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The best books on British Empire

recommended by David Cannadine

Ornamentalism by David Cannadine

by David Cannadine


Historian David Cannadine tells us why it’s less interesting to argue about whether the British Empire was a force for good or ill, than to understand how it worked and why it fell apart. He suggests a reading list to get us started.

Ornamentalism by David Cannadine

by David Cannadine

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Before we look at your five book choices, for the uninitiated, can you describe when the British Empire was at its height and what it encompassed?

There are various different ways of describing the Empire at its height, but if you want to know at what point the largest amount of the globe was coloured red, then it is just after the end of the First World War. But the Empire actually started with British exploration of the eastern seaboard of the United States, back in the 17th century.

Your first choice, Ronald Hyam’s Understanding the British Empire, explores some of the key themes related to that era.

I attended Ronald Hyam’s lectures when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. With this book he has brought together many of the articles he has written over a very creative lifetime, where he’s tried to suggest that there are many different ways of approaching the Empire and that the best way to understand it is to realise what an astonishingly complicated organism it was and that no simple explanation really does it justice.

Which is why he picks certain ideas to illustrate that?

Yes. Many of the essays operate on a fairly general level, talking about the geopolitical, economic and in one case the sexual dynamics of the Empire. But Hyam is also concerned with specific figures as well. He has things to say about Churchill and the British Empire. He talks quite a lot about this largely forgotten man, John Bennett, who was a figure in the Colonial Office and was rather interesting during the later stages of the Empire. He also talks about individual historians of the British Empire.

He is very interested in both looking at the Empire as a generalised global phenomenon, which it certainly was, and also in the way in which specific individuals need to be understood in an imperial context and how particular bits of the Empire can’t be understood without reference to individual figures. Underpinning the whole of the book is an extraordinary amount of archival research, especially into the official documents of the Empire, which in a way was Hyam’s greatest interest and greatest strength.

People often find it hard to understand how such a small island managed to have such an extensive reach around the world.

It is certainly true that when we look at the map of the world in the late 1910s and early 1920s large parts were coloured red, and it does seem strange that this tiny island with not that many people seems to have governed a disproportionate amount of the world for more than one century. But I think that the picture needs quite serious unpacking and this again is one of the points that Hyam is interested in looking at. The impact of Britain on these large parts of the world coloured red wasn’t always anything like as strong or as deep or pervasive or permanent as these atlases of the world suggest.

It was often alliances made with local rulers for the convenience of trading.

Yes. One of the points made in John Darwin’s book The Empire Project, which I will come back to, is that you can’t look at the British Empire as a kind of system because it has this astonishing range of different forms of imperial dominion. Also, it depends on a lack of rivals in Europe and, at least for much of the 19th century, on a relatively quiet Asia and on a relatively isolationist America. So it is those circumstances which give the British the slightly flukish opportunity to become this global power, perhaps even a global hegemon, and when these powers change then, in a sense, the show is over.

Your next choice, The Inner Life of Empires by Emma Rothschild, takes a much more personal look at the Empire by focusing on the stories of one family – the Johnstones.

That’s right and we are talking about an earlier period than Ronald Hyam’s main area of concern, which tends to be the 20th century. This is an example of a genre which has become prevalent in recent years. It is this idea of trying to tie together individual lives with global history. What Emma Rothschild has done in this book is to trace the lives of this extraordinary Johnstone family – seven brothers and four sisters who live across the 18th century.

They are the products of a poor Scottish landowning family and like many poor Scots are obliged to try to earn their living and make lives for themselves elsewhere, and that tends to be within the British Empire. In this case America, the Caribbean and India. Emma Rothschild explores their extraordinary lives while they journey around the world, sometimes making money in terms of private enterprise, sometimes involved in public service. They were also in the army, the navy and the East India Company. Some of them were involved in the slave trade and some protested against the slave trade. So as you can see they were involved in many facets of the Empire.

In terms of what they believed there is this curious combination of belonging to an expanding Empire and yet also in some sense believing in the values of the Scottish Enlightenment, which is the pervasive mindset of the country that they had left. Emma Rothschild manages to juggle all these rather complicated pieces of the jigsaw very deftly so that we never lose the thread of the lives that she is describing. And she manages to set them against these extraordinary global episodes, such as the American War of Independence and the advance of British dominium in certain parts of India. So it is at one and the same time a family history, but also a kind of transnational history of the 18th century world which this family inhabit.

