Reviewed by: John MacKenzie Author: Richard Gott Publisher: Verso Price (RRP): £25
Interest in the British empire continues unabated. In the space of a few weeks, Jeremy Paxman’s Empire, Kwasi Kwarteng’s Ghosts of Empire and this book have all landed on my desk. Clearly, they have to be judged according to whether they have anything new to say.
Richard Gott is quite clear: his originality lies in retrieving the names and reputations
of rebels and resisters, looking at the empire from below. Gott announces that he is producing the antidote to HE Marshall’s Our Empire Story of 1908 (with many reprints), the romantic illustrated account of imperial achievement.
It is a paean of self-congratulation which some figures on the political right considered not so long ago should be reprinted and distributed in our schools. Maybe that was what stimulated Gott to his counter attack.
He covers only the century from 1755 to 1857 and demonstrates conclusively that the establishment and maintenance of the British empire was a source of constant struggle: in nearly all areas of the world, few accepted its arrival with equanimity.
From the Americas to Africa, Australia and Afghanistan, the North-West Frontier and elsewhere in India to New Zealand, from the Caribbean to China, and in many other places, the arrival of settlers and the imposition of various forms of imperial rule were met with resistance under the heroic leadership of indigenous rulers and prosecuted by men and women who saw their lands seized and traditional lives disrupted.
However it is more complicated than that.
Empire was about the massive movement of peoples, not just Europeans, but also slaves and indentured labourers. Settlers also became rebels, discontented with imperial authority limiting their freedoms, not least to deal with native peoples as they chose. Slaves, as throughout history, rose in revolt against their scandalous condition. Indentured labourers created fresh areas of resentment, social discontents and violence.
So far, so good. Resistance has of course been a major subject for serious historians since at least the 1960s, but Gott creates a vast compendium in 66 often staccato chapters. While it may be useful for some to have the whole panoply of revolt brought together in this way, the result is a very one-dimensional approach to empire.
It may even be possible to question whether this is any more real history than Marshall’s book was. The approach is almost entirely narrative.
The questions ‘who?’ and ‘when?’ predominate over the more important ‘why?’ and ‘with what effects?’ No one for a moment would now question the need to understand the importance of resistance, repression and revolt, but most historians would also wish to emphasise complexity, collaboration, contexts and consequences.
Indeed, this is so much a hair shirt in print, a source of constant breast beating, that there is an air of naivety about it.
The sad fact is that humans have been, at least from the Neolithic era, a fairly violent species and that violence has notably increased as technology has facilitated it. The British empire was far from unique – and its demise seems to have done little to restrain such brutality.
There are also some hard-to-sustain judgments here. The assertion that “the rulers of the British empire rank with the dictators of the 20th century as the authors of crimes against humanity on an infamous scale” flies in the face of the multiplicity of voices, the activities of the press and of many pressure groups in the developing democracy that was Britain in the 19th century. Similarly the idea that human rights becomes only a concern of 21st-century Christianity ignores the many humanitarian groups of the earlier period.
Of course these ‘three Rs’ are important. Of course resisters and rebels have to be recognised and often honoured, but only in the context of a more serious and multidimensional approach than Gott seems capable of.
Professor John MacKenzie is coeditor of Scotland and the British Empire (Oxford University Press, 2011)