Im­pe­rial mea­sure

David Can­na­dine on the legacy of Em­pire

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - David Can­na­dine’s Vic­to­ri­ous Cen­tury: The United King­dom, 1800-1906 is pub­lished by Allen Lane.

When Sir David Can­na­dine was di­rec­tor of the Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don’s In­sti­tute of His­tor­i­cal Re­search be­tween 1998 and 2003, he “vir­tu­ally stopped re­view­ing, be­cause part of the job was to pro­vide a wel­com­ing place for all his­to­ri­ans do­ing all sorts of dif­fer­ent things. I felt that wasn’t com­pat­i­ble with hav­ing pro­duced tren­chant re­views of his­tory books in the news­pa­pers.” Tren­chancy can be dan­ger­ous in a role in which one is ex­pected to rep­re­sent a whole group, and rise above the dis­putes within it.

Sim­i­lar is­sues ap­ply to Can­na­dine’s new role as pres­i­dent of the Bri­tish Academy, the UK’s na­tional body for the so­cial sciences and hu­man­i­ties, which he took up in July.

In many ways, he was a nat­u­ral choice. Now 67, the Dodge pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity is an ex­tremely dis­tin­guished, pro­lific and well-con­nected his­to­rian whose books al­ways en­gage with big themes and reach well be­yond a nar­row spe­cial­ist read­er­ship. Vic­to­ri­ous Cen­tury: The United King­dom, 1800-1906, pub­lished this week, is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple.

The book is a project he has been work­ing on “off and on for the best past of 20 years”, he tells Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion. It amounts to “a sin­gle vol­ume covering the whole of the 19th cen­tury and aimed at a broad pub­lic au­di­ence…some­thing that I don’t think has been done much re­cently”.

His aim, he says, is to “bring pol­i­tics back cen­tre stage, which, in a world of so­cial his­tory, eco­nomic his­tory, gen­der his­tory and cul­tural his­tory, might seem un­usual”. In keep­ing with that as­pi­ra­tion, the book is “in­ter­ested in power: the win­ning, the los­ing, the ma­nip­u­la­tion of power, the pro­jec­tion of power over­seas…The worry of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of his­tory sub­spe­cialisms, which has gone on for the whole of my aca­demic life and has been hugely ex­hil­a­rat­ing, is that di­ver­sity brings in­co­her­ence. I wanted to see if one could pull it all to­gether.”

Such a broad work of syn­the­sis, as Can­na­dine ad­mits in the book, presents a num­ber of chal­lenges. It has to “rec­on­cile [the] treat­ment of his­tor­i­cal pro­cesses and con­tin­gent events” and to “de­vise ex­po­si­tional struc­tures that sat­is­fac­to­rily in­cor­po­rate nar­ra­tive and anal­y­sis” while strik­ing a bal­ance be­tween a “Lit­tle Eng­land” ap­proach, the story of the “four na­tions” of the UK and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. In the event, he has been re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful in keep­ing all these balls in the air. His writ­ing is both in­for­ma­tive and en­ter­tain­ing, with a sharp eye for vivid, ar­rest­ing de­tail. How­ever old-fash­ioned its grand am­bi­tions, Vic­to­ri­ous Cen­tury will no doubt be­come a stan­dard work.

None­the­less, the book also raises a num­ber of ques­tions that come into sharper fo­cus in light of Can­na­dine’s 2013 work, The Un­di­vided Past: His­tory Be­yond Our Dif­fer­ences. As well as a bold cen­tral as­ser­tion about the course of hu­man his­tory, that book in­cludes some sharp views on how he be­lieves his­tory should – and shouldn’t – be writ­ten. Sep­a­rate chap­ters con­sider re­li­gion, na­tion, class, gen­der, race and civil­i­sa­tion. Each opens with a quo­ta­tion propos­ing that the rel­e­vant con­cept is ab­so­lutely cru­cial, such as Mao Ze­dong’s state­ment that “Classes strug­gle, some classes tri­umph, oth­ers are elim­i­nated. Such is his­tory” or Ger­maine Greer’s “Be­fore you are of any race, na­tion­al­ity, re­li­gion, party or fam­ily, you are a wo­man”.

