Where Does the World Historian Write From? Objectivity, Moral Conscience and the Past and Present of Imperialism
Richard Drayton
King’s College London, UK

Journal of Contemporary History 46(3) 671–685 ! The Author(s) 2011 Reprints and permissions: DOI: 10.1177/0022009411403519

Abstract The contemporary historian, as she or he speaks to the public about the origins and meanings of the present, has important ethical responsibilities. ‘Imperial’ historians, in particular, shape how politicians and the public imagine the future of the world. This article examines how British imperial history, as it emerged as an academic subject since about 1900, often lent ideological support to imperialism, while more generally it suppressed or avoided the role of violence and terror in the making and keeping of the Empire. It suggests that after 2001, and during the Iraq War, in particular, a new Whig historiography sought to retail a flattering narrative of the British Empire’s past, and concludes with a call for a post-patriotic imperial history which is sceptical of power and speaks for those on the underside of global processes. Keywords Commonwealth history, ethics of history, global history, imperial history, liberal imperialism, post-patriotic, world history

Contemporary history as an idea is always on the brink of collapse into teleology. For what are its boundaries, except those set by a particular view of the past which constitutes a kinship between those alive and one period of phenomena? The ‘contemporary’ is inextricably locked into that complex language game which refers to the problem of secular time: to speak of it is implicitly to offer a view about the meaning of human history. Before the rise of history in the universities there was no
Corresponding author: Richard Drayton, King’s College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS, UK Email:

Thuycidides or Tacitus. for it is not just that our enquiry into the past is inevitably shaped by present urgencies. whether we choose to claim 1870. All contemporary history is. if not in fact progress. on the one hand. Nowhere is this connection clearer than in the historiography of the West’s relationship with the rest of the world. Contemporary interests and myths. and even John Seeley’s Expansion of England (1883) is not the most ancient example of this dangerous complicity of historical myths and contemporary power. on the other. But the historian may alternatively help their audience imagine a different boundary of shared sensibility and investment. This remains true for popular history: even today. contemporary history is linked to ideas of radical disjunctions between past and present. world history: reciprocally constituting and being constituted by theories of human history over the medium and long term. but whatever our choice. It is especially burdened with ethical challenges where history is linked to policy. Cromwell’s invasion for many Irish. for better or worse. locating millenia-long time frames as present realities. it urges us to take stock of the foundations of our modes of historical subjectivity. Professional historians write mainly for other professional historians. have worked deliberately across these periodizations.672 Journal of Contemporary History 46(3) pretence that there was a ‘Contemporary’ radically distinct from an earlier moment: in both Herodotus. more recently. to a more or less self-conscious extent. it is the business of speaking aloud to those alive and those to come about the past. what we choose it to be. however. and of the imagined human futures in which they are complicit. and the civil historians of early modern Europe. the shadow of the category of the ‘contemporary’ is always a theory of the human past as a whole. 1918. encourage those who write history to confirm the way of seeing of their imagined community of readers. To note this is not merely to indulge in epistemological play. We might thus reverse Croce’s much quoted paradox that ‘all history is contemporary history’. but when they turn to the Contemporary they must confront a wider discursive community. Environmental and economic historians. But usually. This is an old problem. medieval and modern. It is. in harmony with the present. How we tell the story of the past has never been an innocent business. plantation slavery for many Jamaicans. in Humpty-Dumpty terms. of development. Historians confront an intellectual and ethical dilemma at that moment when they write for the public. History is not merely reflection. the Civil War for some Virginians and Japan’s invasion for the Chinese remain contemporary facts. nor will Niall Ferguson’s . where the narrative of the past of imperialism has powerfully shaped what both political elites and the wider civil society conceive to be possible and desirable aims. longer trains of human experience were considered to have agency in the present. made a bureaucratic partition of the past into the ancient. an audience of readers whose values and sensitivities press in upon the act of composition. making a past. and implicitly a future. The historical discipline as it came to maturity in the twentieth century. with ‘contemporary history’ as a late supplement. our imagination of contemporary history is under the constant pressure of our ideas about far earlier historical pasts. 1945 or 1989 as its opening.

