Recently Ex Historia, the postgraduate journal run by research students at the University of Exeter, organised a colloquium on the subject of ‘Imperial and Global History: A Marriage of Convenience?’ The speakers, Dr Gareth Curless, Emily Bridger, Dr Andrew Griffiths, and Simon Mackley, were invited to give their responses to the question, which will be published here on the blog over the course of this week.
In the first installment on this topic, Gareth Curless explores the relationship between imperial and global history, examining both benefits and the constraints of such an approach:
Imperial and global history are currently experiencing something of a renaissance. So much so that in a recent review article David Bell remarked that history is in the midst of a ‘global turn’. Even when you factor in the pre-REF recruitment drive, you only have to look at the number of academic jobs advertised in the past 18 months for posts in global or world history to recognise that something is afoot. Here at the University of Exeter, there is the newly established Centre for Imperial and Global History, 12 members of staff connected with the field and a large cohort of postgraduate students. The developments at Exeter are part of a broader trend in U.K. universities, where, in addition to the well-established area studies programmes, there are also research groups and centres devoted to colonial and post-colonial, imperial, global, and world history, such as those in Cambridge, Leeds, Oxford, and Southampton.
The establishment of Exeter’s Imperial and Global History Centre, which publishes a popular blog and hosts this Network, is a testament to the growing interest in imperial and global history among U.K. universities.
The revival of imperial history is remarkable given that in the 1980s historians were predicting its slow demise. At the time area study programmes emphasised the importance of studying African and Asian societies, often within a regional or national framework. The aim in such studies was to restore agency to colonial peoples and in the process debunk the myth of the Western civilising mission. In contrast imperial history, with its focus on administrative and diplomatic elites and the political and strategic interests of the metropolitan powers appeared increasingly irrelevant.[i]
Given then the sense of pessimism that surrounded the field in the 1980s, how can the resurgence in imperial history be explained? It is partly because the history of imperialism, with its transborder flows of people, commodities, ideas, and institutions, has clear parallels with the modern phenomenon of globalisation. By investigating the imperial past, historians can aim to shed light on issues such as the persistence of formal and informal Western influence in the global south, the experience of post-imperial migration and the emergence of disaporic cultures, and global patterns of economic development, trade, and investment.
As the scholarship on the subject makes clear, many of these issues arose, if not in their ‘modern’ form, then at least in a form that we would recognise today during the age of European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. The European empires not only helped to create many of the world’s nation states but imperialism, in both its formal and informal manifestations, was also instrumental in forging the political, economic, and cultural links that continue to bind distant parts of the world together.[ii]
The recognition of the way in which the imperial past continues to echo in the globalised present contributed, in part, to the emergence of New Imperial History, with historians such as Stuart Ward, Catherine Hall, and John MacKenzie arguing for greater synergy between Britain’s domestic and imperial histories.[iii] Building on the work of area studies, these imperial historians argued that it was no longer sufficient to simply demonstrate how the West influenced the wider world but to investigate what Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper referred to as ‘colonial circuits’: the process by which ideas, people, commodities, and capital flowed not just between the metropole and colony but within and between empires.[iv]
There is much to praise in this new globalised approach to imperial history. Rather than regard the European empires as homogenous entities, historians have been encouraged to focus on the networks that connected and facilitated exchange between distant parts of the world. One of example of this approach has been the development of the ‘British World’ concept. The term broadly refers to the political, commercial, and cultural experience of British settlers in the colonies, as well as the varied and contingent nature of British identity in the Anglophone world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contributors to the literature on the concept have argued that the notion or idea of a ‘Greater Britain’ among networks of British settlers was critical to the development of commercial, political, and cultural structures and institutions.[v] For example, in their book, Empire and Globalisation, Andrew Thompson and Gary Maghee have documented how a shared sense of cultural identity among British settlers helped to facilitate trade, migration, and investment across the British world. Such approaches have highlighted how even remote of imperial backwaters were often connected to broader global trends and transformative processes.[vi]
However, such an approach to imperial history is not without its limitations. Historians describe in great detail the transcontinental flow of people and goods during the age of imperialism but they often say very little about the lived experience of colonialism. There is also a risk, as Jonathan Saha has argued, that a focus on mobility and networks privileges the connected over the disconnected. The danger then of course is that such an approach will inevitably focus on European elites, such as administrators, traders, and missionaries – the very issue that made imperial history such a target for area studies. One solution to this is to focus on people, such as slaves or indentured labourers, for whom travel across the empire was not a choice but a result of coercion. Here Clare Anderson’s work, which explores the lived experience of convicts, slaves, and indentured labourers in the Indian Ocean region, is a good example of how the concept of a ‘networked empire’ can be used to study imperialism from the ‘bottom up’.
