Towards a Microhistory of the British Empire

For some time now the historiography of the British Empire appeared to be in turmoil. In 1984 David Fieldhouse argued in a much cited paper that in the process of decolonization the history of the British Empire had become as disintegrated as the Empire itself. [1] As the idea of the British Empire lost the power to pull together disparate societies and communities into a single political body, so to it lost its clarity as an analytic category for explaining the past. For Fieldhouse the historiography of the Empire had dissolved into a plurality of regional and national studies that no longer cohered into a meaningful whole. Historians who concentrated solely on the legal, political, and bureaucratic institutions of an Empire situated in metropolitan London were in danger of finding themselves cut off from the rest of that world which had once been colored red on the maps. In Britain's former colonies historians were enthusiastically revising traditional accounts of the Empire. They were doing so according to the demands of regional and national perspectives that privileged the experience of locals, and reduced imperialism to a brief, violent, and alien intrusion. Fieldhouse argued that if such historians of the Empire proper did not make the effort to integrate their work with that of historians who studied South Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and the Dominions, they were liable to find themselves producing voluminous, well-researched, and uninteresting studies of imperial policies, bureaucracies and agents. Their lectures would go unattended, their articles unread and their monographs unpublished. Fieldhouse was suggesting that a retreat from the turbulence of post-colonial times was a retreat into antiquarianism.

Those historians who pursued Fieldhouse’s suggestion to reintegrate the history of Empire with its colonial past sought, and found, new ways to imagine the connections between the Britain and its far flung provinces. Their approach is often called “The New Imperial History.” [2] But judging from Stephen Howe’s 2001 review of the fifth volume of The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume V , on historiography, the practitioners of the “old” style of Imperial history by no means went quietly in the good night of academic obsolescence. [3] Twenty years after the Fieldhouse article the field remained fraught with sanctimonious and overheated debate about what best and most truly constituted Imperial history. In Howe’s view a sizeable number of the contributors to Volume V framed their chapters as reactions against Edward Said and his post-colonial hordes, portraying them as post-modernist barbarians baying at the gates of humanist scholarship, whose ideas threatened to reduce the historian’s noble project to incoherent fulminations and pseudo-intellectual prattlings. While Howe has some sympathy for their complaints he suggests the war between the “old” and “new” historians of the British Empire, however bitter it may be, is a phony war, and one whose time has past.

Howe’s depiction of a rigidly polarized historiography is certainly convenient if you are making an argument of the “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along?” variety, but it is not entirely convincing. By his own account Volume V was not simply an exercise in vitriol, but an attempt by a diverse group of scholars to make sense of an increasingly complex and difficult subject. Howe’s assumption is that the heated disputes over the proper limits and boundaries of imperial history originate in insoluble ideological differences that have nothing to do with the commonsense collection and organization of the historical facts. Such tensions, Howe implies, may never be resolved but they can be set aside if historians would only agree that the Empire means many different things to many different historians. It is always tempting in a historiographic review to resort to the analogy of the five blind men and the elephant mode of analysis which allows intense conflict to be bracketed, and Howe seems to be coming pretty close to doing just that. If the man who thinks he is handling a rope, and the man who thinks he is standing next to a tree trunk, and the man who is worried that he is coiled in the hold of a snake and so on, would stop their infernal squabbling, pool their information and reconsider their situation, they would realize they are all preoccupied with different aspects of the same thing–an elephant. It is the conceit of this paper however, to suggest the opposite, that there isn’t really an elephant there at all. That the trunk, legs and tail of the elephant really are just a snake, a tree and a rope, and that the elephant is merely an intellectual construction designed to impose an artificial unity on a diverse set of facts. However reassuring it might be to think that there really is such a thing as the British Empire, which we can study and disagree about, it might interesting, and perhaps even useful, to consider how we might start looking for it, if we do not begin with the assumption that it is already always out there, waiting for us in the archives.

In the first part of this paper I will sketch out a variety of approaches to the history of the British Empire in which I am not looking so much for a narrative trajectory or dialectic tension as I am for common themes and problems. It is my argument that differences between historians of the British Empire over how best to analyze there subject are produced as much by the periodization and the scale of their analyses, as by their ideological or intellectual loyalties. What the Empire is varies according to how it is being used to exclude, include, or otherwise arrange, various types of data. The question I’m raising is how is the Empire used as an idea to break up space and time into manageable units of analysis? In the second part of the paper I will discuss how three highly successful experiments with the periodization and scale might contribute to British Empire historiography. Global, oceanic, and micro-histories, have all been attempts to resolve problems similar to those that have plagued historians of the British Empire these last thirty years. By providing alternative analytical models in which to re-organize historical material they offer the historian of the British Empire valuable ways of re-imagining and re-constituting the imperial subject.