But it also true that the desire to sell books.1 With a clear conscience. By ‘world history’ we may mean. The Frontiers of History (New Haven. that privileged access leads to a kind of intellectual ‘Stockholm syndrome’ and they become willing hostages to their sources’ perspectives. the first ‘world history’ published in English. But if we mean by world history a narrative which integrates. each locked in their own ‘regional’ or ‘area’ logic. tacit limits fall on the kinds of things which can be said. whether the stadial historians of the Enlightenment or the many participants in the ‘rise of the West’ industry. remains mastered from below by modernization theory. historians speak for the official mind. World historians may describe a world comprehensible and pleasant to Western eyes for the best ‘scientific’ reasons. are often far more in debt to their ancestors than they care to admit. in Augustine’s terms. in the manner of many twenty-first century history departments. reproducing from new extra-European materials a familiar portrait of cosmopolitan history as Europe’s mirror. that ‘chain of causes’ which ran from the first Creation to the City of God.Drayton 673 Empire (2002) be the last. too. Even Bayly’s magisterial Birth of the Modern World (2004). Historians enter into voluntary servitude to middle-class opinion and taste. academics. as Kelley wrote about Ranke. 218. Civic history was. but our representations of the human past continue to be governed from particular lines of perspective. may be as corrupting as the yearning for Court appointments was in an earlier era. Kelley. . Universal history emerged in the medieval West as an attempt to reconcile Christian eschatology with secular time. So. the sacred chronology of the Garden of Eden is bridged to a human story which ran up to the rise of Rome’s eastern empire in 130BC and pointed towards a suggestion of a necessary future confrontation with modern Ottoman power. ‘the way things really were was the way men of power and influence judged them to be’. The vanishing point of Universal history may have changed from God to Nature to some idea of modernity. it has often shared with the Whig history of the nation the narcissistic impulse to explain the origins of the narrator and her audience – and this is as true of ‘Black Atlantic’ history as it is of the LSE’s school of ‘Global Economic History’. want the direct favour of politicians. an enterprise to which academics. CT 2006). It may be. More recent universal historians. will often. That end and purpose is usually us. national appointments and honours. Where we tell world history from and for is an intervention in the future of the world. joined indissolubly to the idea that history has an end and purpose. in Walter Ralegh’s The History of the World (1614). for only in Germany. particularly those who write on political matters. 1 D. Of course. as with ‘intelligence historians’ and others. a kind of Cubist portrait of human history: an aggregation of a number of discrete dislocated pasts. literary agents and their publishers became increasingly committed over the last two decades. with its ambition to show multicentric causation. For our historical methods prize documentary traces thrown up by the powerful.

http://www. and to the values of the social and economic order which produced them and in which they so manifestly thrive. Gilman.H. Gardiner. where public opinion in many countries was deliberately manipulated by state entities and willing private collaborators. The Making of the Cold War Enemy: Culture and Politics in the Military Intellectual Complex (Princeton. sociologists. ‘Why Were Government Propaganda Experts Working on News at CNN?’. Stonor Saunders. Perception Management. probably in the majority those whose instinct is to cooperate with authority and a dominant consensus. But besides the scholarly practices of historians and their tendency to trim their rhetorical sails to catch popular winds. with which often. Wilford.674 Journal of Contemporary History 46(3) where the Sonderweg represents a kind of inside-out Whig history. or to lend support to. These connections may even become instrumentalized. 3 N. psychologists. trade publishing. NJ 2001). rather than to resist For in any age these winds are manipulated by economic and political agents who are willing to pay for. in any event. which is to say they are loyal to bureaucratic logics: both conservative towards the historical paradigms which organize ideas of periodization and agency. Information Warfare and Psychological Operations in Gulf War II’ (2003). there are other factors encouraging them to see the world’s past in ways which please the powerful. and career pathways opened to those who worked within the prevailing paradigms. http://www. D. One might add. http://www.fair. In history. Ron Robin. academics tend to Zweckrationalita¨t rather than Wertrationalita¨t. as during the Cold War and the Kosovo and Iraq Wars.). McCarthyism and the CIA (London 2008). Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (2006). L. ‘think tanks’ and government office. anyway. too. Wax (ed. they identified. anthropologists and historians in universities. The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge 2008). those who control the press. those networks of political scientists.2 Intersecting with this was the ‘Military Intellectual Complex’. foundations. there was rarely censorship. There was no conspiracy. Belknap. would a ‘black book’ of national history ever sell. only a convergence of interests which linked intellectuals with private.usnews.pdf (accessed 17 May 2009). which gave intellectual guidance and legitimacy to how American and British power were used and intervened in public debate to hold its centre.M. ‘Military Operations in the CNN World: Using the Media as a Force Multiplier’. but merely more opportunities in the choir for those who knew 2 K. Axel Springer. intellectuals whose work supports their¼ADA307447&Location¼U2&doc¼ GetTRDoc. . unlike in the disciplines of political science and economics. Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London 1999). Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War: The Influence of Foundations. Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore 2007). S.php?page¼1748 (accessed 17 May 2009). In Weberian terms. F. ‘Truth from These Podia: Summary of a Study of Strategic Influence. From Hearst and Harmsworth to Beaverbrook.dtic. institutional and state power.3 Individuals and foundations sought with varying levels of success to buy ideological space in great universities by funding chairs and research centres.pdf (accessed 17 May 2009).org/index. Serge Dassault and Rupert Murdoch. that the kind of people who choose academic careers are. Osgood. H. and later the electronic media have lent a megaphone (and often a second income) to people with congenial views.