It was very much the norm for members of families, especially younger siblings, to be expected to go off and find their fortune.

They had to do that, and what is interesting is that after the Act of Union in 1707 we have this global stage on which they can live their lives – which brings me to my next choice.

Your next choice being TM Devine’s book, To the Ends of the Earth, which explores how the many Scots who chose to emigrate during the 18th century helped to mold the Empire.

Devine has written a lot about the Scots in relation to Great Britain and the United Kingdom, and he has written about the Scots in relation to the British Empire. This is his most ambitious book yet, covering a very long span of time. He’s trying to explain why it is that Scotland is one of the great emigrating nations of the modern world, along with Ireland and Norway and not that many others. He is also interested in exploding a variety of Scottish myths, both in Scotland and elsewhere. He wants to argue, for instance, that it is not the case, as many people still think, that the Scottish emigrants to elsewhere in the world are evicted crofters from the Highlands thrown out by rapacious landlords. He argues that, actually, if you look at the big picture, most of these Scottish emigrants are in fact from the lowlands, from towns where they worked in heavy industry. He argues that most of the 19th and 20th century Scottish migration is by people like that. They emigrate to similar places overseas – places like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Australia and New Zealand.

He is also interested in exploring the ways in which once they have left Scotland and gone overseas they then invent these symbols of Scottishness which they carry with them – in terms of Burns Night, Caledonian clubs and Highland Games. Many of these things are really inventions of the late 18th and early 19th century.

What kind of affect did all this movement have on Scotland for the people who stayed there?

Devine thinks that one of the problems with Scotland was that it produced this rather remarkable economic structure of a limited number of very rich people, who owned the steel mills, jute mills and the coal mines, and then there was a large working class that was urban and industrial based. But what Scotland never really produced was a large urban-based entrepreneurial middle class.

Because they had all left.

And because it was a very unequal society. It therefore never produced a large service sector, either. One of the arguments that he makes is that when, in the 1970s, Scottish heavy industry collapsed in terms of the mines and shipbuilding there was nothing there except tourism. I think he develops that argument rather well and his general observations on the nature of the Scottish economy are very well made.

Your next book, Roy MacLaren’s Commissions High: Canada in London, 1870-1971, looks at how World War II affected Canada’s ties with Britain.

This is another way of thinking about the Empire. I chose these five books because I wanted to bear out Ronald Hyam’s observation that it is an astonishingly complicated and varied phenomenon and there are different ways of coming at it. What Roy MacLaren’s book is all about is to look at the official relations between Canada, the senior dominium in the British Empire, and Britain, as mediated through these figures. These were the High Commissioners – that is to say, in non-Empire or Commonwealth terms, the ambassadors from Canada to Britain.

The book also explores the weakening power of Britain after World War II and the increasing reliance on the United States as a neighbour.

There is a whole set of themes here. One of the more interesting figures that he talks about is this remarkable man called Lord Strathcona, who is indeed a classic Scottish immigrant to Canada, who then makes a fortune via the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Bank of Montreal and a whole variety of other industries. He then comes back to Britain and is the Canadian High Commissioner to Britain. Lord Strathcona could have walked straight out of Devine’s book. And then there is this extraordinary patrician figure Vincent Massey, from a very grand Canadian family, who is the Canadian High Commissioner during World War II and chairs the trustees of the National Gallery in London and subsequently is the first Canadian Governor General of Canada. They had previously always been British aristocrats.

The later period explores the gradual disintegration of that Anglo-Canadian British imperial world as Canada gets drawn more and more economically and culturally into the orbit of the United States, and as Britain becomes more concerned with Europe than with the Empire or Commonwealth. And as Canada (as is equally the case in Australia and New Zealand) de-dominionises. That is to say it gets its own flag and national anthem and has its own honours system and it repatriates the constitution and thereby establishes itself as a much more independent nation. But despite closer ties with the United States, many Canadians are still very annoyed if they are mistaken for Americans, and one of the reasons they still like the monarchy is that it is a way of not being American!

Do you think the Commonwealth is still useful for both sides, or do you think it is something that will become slowly obsolete?

Rumours of its death have been around for a long time and it has shown no sign of expiring yet. It is clear that at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth there were some fairly trenchant observations about what the Commonwealth is for and what it is doing. On the other hand it does provide a forum for leaders of countries with very varied histories, economies, cultures and backgrounds to talk to each other, which can be a good thing.

Your final choice is The Empire Project by John Darwin, which explores the rise and fall of the British Empire.

