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

Journal of Contemporary History 46(3) 671685 ! 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 Empires 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 oer a view about the meaning of human history. Before the rise of history in the universities there was no
Corresponding author: Richard Drayton, Kings College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS, UK Email:


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



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


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where the Sonderweg represents a kind of inside-out Whig history, would a black book of national history ever sell. One might add, too, that the kind of people who choose academic careers are, anyway, probably in the majority those whose instinct is to cooperate with authority and a dominant consensus, rather than to resist them. In Weberian terms, academics tend to Zweckrationalitat rather than Wertrationalitat, which is to say they are loyal to bureaucratic logics: both conservative towards the historical paradigms which organize ideas of periodization and agency, and to the values of the social and economic order which produced them and in which they so manifestly thrive. But besides the scholarly practices of historians and their tendency to trim their rhetorical sails to catch popular winds, there are other factors encouraging them to see the worlds past in ways which please the powerful. For in any age these winds are manipulated by economic and political agents who are willing to pay for, or to lend support to, intellectuals whose work supports their interests. From Hearst and Harmsworth to Beaverbrook, Axel Springer, Serge Dassault and Rupert Murdoch, those who control the press, trade publishing, and later the electronic media have lent a megaphone (and often a second income) to people with congenial views. These connections may even become instrumentalized, as during the Cold War and the Kosovo and Iraq Wars, where public opinion in many countries was deliberately manipulated by state entities and willing private collaborators.2 Intersecting with this was the Military Intellectual Complex, those networks of political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and historians in universities, foundations, think tanks and government oce, which gave intellectual guidance and legitimacy to how American and British power were used and intervened in public debate to hold its centre.3 Individuals and foundations sought with varying levels of success to buy ideological space in great universities by funding chairs and research centres, and career pathways opened to those who worked within the prevailing paradigms. There was no conspiracy, only a convergence of interests which linked intellectuals with private, institutional and state power, with which often, in any event, they identied. In history, unlike in the disciplines of political science and economics, there was rarely censorship, but merely more opportunities in the choir for those who knew
2 K. Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhowers Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (2006); F. Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London 1999); H. Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge 2008); Why Were Government Propaganda Experts Working on News at CNN?, (accessed 17 May 2009); L.H. Belknap, Military Operations in the CNN World: Using the Media as a Force Multiplier, GetTRDoc.pdf (accessed 17 May 2009); S. Gardiner, Truth from These Podia: Summary of a Study of Strategic Influence, Perception Management, Information Warfare and Psychological Operations in Gulf War II (2003), (accessed 17 May 2009). 3 N. Gilman, Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore 2007); Ron Robin, The Making of the Cold War Enemy: Culture and Politics in the Military Intellectual Complex (Princeton, NJ 2001); D.M. Wax (ed.), Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War: The Influence of Foundations, McCarthyism and the CIA (London 2008).



the hymns. As a result, what public opinion appears to be, and what may therefore be considered to be sensible and sane and worth speaking towards, becomes quietly skewed towards the prospect from above. This feeds back, inevitably, into the historical profession, as particular kinds of positions benet from this external propulsion, while dissenters appear strident and marginal. It may even impose itself on the internal psychic life of the historian, for it is always more wearying and dicult and demanding of limited private resources of condence and courage to work against an apparent consensus rather than with it. At the common intersection of the academy, the historical profession, the state, the public sphere and the political and economic order, therefore, are always pressures which encourage teleological arguments which conform with the world view and the global interests of dominant players. We may examine this in concrete terms in the academic historiography of Imperialism over the last century. British Imperial History, from its late nineteenth-century origins as a subject, was a patriotic enterprise where the past was ordered in ideological defence of contemporary British expansion. This was transparent in its institutional and professional origins. The Beit Chair in Colonial History, the rst post in the subject, was endowed in 1905 at Oxford by supporters and beneciaries of the Boer War, 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. They aimed, and succeeded, in making the radical critics of Imperialism, in particular John Hobson, intellectually impolite and, in disciplinary terms, irrelevant. Even before this, however, in intellectual terms the subject in the universities was rooted in national chauvinism and pro-imperial sentiment. Sir John Seeleys lectures on the Expansion of England in 1883 were conscious interventions in contemporary debates about Disraelis and Gladstones foreign policies, the Irish question and Imperial Federation.4 Seeley joined the Whig narrative of the nation, the idea that British history was the story of the progressive expansion of liberty, to the story of imperial expansion. H.E. Egerton, the rst incumbent of the Beit Chair of Colonial History, gave formal shape to this Whig history of British Imperialism, turning the subject into the story of the diusion of English liberty, of the migration of the Magna Carta, Parliamentary government, common law, judges and juries, with emphasis on such culminations as the American Revolution and the emergence of self-government in British diasporic communities of white settlement.5