the first post in the subject. 5 H. in particular John Hobson. however. the Irish question and Imperial Federation. while dissenters appear strident and marginal. Bell. H. judges and juries. Federations and Unions within the British Empire (Oxford 1911).4 Seeley joined the Whig narrative of the nation.5 4 On Seeley. from its late nineteenth-century origins as a subject. gave formal shape to this Whig history of British Imperialism. Egerton. the first incumbent of the Beit Chair of Colonial History. MacIntyre. . Rev.S. to the story of imperial expansion. Sir John Seeley and the Uses of History (1980) and D. This feeds back. the historical profession. see D. intellectually impolite and. For the larger history of this political and historical programme. inevitably. what public opinion appears to be. in making the radical critics of Imperialism. for it is always more wearying and difficult and demanding of limited private resources of confidence and courage to work against an apparent consensus rather than with it. becomes quietly skewed towards the prospect from above. Sir John Seeley’s lectures on the ‘Expansion of England’ in 1883 were conscious interventions in contemporary debates about Disraeli’s and Gladstone’s foreign policies. see W. The Britannic Vision: Historians and the Making of the British Commonwealth of Nations. As a result. and succeeded. with emphasis on such culminations as the American Revolution and the emergence of self-government in British diasporic communities of white settlement. International Studies. This was transparent in its institutional and professional origins. They aimed. the state. The Beit Chair in Colonial History. in intellectual terms the subject in the universities was rooted in national chauvinism and pro-imperial sentiment. Egerton. irrelevant.E. common law. of the migration of the Magna Carta. while the Rhodes Chair of Imperial History at Kings College London and the Vere Harmsworth Chair of Naval History at Cambridge (later re-styled as ‘Imperial and Naval History’) were both endowed in 1919 as self-conscious acts of imperial patriotism. Wormell. Parliamentary government. British Imperial History. At the common intersection of the academy.E. ‘Unity and Difference: Sir John Seeley and the Political Theology of International Relations’.A. the idea that British history was the story of the progressive expansion of liberty. are always pressures which encourage teleological arguments which conform with the world view and the global interests of dominant players. Even before this. 31 (2005). the public sphere and the political and economic order. in disciplinary terms. We may examine this in concrete terms in the academic historiography of Imperialism over the last century. was a patriotic enterprise where the past was ordered in ideological defence of contemporary British expansion. It may even impose itself on the internal psychic life of the historian.Drayton 675 the hymns. turning the subject into the story of the diffusion of English liberty. as particular kinds of positions benefit from this external propulsion. 1907–48 (London 2009). 559–79. therefore. was endowed in 1905 at Oxford by supporters and beneficiaries of the Boer War. into the historical profession. and what may therefore be considered to be sensible and sane and worth speaking towards.D.

In his biography of Wilberforce (1923). ‘was to demonstrate how the English values of ‘justice’. It is amusing to note his insistence: ‘It is equally false to suggest that an empire took its rise in violence.676 Journal of Contemporary History 46(3) This Whig programme was at the centre of British imperial history well into the 1950s. British imperial power was identified equally with free labour instead of slavery. that from the early nineteenth century onwards. to which they disseminated their virtue. free trade in place of inefficient autarky and good government opposed to anarchy or barbarism. These historians responded to the ideological attacks on contemporary British imperialism of Germans. trouble sometimes arose from the neighbourhood of aboriginal Indians. although he might have been referring to the entire three generations enterprise of his sub-discipline. ‘benevolence’ and ‘humanity’ were transformed into a universal ethos of free nations through the operation of ‘the rule of law and democratic government’’.6 In 1914. international socialists and colonial nationalists by making two main kinds of arguments.’ British power in Africa and India was due to ‘the downfall of the Moghul empire’ and in Africa to ‘the breaking up the native tribal system and the resulting anarchy’. continued the apologetic enterprise. What happened was the peaceful occupation of apparently vacant lands. Bayly. . the Cambridge History of the British Empire (from 1929). to which the endowment of the Smuts Chair in Commonwealth History at Cambridge (1951) was a kind of capstone. 1. no doubt. Coupland came to the chair in the aftermath of that wave of anticolonial ‘subversion’ which had swept across Ireland. was no. at his inaugural lecture in 1921. and there is a remarkable ideological coherence among those who secured posts in the subject in Oxford. they asserted that the spread of constitutional freedom was the essence of the British Empire. Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World. Reginald Coupland. though afterwards. Cambridge and London. First. at the outbreak of war. you may not be surprised. 1780–1830 (London 1988). Egerton’s successor to the Beit Chair in 1920. Bayly later wrote. for which the emblem in India was the Amritsar massacre. ‘The unwritten purpose’ of the Cambridge History of the British Empire. Both this denial of the role of violence and terror in the making and keeping of the British Empire and the suggestion that British power merely responded to a political or moral vacuum in Asia or Africa became recurrent tropes of British imperial historiography. that the story of the empire in Africa and India told of ‘the growth of the doctrine of trusteeship’. it was instead the product of free and industrious Englishmen being forced into taking responsibility for foreign territories and peoples. his narrative of the antislavery movement (1933) and the public lectures he gave every year to 6 C. Trinidad. and the Manserghian mappings of the constitutional transition from Empire to Commonwealth. Egypt. The political value of such ways of seeing the past to contemporary imperial violence and terror is obvious.A. the Oxford and Cambridge Histories of India (1919 and 1922). his American Revolution and the British Empire (1930). Around these ideals were constituted a large body of work. Egerton wrote a pamphlet with the title: Is the British Empire the Result of Wholesale Robbery? His conclusion. He assured his audience. Second.

