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The Trouble with Empire: Challenges to Modern British Imperialism.

The Trouble with Empire: Challenges to Modern British Imperialism. By Antoinette Burton. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 320. $29.95.)

In this book, the author focuses on continual challenges to the British Empire, claiming to contradict histories of its rise and fall. In one chapter, Antoinette Burton contrasts its supposed military dominance with setbacks and failures. In the second chapter, she cites economic resistance to imperial "capitalism." In the third, she discusses the empire's "haphazard" expansion and contraction, as well as protest and rebellion. The canvas is very wide (India, Ireland, many parts of Africa, New Zealand, and more). The sources are an extensive--though not exhaustive--selection of published accounts.

Antoinette Burton provides an entertaining overview of resistance, but the reviewer has reservations. First, she caricatures what she seeks to correct. A victory narrative did underpin imperialism and racism, but, far from ignoring resistance and defeat, imperialists habitually celebrated "heroes" who failed or died, perhaps wanting to camouflage their conquests, as Stephanie Barczewski has shown in Heroic Failure and the British (Yale University Press, 2016).

Economic protest has hardly been ignored by historians, but many (the reviewer included) have long argued that capitalism, never depending on formal empire alone, adapted to local power and conditions, and also that the British Empire was less a capitalist triumph than an explosion of government. Additionally, simple trajectories of imperial rise and fall do not dominate the literature; no one really thinks any power was absolute; and many are writing "minority" histories. No scholar believes decolonization fulfilled a British plan, as Clement Attlee suggested about India in 1947. Whole libraries are filled with accounts of local and nationalist resistance. No new methodology is required (nor is one applied in this book) to explain insurgency or put it at the center of accounts of empire.

In any case, was "disorder" really "normative" (10)? There were insecurities and aspects of life and geographical areas not fully controlled (like India's northwest frontier, discussed here), but there was also stability, institution building, and influence.

The author's range is certainly ambitious, but it is hard to cover so much ground; the difficulty shows in some details and judgments. Also, this reviewer doubts the value of generalizations covering the subject empire and colonies of settlement. Burton's justification is (as on other matters) a trifle opaque: admitting "local histories and patterns," but asserting the "common dynamics and rhythms" of a "recurrent challenge to imperial political order" (145). For a counterargument about specifics and complexity, see, for example, Bernard Porter's British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn't (I. B. Tauris, 2015). European settlers quickly obtained local political power, and they mostly suppressed, dispossessed, or incorporated indigenous peoples from the Americas or Russia to the southern dominions. Imperial rulers, though violent and oppressive, accommodated and relied on locals, often tried to avoid confronting their traditions, and sometimes supported their interests--fired by political calculation, altruistic arrogance, or popular opinion. Burton discusses missionary, social, and nationalist critiques of empire. The reviewer would offer another generalization: Empire was always process and dialogue.

Peter Robb

School of Oriental and African Studies, London
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Title Annotation:EUROPE
Author:Robb, Peter
Publication:The Historian
Date:Dec 22, 2017
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