The Empire strikes backby Tristram Hunt / January 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
By far the most striking work in Tate Britain’s compelling recent exhibition, Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, was Elizabeth Butler’s depiction of an exhausted, slumped British Army surgeon being slowly carried back to base after the catastrophic 1842 retreat from Kabul. The First Anglo-Afghan War was one of the great catastrophes of British imperial adventurism and Butler’s The Remnants of an Army (1872) captures perfectly the expedition’s mixture of futility, incompetence and arrogance. It is a picture that speaks purposefully to Bernard Porter and Stephanie Barczewski’s new accounts of the representation of heroic failure and the lingering impact of imperialism on British culture. Yet its theme, imagery and place at the Tate serve only to contradict much of what is argued in each of these ultimately unsatisfying books.
This is not a bad time to be exploring the legacies and meanings of British colonialism, as we seem to be embarking on a renewed bout of Empire-angst. Even as imperial scholars are stressing more and more the plural, hybrid and diverse nature of the British Empire—a historical event that encompassed racist brutality in Jamaica together with an Anglo-Saxon “kith and kin” white commonwealth; the treaty ports of China together with the plantations of Ulster; the industrial capitalism of Bombay together with the “civilising mission” of David Livingstone—the contemporary public debate is still tediously divided along good versus evil matrices.