It was an age of tea parties. The Founding of the Second British Empire. ‘unexpectedly and often reluctantly . its talents and moral courage. there were no ‘indubitably black years in the long record of the British connection with India’. who made Harlow’s hypothesis into a reinterpretation of the pattern of British expansion over the long nineteenth century. 9 V. into imposing their authority upon alien peoples in Asia and Africa’. Madden and D. 10 Ibid. .8 The Oxford Colonial History Seminar.000 members and sympathizers of the Indian National Congress were in prison. was specially gifted to lead others on the high road towards (eventual) freedom. Madden.Drayton 677 colonial and Indian civil service probationers. 7–29. The British Empire (London 1933). Coupland told his audience via BBC Radio that. took the years 1830 to 1860. Harlow.10 But it was Gallagher and Robinson. in ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’ of 1953. 7 R. and in Africa and the Victorians (1961). Oxford and the Idea of Commonwealth (Oxford 1977). and in which economic aims led Britain (and here I quote Harlow). . 8 See Freddie Madden’s remarkable memoir: F. It was. in F. for which the key figures were the Cambridge historians Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson. as its focus. Harlow. generated a field of research into how both the ‘official mind’ of British imperial advance and retreat. which happily included the end of slavery.K. parties and politics.. Fieldhouse (eds). . Coupland chose to preach the gospel that the Anglo-Saxon race with its love of liberty and fair play. but for a decade in the eighteenth century. I:647. I:646. The history of Britain’s imperial ‘humanitarianism’ became a scholarly industry. missionary enthusiasm. His Founding of the Second British Empire took as its theme the story of how Britain became the mother of a ‘European-Asian-African association of emergent democracies’. whose career included both the Rhodes Chair at KCL (1938–48) and the Beit Chair in Oxford (from 1950). before them. and Oxford’. 7. In 1933. Commonwealth History. on the surface. an anti-ideological turn: both a Butterfield focus on high politics and a Namierite concern with the instrumental machines which linked individuals. 2 vols (Oxford 1952).7 Imperial and Commonwealth History in mid-twentieth-century Oxford and Cambridge was built around this faith in the inner virtue of British empire as an engine of emancipation and justice. In place of high moral purpose they put a vast amoral story of random pressure. had argued for the rise of a new naval and commercial imperialism in which ‘Colonies as such were at a discount’.9 But this last echo of the dream of the Imperial Federation movement was sounded in the midst of a dramatically new anti-Whig current. directed by Richard Pares and Vincent Harlow in the 1930s and 40s. was the last professional apostle of this Anglican Liberal Imperialist school of imperial history. which only went into decline in the 1970s. Harlow. realpolitik and local contingency. when perhaps 20. the most influential article in all of British imperial historiography. Coupland. at which earnest Anglicans discussed Britain’s mission while the bombs fell on Abyssinia and Spain. ‘The Commonwealth. acts for the protection of aborigines and the beginnings of colonial self-government.