4 On Seeley, see D. Wormell, Sir John Seeley and the Uses of History (1980) and D.S.A. Bell, Unity and Difference: Sir John Seeley and the Political Theology of International Relations, Rev. International Studies, 31 (2005), 55979. 5 H.E. Egerton, Federations and Unions within the British Empire (Oxford 1911). For the larger history of this political and historical programme, see W.D. MacIntyre, The Britannic Vision: Historians and the Making of the British Commonwealth of Nations, 190748 (London 2009).


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This Whig programme was at the centre of British imperial history well into the 1950s, and there is a remarkable ideological coherence among those who secured posts in the subject in Oxford, Cambridge and London. These historians responded to the ideological attacks on contemporary British imperialism of Germans, international socialists and colonial nationalists by making two main kinds of arguments. First, they asserted that the spread of constitutional freedom was the essence of the British Empire. Second, that from the early nineteenth century onwards, British imperial power was identied equally with free labour instead of slavery, free trade in place of inecient autarky and good government opposed to anarchy or barbarism. Around these ideals were constituted a large body of work, the Oxford and Cambridge Histories of India (1919 and 1922), the Cambridge History of the British Empire (from 1929), and the Manserghian mappings of the constitutional transition from Empire to Commonwealth, to which the endowment of the Smuts Chair in Commonwealth History at Cambridge (1951) was a kind of capstone. The unwritten purpose of the Cambridge History of the British Empire, Bayly later wrote, although he might have been referring to the entire three generations enterprise of his sub-discipline, was to demonstrate how the English values of justice, 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, at the outbreak of war, Egerton wrote a pamphlet with the title: Is the British Empire the Result of Wholesale Robbery? His conclusion, you may not be surprised, was no; it was instead the product of free and industrious Englishmen being forced into taking responsibility for foreign territories and peoples, to which they disseminated their virtue. It is amusing to note his insistence: It is equally false to suggest that an empire took its rise in violence. What happened was the peaceful occupation of apparently vacant lands, though afterwards, no doubt, trouble sometimes arose from the neighbourhood of aboriginal Indians. 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. 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. The political value of such ways of seeing the past to contemporary imperial violence and terror is obvious. Reginald Coupland, Egertons successor to the Beit Chair in 1920, continued the apologetic enterprise. Coupland came to the chair in the aftermath of that wave of anticolonial subversion which had swept across Ireland, Egypt, Trinidad, for which the emblem in India was the Amritsar massacre. He assured his audience, at his inaugural lecture in 1921, that the story of the empire in Africa and India told of the growth of the doctrine of trusteeship. In his biography of Wilberforce (1923), his American Revolution and the British Empire (1930), his narrative of the antislavery movement (1933) and the public lectures he gave every year to
6 C.A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 17801830 (London 1988), 1.



