk
Website: www.empiremuseum.co.uk

[The views expressed in this article are personal to Katherine Hann and not necessarily those of her institution.]

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Colonial workers on a rubber plantation

Empire on the Web

The study of imperial and colonial history has a wide scope, covering many centuries, continents, and cultures, and representation on the Internet reflects this. The British Empire alone is a subject with myriad routes of study and research, with the possibility of concentrating on one facet, such as the military, political, economic, or cultural history of the Empire. Assessment of Britain's colonial history is also incomplete without the consideration of the process of decolonisation, and its effects across world history. The documentation of this very global subject on the Internet is often disparate, although there are several sites that view the Empire as a whole. The BBCi web site The British Empire is one of these, and whilst not absolutely comprehensive it offers articles by leading historians on many aspects of imperial history, and engaging interactive material.

The academic portal site British Empire Studies also covers all the Empire, providing a directory of resources and a general forum for researchers. In addition, sites such as the British Library's Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections provide an excellent guide to their holdings of imperial and colonial material, including the records of the East India Company and the India Office.

Many sites have a far more singular focus, concerning themselves with events in particular countries. The Signatories of the Treaty of Waitangi site is of this kind, documenting initial relations between the British and the New Zealand Maori's.

In recent years there has been a movement towards the research of the social and cultural history of the British Empire, and the important contribution of colonial subjects to British history. We Were There explores the role of colonial subjects in the British Armed Forces, and reminds that imperial history is not exclusively about its white participants, whilst the Political Discourse: Theories of Colonialism and Postcolonialism site is a useful reference guide to postcolonial theories, and the cultural reaction of former colonies.

Of course, Great Britain was not the only nation to have an empire, and despite a number of irritating pop-ups, BoondocksNet.com is a valuable site that reminds of the United States' own imperial designs, and the corresponding anti-imperial movement.

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Colonial official on a motorcycle

Note: All images on this page, except book covers and images from the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, are copyright of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

February 2004

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