The Whiggery of Seeley was dead. 13.12 As Chris Bayly dryly put it in 1989. Cambridge and London in the era of decolonization posed no challenge to the flattering domestic narratives of national history of either Left or Right. Anil Seal. I am suggesting. it actively protected the national story from association with overseas slavery. of economic exploitation.K. was pushed by those who were no longer comfortable in his company. it was still sceptical and often mocking of the claims of anti-colonial nationalism. 13 Bayly. After 1950. The Historical Journal. and of Lucy Sutherland (such as P. or abandoned altogether. VI (1953).678 Journal of Contemporary History 46(3) and how interest groups in the colonies helped or frustrated British control. racism and their consequences. 12 D. new influences from outside of that consensus began to shape the subject into its current form. 285–301. ‘The Africanization of the Partition [of Africa] is now so complete that Europeans seem almost to have disappeared from the scene’. ‘Late Nineteenth-Century Colonial Expansion and the Attack on the Theory of Economic Imperialism: A Case of Mistaken Identity?’. particularly in 11 For which see ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’.J. the Robinson-Gallagher school prospered in the Cold War climate of Liberal anticommunism. see the comment of Eric Stokes. as it contained what kind of imperial history was studied and expelled it into impoverished regional academic provinces where ‘they did that to themselves’. while still evasive of the question of British violence. For if the story no longer made Britain its hero. Social and cultural history approaches. 12 (1983–4). cit. With its denial of the role of economic interests in driving imperial politics and its specific denunciation of Lenin’s 1916 linkage of Imperialism to Capitalism. 9–23. The history of the Empire was now an unflattering mirror. Marshall). to which the students of Gallagher and Robinson (including. as before it. David Fieldhouse’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’. But from other perspectives. one is unable to point to a single historian employed at the ‘golden triangle’ heart of the field who made British colonial violence or plunder into his or her subject. but long lived a new presentism in the national history of postcolonial nations. . 12 (1969). Fieldhouse.13 Imperial and commonwealth history produced in Oxford. ‘Can Humpty-Dumpty be Put Together Again? Imperial History in the 1980s’. The balkanization of the Imperial history into ‘area studies’ allowed the ugly business to be abandoned to Africanists or South Asianists. second series. Imperial Meridian. It was the perfect form of Imperial history for a British nation no longer so confident of its imperial role. Economic History Review.11 By focusing so much responsibility for imperial expansion away from metropolitan factors onto indigenous ‘collaborators’ and peripheral crises. 1–3. made their distinguished contributions. op. and many preferred that it be broken in pieces.. William Roger Louis. for example. tyranny and mass murder. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. Gordon Johnson or John Darwin). this post-1950 anti-ideological moment was itself a kind of ideological position. In the 1980s. A focus on the political journey of nationalist protagonists such as Gandhi or Kenyatta was a happier subject for Oxford or Cambridge professors than the colonial order as a whole. the School equally allowed the British nation to escape the scene of the crime. Indeed.

Imperial Leather: Race. For the ‘cultural turn’ was associated with an ascent of Idealism in the historiography of British imperialism which was remarkably compatible with the Neo-Liberal moment. Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire. and more in the supplementary volumes which followed over the next decade. and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London 1995). On the left. All of this new work met (and in some quarters still meets) resistance from both British and British imperial historians.Drayton 679 the hands of scholars in British universities outside Loxbridge. so peripheral to the eighteenth-century economy.). and K. Britons: Forging the Nation. similarly. but the dynamism it gave to the subject proved irresistible.G. for Cannadine. while Patrick O’Brien. British Imperialism (London 1993). L. of whom Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) became a symbol.A. 15 See for example A. 1660–1840 (Cambridge 2003). with Barbara Solow’s guidance.J. Treading a space in between old and new interpretations. Self-consciously ‘Postcolonial’ historians and literary critics. and led to the inclusion in the academic subject of voices which had been excluded for decades. rediscovered in Eric Williams’s long excluded Capitalism and Slavery (1944 and 1964) that the periphery was not. brought Hobson’s political economic interpretation of British expansion back indoors after three generations. Propaganda and Empire (Manchester 1984).. became mere consequences of how 14 See inter alia C.14 John MacKenzie at Lancaster and Peter Cain and Tony Hopkins at Birmingham took down the boundary wall which had separated British domestic history and Imperial history. McClintock (ed. Bayly. Colonial encounters. apologists for contemporary British and American power sought to revive the Whig history of the British Empire. Hopkins. challenged the boundaries and methods of Imperial history. 2 vols. cit. we were told of the ideological origins of the British Empire. John Mackenzie. op. and with the imperial life of cultural stereotypes. Colley. A river of cultural historical studies from Mackenzie’s Manchester University Press series lapped at the foundations of the Robinson and Gallagher school’s paradigm of a ‘self-contained official mind’. after all. Somewhere in the centre. . sensitive to culture and the body as historical agents. as we shall see. a challenge to the forms of domination and exploitation which it had shaped and which survived its formal collapse.A. A New Imperial History: Culture. and in the United States and India. C. the postcolonialists were preoccupied with how the British perceived the colonized. Imperial Meridian. Gender. it emerged to visibility. 1707–1820 (London 1992). One might also discern in Ronald Hyam’s Britain’s Imperial Century (London 1976) a post-modernism that dare not speak its name.). or even less. P. made a separate demand that the formative impact of the empire on British culture be recognized. and here and there in the Oxford History of the British Empire series of the 1990s. But even these new currents of Imperial history as a subject rarely posed a critique of either the past of British Imperialism. Bayly’s Imperial Meridian (1989) and Linda Colley’s Britons offered other ways of understanding the connections of imperial to domestic and European history. Cain and Hopkins (1986 and 1993). Wilson (ed. Cain and A. The ‘Subaltern studies’ school’s imperial history from below was subtly inflected into Bayly’s Origins of Nationality in South Asia (1998).15 On the right.

