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Past the pax. (Review Essay).

Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001), x and 464 Pp.

David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), xxiv and 264 Pp.

We are, we are told, living in an age of empire. (1) A steadily increasing number of learned scholars, columnists and essayists have drawn parallels between the contemporary moment and the late nineteenth century pax Britannica. The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, wrote recently that "People are coming out of the closet on the word 'empire'." According to an editorialist for the Wall Street Journal, the September 11 attacks were "a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation." He continued: "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodphurs and pith helmets." Scholars such as Paul Kennedy and Charles Fairbanks have pointed to the great disparities in the distribution of world power and that America is an empire in formation." (2)

The evidence is compelling. Like the nineteenth century, peripheral crises (the Middle East, Central Asia, Central and Southern Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, Argentina, to name just a few) characterize the world in which we live (and many others die) today. Osama bin Laden is the twenty-first century's equivalent of the nineteenth-century Mahdi, the "mad mullah" who threatened British imperial ambitions in Egypt and North Africa. Large numbers of British troops and their native proxies ended up fighting the Mahdists and their jihad against Egypt and the infidels. In the Sudan as in Afghanistan today, international military action took place in the context of an ecological catastrophe. Drought and starvation seem to be on quite comfortable terms with mortars and missiles.

Moreover, the past two decades mark, however crudely, the second great wave of globalization. The raw primary products of yesteryear, the cotton and rubber that headed from faraway places to metropolitan households, are today's toys and transistors built by cheap (and sometimes slave) labor. Inequality, globally and within individual countries, has grown steadily. And today's triumphalist talk of Americanization, on the one hand, and intolerance of people who might see the world differently, on the other hand, frighteningly parallel older imperial discourses of either wanting to turn Africans and Indians into Europeans or, instead, dismissing them as so many inferior races. (3)

The past quarter century has seen an outpouring of scholarly writing on imperialism, particularly on the British Empire. Much of this writing was against the grain of earlier imperial and colonial studies, first the emphasis on politics and institutional histories and then, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s as the giddiness of decolonization turned into the postcolonial blues, a concentration on economic change and stagnation. In the 1980s and the 1990s attention turned to the study of culture. Any number of books and articles came out that explored the relationship between culture and colonialism. The cultural history of the nineteenth-century British empire today is one of the most exciting and burgeoning fields within the humanities and social sciences. Comparative literature specialists have produced a torrent of studies on the imperial imagination, particularly European representations of non-European peoples. Inspired by the work of Edward Said and his monumental Orientalism, they have historicized se emingly static categories such as race and have provided important historical depth to issues ranging from sexuality to the social sciences. Studies of Mughals and missionaries, of explorers and proconsuls, have reshaped metropolitan studies, including the character of imperial expansion itself. (4)

There is now an important and rich collection of studies on India and Africa that share a common focus on culture. The historical anthropologist Ann Stoler has argued for the importance of studying the constitution of colonial categories, for bringing anthropology's classic concern with culture to the study of the colonial past. In this and in other similar work scholars have centered their research on identity, power and knowledge, discourse, sexuality, race, ideology, religion, even clothing. Topics that once seemed at best intriguing and, at worst, antiquarian and irrelevant, now occupy the center stage of colonial studies. As one prominent scholar put it, "culture was what colonialism was all about." (5) At times this gush of work seemed more like a plunge of lemmings as scholars in search of projects explored everything from colonial couture to Sinhalese screwing. Gone are the studies of institutions or analyses of the causes of empire exemplified some three decades ago by Robinson and Gallagher's monume ntal Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism. Today the clothes the colonizer and colonized wear and the signification of colonial couture is just as important, perhaps even more important, as the taxes or labor demanded of them by their European overlords.