Not all these claims can be true, Can­na­dine points out, ar­gu­ing that such iden­ti­ties are “rarely as ho­mo­ge­neous, mono­lithic or al­len­com­pass­ing, or as nat­u­rally bel­liger­ent and as ad­ver­sar­i­ally en­trenched, as their lead­ers and apol­o­gists, pro­pa­gan­dists and his­to­ri­ans like to claim”. Along­side wars of re­li­gion, for ex­am­ple, his­tory is full of con­flicts within faiths, as well as al­liances and co­ex­is­tence be­tween them. The book ends by urg­ing us to try to “see be­yond our dif­fer­ences, our sec­tional in­ter­ests, our iden­tity pol­i­tics, and our parochial con­cerns to em­brace and to cel­e­brate [our] com­mon hu­man­ity”.

But what are the im­pli­ca­tions for the academy? The Un­di­vided Past is crit­i­cal of the role his­to­ri­ans have played in pro­mot­ing “iden­tity-ob­sessed way[s] of see­ing the world”, no­tably in re­la­tion to class. The chap­ter on that theme doubts whether “Marx­ist his­tory-writ­ing still

The worry of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of his­tory sub­spe­cialisms, which has gone on all my aca­demic life, is that di­ver­sity brings in­co­her­ence

has a fu­ture in the twenty-first cen­tury”, given that “the cred­i­bil­ity and con­vic­tion have long since gone out of [its] out­moded en­ter­prises and nos­tal­gic claims”.

Per­haps even more strik­ing is its chap­ter on gen­der. Fem­i­nist de­bates about whether to put the stress on fight­ing for equal­ity or cel­e­brat­ing dif­fer­ence, as well as the move­ment’s al­leged fo­cus on the con­cerns of “the welle­d­u­cated and com­fort­ably well-off Western mid­dle class”, re­veal to Can­na­dine “the hazi­ness of the fem­i­nist project”. And he con­cludes by won­der­ing whether women will “con­tinue to or­gan­ise, to cam­paign, and to as­sert their col­lec­tive iden­tity…The gen­er­a­tion of ac­tive fem­i­nists who were the chil­dren of the 1960s are re­luc­tantly moving on, and as they do so, they in­creas­ingly lament that those women com­ing after them, who en­joy greater op­por­tu­ni­ties in part thanks to their pre­de­ces­sors’ ef­forts, are un­ea­ger to carry on fight­ing, or­ga­niz­ing, and mo­bi­liz­ing.”

Polemics are meant to be provoca­tive, yet it is safe to say that many schol­ars work­ing in the so­cial sciences and hu­man­i­ties will be unim­pressed and per­haps of­fended by such bold state­ments. Fem­i­nism and other ap­proaches rooted in “iden­tity pol­i­tics” – in­clud­ing even Marx­ism – re­main alive and well in the academy, and many of their

prac­ti­tion­ers will be hop­ing to find the Bri­tish Academy “a wel­com­ing place”.

In his plans for his pres­i­dency, Can­na­dine stresses “a strong com­mit­ment to di­ver­sity…in terms of the gen­der or eth­nic back­ground” of the fel­lows, but also “in terms of sub­jects and dis­ci­plines and ar­eas of in­no­va­tion”. Yet isn’t this in ten­sion with some of his own tren­chantly ex­pressed views?

Can­na­dine will have none of this. “Ar­gu­ments that claim that one sin­gle iden­tity is more im­por­tant than any other don’t seem to me a help­ful way to think about the com­plex­ity of the hu­man con­di­tion,” he says. “[But] I also think that work that has been done on that ba­sis has of­ten been enor­mously im­por­tant. I don’t find those con­tra­dic­tory po­si­tions…I’m all for giv­ing ap­pro­pri­ate recog­ni­tion to many schol­ars in many fields, while also say­ing that, as a prac­tis­ing his­to­rian, I have my own in­ter­ests and views. I’m all for a free trade in ideas. I have strong views of my own, but I like other peo­ple to have strong views. I’m a great be­liever in not liv­ing in a per­ma­nent echo cham­ber. The Bri­tish Academy is not an echo cham­ber, and I am very glad of that.”