where several generations of Imperial historians evaded and evade description of the dark side of empire.17 A focus on subjectivity. and from which tribute.16 The mental worlds of individuals at the frontier. but it often finds violent external expression in war and in an indifference towards the destruction. Asia. social or environmental protections. is a regime through which external entities derive maximum gain from the labour and resources within a territory. It is a useful category through which we may make sense of a phenomenon which recurs in world history wherever a power gap allows one society to become predatory towards others. It is also an ethical one. The exceptions to this have been few – David Anderson’s and Caroline Elkins’s studies of the violence with which the colonial state repressed the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya stand out. The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh (London 2007). although always with local collaborators. were received. Historians appeared to be more bothered by ‘epistemic violence’ than the real thing. Cannadine. Maya Jasanoff. For the narcissism which orders the past to please the present may appear to be an innocent kind of solitary vice. Captives (2002). K. 18 David Anderson. . how sensibility and identification with past and present communities’ experiences of power and pleasure or humiliation and pain. is an emblem of the costs involved in breaking the code of silence. orders the pictorial plane has impact upon how accurate and complete a portrait of the past can be. but particularly Elkins. The social rent paid by capital is minimized. There the relationship of labour to capital is manipulated via the suppression of taxes. Empire. aging) are borne from the wages of labour and the costs of infrastructure through which the external 16 D. in all its contexts. Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (Oxford 2004). post-colonial Imperial and world history is still written mainly for the pleasure of the reading classes of past and present imperial powers. suffering and death of others. they bear responsibility for how popular historians write about the British Empire and for the attitudes of both politicians and civil society towards the use of power abroad. C. It is important now to be clear about the reality of Imperialism. The Edge of Empire (New York 2004). as it was at its origin. secures a protected and privileged sphere for its economic actors. 17 L.18 In important ways. with or without formal colonization. Ornamentalism (London 2000).680 Journal of Contemporary History 46(3) the British imagined social class. became the subject of many elegant studies from Linda Colley and her two distinguished students Kathleen Wilson and Maya Jasanoff. and Gender in the Eighteenth Century (London 2003). This has important consequences. commodities and profit may be freely expatriated. wages. displaced examination of practical and material experience. Wilson. a word of political abuse. ill health. Imperialism. Elkins. Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (London 2004). The Island Race: Englishness. Colley. For perspective. A foreign power. on how people in Africa. To this extent. in ways its historians so rarely are. For it is not merely. and the hostility with which both. usually white. or Latin America thought about things. by forms of coercion which drive labour towards that direction of employment and limit its legal or practical ability to resist the regime. and Idem. as both the costs of social reproduction (childhood.

a pleasant compensation for a diminished role in world affairs. Among ourselves. preemptive attack. Civil society. is fundamental. This was only the most candid 19 Robert Cooper.4388912. we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era . deception. Cooper wrote: The challenge to the postmodern world is to get used to the idea of double standards. To such a claim historians and their colleagues in the social sciences lend active help. In the early twenty-first century the Whig history of the British Empire began to stir in its grave. A revised version of the essay is published in Cooper. in its understanding of colonial domination. Violence is a constant and necessary corollary of such an order. But Imperialism always comes wearing the mask of community. Torture is not just a problem that oddly pops up in the midst of imperial adventures: it is the necessary recurrent partner to a non-consensual regime of exploitation. and live in circumstances of insecurity. whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself.00. For the British public the idea of the Empire was of a theatre of power and glory.19 The idea of ‘No peace beyond the line’ – that a different kind of political and ethical behaviour was possible in the dark places of the world – was a recurrent idea of European policy since the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in the sixteenth century. The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century (London 2004). electricity networks. But the truth is that outside the university it had never died.html (accessed 15 May 2009). defend. deepwater harbours. a kind of slow-motion mass 0. to break the will to resist. but for the old myths they newly brought to market. But not since the Victorian era had we seen as naked a statement of such an imperial world view as Cooper’s. 7 April 2002. we must also use the laws of the jungle. airports. if not permanent malnutrition.Drayton 681 actor derives extraordinary benefit – In its most chilling paragraph. needed to install. . The upshot of this is high levels of unnecessary mortality sustained over very long periods. to spread terror. In this historians became responsible not just for the ugliness they ignored. at http://www. promising that its form of domination is in the universal interest. we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. In early 2002. published his infamous essay on ‘The New Liberal Imperialism’. Robert Cooper. we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle. where the application of force to bodies to extract information.3858. a Foreign Office mandarin and confidant of Blair. discipline and replace local collaborators. ‘The New Liberal Imperialism’. in which he described a global political landscape in which advanced nations needed to accept their right to dominate and direct the backward through whatever means necessary. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the postmodern continent of Europe. Those on the underside of this regime derive reduced benefit from their labour and resources. Among ourselves. lived in the benign illusions of its Edwardian local policing and repression – are funded mainly out of taxation of the wages and consumption of the squeezed wages of labour.