This is an extraordinary panoramic tour de force. John Darwin is an Oxford historian much indebted to Robinson and Gallagher, who were the presiding deities of a certain way of doing imperial history. Darwin is very concerned to stress that the Empire was a varied, in some ways chaotic and very contingent, construction. Nothing like as permanent or as solid as all those bits of the world coloured red would lead you to suggest. It did in large part depend upon a quiescent Europe, United States and Asia and it is that, Darwin suggests, which enabled the British to acquire and engage with large parts of the world in terms of the direct exercise of power, in terms of economic interaction and in terms of migration. But Darwin points out that as soon as Europe becomes inhabited by nations which are aggressive, especially towards Britain, and as soon as America becomes a world power, and as soon as Asia becomes non-quiescent in the form of Japan and Indian Nationalism – then keeping the British show on the road gets much harder and by the 1950s and 1960s it has become impossible.

What kind of legacy do you think the British Empire has left us in Britain, in terms of psyche and the people who come to Britain and how we live our lives?

One of the points that Ronald Hyam seeks to make is that it is not clear if for the majority of people in Britain the Empire mattered all that much. There is a big debate about that. He thought that while for the governing classes the Empire was important it actually didn’t impinge on the lives of many people at all. What I think is interesting is that in some ways we can make the argument that we have become more conscious about the Empire as it has unravelled than we were when it was there.

Some of that is because of the substantial immigration into Britain of people formerly living in the British Empire. In a sense the Empire has come home to Britain. We are a much more multicultural nation and much of the multiculturalism is derived from Caribbean, African and South Asian immigrants to Britain at the time when the Empire was unravelling.

But we do have this very uneasy relationship with our past. We still carry a lot of guilt about it and some people suggest we should shake off that guilt and move on.

Darwin makes a good point in his book that some people do suggest that the Empire is a story of scandal and exploitation that we should feel guilty about. Other historians of a more right-wing persuasion think the British Empire is a great story that we should be proud of. Darwin says it is not really very helpful to keep fighting about whether it was good or bad because there will never be agreement. Instead the way to move forward is to try to understand how it worked and why it fell apart. I must say I am rather sympathetic to that.

What about your book, The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in 20th Century England — how does that fit in with our perception of the British Empire?

One of the things that we found out in the course of our work was that there was a constant complaint from the 1900s on that the British Empire was inadequately taught in schools.

Why was that?

In large part because very little 19th century history was taught in schools in the early part of the 20th century and later on because it was often that there was no interest in the subject. It does rather bear out the view that on the whole most people in Britain weren’t very interested in the Empire. From Lord Meath, who invented Empire Day, through to Winston Churchill in the 1940s, there were complaints that history teaching was insufficiently patriotic and insufficiently imperial.

What else did you discover with your research?

What we are doing with this is to try to understand and provide evidence about the teaching of history as a taught subject in English school classrooms from the early 20th century until the present day. The motive for that is that there has been in recent years a huge amount of discussion and disagreement in the media about whether history is badly taught in schools and I wanted to get some historical perspective on this current debate.

What we did was to set up an elaborate research project where much of the work was based on official government materials about the sort of history they thought should be taught in school and on the basis of inspectors’ reports about how history has been taught in schools. We also interviewed a large number of former teachers and pupils going back to the 1920s.

We reached a variety of conclusions, one of which was that as long as history is being taught some people think it is being taught well and other don’t. If you are a good teacher then you can teach your students anything and they will enjoy it and remember it. So really this current discussion is merely the latest version of something that has been going on for well over a century.

There is also this issue of how history should be taught and much of that debate amongst politicians and the press is very polarised. Should it be a cheerleading narrative or should it be about skills or knowledge? Whereas the reality is that in the classroom many teachers don’t feel those polarised issues are very interesting and it is not actually the issue that preoccupies them most when they come to teach.

November 28, 2011

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David Cannadine

David Cannadine

Professor Sir Professor Cannadine FBA is a historian of modern British history from 1800 to 2000. He is currently Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University and has previously taught at Cambridge, Columbia, and London, where he was Director of the Institute of Historical Research. Since October 2014, David has been Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

David Cannadine

David Cannadine

Professor Sir Professor Cannadine FBA is a historian of modern British history from 1800 to 2000. He is currently Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University and has previously taught at Cambridge, Columbia, and London, where he was Director of the Institute of Historical Research. Since October 2014, David has been Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.