The influential historical anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff summarized this "burgeoning literature [as] dedicated to demonstrating that colonization was everywhere more than merely a process of political economy--or one vested primarily in the colonial state." (6) Their work has centered primarily on the missionary encounter as a way of explicating how the consciousness of Africans came to be subtly reworked according to Western concepts such as private property and possessive individualism. To the extent the state has been the center of analysis, it is primarily in terms of analyzing the discursive strategies of rule, the epistemologies and techniques by which Europeans ordered and understood their colonial subjects and the lands they inhabited. The state enters later, after the colonization of consciousness, after the damage has been done, a political deus ex machina to order the African world in the name of commerce, civilization and, ultimately, white supremacy. (7)

The books under review are best read within these contexts of scholarly production as well as the crises that beset the world today. They mark in their own ways both an end and a beginning. Much like the very works he critiques, Cannadine's often peculiar book has culture as its central organizing trope; it is, I fear, built on a house of cards. Mike Davis returns to many of the classic questions that had once informed the study of empire, but in ways that are both powerfully new and irritatingly old-fashioned. Together the books suggest dead-ends and new possibilities for understanding both the past and the many tragedies of the world today.

Ornamentalism is, in one sense, an attempt at polemic. Cannadine believes that too many scholars have been too influenced by Edward Said's Orientalism and, more generally, by a near-obsession with race and difference. "[T]he British Empire," he writes (xix), "was not exclusively (or even preponderantly) concerned with the creation of 'otherness' on the presumption that the imperial periphery was different from, and inferior to, the imperial metropolis." Where other scholars emphasized the social distance of racial difference, Cannadine sees the commonality of class. The entire issue of "Self/Other", so his argument goes, was far less powerful than the ability of British rulers to see themselves in (how should we say it?) others, especially other rulers. This sameness, this vast male aristocratic bonding, led to a "remarkable transoceanic construct of substance and sentiment," an "imperialism as ornamentalism."

For omamentalism was hierarchy made visible, immanent and actual. And since the British conceived and understood their metropolis hierarchically, it was scarcely surprising that they conceived and understood their periphery in the same way, and that chivalry and ceremony, monarchy and majesty, were the means by which this vast world was brought together, interconnected, unified and sacralized (122).

Ornamentalism is thus preeminently a work of cultural history. Cannadine marshals considerable data, some of it visual, to substantiate his claim. At times British in various colonies attempted to project their vision of England on to the lands they had so recently conquered, either by imagining or by quite literally creating little Merrie Englands far from the metropole. (I made much the same argument in this journal nearly a decade ago.) In addition, British rulers translated indigenous political structures as a kind of British monarchy writ large, thus creating considerable amplitude for a vision of the Empire as a grand unity of aristocracy, tradition, and, above all, stability. Hence, for example, Cannadine argues that "India's was a hierarchy that became the more alluring because it seemed to represent an ordering of society.... that perpetuated overseas something important that was increasingly under threat in Britain" (57).

By British Cannadine really means the British aristocracy. And by class, status: indeed one is tempted to say caste. For we really learn very little about how other British people saw the empire, and especially those in the lower echelons of the colonial service. Perhaps more seriously, Cannadine does not provide much discussion of how the British, however defined, saw the billions of people over whom they ruled and very often ruthlessly exploited. Ornamentalism, then, is really the making of a transnational aristocratic fraternity in which many seem to have a jolly good time and few seem to suffer. This is, needless to say, just a wee bit troubling.

On the historiographical front, Ornamentalism argues against a caricature largely of Cannadine's own making. It is certainly true that some scholars can only see a Big Bad Empire staffed by racists drunk on gin. But to tar what is a diverse literature with the idiocy of a few seems both inaccurate and unfair. After all, many scholars who discovered culture and the "Other" in the 1980s did so through an earlier concern with class. The best work typically has been interested in class and race, with similitude and difference as always already present in the making of colonial orders the world over.

It is somewhat ironic that just as Cannadine wants to bring class to the colony, other scholars have begun to bring race to metropole. One recent work, for example, argues that the missionary experience in Africa created an "imperial culture" within England that shaped a domestic middle-class "missionary spirit" which racialized the English poor and working classes. (8) Cannadine could have taken some of his insights to create a far more nuanced and more complex understanding of the British Empire. But he didn't, and what we are left with is a rather highborn history of feathers, dinner parties, polo, and good fun.

Davis presents a radically different view of the British Empire. Davis' Victorian holocausts confront the very rarified world Cannadine examines; the dust jacket counterposing photographs of a recumbent Lord Lytton and famine victims says it all. Lord Lytton had noted the importance of "birth, rank and hereditary influence" in India and helped create the ornamentalism Cannadine examines (57). Personally extravagant, according to Davis Lytton's "laissez-faire approach to famine" led the deaths of millions (31).