in terms with which Reginald Coupland or Freddie Madden would have approved. had wide influence. Ferguson. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London 2004). something called ‘Liberal Imperialism’ emerged in the British Empire characterized by free labour. 21 N. which rather attractively coincided with the resource-rich tropics. justice and protection of aborigines. . cit. Andrew Roberts in 2005 broadcast on the BBC his view that the empire had brought ‘liberty and justice’ to a world hitherto plunged in ‘shadowy ignorance’. In Empire. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 (London 2006). cit. 213. 8 January 2005.682 Journal of Contemporary History 46(3) declaration of a perspective which was shared by many makers of policy and editorial opinion at the turn of the twenty-first century. 23 Ferguson. free trade. Empire. may not have been such a good thing. A kind of consensus which spanned from the Right to the Centre Left of British politics emerged that the Empire.22 ‘What the British Empire proved’. Colossus: the Price of America’s Empire (New York 2004). his argument. and a ‘Hobbesian gap’. had probably not been so evil after all and that when Britain ‘punch[ed] above its weight’ it was good for the world. good government. 379.24 This was hardly surprising from a man whose social world includes the Springbok Club..23 While no professional historian of the British Empire considered that Ferguson had done more than indulge in a colourful rhetorical experiment. The Breaking of Nations. Andrew Roberts. he implies. op. Others followed in his wake: Thomas Barnett in The Pentagon’s New Map (2003) contrasted a ‘Kantian core’ of the world which enjoyed a liberal economy. Ferguson concluded. op. in the end. N. 70. where arbitrary violence and compulsion were the only options. while in 2006 he attacked Caroline Elkins for having committing a ‘blood libel against the British people’. ‘is that empire is a form of international government which can work – and not just for the benefit of the ruling power’. 24 Daily Mail. he praised Blair and Cooper’s vision of a new Liberal Imperialism but urged that only the United States could be the vehicle for this new order.20 But the historian Niall Ferguson rapidly stepped forward to paint the missing backdrop. so pleasant to the palate of the British public and convenient to the apologetic needs of contemporary interests. Ferguson. almost it seems with regret. 366–7.21 In his conclusion. and this ultimately evolved towards decolonization which. Underlying Cooper’s new imperial programme was a faith that there was some old ‘Liberal Imperialism’. a popular book published at the end of 2002 to accompany a television series. proclaimed that after about 1800. 22 Ibid. What precisely this was only rarely surfaces in Cooper’s writing. a theme pursued more directly in Colossus (2004). such as his remarkable and telling suggestion that in the nineteenth century ‘both colonisers and colonised seem to have accepted the idea of white superiority’. but he spoke aloud things that many others in British public life thought and felt. which aims for ‘the re-establishment of civilized European rule throughout the African 20 Cooper. to which he added. Cooper is of course the victim of an Oxford historical education and of a privileged white childhood in Kenya. a legal order and perpetual peace. Ferguson... 373–8. ‘but these assumptions are gone’.

wsj. 27 April 2003. Britain was. Wall Street Journal. while a global network of torture camps and the systematic abuse of human rights became the symbol of the new imperial order. It is difficult to say what role this historical myth of ‘Liberal Imperialism’ played in the neo-imperial moment of the early twenty-first century. available at http://www. Sands. Max Boot. The defenders of western civilization and democracy exhibited violence of a classic narcissistic kind.26 Ferguson. that ‘the time is long gone when Britain needs to apologize for its colonial history’. In France. Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules (London 2005). also in February 2005.asp?pg¼2 (accessed 15 May 2009). ‘The Last Iraqi Insurgency’.com/article/ SB122869822798786931. 28 April 2003. expressing in 2003 his ‘earnest hope that Anglo-American forces are still underwriting law and order in Iraq in 10 years time from now’. Fox News Network. The New Republic. 28 ‘President Bush Discusses Iraq Policy at Whitehall Palace in London’. Interview. . called American military power ‘the magical spear that heals even as it wounds’. the political heirs of the fascist parties of the 1930s mobilized the imperial past for their own purposes. 7 June 2003.25 More striking was the declaration by Gordon Brown in Mozambique in February 2005. invoking the British Empire again in 2008 as a solution to the problems of Somalia and Pakistan. ‘Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets’. In Spain and Italy and Portugal. 29 P. http://online. neo-con young 000%5C000%5C000%5C318qpvmc. ‘Bush’s Imperial Historian’. wrote in 2001.whitehouse. while urging in 2004 that the Fallujah uprising be crushed with ‘ruthlessness’. 18 April 2004. directed towards the obliteration of alternatives to one’s own 25 Johann Hari.Drayton 683 continent’.29 By an Orwellian logic. But Whiggish narratives of cosmopolitan progress centred on the imperial power of Britain and the United States gave a heady sense of optimism and right to those who made war in Afghanistan from 2001 and Iraq from 2003.27 George 23 April 2007. describing himself as ‘a fully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist gang’. and how much its propagators merely responded to the new context of power. less clear was the emancipatory achievement: war and a regime of occupation resulted in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. and invoking ‘the righteous courage of Wilberforce.28 But while the ‘deception’ and ‘double standards’ to which Cooper had referred were certainly visible in the road to war in Iraq in 2003.htm (accessed 15 May 2009). Bush’s speechwriters.html (accessed 4 November 2004). The New York Times. not the only theatre of such historical revisionism. during his state visit to the United Kingdom in 2003. the ‘Global War on terror’ was prosecuted via the use of modern weapons and mercenaries to spread terror among civilians. the National Assembly even passed a law requiring schools to teach the ‘positive’ elements of colonial history. of course. 27 The New York Times. borrowed directly from the Whig imperial repertoire in declaring the shared mission of the British and American peoples in the world. 26 http://www.weeklystandard. But it is in Britain that historians and popular history played the most important role in a cultural turn. and the firm determination of the Royal Navy over the decades to fight and end the trade in slaves’.

