The Changing Relevance of Empire

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute


Today we reproduce Professor Trevor Burnard’s blog for the Institute of Historical Research, written as he stands down from his position as editor of the Empire to 1783 section of the Bibliography of British and Irish History.

It might be thought that the British Empire and imperialism as a topic of historical inquiry have always been subjects of great fascination for scholars and students of British history. Britain was an imperial nation from the early seventeenth century, with settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. By the eighteenth-century, as Britain embarked upon a series of generally successful wars against France about who controlled the New World and South Asia (the American Revolution being the major exception to continued British imperial success), matters imperial were discussed in virtually every issue of the newspapers that proliferated in the nation and imperial plans were central to the geopolitics of Britain’s quest to become powerful in the world. In the nineteenth century, of course, British global power was signified by the many places of the map that were marked `red’ as belonging to the British nation. Imperialism continued into the twentieth century with both world wars being, as Richard Overy argues for World War II, imperial conflicts.

Nevertheless, the practice of imperial history by professional historians has ebbed and flowed in importance and significance over time, according to fashion and to contemporary politics. As little as a generation ago, imperial history was decidedly out of fashion. Indeed, as Pat Griffin, a leading historian of the American Revolution, noted in an appreciation of the most important mid-twentieth century imperial historian of early America, Lawrence Henry Gipson (1880-1971), whose magnum opus was a massive fifteen-volume history of the British Empire in the Americas before the American Revolution, imperialism was effectively a left-behind approach to history when Gipson finished writing imperial history in the 1960s. When Gipson died in 1971, his approach, marked by an indifference to history from below, an incessant and occasionally grating Anglophilia at odds with a more diverse America, and his deliberately pedestrian prose (chosen out of distaste for the florid over-romanticism of a generation of amateur historians writing at the turn of the twentieth century) was out of step with a Vietnam-era world of decolonization and anti-imperialism. Ironically, perhaps, Griffin wrote this review of Gipson and the end of imperial history in 2003, the year that I began as editor for the Empire and the Commonwealth before 1783 section of the Bibliography of British and Irish History [BBIH].

The same derision towards imperialism was less apparent in British historiography of the 1970s and 1980s but it was still there. It was Europe that was the thing to concentrate upon, after Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1974. The New Zealand historian, J.G.A. Pocock, lamented how `within very recent memory, the English have been increasingly willing to declare that neither empire nor commonwealth ever meant much in their consciousness, and that they were at heart Europeans all the time.’ (J.G.A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject,’ Journal of Modern History, 47 (1975), 601-21).

Pocock’s former colleague in New Zealand, D.K. Fieldhouse, then at Cambridge, was even more despondent about the future of imperial history at this time. He expressed despair over the fragmented state of the field, imploring, ‘can the fragments of the old history be put together again into new patterns which are intellectually respectable?’ He feared that imperial history might be ‘condemned to share the midden of discredited academic subjects with, say, astrology or phrenology.’ (D.K. Fieldhouse, ‘Can Humpty-Dumpty be put together again: imperial history in the 1980s,’ Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 12 (1984), 9-23.)

We can start to see changes developing in an article by Fieldhouse’s successor at Cambridge, A.G. Hopkins, in 1999. Hopkins thought that imperial history had a future and that it was all that more important as discourses of globalization were taking hold. He proclaimed that ‘what is needed is a fundamental reappraisal of world history to bring out the extent to which, in recent centuries, it has been shaped by the interaction of several types of empire at various stages of development and decay.’ (A.G. Hopkins, ‘Back to the Future: From National History to Imperial History,’ S&A 164 (1999), 198-243). The most significant historiographical event which transformed the study of imperialism was the five-volume survey of British imperialism in the Oxford History of the British Empire, published in the late 1990s. The OHBE was a watershed moment, providing an agenda for historical investigation into empire, even if its defiantly anti-postcolonialist stance was off-putting to those more sympathetic to postcolonialism and to a ‘new imperial history’ based around explorations of difference.

What united traditional imperial historians and ‘new’ imperial historians was a belief that imperialism was so wide-ranging as to encompass the whole of eighteenth-century British and British American history. It was about culture as much as power. As Eric Hinderaker wrote in 1996, ‘empire is a cultural artifact as well as a geopolitical entity; it belongs to a geography of the mind as well as a geography of power.’ (Eric Hinderaker, ‘The “Four Indian Kings” and the Imaginative Construction of the British Empire,’ WMQ 53 (1996), 486).

