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Imperial Legacies

The British Empire Around the World

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 216 pages
ISBN: 9781641770385
AVAILABLE: 4/9/2019

Imperial Legacies
The British Empire Around the World

Britain yesterday; America today.

The reality of being top dog is that everybody hates you. In this provocative book, noted historian and commentator Jeremy Black shows how criticisms of the legacy of the British Empire are, in part, criticisms of the reality of American power today. He emphasizes the prominence of imperial rule in history and in the world today, and the selective way in which certain countries are castigated. Imperial Legacies is a wide-ranging and vigorous assault on political correctness, its language, misuse of the past, and grasping of both present and future.

About the Author

Jeremy Black is Established Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is, or has been, on a number of editorial boards, including the Journal of Military History, the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, and History Today, and was editor of Archives.

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Empire reflects power, its existence, and its use. Each, in itself, is morally neutral, but they all are criticized bitterly in the modern world and employed in order to decry Britain’s past and the United States’ present. Between 1750 and 1900, Britain became the foremost power in the world, both territorially and economically. An intellectual powerhouse, Britain also became a model political system for much of the world, as the United States would eventually do in the twentieth century. These changes were interrelated. Territorial expansion provided Britain and the United States with raw materials, markets, and employment, and, combined with evangelical Protestantism and national self-confidence, encouraged a sense in Britain and the United States as being at the cutting edge of civilization, with the last presented in Western and Westernizing terms. Indeed, empire was in part supported and defended on the grounds that it provided opportunities for the advance of civilization. This was seen not least by ending what were regarded as uncivilized, as well as unchristian, practices, such as widow burning and ritual banditry in India, and slavery and piracy across the world. In turn, these practices, and their presentation, helped to define British views of civilization. Moreover, as a different, but contributory, point, British exceptionalism was to be the godparent of its American successor, just as the two world systems succeeded one another with some, often much, uneasiness, but also in alliance at crucial points.

The relationship between the reputation of the British Empire and that of American power has become a close one.

To treat these contemporary attitudes to empire (like also the social conditions then, or the treatment of women) as if Britain, and later the United States, could have been abstracted from the age, and should be judged accordingly, is unhelpful and ahistorical. Such a treatment is not a case of historical amnesia, but rather of amnesia about history and the process of change through time; or at least, and the distinction is important, the latter as approached in a scholarly, rather than polemical, fashion. Moreover, within the constraints of the attitudes and technologies of the nineteenth century, Britain was more liberal, culturally, economically, socially, and politically, than the other major European powers, just as the United States was to be in the twentieth century. Britain offered powerful support to the struggles for independence in Latin America and Greece, from Spanish and Turkish rule, respectively. Causes such as Greek independence and, later on, the Italian Risorgimento were genuinely popular in the nineteenth century, as was that of support for the Northern (Union), anti-slavery side in the American Civil War (1861–65).

In addition, as will be discussed in chapter 8, the British, although earlier the most active of the slave traders, were instrumental in ending the slave trade and slavery. This was despite the severe economic damage thereby done to the British colonies in the West Indies. Indeed, the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807) reflected the strength of the moral strand in British public life. This strand drew greatly on the world of public discussion in Britain that reached into every hamlet, through the press and public collections and meetings. For example, anti-slavery literature was prolific and struck evangelical, providential, and humanitarian notes, as well as those focused on economics, just as opposition to the slave trade had done. Similarly, despite massive disruption in the shape of a destructive, as well as unpredictable, civil war, the U.S. Union states forced through the abolition of slavery in the United States, which hit the Southern economy hard.

The balance and character of moral concerns and engagement in the past may appear awed through the perspective of hindsight, indeed very awed (as ours of course also will be), but such concerns and engagement were strong. Furthermore, those who deploy hindsight might be better served directing their energy toward urgent present abuses, which include a continued slave trade and slavery; and both in Britain and elsewhere. A consideration of the past can lend urgency and energy to debate about the present, and valuably so, but applying hindsight is also far easier than correcting present abuses.

Blaming imperial rule, however, served, and to this day serves, a variety of cultural, intellectual, and political strategies at a number of levels. Domestically, aside from the “culture wars” and identity struggles, which, always vibrant, appear to be becoming far more active and potent, it is in part a strategy designed to create a new public identity. This is not least by integrating, or rather, claiming to integrate, immigrant communities as an aspect of a rejection of a past that could also be used to stigmatize an alternative present. This is a process that can serve various public (political) purposes, both overt and covert.


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