colonial and Indian civil service probationers, Coupland chose to preach the gospel that the Anglo-Saxon race with its love of liberty and fair play, its talents and moral courage, was specially gifted to lead others on the high road towards (eventual) freedom. In 1933, when perhaps 20,000 members and sympathizers of the Indian National Congress were in prison, Coupland told his audience via BBC Radio that, but for a decade in the eighteenth century, there were no indubitably black years in the long record of the British connection with India.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. It was an age of tea parties, at which earnest Anglicans discussed Britains mission while the bombs fell on Abyssinia and Spain.8 The Oxford Colonial History Seminar, directed by Richard Pares and Vincent Harlow in the 1930s and 40s, took the years 1830 to 1860, which happily included the end of slavery, missionary enthusiasm, acts for the protection of aborigines and the beginnings of colonial self-government, as its focus. The history of Britains imperial humanitarianism became a scholarly industry, which only went into decline in the 1970s. Harlow, whose career included both the Rhodes Chair at KCL (193848) and the Beit Chair in Oxford (from 1950), was the last professional apostle of this Anglican Liberal Imperialist school of imperial history. 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.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, for which the key gures were the Cambridge historians Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson. Harlow, before them, had argued for the rise of a new naval and commercial imperialism in which Colonies as such were at a discount, and in which economic aims led Britain (and here I quote Harlow), unexpectedly and often reluctantly . . . into imposing their authority upon alien peoples in Asia and Africa.10 But it was Gallagher and Robinson, in The Imperialism of Free Trade of 1953, the most inuential article in all of British imperial historiography, and in Africa and the Victorians (1961), who made Harlows hypothesis into a reinterpretation of the pattern of British expansion over the long nineteenth century. In place of high moral purpose they put a vast amoral story of random pressure, realpolitik and local contingency. It was, on the surface, an anti-ideological turn: both a Buttereld focus on high politics and a Namierite concern with the instrumental machines which linked individuals, parties and politics, generated a eld of research into how both the ocial mind of British imperial advance and retreat,
7 R. Coupland, The British Empire (London 1933), 7. 8 See Freddie Maddens remarkable memoir: F. Madden, The Commonwealth, Commonwealth History, and Oxford, in F. Madden and D.K. Fieldhouse (eds), Oxford and the Idea of Commonwealth (Oxford 1977), 729. 9 V. Harlow, The Founding of the Second British Empire, 2 vols (Oxford 1952), I:647. 10 Ibid., I:646.


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and how interest groups in the colonies helped or frustrated British control, to which the students of Gallagher and Robinson (including, for example, Anil Seal, William Roger Louis, Gordon Johnson or John Darwin), and of Lucy Sutherland (such as P.J. Marshall), made their distinguished contributions. But from other perspectives, this post-1950 anti-ideological moment was itself a kind of ideological position. For if the story no longer made Britain its hero, it was still sceptical and often mocking of the claims of anti-colonial nationalism, while still evasive of the question of British violence, of economic exploitation, racism and their consequences. It was the perfect form of Imperial history for a British nation no longer so condent of its imperial role. With its denial of the role of economic interests in driving imperial politics and its specic denunciation of Lenins 1916 linkage of Imperialism to Capitalism, the Robinson-Gallagher school prospered in the Cold War climate of Liberal anticommunism.11 By focusing so much responsibility for imperial expansion away from metropolitan factors onto indigenous collaborators and peripheral crises, the School equally allowed the British nation to escape the scene of the crime. The Whiggery of Seeley was dead, but long lived a new presentism in the national history of postcolonial nations. The balkanization of the Imperial history into area studies allowed the ugly business to be abandoned to Africanists or South Asianists, or abandoned altogether. 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 history of the Empire was now an unattering mirror, and many preferred that it be broken in pieces. David Fieldhouses Humpty Dumpty, I am suggesting, was pushed by those who were no longer comfortable in his company.12 As Chris Bayly dryly put it in 1989, The Africanization of the Partition [of Africa] is now so complete that Europeans seem almost to have disappeared from the scene.13 Imperial and commonwealth history produced in Oxford, Cambridge and London in the era of decolonization posed no challenge to the attering domestic narratives of national history of either Left or Right. Indeed, as it contained what kind of imperial history was studied and expelled it into impoverished regional academic provinces where they did that to themselves, it actively protected the national story from association with overseas slavery, tyranny and mass murder. After 1950, as before it, one is unable to point to a single historian employed at the golden triangle heart of the eld who made British colonial violence or plunder into his or her subject. In the 1980s, new inuences from outside of that consensus began to shape the subject into its current form. Social and cultural history approaches, particularly in
11 For which see The Imperialism of Free Trade, Economic History Review, second series, VI (1953), 13; see the comment of Eric Stokes, Late Nineteenth-Century Colonial Expansion and the Attack on the Theory of Economic Imperialism: A Case of Mistaken Identity?, The Historical Journal, 12 (1969), 285301. 12 D.K. Fieldhouse, Can Humpty-Dumpty be Put Together Again? Imperial History in the 1980s, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 12 (19834), 923. 13 Bayly, Imperial Meridian, op. cit., 13.



