Lineages of Empire: The Historical Roots of British Imperial Thought.
Few topics are more widely represented in contemporary academic discourse than imperialism. In the last decade, spurred in part by current geopolitical debates, the subject of empire has received attention from a wide variety of disciplines, from history to political theory. Another book on the history of the British Empire, then, may ostensibly seem unWarranted, but Lineages of Empire makes a compelling contribution, not only to British history, but also to our understanding of the complicated intellectual inheritances of European and U.S. imperialism more generally.
The essays in this collection stem from papers presented at a symposium at the British Academy in 2006. As Kelly explains in his preface, the contributions concur with "a simple but central recognition that any attempt to understand British imperial thought in the modern world must be historically rooted, and that a relatively expansive notion of what constitutes the history of political thought can illuminate one important aspect of the multiple lineages of empire" (xiii). Historiographically, Lineages of Empire contributes to the shift away from British history and toward Atlantic and, more recently, global history. This development, made increasingly popular in the last decade or so by the work of Bernard Bailyn, J. H. Elliott, David Armitage, and others, recognized that the history of Britain was shaped as much by its colonies and encounters across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as it was by its domestic life.
The contributions are, to their credit, all meticulously researched, and some make novel and provocative claims. Of particular note in this respect is James Tully's essay entitled "Lineages of Contemporary Imperialism," which is a genealogy of the intellectual lineages of contemporary Western imperialism, a phenomenon which is also often given the names "neo-colonialism," "open door imperialism," or "neo-liberal imperialism," among others (3). Tully presents a concise typology of five different historical lineages: "colonial and indirect imperialism," "nineteenth-century civilizational imperialism," "cooperative mandate imperialism," "U.S. imperialism," and "contemporary imperialism" (10-27). Tully makes a poignant and thought-provoking argument that current Western imperialism and non-Western impoverishment find their ancestry in the various traditions of European expansion, which he carefully traces back several centuries. Tully's essay is placed in the first of two parts of the book, entitled "Genealogies of Empire." Part 2, entitled "Historical Debates," features a number of noteworthy contributions including Richard Whatmore's discussion of the relationship between small states and the British Empire during the long eighteenth century, and Jeanne Morefield's enlightening essay, "Harold Laski on the Habits of Imperialism."
Inevitably, in a book of this scope with limited length, there are lacunae. No essay, for example, delves into the intellectual lineages of British imperialism before the early eighteenth century. This is somewhat surprising. England's sixteenth- and seventeenth-century expansion into Ireland and then into North America and the Caribbean established the foundations of subsequent centuries' legitimating discourse about British imperialism. Indeed, it was in this pre-eighteenth-century context that one of the most significant justificatory narratives of British expansion, which derived from Protestantism, was established. Moreover, the complexity of the means of English expansion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries--from privateering to various forms of plantations--coupled with the fact that these centuries are often given insufficient attention in scholarship generally, makes it all the more disappointing that they are overlooked in Legacies of Empire.
A second lacuna is the book's insufficient attention to religion. There are brief discussions in some of the contributions, but no essay deals with the complicated relationship between religion and British imperialism per se. Given the book's avowed concern with the present, and that its essays are helping to "trace the genealogy of our current predicament" (xiii), this is a weakness. In the context of the war on terror, in which arguments about a clash between the Christian West and Islam resonate loudly, a historical exploration of the entwining of religion with British imperialism would have been a compelling and insightful addition to the collection of essays, especially as both Kelly's preface and Tully's essay reflect upon the character of the United States' status as a global, and arguably imperial, power. These two lacunae, however, do not detract from what is overall a significant contribution to our understanding of British imperialism, and to the phenomenon of empire.
Florida State University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2011|
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