And as Kathleen Wilson argues, ‘the eighteenth-century British empire presents us with interconnected and interdependent sites of historical importance, territorial and imaginative, that can disrupt oppositions between metropole and colony and allow us to rethink the genealogies and historiographies of national belonging and exclusion.’ (Kathleen Wilson, ‘Introduction; histories, empires, modernities,’ in idem, A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire 1660-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3).

Studies of empire have abounded since the 2000s because they meet significant parts of the twenty-first century zeitgeist, at least that zeitgeist which existed before the rise of populist nationalism in China, America and much of Europe after 2015. Historical imperialism is an interesting topic in an age of transnational globalization when the borders separating countries and economies seemed porous (a reality that in the Covid era has rapidly disappeared). Imperial history also answered questions about the past which bore on the present – notably the cultural history questions of identity and difference – in ways that histories of nation-states were less able to do. Krishan Kumar explains that ‘empires, for all their faults, show us another way, a way of managing diversity and differences that are now the inescapable fate of practically all so-called nation-states.’ ‘That by itself,’ he argues, ‘seems sufficient grounds for continuing to study them, and to reflect on what they might be able to teach us.’ The study of empires engages current beliefs in multiculturalism, diasporas, migrations and multinationalism and can be a prism through which the ‘pressing problems of the contemporary world and even the birth pangs of a new world order’ can be addressed. (Krishan Kumar, Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 3, 475).

The BBIH has many works that contribute to this renewed sense that imperialism is important. There are 46,856 entries on empire and the commonwealth, about 16,000 or so which deal with the period when British North America was part of a British Empire. Works on the West Indies, on British India, and on Africa are less abundant but are increasing in numbers. Reading the most recent entries confirms that there has indeed been an ‘imperial turn’ in British historiography with empire considered vital to understanding the British past as much as its present, and perhaps its future. The study of imperialism and its legacies in the period before 1783 is in rude good health as I give up being section editor for this period in 2022, in considerable contrast to where it was when I started as section editor in 2003.

Racial Capitalism and the End of Empire Files

Jasmine Holding Brown

PhD student, Falling Though the Net Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

My research on child migration from Britain, and Indigenous child removal within Canada during the twentieth century, is particularly concerned with race. From a theoretical point of view, I am interested in what these schemes might demonstrate in terms of understanding ‘racial capitalism’. Connections between historic child welfare, and what academics term the ‘colonial global economy’ might not seem obvious, but both fuse questions of morality with relationships defined by imbalances of power, and an intent to gauge whose interests are being protected.

‘Racial capitalism’ is a concept attributed to the late Cedric Robinson, alongside other key figures associated with the Black Radical Tradition, recently receiving renewed interest from scholars and activists. In its most basic sense, it proposes an inextricable relationship between racism and capitalism.

Robinson argued that racialised exploitation was foundational to the development of capitalism within Europe, before the introduction of transatlantic slavery, in processes he considered colonial. He demonstrated that historically Europe’s working-classes contained racialisedsubjects, including Irish, Roma, Slav and Jewish people, whose exploitation was broadly accepted on account of their apparent cultural or ethnic inferiority.

Contemporary sociologists suggest that the capitalist tendency to differentiate workers along racial lines is frequently underestimated in accounts of how the modern world developed. We have to ask what is the work that racism does – over time and across place, for whose benefit and why – and set this alongside postcolonial theorists, who address the colonial processes fundamental to the reproduction of plural racisms.

In my research, racialisation, essentially the identification of particular people as ‘races’ has clear significance. When Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ North America in the fifteenthcentury, he apparently labelled its people ‘Indian’ because he mistakenly believed he had reached Asia. Five hundred years later, children from ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds were forced to attend ‘Indian Residential Schools’, in an attempt to erase their ‘Indian’ heritage and assimilate them into Western-European culture, a legacy of this crude ‘pan-Indian’ construction and the colonial systems that manufactured and defined its terms.

How racial codes are constructed and transformed was something I considered when looking at the British Documents on the End of Empire series, an annotated collection of government records chronicling Britain’s withdrawal from its colonial territories. The following quotes are all taken from these files, with the headings indicating which volume. I would urge anyone interested in Britain’s recent colonial history to have a look at them.

The Labour Government and the End of Empire 1945-1951: Part IV, pp. 144-155.