visible in the destruction of libraries. the empire came home in the corruption of domestic democracy. But a post-patriotic path goes beyond this.30 For this new imperial moment saw both the massive expansion of state surveillance of citizens in Britain and the United States. It is ironic to find Cooper denouncing how under communism and fascism ‘all the methods that modern states apply in foreign policy (force. Taking foreign pleasure and pain as one’s own is both and intellectual and an ethical victory. as always. Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses (London 2004). 1755–1857 (2011. The true face of empire was visible once again through its increasingly threadbare utopian mask. But it begins in a search by historians for things they find uncomfortable. Repression and Revolt in Britain’s colonial world. There are already many who are seeking a trans-European history which works across and beyond national histories. Makkreel (eds). What is the alternative to these varieties of Imperial history which passively and actively have collaborated with forms of Imperial domination? It is striking that it is from the pens of amateur historians of empire that we have the only recent comprehensive portraits of imperial violence and of the dark side of Britain’s post-colonial foreign policy. For it is in this striving against one’s inner grain that the scholar acquires a capacity to help his or her community renegotiate its sensitivities. Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam (London 2010). Idem.. Curtis.A. and in particular to lower the frontier between the self and the foreign. extra-judicial killing. cit. Indeed one might ultimately begin to see oneself in terms 30 Cooper. Where in practice it may lead it is impossible to limit or legislate for now. painful to think about or to say in the contemporary moment. op.684 Journal of Contemporary History 46(3) centrality. Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (London 2003). 32 On the ethics of history see D. IL 2004).31 The academic history of the British Empire should begin to respond this challenge. It will be interesting to learn in the fullness of time how much of the emergence of this new pro-imperial consensus was actively assisted and encouraged by the power of the state and private media organizations. spying. The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (London 2006).32 This seems ever more urgent since we learned in April 2011 that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office holds a secret archive of thousands of files which allegedly document torture. 31 See John Newsinger. It may be time for professionals to demand of one another a post-patriotic approach to the past which rejects nostalgia and teleology. archives. The Breaking of Nations. forthcoming). T. and political manipulation across the colonial empire in the 1950s and 1960s. secrecy) were used domestically’. with important political implications. Idem. M. See also Richard Gott. 53. The Ethics of History (Evanston. . museums and ancient monuments. and which speaks to and for those outside the tribe. Carr. And.R. since imperialism in all its forms depends on denying or justifying the suffering of some alien community. Our Empire Story: Resistance. Flynn and R. and determined attempts by the military and the governments in these countries to manipulate public opinion and the media.

whispered murmuring. and a commitment to what. to ‘go native’ at the centre of empire. and complicit with future forms of tyranny. historians are forced to choose what sort of future they wish for the world. He is the author of Nature’s Government: Science. face a special responsibility.Drayton 685 of the foreigner. CT 2000). a permanent scepticism towards the operations of power. Whether they like it or not. if not open opposition and mockery from one’s contemporaries: in these one may find the real index of how far one has broken the consensus. if not delusional. An imperial history that does not think and speak for those on the underside of global processes will be inaccurate. for the reasons with which we began. has been called ‘a preferential option for the poor’. A post-patriotic approach may indeed require a more deliberate confrontation of contemporary interests. In this enterprise one should expect nervous silence. It may mean too that History today must work on behalf of all humanity. Contemporary historians. Imperial Britain and the ‘Improvement’ of the World (New Haven. inequality and structural violence. . in another context. Biographical Note Richard Drayton is the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at Kings College. about the reality of empire. London.

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