In the seventeen chapters comprising the main body of this book, we find a range of academics (including the editors) who are born over a 50-year period from Thomas Metcalf (b. 1934) to Jonathan Saha (b. 1984), attempting to answer the broad brief set out by the editors: ‘to investigate the connections between the past and the present, the private and the public, the professional practices of historians and the social and political environments within which they have taken shape’ (p. 2). The parameters of the volume encompass British imperial history, politics, society, and culture, with few chapters addressing predominantly economic themes. The editors justify their selection of authors as representing differing methodological and geographically dispersed perspectives and from varied national backgrounds, though admit that the final line-up also owed a fair bit to chance. A majority of these academics are based in the UK or North America (mainly the USA), though there are a few from Australasia including Shigeru Akita (Japan), Marilyn Lake (Australia), and Tony Ballantyne (New Zealand), as well as the lone voice of Bridget Brereton from the West Indies. Large swathes of the globe, e.g. the continents of South America and Africa, are conspicuous by their absence. Further, the editors contend that the essays ‘offer an intergenerational, transnational archive of the origins of contemporary British Empire history-writing in the wake of decolonization’ (p. 2). This is an ambitious claim and one that is not entirely consistently delivered across all the chapters. A dazzling line-up of academic heavy weights offer insights and vignettes to explain how they came to do what they do and write what they write. Many effectively combine the personal and the professional, though occasionally the links between the private and the public are tenuous and, at other times, these are inferred rather than explained. A few contributors like Lake and Brereton do not see themselves as ‘imperial historians’, but rather as engaging with issues that have an empire connection. At times the empire-decolonization impetus is conspicuous by its absence. Some of these imperial journeys appear accidental and contradictory, much like the British empire their makers seek to explore and elucidate. Nevertheless, overall, these observations should not detract substantively from what remains an enjoyable read and a considerable achievement following in the footsteps of E. H. Carr and others. Further, for those of us who insist that our students appreciate both the historian and their craft, we can hand them this book confident that they will find much that is inspirational. Given the diversity of issues and subjects, it would be impractical to attempt a synthesis of the myriad life histories in a short review. To compare and contrast too dogmatically could also suggest a thematic coherence which is rarely how life unfolds, within and outside academe. Instead, it might be revealing to focus on a few academic beginnings of those born in the 1930s and 1940s: How and why did these scholars come to work on empire growing up in the immediate aftermath of British decolonization and through the ‘winds of change’ during the 1950s–60s, and, more importantly, did that matter? In the opening chapter, Metcalf notes how he was thrown, somewhat against his will (and with no prior inclination), to undertake doctoral research on India by his Cambridge supervisor, Ronald Robinson. The latter would, a few years later, produce his magisterial and path-breaking work, Africa and the Victorians (1961), with John Gallagher. Metcalf describes how against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis, ‘raging outside’ (p. 15), he honed in on a topic, shut within the cloisters of Cambridge, that focussed on British liberalism and the Great Indian Rebellion, the suppression of which had formally established Crown rule in the sub-continent almost a hundred years earlier. He attributes his formative experiences both to the impact of external factors as well as the intellectual and international milieu of Cambridge during the 1950s, and he carried such influences back with him to Harvard where he subsequently enrolled to complete his doctorate. Another American also experiencing the impact of an Ox-bridge education during the 1960s was William. Roger Louis (b. 1936), who won a Marshall scholarship to Oxford because he was advised by his American mentor, ‘If you are actually interested in African and Asian nationalism, then you had better go somewhere where they know something about it’ (p. 27). Prior to this, he had travelled in Africa and been present during the early stage of the Algerian War and in Egypt when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal company. In Oxford, the famous Africanist, Margery Perham, took a keen interest in Louis’ research on comparative colonial empires in German East Africa. ‘I am a recidivist’ notes Louis, and he remains a fan of Gallagher and Robinson’s work (p.29). John MacKenzie (b. 1943), growing up in Glasgow, recalls being impressed by a school teacher who first exposed him to the debates surrounding the future of the Central African Federation, and, also listening to an electrifying lecture in Edinburgh during 1959 by the missionary, Rev. George Macleod, of the Church of Scotland. His ‘second epiphany’ was provided by a chance encounter with a book in the library of the University of British Columbia where he was doing graduate work, which led him to travel to Central Africa in the late 1960s and 1970s, ‘appalled by the activities of the Smith regime and following closely the development of the nationalist guerrilla campaign’ (p 39). However, his teaching career during this time at the University of Lancaster bore little trace of imperial upheaval: ‘It later occurred to me that the “new amnesia” about empire was inseparably bound up with the contemporary era of decolonization’ (p. 40). Roger Price (b. 1944) only had ‘tentative’ familial connections with the empire, but somewhat akin to MacKenzie, ‘what did impart empire seriously into my consciousness was the library, the news from the empire and school’ (p. 51). He particularly recollects the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and the fact that empire appeared to be ‘in the news all the time’. One of his formative research influences occurred whilst he was at the University of Sussex under the tutelage of a new lecturer from India, Ranajit Guha (who was later to establish the influential Subaltern School). Guha, an ex-communist and nationalist who had been imprisoned by the British as a youth leader, was a formidable intellectual. (Like Louis and Metcalf, Price was also influenced by the work of Gallagher and Robinson.) And Price’s first—and acclaimed—book was indeed on an imperial theme focussing on the Boer Wars and the British working class. Yet, by the end of the 1960s, he had turned very firmly towards British social and labour history, and the prospect of becoming an historian of empire was ‘not every appealing’. ‘If, in 1968’, wrote Price, ‘the history of the empire needed to be turned over to those who actually lived there, it was equally true that there was much that remained to be uncovered about the history of Britain’ (p. 55). Both MacKenzie and Price attest to the divide between imperial and British history during these decades, which MacKenzie came later to redress in large measure through his successful Studies in Imperialism series established in the mid-1980s. Bridget Brereton (b. 1946) was ‘a child of empire’, being born in Madras. Her grandfather had been an Assistant Manager of an Assam tea plantation, and her father was born there in 1911. He later came to teach at the University of Rangoon and served as an intelligence officer in the Indian army, making the precarious journey out of Burma into India in 1942. After the family returned to Britain, Bridget divided her time between Exeter (where her father taught) and Edinburgh (where her grandmother lived) and confessed to being almost totally ignorant about empire with ‘virtually no exposure to post-war immigration’ till the early 1960s when she accompanied her father to the Caribbean where he took up a post at the University of the West Indies. Studying in a pan-Caribbean University (Mona campus, UWI), with teachers mostly from Britain and influenced both by the Civil Rights movement in the USA and the newly independent, post-colonial status of Jamaica, Trinidad, and Tobago, it was an ‘exciting period’ in her personal journey as an academic. She realized how under-researched the area of Caribbean history was and the fact that she could approach the subject relatively free of the baggage carried by older, mostly British, ‘imperial’ historians. She also credits her marriage to a Trinidadian and living in a multi-racial society with having a direct effect on her research by granting her a unique ‘outsider/insider’ perspective, especially given her interests in race relations and gender history. Further, in common with other scholars mentioned above, she was greatly influenced in the choice of her research by a ‘great’ book, David Wood’s Trinidad in Transition. Like Price, Brereton felt the allure of social history, and with the exception of her biography of John Gorrie, sees herself ‘as a student of the social evolution of the Caribbean’, rather than a historian of empire. However, she confesses that, ‘My life, like those of the people I have tried to study and write about, has been profoundly shaped by empire and its end’ (p. 69). Did empire shape these intellectuals and guide their research? A qualified yes would appear to be the answer. Yet, it might be equally plausible to conclude with Roger Louis’ observation: ‘My pivots towards empire were brought about by ideas and personalities probably as much [as] by time, place and education’ (p. 33). © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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