How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 3


Here, then, are seven points to keep in mind when reading the new histories of empire—preliminary theses that any reader should be able to confirm by reading widely in the scholarship published since 1990 or so. The first three are implicit in what I’ve already written:

1) In the contemporary academy, defenses of empire are surprisingly common.[i]

2) These often emerge from the corners of the university where you would least expect to find them—from among ethnohistorians, for instance, or critical theorists.[ii]

3) They are typically liberal or left-liberal in orientation.[iii]

The remaining four points will require a little more explanation.

4) The new histories of empire are superficially pro-indigenous and so easily misread as hostile to empire. This matter is perhaps best understood as involving a rhetorical technique. Many readers will find defenses of empire plausible only if these have been routed first through a defense of indigenous people. The initial task facing the new imperial historian is thus to show that empire brought benefits to non-Europeans or that it was in some meaningful way the latter’s choice and co-creation—that empire, indeed, was just one more version of indigenous society. The simplest way to do this will be for the historian to route his imperialism through a necessary mediation, by focusing our attention on some group of colonized people who for whatever reason elected to cooperate with the Europeans. One sides with empire by siding first with them. At the same time, arguments of this kind typically proceed by way of the negative, which is to say that their defense of one set of imperial practices announces itself as a critique of other empires. In practice, this requires little more of historians than that they identify to their own satisfaction which version of empire was best for indigenous people, hence that they posit a Good Imperialism alongside a Bad One, though if carefully written, even this simple A-B coding can masquerade for long stretches as an anti-imperialism. This antithesis, it must be noted, can work a few different ways: the early stages of empire vs. the late ones; the remote margins of an overseas territory vs. its oldest and most settled districts; weak imperial programs (indirect rule, soft power, treaty imperialism) vs. strong ones; national empire #1 vs. national empire #2, the French vs. the British, the British vs the Spanish, any of these vs. the Americans. White’s arguments, for all their archivally generated detail, are, of course, iterable. Arguments he makes about the French can be transferred at will to any other group of Europeans. One important circle of historians, headed by Francis Jennings and Stephen Saunders Webb, have asked us to admire the British Empire for its determination to protect native peoples from Anglo-American encroachment. For much of the continent, Indian survival would have required more empire and not less. In such writing, the British and Indian alliance, as forged at Albany and points north, becomes the target of our trans-historical identification, and this cathexis yields a position that, though difficult to parse in the political categories of the early twenty-first century, is nonetheless fairly common among PhD-holding historians: anti-colonial, but pro-empire.[iv]

5) The new histories of empire are Americanizing. White’s writing cultivates in the reader a disaffection towards American history. The Anglo-Americans are the ones who menace the middle ground and in the book’s final act destroy it. They are the agents of ethnic and religious immoderation; the founders of some strange, new country without a middle; the designers of its impossible geometry—a surface, vast and unbroken, that is nonetheless all perimeter. And yet it is enough to blink once, and these two seemingly opposed terms—America and the middle ground—will start to merge. America, which we have been instructed to see as the middle ground’s annihilator from the east, turns out instead to be its synonym and twin, a second name for the third term. That which is neither Indian nor European is. . . . To American Studies scholars, meanwhile, the notion of the middle ground is likely to suggest nothing so much as the chronotope of Hollywood Westerns and dime novels. Frontier stories, after all, have always rendered the US as the space in-between, carving their story-world into three vertical tiers: a Far West, wolfish and primordial; an effete and overcivilized East Coast; and a central zone, paradigmatically American because semi-civilized, on the understanding that semi-civilization is actually the preferred state. The task of the Western, as genre, is to consider how this last, easily understood as transitional and unstable, might nonetheless be maintained: how to be white, certainly, but not too white. Any backyard, toy-gun reenactment of the frontier myth—any game, I mean, called cowboys and Indians—is thus an abbreviation of what was always a more complicated narrative structure. The organizing principles of the Western are not two-term, in the manner beloved of structuralists and schoolboys, but three-term: cowboys and Indians and Easterners: dudes, greenhorns, English dandies, pedant-journalists, the shady agents of the railways. Frontier stories are to this extent always multiple and hard to summarize. Readings of Westerns inevitably yield paradox, since the master-story they tell while facing westwards will be contradicted by the master-story they tell while facing east. Stories about bringing civilization to the deserts and the badlands double as Rousseauvian parables about Europeans who regenerate themselves by exiting the metropolis. Your typical Western is at once a vernacular narrative about the coming of modernity and a story about the return to nature, in which the Easterner becomes an American by stripping away finical layers of accreted custom and luxury. No doubt: It is the genre’s anti-Indian animus that has allowed Westerns to function as so many parables of modernity into the twentieth century and beyond, re-tooling the form’s older, agrarian republicanism by harnessing it to a fully commercial ideology. Settlers in Westerns look like yeomen but are inevitably the bearers of market society. The historical cowboy, after all, nonsensical icon of American independence, was a not-at-all-autonomous worker paid a wage to drive his boss’s bovine commodity to market. Complexities abound, however. If the fictional cowboy is not simply a Lowell factory girl in disguise, then this is because the persistence, in the genre, of the East as a cursed space, even when Indians are the primary enemy, means the Western is always eager to draw distinctions among its pioneers. There are proper ways of living in a commercial society, visible only in the primal spaces of incipient modernization—distinctively American ways, as opposed to European ones—and these will still be roughly primitivist and republican, rather than bourgeois-Occidental. It is therefore misleading to describe literary cowboys and frontiersmen as the puppet-envoys of European society or as generically white. For they will count as American only if their whiteness has been modified and perhaps even compromised, if, that is, they have to some degree adopted Indian ways. White Indians were the stock figures of early American nationalism: Daniel Boone, Natty Bumppo, sundry other rangers, scouts, and trappers, all of them figures of the middle ground. In the introduction to his book, Richard White tells the reader that he “found . . . much that surprised [him]” while researching the volume, that, indeed, he “found his perspective on the period changing” in some fundamental way. (xi) Anyone reading these words might well expect White to be expounding a new paradigm. How baffling, then, to realize that this “new Indian history” (he uses the term on p. xi) is mostly a restatement of the old Western and frontier myths—more baffling still to return to the book and find that its author has admitted as much on the first page: “American myth . . . retained the wider possibilities that historians have denied American history.” (ix) In defiance of our accustomed sense that historians are among the great demystifiers, the fact-checkers of popular memory and dispellers of chauvinist legend, the new history of the West steps forward to validate the frontier myth, to renew the Leatherstocking fable by reassigning it to the French. The result is a book that just keeps repeating all the old claims about how the West was the true America, and about how this true America was eventually lost. The old West, White tells us, was the open space where “a person could become someone else.” (389) The book’s lyrics are skeptical and anti-nationalist, but its tunes have all been borrowed from patriotic songs.[v]