the hands of scholars in British universities outside Loxbridge, and in the United States and India, challenged the boundaries and methods of Imperial history, and led to the inclusion in the academic subject of voices which had been excluded for decades.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. A river of cultural historical studies from Mackenzies Manchester University Press series lapped at the foundations of the Robinson and Gallagher schools paradigm of a self-contained ocial mind. Cain and Hopkins (1986 and 1993), similarly, brought Hobsons political economic interpretation of British expansion back indoors after three generations. Self-consciously Postcolonial historians and literary critics, of whom Edward Saids Orientalism (1978) became a symbol, made a separate demand that the formative impact of the empire on British culture be recognized. Treading a space in between old and new interpretations, C.A. Baylys Imperial Meridian (1989) and Linda Colleys Britons oered other ways of understanding the connections of imperial to domestic and European history. The Subaltern studies schools imperial history from below was subtly inected into Baylys Origins of Nationality in South Asia (1998), while Patrick OBrien, with Barbara Solows guidance, rediscovered in Eric Williamss long excluded Capitalism and Slavery (1944 and 1964) that the periphery was not, after all, so peripheral to the eighteenth-century economy. All of this new work met (and in some quarters still meets) resistance from both British and British imperial historians, but the dynamism it gave to the subject proved irresistible, and here and there in the Oxford History of the British Empire series of the 1990s, and more in the supplementary volumes which followed over the next decade, it emerged to visibility. But even these new currents of Imperial history as a subject rarely posed a critique of either the past of British Imperialism, or even less, a challenge to the forms of domination and exploitation which it had shaped and which survived its formal collapse. 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. On the left, the postcolonialists were preoccupied with how the British perceived the colonized, and with the imperial life of cultural stereotypes.15 On the right, as we shall see, apologists for contemporary British and American power sought to revive the Whig history of the British Empire. Somewhere in the centre, we were told of the ideological origins of the British Empire. Colonial encounters, for Cannadine, became mere consequences of how

14 See inter alia C.A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian, op. cit.; P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, British Imperialism (London 1993), 2 vols; L. Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 17071820 (London 1992); John Mackenzie, Propaganda and Empire (Manchester 1984). One might also discern in Ronald Hyams Britains Imperial Century (London 1976) a post-modernism that dare not speak its name, sensitive to culture and the body as historical agents. 15 See for example A. McClintock (ed.), Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London 1995); and K. Wilson (ed.), A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 16601840 (Cambridge 2003).


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



actor derives extraordinary benet roads, deepwater harbours, airports, electricity networks, local policing and repression are funded mainly out of taxation of the wages and consumption of the squeezed wages of labour. Those on the underside of this regime derive reduced benet from their labour and resources, and live in circumstances of insecurity, if not permanent malnutrition. The upshot of this is high levels of unnecessary mortality sustained over very long periods, a kind of slow-motion mass manslaughter. Violence is a constant and necessary corollary of such an order, needed to install, defend, discipline and replace local collaborators. 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, where the application of force to bodies to extract information, to spread terror, to break the will to resist, is fundamental. But Imperialism always comes wearing the mask of community, promising that its form of domination is in the universal interest. To such a claim historians and their colleagues in the social sciences lend active help. In the early twenty-rst century the Whig history of the British Empire began to stir in its grave. But the truth is that outside the university it had never died. For the British public the idea of the Empire was of a theatre of power and glory, a pleasant compensation for a diminished role in world aairs. Civil society, in its understanding of colonial domination, lived in the benign illusions of its Edwardian ancestors. In this historians became responsible not just for the ugliness they ignored, but for the old myths they newly brought to market. In early 2002, Robert Cooper, a Foreign Oce mandarin and condant of Blair, published his infamous essay on 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. In its most chilling paragraph, Cooper wrote:
The challenge to the postmodern world is to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era - force, preemptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself. Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.19

The idea of No peace beyond the line that a dierent 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. But not since the Victorian era had we seen as naked a statement of such an imperial world view as Coopers. This was only the most candid
19 Robert Cooper, The New Liberal Imperialism, 7 April 2002, at 0,3858,4388912,00.html (accessed 15 May 2009). A revised version of the essay is published in Cooper, The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century (London 2004).


