Forget ideology—listen to the voices of those who were ruledby Kwasi Kwarteng / August 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
French cartoon from 1898: China is being carved up by (left to right) Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicolas II, the French Marianne, and the Meiji Emperor of Japan as, behind them, a Qing official protests in vain
The relationship between Islam and the west, the rise of tiger economies in Asia, and the modern-day role of the United States as world leader can all be illuminated by reference to the history of empire. Yet modern accounts of empire—or the British empire, at least—often focus too narrowly on whether it was a force for good or evil. Two major books last year proved the stubborn endurance of this ideological pursuit. Whereas Richard Gott’s Resistance, Repression and Revolt described the British empire as an exercise in brutal repression and violence, Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest presented western imperialism as a somewhat benign force, promoting democracy, medicine and liberal economics.
What unites these approaches is that they are derived from political theories with origins in the west: the ideologies of Marxism, Whiggism, and neoconservatism. But two new books attempt to free themselves from these constraints. In Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain, John Darwin, an Oxford academic and the author of After Tamerlane, which won the Wolfson Prize in 2007, attempts to place Britain’s global commercial and colonising enterprise in a wider context, beyond the skewering effect of modern ideologies. Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire gives voice to the intellectual, articulate response of the people who were themselves subjected to imperial rule.
Darwin’s Unfinished Empire focuses almost exclusively on Britain’s actions and interests. Darwin’s scope could not be wider, encompassing the political integration of the British Isles; the colonisation of America and the south Pacific; and the various forms of imperial rule in India and Africa, right through the 19th century to the end of empire in the 1940s and 50s. Darwin takes the “long view” of the history of the British empire—with chapters such as “Imagining Empire,” “Defending Empire,” and “Ending Empire”—in an attempt to explain the factors behind Britain’s global expansion, as well as the origins of the “geopolitical order” of the “new world” that exists today.