Part I: Empire á la Mode

The Empire as a Geo-political Super-State

The first histories of the Empire written by professional academics were produced at the apogee of British power. John Seeley’s The Expansion of England, first published in 1883 was likely the most influential of these texts. It was in The Expansion he made his infamous suggestion that the British acquired their Empire in a fit of absence of mind. [4] He argues that as the English nation had competed on the geo-political stage with other European nations, and Asiatic Empires, it had conquered and peopled half the world, and, as a matter of course rather than due to any desire to do so, it had become an Empire itself. For Seeley the British Empire, which he preferred to call Greater Britain, was the sprawling nation of English speaking peoples. [5] This community, with the sad exception of the United States, was bound together by imperial governance into a single, distinct political superpower. Seeley’s history was typical of what one might call the blowfish model of imperial expansion which predominated until at least the eve of the First World War. In this model an empire was essentially a dramatically inflated nation-state. One of the first critics to give this fish a sharp prick was J.A. Hobson.

The Empire as an Economic Regime

Hobson was not a professional historian but a journalist who, in the wake of the Boer War, published Imperialism: a Study. [6] In Imperialism Hobson argues that that Britain expansionist ambitions were not driven by the geo-political interests of the nation but by the financial interests of a few very powerful capitalists. Hobson’s economic argument was popular, and provided a convenient cutting edge to the many and varied critics of the British Empire, but it lacked sophistication and nuance. Equally popular, but with a somewhat different crowd, was Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, first published in 1917. What the two books had in common was the highly critical attitude and a crudely materialistic interpretation which provided both a mono-causal economic explanation of British imperialism, and a wonderfully sharp polemic.

In the 1950s the Oxbridge historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher provided a more convincing model of British expansion in the nineteenth-century. They argue that the officials pulling the levers of power at Whitehall preferred an informal imperialism of free trade to a formal imperialism of occupation and governance. [7] Far from being the hapless agents of a capitalist conspiracy these men were true believers in the tenets of political economy. What Robinson and Gallagher call the official mind of the Empire was not interested in acquiring more territory or resources, but in opening up markets for British commerce. The rapid accrual of territory in the nineteenth-century was not the end of British imperialism in this view, but only one of a number of means to an end that also included gun boat diplomacy and indirect rule. Robinson and Gallagher argue that the most important metropolitan interests preferred to avoid direct rule when they could, and only went to the expense of putting boots on the ground when circumstances on what J.S. Galbraith later called the turbulent frontier demanded it. [8]

By emphasizing economic hegemony over direct control Robinson and Gallagher redefined the British Empire in such a way that it became much larger than what was colored red on a map. Their account of British imperialism, which Frederick Cooper describes as larger than institutionalized incorporation into a polity but less than a doctrine of foreign policy, has been the most influential of the twentieth-century. [9] In the 1990s P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins launched a revisionist assault on the duo in which they argued that Hobson had been, so to speak, more on the money than Gallagher and Robinson. Cain and Hobson argue that the official mind was not so much an autonomous body of bureaucrats as it was a tool of gentlemanly capitalism. [10] To describe events on the imperial periphery as the cause of metropolitan decision-making is to mistake the symptom for the disease. [11] British expansion was orchestrated, they argued, by the landed gentlemen who controlled the financial and service sectors of the City of London and had intimate social, and familial, relations with the imperial government. It was in the interests of this alliance of financial and political power that drove British expansion, not the improvisations of free-trade ideologues on the Empire’s troubled frontiers.

Interpretive differences aside Hobson, Gallagher and Robinson, and Cain and Hopkins, all agree that the most productive interpretive approach to the problem of British imperial expansion was to analyze domestic economic interests. Even Robinson and Gallagher assume that the driving force behind British policy was the desire to loot India. Imperial regimes were employed to insure that City of London capital had unimpeded access to distant markets. Politicians and capitalists at the core of the Empire mobilized a variety of political, military, and economic tactics to facilitate the flow of commodities to and from a periphery.