By focusing on the hubs of connection – the trading centres, diplomatic outposts, and the port and railway towns – there is also a risk that imperialism will be reduced to an all-embracing, transformative force. Frederick Cooper, a sceptic of the globalisation concept, has repeatedly warned against such an approach, stating that:
The world has long been – and still is – a space where economic and political relations are very uneven; it is filled with lumps, places where power coalesces surrounded by those where it does not … structures and networks penetrate certain places and do certain things with great intensity but their effects tail off elsewhere.[vii]
Cooper goes further in his criticism of global history and the concept of globalisation in general. Using the example of Africa, he argues that at first glance the scramble for the continent and its subsequent colonisation appears to fit with the narrative of the integration of apparently isolated regions into a singular European or Western dominated world. However, Cooper argues that such a view not only obscures long term historical trends and networks, such as pilgrimages from the Sahara to Mecca or the links that connected merchants in West Africa, Europe, and South America, but it also ignores the fact that process of imperial conquest and colonisation imposed national borders on long distance networks, forced Africans into imperial economic systems that focused on a single European metropole, and isolated communities by dividing Africans into what were perceived to be distinct cultural and political units or ‘tribes’. In view of this, Cooper argues that a case could be made for the scramble for Africa constituting deglobalisation rather globalisation.[viii]
Cooper perhaps goes too far in his criticism but he nevertheless raises an important point. By no means can all of the features of nineteenth and twentieth century imperialism be said to resemble globalisation in the sense that we use the term today and certain features seem antithetical to the concept. This is something that Thompson and Magee acknowledge in their work, noting that ‘imperial globalisation … was far from being truly global in its reach’, focused as it was in the case of the British Empire before 1914 on particular territories and ethnic groups, namely white settler communities.[ix] In this sense then the challenge for historians is to trace the contours of imperial globalisation, explaining why ideas, people, and commodities flowed between some places but not others and to investigate how this history inclusion and exclusion shaped societies and individual peoples’ experience of imperial rule.
So is imperial and global history a marriage of convenience, nothing more than a cynical exercise designed in these times of impact to find historical echoes for contemporary problems? My answer to this is a definitive no. The growing body of scholarship on the subject has made plain the relationship between European imperialism and the more recent phenomenon of globalisation, demonstrating not only how historical trends relating to imperialism continue to have contemporary resonance but also how imperialism could be regarded as a precursor to or first wave of globalisation.
By characterising imperialism as a global network historians have been able to document how the European imperial powers were able to expand and then consolidate their colonial empires. Such an approach has not only challenged the binary division of metropole and colony but it has also revitalised the field of imperial studies, moving it away from its traditional focus on exploration and conquest and governance and administration to a transnational and transdiscplinary approach that views imperialism as a process of exchange, demonstrating how ideas and practices circulated within and between the European empires.
Nevertheless, although the merits of this globalised approach to imperial history are clear, my concern is that by focusing on transnational and global networks historians will reveal little about the lived experience of those subject to colonial rule and thereby deny or at least pay insufficient attention to the historical variety and complexity imperialism. So, as Saha points out, there continues to be an important need for detailed, local histories, because without these studies of specific places and peoples, the bigger imperial and global histories cannot be told.
Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination
(Chicago, 2002), John MacKenzie, Imperialism and Popular Culture
(Manchester, 1989), and Stuart Ward (ed.) British Culture and the End of Empire
Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper, ‘Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda’, in Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper (eds) Tensions of Empire
(Berkeley, 1997), p. 28.
Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich (eds) The British World: Diaspora, Culture and Identity
Andrew Thompson and Gary Maghee, Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c.1850-1914
Frederick Cooper, ‘What is the Concept of Globalization Good For? An African Historian’s Perspective’, African Affairs
(2001), p. 190.
Thompson and Maghee, Empire and Globalization
, p. 62 cited in Ward, review of Empire and Globalisation.