There is an important point at which Cannadine's argument for a kind of aristocratic cultural projection intersects with Davis' exploration of the lived horrors of nineteenth-century empire. For Davis analyzes the disastrous implications of exporting Malthus and a crude Smithian economics to the colonies. The British rulers, Davis argues, saw the multitudes over which they ruled in much the same way as many aristocrats dismissed the working poor in their own country. Malthus, after all, had helped train the British rulers of India. Not surprisingly, Lytton wrote that "The doctrine that in time of famine the poor are entitled to demand relief... would probably lead to the doctrine that they are entitled to such relief at all times, and thus the foundation would be laid of a system of general poor relief, which we cannot contemplate without serious apprehension" (33).

Davis estimates that between 31 and 61 million people starved to death in the great famines that terrorized India, China and Brazil in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, upwards of thirty million in India alone. His discussion of Malthus in Madras is convincing, if perhaps a tad too simple. Clearly more than simply the export of metropolitan ideas is at play here. It was, rather, the dangerous combination of identification and distinction, of sameness and otherness, of class and race, that helped create the nightmare of imperial glory and, as Davis argues, the "making of the third world."

The brilliance of Late Victorian Holocausts lies in Davis' ability to bring together diverse approaches and themes to create a tragic epic of imperial expansion. Like Cannadine, Davis is interested in the culture of empire, especially the ways British rulers could be so immune to the sufferings of so many. Second, Davis returns to a classic issue: the spread of capitalism. He is interested primarily in the relationship between the spread of liberal capitalism, the subsistence crises of the nineteenth century, and the foundations of systemic poverty in much of the world. Finally, Late Victorian Holocausts triangulates British imperialism and capitalist development with a history of world climate, specifically the heating and cooling of great air masses in the Pacific. For it was precisely this unholy trinity of conquest, capitalism and climate that, according to Davis, led to the starvation of so many millions.

Late victorian Holocausts is a provocative and timely book that sets a new agenda for the study of imperialism. It raises intriguing questions about the relationship between environmental change, inequality, and political instability. Davis, for example, argues that the millenarian movements of the late nineteenth century were related not simply to subsistence crises but, also, to how people understood environmental degradation. Of crucial importance to Davis is the role of the state and its management of economic resources and environmental change. He argues that capitalist development, especially the rise of monocrop economies, and the loss of political autonomy that came with imperialism, led to state decapacitation and the destruction of moral economies that once had ensured food entitlements. Moreover, he argues, "ecological poverty--defined as the depletion or loss of entitlement to the natural resource base of traditional agriculture--constituted a causal triangle with increasing household poverty and state decapacitation in explaining both the emergence of a 'third world' and its vulnerability to extreme climate events." [310]

Many of Davis' arguments are provocative; they are also prescient. He points forward, for example, to the economic and ecological implications of monocrop economies. Davis suggests the ways the (post)colonial state became ever more implicated in economic inequality as rulers severed their links with the poor. And, finally, he points to the relationship of poverty, corruption and ecology to the emergence of social movements whose participants are more than willing to use violence to attempt to correct a world gone wrong.

There is, however, an important silence in this otherwise extraordinary book: Africa, where one third of the world's poor live and die. Davis does briefly discuss Ethiopia and North Africa and makes passing reference to other parts of the continent. But his focus on the state tends to get Davis into trouble. Much of Africa did not have centralized states like that of India or, especially, China. Many of them, especially along the west coast, emerged in the context of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Not surprisingly, many Africans came to see the state as predatory. These were less moral economies than immoral ones. Many of these areas suffered from droughts or other devastations less as a result of state decapacitation but, rather, from the very empowerment of the state that resulted from the flow of Western arms into the continent.

Ultimately Late Victorian Holocausts' explanatory model is just a bit too smooth, a bit too encompassing in its soft materialism to adequately explore the many horrors of the nineteenth century. There is also the related problem of intentionality. If Cannadine's aristocratic rulers seem to have so much fun, for Davis they mostly become utterly venal and calculating, indeed at times almost evilly omniscient. Davis forgets just how messy the nineteenth century was, and the extent to which historical actors struggled to make sense of a world that was changing so rapidly, often in front of their very eyes.