[i] One monograph does not a pattern make. For other instances, see the discussions below of James Merrill and Doris Sommer. Subsequent footnotes will draw attention to scholarship on west Africa, South America, the Pacific, ancient Israel, and the multicontinental British Empire. The thrust of this scholarship is especially apparent in Nicholas Thomas’s Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (Thomas 2010), whose jacket copy assures readers in its second sentence that the book will reveal to them the “gain” of empire—imperial benefits and rewards—and not just “loss,” as well as empire’s capacity for “invention.” The book goes on to claim that most native people were more interested in “creative accommodation” than in resistance and to demonstrate in indigenous societies a widespread “enthusiasm for things European and things British” (3, 24).

[ii] A belated word on the essay’s title: There was a vogue around 1990 for re-christening as “new” various subfields in the study of European expansion: the new Western history, the new American studies, the new imperial history. The last is especially instructive: The “new imperial historians” were credentialed, archivally adept historians who nonetheless avowed a disciplinarily unfashionable debt to critical theory and who to that extent gave priority to culture and discourse; who paid special attention to matters of gender, race, and ethnicity; who promised to write an imperial history without nostalgia; and who refused to take nations as given, but instead favored explanations in terms of “circuits” or “webs” or “global interconnections.” For the new imperial historians, Britain would no longer count as central, even in the British Empire. For a while, Antoinette Burton was pushing the term “critical imperial history.” (See Part II of Burton’s Empire in Question (2011: 122ff.).) What has become clear over time, as the new histories of empire have aged out of their novelty, is that these putatively critical historians have tended to restate the claims of an older imperial historiography. “New” and “critical” histories of an empire without a British center dovetail with older and apologetic accounts of British imperial absentmindedness, lack of coordination, reliance on local elites, and, in general, the limits of British power in the colonies. Conversely, when the inheritors of the older imperial history step forward to refurbish their case, often in defiance of the new imperial historians, they nonetheless avail themselves of the tropes of “networks” and “native agency” first touted by their rivals.

