What is Imperial History Now?



Let me begin with some autobiography. My first formal introduction to imperial history was as a student at Bristol University in the early 1970s. The subject was personified there by a very considerable specialist on British colonial Africa who was often to be seen dressed in a khaki safari suit. From observing him, his students and his course schedules, I jumped to certain conclusions about imperial history. These reflected in large part the woeful extent of my own undergraduate ignorance. But I was also reacting to certain characteristics of British imperial history as a discipline at that stage which tended, I suspect, to put many of my generation and later generations off the subject, and caused us to misapprehend what it was potentially about.


Minority Language Imperial System Imperial Power British Empire British History 
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Notes and references

  1. 1.
    I stress that these were undergraduate perceptions forged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Major rewritings of British and other imperial histories were in fact already underway by this point — one thinks of R. Robinson and J. Gallagher with A. Denny, Africa and the Victorians (London: Macmillan, 1961) — but it took time for such revisionist work to impact fully on history teaching in the universities, never mind on ideas outside them.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    On these points, see Dane Kennedy, ‘Imperial History and Post-Colonial Theory’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol. 24 (1996), pp. 345–63; and his ‘The Boundaries of Oxford’s Empire’, International History Review, vol. 23 (2001), pp. 604–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987), p. 60.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), especially pp. 100–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Frederic Bancroft(ed.), Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, 6 vols (New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1913), vol. VI, pp. 119–20.Google Scholar
  6. For an excellent sample of recent revisionist work on American westward expansion, see William Cronon, George Miles and Jay Gitlin (eds), Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Edward Said, Yeats and Decolonization (Belfast: Field Day, 1988), p. 6.Google Scholar
  8. Two recent works that place the Ottoman empire in a broader European and imperial context are Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)Google Scholar
  9. and Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals (London: John Murray, 2000).Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Though critics of empire also drew on versions of the Roman past to argue that imperialism necessarily resulted in corruption, loss of liberty and decay: see Anthony Pagden, Lords of all the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c.1500–c.1800 (London: Yale University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    See Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). This is an excellent example of what may be achieved by examining different imperial systems in tandem.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 14.
    J.C. Van Leur quoted in Henk Wesseling, ‘Overseas History’, in Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), p. 74Google Scholar
  13. Philip D. Morgan, ‘Encounters between British and “Indigenous” Peoples, c.1500–c.1800’, in Martin Daunton and Rick Halpern (eds), Empire and Others: British Encounters with Indigenous People 1600–1850 (London: University College London Press, 1999), p. 68.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    J.E. Cookson, ‘Political Arithmetic and War in Britain, 1793–1815’, War & Society, vol. I (1983), pp. 37–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. and Philip Harling and Peter Mandler, ‘From “Fiscal-Military” State to Laissez-faire State, 1760–1850’, Journal of British Studies, vol. 32 (1993), pp. 44–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 18.
    Quoted in Michael W. Doyle, Empires (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 287.Google Scholar
  17. 19.
    See their History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1754–1790, 3 vols (London: HMSO, 1964), vol. I, pp. 138–45; and R.G. Thorne (ed.), The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1790–1820, 5 vols (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986), vol. I, pp. 306–13.Google Scholar
  18. 20.
    For a useful introduction to this issue, see Hew Strachan, The Politics of the British Army (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  19. 22.
    James D. Tracy (ed.), The Political Economy of Merchant Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 163.Google Scholar
  20. 23.
    C.A. Bayly, ‘Returning the British to South Asian History: The Limits of Colonial Hegemony’, South Asia, vol. XVII (1994), pp. 1–25.Google Scholar
  21. 25.
    Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 1068–9.Google Scholar
  22. 26.
    J.A. Houlding, Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army 1715–1795 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 7–8Google Scholar
  23. Miles Taylor. Houlding, Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army 1715–1795 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 7–8Google Scholar
  24. Miles Taylor, ‘The 1848 Revolutions and the British Empire’, Past & Present, vol. 166 (2000), pp. 150–1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 27.
    There are some wise remarks on this point (and many others) in A.G. Hopkins, ‘Back to the Future: From National History to Imperial History’, Past & Present, vol. 164 (1999), pp. 198–243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 28.
    Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society (London: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 231–2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2002

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