Taken together, Ornamentalism and Late Victorian Holocausts suggests both dead-ends and new beginnings to the study of nineteenth-century empire. It is rather ironic that a book that seeks to attack much of the literature on the culture of empire is perhaps most effective in clarifying precisely the limits of cultural history. For perhaps the strongest critique one can make against much of the literature on how people felt, envisioned themselves and others, and made "meaning", is just how limited and limiting it has been. Late Victorian Holocausts reminds us of the quite urgent need for scholars to return to the field, return to the archives, get one's hands dirty in what is now called the "old social history," and get down to the business of asking anew what might seem to some to be rather passe questions. How, for example, do we understand the historical foundations of systemic poverty? In what ways might we usefully re-theorize state formation? What is the relationship between state formation, poverty, eco logy, and social movements? And what might the deaths of so many millions, in the first great age of globalization, tell us about the world today?


(1.) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge Mass., 2000). See also Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 (New York, 1987).

(2.) Emily Eakin, "'It takes an empire, say several U.S. thinkers," International Herald Tribune, 2 Apr. 2002. See also Robert Kaplan, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (New York, 2001); Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York, 2000); Robert Hunter Wade, "The American Empire: The US has structured the world economy to enrich itself. It cannot last," The Guardian, 5 Jan. 2002. "An expanding American empire," William Pfaff has written, "is installing itself in regions from which Britain withdrew a half-century ago." "Tony Blair Tours the World, and the American Empire Expands," International Herald Tribune, 14 Jan. 2002.

(3.) For the classic and still controversial thesis that peripheral crises invited British imperial expansion, see Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, with Alice Denny, Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism (New York, 1961).

(4.) See, for example, Edward Said, Orientalism (New York, 1979); Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991); Nicholas B. Dirks, ed. Colonialism and Culture (Ann Arbor, 1992); Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler, eds., Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997); Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution (Chicago, 1991, 1997); Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel and Transculturation (London, 1992); Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things (Durham, 1997).

(5.) Dirks, Colonialism and Culture, 3. See also, 16.

(6.) Comaroff and Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, 2:16.

(7.) See, for example, Arjun Appadurai, "Number in the Colonial Imagination," in Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia (Philadelphia, 1993). See also C. A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870 (Cambridge, 1996); Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton, 1996). On Africa see, for example, Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution (Chicago, 1991, 1997); Paul Landau, The Realm of the Word: Language, Gender, and Christianity in a Southern African Kingdom (Portsmouth, 1995). For one critique see Terence Ranger, "Africa in the Age of Extremes: The Irrelevance of African History," in McGrath, Jedrej, King and Thompson, eds., Rethinking African History (Edinburgh, 1997). Political historians meanwhile continue to analyze the state according to the promulgation of policies and the success or failure of its intervention in rural and urban society, terms very much established by the state itself. This is especially true for South Africa. See, for example, Adam Ashforth, The Politics of Official Discourse in Twentieth Century South Africa (Oxford, 1992); Belinda Bozzoli, The Political Nature of a Ruling Class: Capital and Ideology in South Africa, 1890-1933 (London, 1981); Saul Dubow, Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid in South Africa, 1919-1936 (Oxford, 1989); Deborah Posel, The Making of Apartheid (Oxford, 1991). And social historians remain largely preoccupied with detailing who did what to whom when, and how that who--defined as peasant, worker, tribesman, or defined on the basis of gender--reacted to European imposition. In the best work the colonized are shown to have either accommodated themselves to rule or reacted against an external imposition that remained intrinsically foreign. See, for example, William Beinart and Colin Bundy, Hidden Struggles in Rural South Africa (Berkeley, CA, 1986); F. Hendricks, The Pillars of Apartheid: Land Tenure, Rural Planning and the Chieftaincy (Uppsala, 1990); Peter Delius, A Lion Amongst the Cattle: Reconstruction and Resistance in the Northern Transvaal (Portsmouth, 1996).

(8.) Susan Thorne, Congregational Missions and the Making of an Imperial Culture in Nineteenth-Century England (Stanford, 1999).
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Title Annotation:Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World; Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire
Author:Crais, Clifton
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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