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declaration of a perspective which was shared by many makers of policy and editorial opinion at the turn of the twenty-rst century. Others followed in his wake: Thomas Barnett in The Pentagons New Map (2003) contrasted a Kantian core of the world which enjoyed a liberal economy, a legal order and perpetual peace, and a Hobbesian gap, which rather attractively coincided with the resource-rich tropics, where arbitrary violence and compulsion were the only options. Cooper is of course the victim of an Oxford historical education and of a privileged white childhood in Kenya, but he spoke aloud things that many others in British public life thought and felt. Underlying Coopers new imperial programme was a faith that there was some old Liberal Imperialism. What precisely this was only rarely surfaces in Coopers writing, 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, to which he added, almost it seems with regret, but these assumptions are gone.20 But the historian Niall Ferguson rapidly stepped forward to paint the missing backdrop. In Empire, a popular book published at the end of 2002 to accompany a television series, Ferguson, in terms with which Reginald Coupland or Freddie Madden would have approved, proclaimed that after about 1800, something called Liberal Imperialism emerged in the British Empire characterized by free labour, free trade, good government, justice and protection of aborigines, and this ultimately evolved towards decolonization which, he implies, may not have been such a good thing.21 In his conclusion, he praised Blair and Coopers vision of a new Liberal Imperialism but urged that only the United States could be the vehicle for this new order, a theme pursued more directly in Colossus (2004).22 What the British Empire proved, Ferguson concluded, is that empire is a form of international government which can work and not just for the benet of the ruling power.23 While no professional historian of the British Empire considered that Ferguson had done more than indulge in a colourful rhetorical experiment, his argument, so pleasant to the palate of the British public and convenient to the apologetic needs of contemporary interests, had wide inuence. A kind of consensus which spanned from the Right to the Centre Left of British politics emerged that the Empire, in the end, had probably not been so evil after all and that when Britain punch[ed] above its weight it was good for the world. 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, while in 2006 he attacked Caroline Elkins for having committing a blood libel against the British people.24 This was hardly surprising from a man whose social world includes the Springbok Club, which aims for the re-establishment of civilized European rule throughout the African
20 Cooper, The Breaking of Nations, op. cit., 70. 21 N. Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London 2004), 3667. 22 Ibid., 3738; N. Ferguson, Colossus: the Price of Americas Empire (New York 2004). 23 Ferguson, Empire, op. cit., 379. 24 Daily Mail, 8 January 2005; Andrew Roberts, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 (London 2006), 213.



continent.25 More striking was the declaration by Gordon Brown in Mozambique in February 2005, that the time is long gone when Britain needs to apologize for its colonial history. Britain was, of course, not the only theatre of such historical revisionism. In France, also in February 2005, the National Assembly even passed a law requiring schools to teach the positive elements of colonial history. In Spain and Italy and Portugal, the political heirs of the fascist parties of the 1930s mobilized the imperial past for their own purposes. But it is in Britain that historians and popular history played the most important role in a cultural turn. It is dicult to say what role this historical myth of Liberal Imperialism played in the neo-imperial moment of the early twenty-rst century, and how much its propagators merely responded to the new context of power. 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. Max Boot, neo-con young fogey, wrote in 2001, Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-condent Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets, invoking the British Empire again in 2008 as a solution to the problems of Somalia and Pakistan.26 Ferguson, describing himself as a fully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist gang, called American military power the magical spear that heals even as it wounds, expressing in 2003 his earnest hope that Anglo-American forces are still underwriting law and order in Iraq in 10 years time from now, while urging in 2004 that the Fallujah uprising be crushed with ruthlessness.27 George W. Bushs speechwriters, during his state visit to the United Kingdom in 2003, borrowed directly from the Whig imperial repertoire in declaring the shared mission of the British and American peoples in the world, and invoking the righteous courage of Wilberforce, and the rm determination of the Royal Navy over the decades to ght and end the trade in slaves.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, less clear was the emancipatory achievement: war and a regime of occupation resulted in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths, while a global network of torture camps and the systematic abuse of human rights became the symbol of the new imperial order.29 By an Orwellian logic, the Global War on terror was prosecuted via the use of modern weapons and mercenaries to spread terror among civilians. The defenders of western civilization and democracy exhibited violence of a classic narcissistic kind, directed towards the obliteration of alternatives to ones own
25 Johann Hari, Bushs Imperial Historian, The New Republic, 23 April 2007. 26 000%5C000%5C000%5C318qpvmc.asp?pg2 (accessed 15 May 2009); SB122869822798786931.htm (accessed 15 May 2009). 27 The New York Times, 27 April 2003; Interview, Fox News Network, 28 April 2003; Wall Street Journal, 7 June 2003; The Last Iraqi Insurgency, The New York Times, 18 April 2004. 28 President Bush Discusses Iraq Policy at Whitehall Palace in London, available at (accessed 4 November 2004). 29 P. Sands, Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules (London 2005).