[iii] Thomas’s way of defending empire is to call it “cosmopolitan”: “This book has emphasized the cosmopolitanism of the Pacific during the nineteenth century.” (182) His second example of this mindset arrives in the book’s opening pages, in the form of three men from an island near New Guinea who were abducted by the Spanish in the early 1500s—forced onto a ship, made worldly by the European explorers who seized them; they are evidence of “a particular cultural condition … that of cosmopolitanism,” which the author seems to think of as to be affirmed even when involuntary. (3-4) The new histories of empire congratulate kidnap victims on the occasion of their expanded horizons. “Empire,” Thomas ends up concluding, was “replete with possibilities, marked out by travels, possible travels, and travels of the mind.” (297) John Darwin, meanwhile, introduces two more devices to the liberal defense of empire: First, he considers dropping the term empire itself. Darwin’s first career retrospective is called The Empire Project (2011), and the trick of that title is that it both uses the word empire and offers to negate it. The British pursued the project of empire, which to that extent was less than a thing: a projective empire, aspirational, underway, incomplete, in some large part imagined. In the text itself, he often refers to “the British world-system” or to “British connections” and at one point to “the Britannic association.” (159) Second, then, and already apparent in those last two formulations, Darwin describes the British Empire in a strongly horizontalist idiom borrowed from network theory: The Empire was “a large, loose, decentralized confederacy,” a “network of alliances,” “not a structure” but a “web.” (69, 97, 1) It falls to Henry Kamen (2002), then, in his work on the Spanish Empire, to combine Nicholas Thomas’s bluntly imperial cosmopolitanism with Darwin’s ontologically flattened non-empire. Kamen’s distinctive tic is obsessively to negate the word conquest: “There was, literally, no conquest of the islands.” (65) “Castilians of subsequent generations tended to assume that they had conquered Italy. There was no real basis for the belief.” (65) “When the Spaniards extended their energies to the lands beyond the ocean, they did not … conquer them.” (95) “There was never in any real sense a ‘conquest’ of America, for the Spaniards never had the men or resources to conquer it.” (121) “collaboration rather than ‘conquest’” (122) The Spanish had “never been in a position to conquer any overseas territories or plant its banner anywhere” (169) “the year 1573 marked a fundamental change of direction in royal policy that affected not only Europe but the whole empire. … conquest was no longer to be an objective.” (187) ”The possibility of ‘conquest’ did not arise, for there were never adequate Spanish men or weapons” (254) The monarchy “definitively banned further conquests in America” (255) Kamen finally just puts scare quotes around the “Spanish Empire” on p. 153, convinced as he is that the political formation he is describing was neither Spanish nor an empire—an empire “in theory,” but actually “a complex international network” “a cosmopolitan network” of multiethnic endeavor, a “vast commercial enterprise” with “the outward form of an empire,” a spur to the ingenuity and energy of people other than the Spanish. (170, 289, 297)

[iv] See, for instance Jennings 1984, Webb 1995, Webb 2013. Ian Steele (2000: 384) begins his review of Oberg’s Dominion and Civility like so: “The likelihood that promoters of empire were more humanely inclined towards Amerindians than were their colonists may be another obvious truth finally returning from banishment by indiscriminate anti-imperialists.”

One especially notable variant of this position is visible in John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (1992). The book’s core argument, at least in its first half, is that West African elites were full and eager participants in the Atlantic slave trade. Before 1680 and perhaps thereafter, Europeans neither created nor even much transformed the workings of the region’s already existing trade in captives. The most important thing to know about the market for slaves is that it was well-established, distinctively African, and big enough to accommodate the entry of the Europeans as just one more set of customers. That’s the argument. Rhetorically, then, one of the book’s most conspicuous features is its reliance on the terms Africa and Africans, as the title already indicates. It is not uncommon to find other historians remarking that race was a creation of the slave trade itself—that sailors couldn’t know themselves to be white or European until they arrived on the coast of Guinea, just as the Igbo and Yoruba couldn’t know themselves to be black or African. (Among many other instances, see Rediker 2007: 261. But Thornton uses the terms European and African without comment, and the cunning of this move is that it allows a defense of Europeans to masquerade as a critique of Eurocentrism. Thornton says that his book is de-centering Europe, by asking that we hail the slave trade as an African accomplishment and a sign of the continent’s strength. Submerging the difference between slave states and their quarry is the precondition to those claims, since it is plainly impossible to see the slave trade as announcing the strength of all Africans equally. Having declared European merchants marginal to the slave trade, Thornton is now able to say that “Europeans did not pillage Africa” and that they introduced no “monopolistic distortions of trade.” (53, 65) The critique of Eurocentrism is called upon to testify to English and Portuguese virtue. Other rhetorical choices follow on from there, all made possible by the dedifferentiated word African: Thornton says repeatedly that the Atlantic slave trade was “peaceful” and that it was “voluntary”—that such, indeed, were the unappreciated hallmarks of the trade: “we must accept that African participation in the slave trade was voluntary” (124) The European relationship to West Africa was a matter of “peaceful regulated trade.” (38) Thornton’s book is improbable in at least one further respect—a book that proclaims its allegiance to Braudelian world-systems history while arguing that the linking to the oceanic system of its chosen region changed that region in no important way.


[v] On frontier stories and Westerns, see Slotkin 1973, 1985, 1992.

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