Imperial Legacies: The British Empire
Around the World
by Jeremy Black
216 pp., $25.99
Although this relatively short book is closer to an extended, episodic essay than to the comprehensive history of the British empire implied by the title, it is an excellent example of the author’s style. Jeremy Black takes a broad view of his subject and displays both the breadth of his interests and the fearlessness of his judgments. Taking aim at contemporary critics of the Empire, including both postcolonial nationalists and Western academics who cheer them on, his overall theme is that understanding empire requires context. In discussing case studies from India to Ireland, Black presents himself as the voice of reason, pushing back against the mendacity of those whom he accuses of overplaying their criticism of British imperialism in pursuit of their own intellectual or national political agendas.
There is much to applaud in Black’s lively excursion through imperial history. Black himself is very careful to argue that his point is neither to praise the Empire nor to bury it. Rather, he repeatedly emphasizes that he wants to make it possible to understand the imperial past on its own terms rather than as a straw man for postcolonial self-hatred in the metropole or a historical get-out-of-jail-free card for corrupt national governments who want to distract from their own monstrous failures.
Decrying the “selective nature of the political weaponization of history,” Black makes ingenious arguments. For example, he emphasizes that “British imperialism was in large part imperialism against other empires.” The choice “both historically and to a degree today, was not between empire and non-empire…[but] between different empires or, at best, different types of empire.” Indeed, he notes that neither Cortés’s conquistadors in Mexico nor the British in South Asia would have succeeded in their imperial aims if they had not enjoyed the support of locals who wanted to resist the local hegemon.
Thus he is right to note the irony when China or Islamic nationalist groups denounce Western imperialism while conveniently ignoring their own histories of imperial conquest and subjugation of neighbors. The Opium Wars may have been venal and vicious, but imperial China’s response to the Taiping Rebellion “was deadlier and far more destructive.”
Black also notes the violence that postcolonial states inflicted on their own people (often religious or ethnic minorities) when given the chance. He points out, for example, that the notorious Amritsar Massacre of 1919, in which British troops in India fired on an unarmed crowd, took place in a city where Indian forces would also engage in a violent struggle with regime opponents in 1984. In this later incident, known as Operation Blue Star, a government offensive against Sikh militants resulted in at least as many casualties, if not more. As jurists know very well, tu quoque—pointing out the hypocrisy of your opponent—is a popular but not dispositive defense, and Black is wise to focus on the facts rather than to feel compelled to make a pro-imperial case.
Even as he attempts to remain neutral, Black’s calm tones are welcome among those who truly want to praise empire, as can be seen from the fulsome cover blurbs offered by Niall Ferguson and Michael Gove. Praise from those quarters in turn inspires counter-charges from the other side. From the perspective of many leftist postcolonial critics, Black offers little more than imperial nostalgia, if not apologia.
Such is the tenor of a particularly nasty review of the book in The Guardian, which claims that Black “appears to view history as a sort of zero-sum game with only a finite amount of criticism available: takedowns of the British empire are accordingly deemed disingenuous if they do not also address the moral shortcomings of the Ottoman, Mughal or Qing empires at the same time.” Such an attack from that quarter is predictable, but does show how difficult it can be to advocate awareness of context while walking the line between enthusiasm and denunciation.
Every now and then, however, even Black’s Olympian equilibrium slips and reveals deep sympathies for his English brethren—for example, when he says Indian nationalists are guilty of “minimizing the positive features of British rule,” such as ending internecine warfare on the subcontinent and collecting through conquest the territories that would become modern India. Or, when he notes that Irish museums do not offer enough treatment of the “positive aspects of English/British control from the twelfth century…to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921.”
In such cases, Black’s desire to offer context is marred by a lack of appreciation for how that context looks to the locals, either to the Indians who may simply prefer to govern themselves, or to the Irish, for whom Cromwell’s 17th century rampages were certainly one of the less “positive aspects of English/British control.” Even Black’s general sympathies for his American cousins, whom he often defends against anti-imperial attacks from the left, cannot keep him from pointing out the misdeeds of the rebels against the crown in 1776, or from justifying the burning of the White House in 1814 as “a reprisal for the pyromaniacal destructiveness of invading American forces in Canada.”
Nevertheless, the positives do outweigh the negatives in this book, which has much to offer those who want not only to learn imperial history but also to acquire a sense of the continuing struggle among those who write about history to shape our understanding of controversial subjects.
History is not the past; it is a historian’s effort to distill elements from the past into a narrative that makes sense. Such an observation is not a surrender to cultural relativism but a reflection of historical reality. Even a historian as determinedly empiricist as Black understands that history does not simply exist, but that a historical work is written to serve a particular purpose.
Among Black’s purposes is to denounce historical “amnesia…not concerning empire, but about how and why it worked, and for so long, both in the British Isles and more widely.” As such, his book strikes back at those who want to use the history of empire as a weapon in the culture wars. As with any weapon, its use can vary depending upon the hands into which it falls. For those who eagerly take up the struggle against postcolonialist guilt mongering, the question becomes, how far does one go with the argument that empire wasn’t all bad? Should some aspects of imperialism be actively celebrated?
For all his stated neutrality in arguing against forgetting, therefore, Black’s book raises the inevitable question of what remembering is for. If it is only to say, “It is by no means clear that British imperial rule was notably worse than of others,” and that grandpa and his generation were not all bad, that’s fine—though the game is hardly worth the candle.
However, if it is to suggest that the empire offers useful models for today, we may run into a problem, especially as the most recent wave of Western neo-imperialism lies wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains. Black himself suggests that evidence imperialism may be “dangerous to the health of democracy” is “scanty,” which would have shocked Thucydides, and would certainly shock many readers of Chronicles, who have watched the Empire of Liberty become ever more imperial at the expense of liberty.
One can defend the importance of past imperial triumphs and extract positive lessons from them while also being aware of their darker sides, just as one can recognize that the past offers both lessons and warnings. Historical “gotchas” from self-styled debunkers are tiresome; antiquarianism is not much better.
One does not want to become the old man in Whittaker Chambers’ memorable parable, who sits in his “dark little shop…fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel.” We study the past to understand it on its own terms and to become wiser in the present. Careful readers of Black’s work can thank him for encouraging us to do both.
Lastly, Black is not only a brilliant historian with an intimidatingly diverse range of interests (including the literary and geopolitical legacies of James Bond), he is also preternaturally productive. He has authored so many books in his career that one fears he has completed another volume or two in the time it took to compose this review. Thankfully, he writes with flair and an eye for the telling phrase.