Journal of Contemporary History 46(3)

centrality, visible in the destruction of libraries, archives, museums and ancient monuments. The true face of empire was visible once again through its increasingly threadbare utopian mask. And, as always, the empire came home in the corruption of domestic democracy. It is ironic to nd Cooper denouncing how under communism and fascism all the methods that modern states apply in foreign policy (force, spying, secrecy) were used domestically.30 For this new imperial moment saw both the massive expansion of state surveillance of citizens in Britain and the United States, and determined attempts by the military and the governments in these countries to manipulate public opinion and the media. 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. 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 Britains post-colonial foreign policy.31 The academic history of the British Empire should begin to respond this challenge. It may be time for professionals to demand of one another a post-patriotic approach to the past which rejects nostalgia and teleology, and which speaks to and for those outside the tribe.32 This seems ever more urgent since we learned in April 2011 that the Foreign and Commonwealth Oce holds a secret archive of thousands of les which allegedly document torture, extra-judicial killing, and political manipulation across the colonial empire in the 1950s and 1960s. There are already many who are seeking a trans-European history which works across and beyond national histories. But a post-patriotic path goes beyond this. Where in practice it may lead it is impossible to limit or legislate for now. But it begins in a search by historians for things they nd uncomfortable, painful to think about or to say in the contemporary moment. For it is in this striving against ones inner grain that the scholar acquires a capacity to help his or her community renegotiate its sensitivities, and in particular to lower the frontier between the self and the foreign. Taking foreign pleasure and pain as ones own is both and intellectual and an ethical victory, with important political implications, since imperialism in all its forms depends on denying or justifying the suering of some alien community. Indeed one might ultimately begin to see oneself in terms
30 Cooper, The Breaking of Nations, op. cit., 53. 31 See John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A Peoples History of the British Empire (London 2006); M. Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britains Real Role in the World (London 2003); Idem, Unpeople: Britains Secret Human Rights Abuses (London 2004); Idem, Secret Affairs: Britains Collusion with Radical Islam (London 2010). See also Richard Gott, Our Empire Story: Resistance, Repression and Revolt in Britains colonial world, 17551857 (2011, forthcoming). 32 On the ethics of history see D. Carr, T.R. Flynn and R.A. Makkreel (eds), The Ethics of History (Evanston, IL 2004).



of the foreigner, to go native at the centre of empire. In this enterprise one should expect nervous silence, whispered murmuring, if not open opposition and mockery from ones contemporaries: in these one may nd the real index of how far one has broken the consensus. A post-patriotic approach may indeed require a more deliberate confrontation of contemporary interests, a permanent scepticism towards the operations of power, and a commitment to what, in another context, has been called a preferential option for the poor. An imperial history that does not think and speak for those on the underside of global processes will be inaccurate, if not delusional, about the reality of empire, and complicit with future forms of tyranny, inequality and structural violence. It may mean too that History today must work on behalf of all humanity. Contemporary historians, for the reasons with which we began, face a special responsibility. Whether they like it or not, historians are forced to choose what sort of future they wish for the world.

Biographical Note Richard Drayton is the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at Kings College, London. He is the author of Natures Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the Improvement of the World (New Haven, CT 2000).