After the Second World War, the disintegration of Britain’s old imperial identity is reflected in discussions over Canada’s rejection of the ‘phrase if not the content of Dominion status’, now considered to imply domination. The model was India, ‘which only twenty years ago clamoured for Dominion status, now demands independence’. In a letter to India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Nehru in 1949, one year after gaining independence, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee emphasised the ‘power of words’ and the changing dynamics of Britain’s former empire, remarking how Canada first ‘called itself a Dominion having taken the term from some phrase in the Bible’. He lamented the fact that ‘we in this country are rather insensitive to the content of names’.

Imperial Policy and Colonial Practice 1925-1945: Part II, pp. 291-306.

Racial sensitivities, or lack thereof, are detailed in one compelling memo written in 1940 by B.E. Carman, Director of Education in British Honduras (now Belize), regarding ‘offensive passages in school textbooks’. Reflecting upon British racism, colonial policy, and the influence of the former on the colonies, Carman urged the Colonial Office to review the distribution of books authored by British academics, as their contents, ‘though not necessarily actually offensive, are yet irritating to local people’.

Carman cites the following extract to highlight what he terms the hypocrisy of ‘Western standards’ that claim cultural differences as ‘an accident of geography’ rather than racial inheritance, while still viewing non-white people ‘as some strange inferior species’.

The original people were negroes of a backward type […] But they have mixed to some extent with the better tribes farther north and so have been improved. (Laborde, The Southern Lands, 1931).

Carman also suggests that racial hierarchies between colonised populations be considered: ‘books written for West Africa cannot be used in the West Indies since the people here rightly regard themselves as being more advanced than their African relatives, particularly if they happen to be comparatively fair-skinned.’

Carman’s proposed solution, with hindsight, appears extraordinarily naïve. He suggested that if British scholars were only more ‘careful of what they write’, they could spare not only the feelings of Britain’s colonial subjects, but potentially reverse racial prejudices ‘developing in England [which] would be checked and probably even killed’.

This understanding of British racism as ‘purely a social problem’ recurs, demonstrating an important contention of postcolonial theory, and what is considered a false distinction between economic/political systems and social relations. The racism integrated in the former is denied by emphasising the latter. In the minutes of Colonial Office meetings in the early 1940s, the problem of domestic racial prejudice, characterised as ‘a disinclination on the part of white people to be brought into close association, socially, with coloured people’, is contrasted favourably with the seemingly intractable colonial ‘colour bar’, and explicitly racist legislation favouring their white European minorities. Despite these cases being, ‘very difficult to answer by a government which attempts to take its stand against colour prejudice’, in Africa especially, such discrimination was still considered ‘to be, and is, in the interests of the natives themselves.’

The Conservative Government and the End of Empire 1951-1957, Part III, pp. 393-395.

Hope that Britain’s racist inclinations could, in Carman’s words, simply be ‘brought up to date’ had been firmly dispelled by the 1950s, although the hypocrisy of publicly portraying anti-racist sentiments while tacitly condoning colonial racism, and here implementing racist policies, remained consistent. In the words of Lord Salisbury in a 1954 letter to Lord Swinton, ‘if we legislate on immigration, though we can draft it in non-discriminatory terms, we cannot conceal the obvious fact that the object is to keep out coloured people’.

This was in relation to the increasing migration of British subjects from the West Indies, foreshadowing the recent Windrush scandals. Salisbury remarked: ‘It is for me not merely a question of whether criminal negroes should be allowed in or not; it is a question whether great quantities of negroes, criminal or not, should be allowed to come…’

He was suggesting, derisively, that ‘this sudden increase of the inflow of Blacks is of course the welfare state’. Arguably this is true, since these were people actively recruited in their thousands to help rebuild Britain’s economy after the war, including to its new National Health Service.  


Because of its usage in contexts similar to the above, ‘negro’ is a term now considered deeply offensive. In the 1920s however, W.E.B. Du Bois, forefather of the sociology of race, advocated its use by black people over ‘coloured’ for political reasons. Thinking about the currency of race – the work racialised constructions do, who uses them, how they change and why – is significant in research that hopes to understand racial capitalism and, ultimately, how the exploitation of particular people is often justified.

Samuel Selvon © 1956. Published under a Creative Commons License.
“The Lonely Londoners is regarded as the first – and definitive – novel to represent the Black migrant experience in England.” British Library.