This brings us back to cer­tain el­e­ments of Vic­to­ri­ous Cen­tury. Take the treat­ment of the Bri­tish Em­pire. Can­na­dine sug­gests that the em­pire was al­ways over-ex­tended (a theme his wife, the equally dis­tin­guished Prince­ton his­to­rian, Linda Col­ley, has also ad­dressed in books such as Cap­tives: Bri­tain, Em­pire and the World 1600-1850). The Bri­tish grip on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, he ar­gues in the book, was of­ten more ap­par­ent than real; im­pe­rial ex­pan­sion came largely as a re­sult of pres­sure from those on the ground and against the wishes of lead­ing politi­cians, in a spirit “more de­fen­sive and pes­simistic than it was ag­gres­sive and hubris­tic”. And, “as a cause and as a creed”, the em­pire was “never all that pop­u­lar in Bri­tain it­self, even in the age of ‘High Im­pe­ri­al­ism’”.

None of this should be con­strued as a de­fence of em­pire, but doesn’t the stress on how ac­ci­den­tal it was tend to de­tract from the ex­ploita­tion and bru­tal­ity that so many of his fel­low aca­demics have fo­cused on in re­cent years?

Again, Can­na­dine doesn’t see it that way. “I do think the em­pire was of­ten con­tin­gent and ac­ci­den­tal,” he ex­plains, “but that is pre­cisely why, when the Bri­tish were threat­ened, they were so bru­tal. The re­sort to force is a sign that it’s not work­ing, a sign of weak­ness, even if peo­ple on the other side get killed as a re­sult…The Napoleonic Wars, the In­dian Mutiny, the Crimean War, the Boer War, var­i­ous ad­ven­tures and ex­cur­sions in Africa – it’s bru­tal stuff. I don’t think I’ve de­nied that. The rea­son it’s so bru­tal is that the Bri­tish were of­ten less pow­er­ful over­seas than they ap­peared to be. They are run­ning this global em­pire on a kind of shoe­string [bud­get].”

Although it may be odd to fo­cus on a sin­gle sen­tence in a 500-page book, there is also a very strange mo­ment to­wards the end of Vic­to­ri­ous Cen­tury. Can­na­dine is de­scrib­ing de­vel­op­ments in sport in the late 19th cen­tury and writes that: “Like bi­cy­cling, ten­nis was an ac­tiv­ity that women could en­joy as well as men, and cy­cles and rac­quets may have con­trib­uted as much to ad­vance fe­male causes as any amount of fem­i­nist pro­pa­ganda or suf­fragette cam­paign­ing.”

Asked to elab­o­rate on this, he points out that “if you can get on your bi­cy­cle, it opened up all sorts of pos­si­bil­i­ties in terms of ge­o­graph­i­cal mo­bil­ity and travel which didn’t ex­ist be­fore. That’s one way of think­ing about ex­pand­ing hori­zons and op­por­tu­ni­ties and pos­si­bil­i­ties which has per­haps not been put in jux­ta­po­si­tion with the suf­frage cam­paign, but it’s quite in­ter­est­ing to think about those two things to­gether. It’s clear that, at var­i­ous points, ag­i­ta­tion by suf­fragettes or by fem­i­nists is enor­mously im­por­tant. I don’t think any­body would deny that. But if we are to un­der­stand how pro­cesses of his­tor­i­cal change work, we might want to be open to what the other ex­pla­na­tions are as well, so the bi­cy­cle is part of that big­ger story.”

This sounds per­fectly rea­son­able, but also a good deal more nu­anced than the very provoca­tive ver­sion of the same point he has cho­sen to put in print. Can­na­dine has a vast range of his­tor­i­cal in­ter­ests and can cer­tainly be charm­ingly diplo­matic, yet also en­joys a style of force­ful polemic that risks alien­at­ing other schol­ars. It re­mains to be seen how this will play out dur­ing his ten­ure at the Bri­tish Academy.

I have strong views of my own, but I like other peo­ple to have strong views. I’m a great be­liever in not liv­ing in a per­ma­nent echo cham­ber

Gothic splen­dour the ter­mi­nus and sta­tion in Bom­bay (now Mum­bai) of the Great In­dian Penin­sula Rail­way was built in 1887 for Queen Vic­to­ria’s Golden Ju­bilee; be­low, top to bot­tom, bi­cy­cling was lib­er­at­ing for women; the suf­frage move­ment used ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to cam­paign for women’s votes; ex­plor­ing Africa on a shoe­string

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