The Empire as an Ideological Construct

In both the previous models of Empire it is taken for granted that the word itself is an analytic category used to organize historical evidence. Some historians however, have argued that as a political concept Empire is so wrapped up in the activities it is purported to describe it should itself be an object of study. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire by David Armitage is an intellectual history of the concept of Empire as it was used by British political theorists from the middle of the sixteenth-century until the middle of the eighteenth. [12] Armitage argues that meanings of the word were mobilized differently in different contexts. As political theorists tried to reconcile a variety of often conflicting political concepts into a convincing representation of, and justification for, British activities in the North Atlantic, they developed a particular theory of Empire that later historians came to take as a given. The classic definition of the British Empire, used by historians such as Seeley, was that it was a polity which was Protestant, commercial, maritime and free. In Armitage’s view this definition was a comforting and vestigial cliché of negligible analytic value. [13] This traditional conceptualization implies a false continuity between an early English Empire that was exercising its power over the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish in the British Isles; with a later Empire that was global in scope. Armitage argues that such a false continuity might help consolidate national opinion or identity, but it masks the raggedness and contingency of the processes that have driven British political history.

Linda Colley has also emphasized the ideological role of the Empire in forging British identity. She argues that the possession of an empire played a critical role in the invention of Britishness it served as a means to paper over domestic differences between regions, classes, religious groups and the sexes. [14] Both Colley and Armitage are more interested in the function of the Empire as an argument in British political life than in the actual activities the word was purported to describe. To a certain extent the issue of causation has been bracketed in both their arguments. To claim that national identity was forged in the crucible of imperialism tells us a great deal about nationalism but little about imperialism. As a result their Empire-as-the-incubator-of-the-nation is not necessarily at odds with either Seeley’s Empire-as-super-state or the later Empire-as-economic-powerhouse, but it is concerned with very different issues. Yet even as Cooley and Armitage as the economic subject with the political, and the practical imperialist with the theorist, they continue to emphasize the metropolitan origins of the Empire.

The Empire as Britain

Concerns over the relations of national and imperial identities in Britain are issues that trouble historians of Britain as much as they do historians of the British Empire. Since 1975 when J.A. Pocock first suggested historians reconsider the history of Britain as the history of four nations quite a number have done just that. [15] Hugh Kearney and Frank Welsh attempts to deconstruct Britishness are but two examples of what is becoming a commonplace approach. [16] The idea that the Empire is not just an expanded state but an expanding cultural world feathers quite neatly with the growing literature on migration within the Empire, and the burgeoning field of Atlantic history, but what the implications of such an attitude are for the British Empire however, have yet to be fully explored. [17] Nicholas Canny and his colleagues have begun to unravel the consequences of a composite state for the history of the early modern empire but the later, more overtly globe spanning periods await serious reconsideration. [18] Interestingly the idea of various ethnic nations reaching a compromised identity by the seventeenth century, and then populating the North American coast until the North Atlantic becomes a British lake, has certain resonances with Seeley’s blowfish imperialism, but the story of the Atlantic becomes increasingly difficult to narrate as the Empire expanded out of the North Atlantic. [19] As more and more territories came under British rule which could not be identified simply as ethnic sprawl, it became increasingly harder to tell when Britain stops and Empire begins.

The Empire as Empires

One solution to that muddiness has been to emphasize the differences between the various periods of British imperialism. The notion that the American Revolution divided the history of the Empire into distinct periods is an old and comfortable idea but occasionally historians have considered the idea of a third British Empire. In years after World War I, while the officials of the British Empire were trying to chart the troubled waters of an era in which nations were proliferating and empires dying, the idea of a Third Empire was floated by scholars and politicians in both Britain and its colonies. [20] For the proponents of the idea the twentieth century saw a reconfiguration of relations between the metropole and the periphery that was radical enough to warrant re-conceptualization of the very idea of what an Empire was. In the later angst of the decolonization which followed World War II the distinction between late nineteenth and early twentieth century imperialism may have been deemed superficial, but it nonetheless continues to be useful. It is particularly so in understanding how and why Imperial and National historiographies diverged as radically as they did. [21]

A different type of third Empire has also been posited by C.A. Bayly in Imperial Meridian. [22] Bayly slips his new Empire between the First and Second, which I suppose makes the old Second the new Third, and the old Third the new Fourth. He argues that, contra economic arguments, expansion in the period after the American Revolution was driven by the militaristic ideology of the British upper classes. The justification of Empire as a means to Free Trade occurred only after the explosive growth of the Empire had begun. It could be that far from adding clarity such experiments churn up even more mud by disrupting the easy assumptions historians make about periodization. But such arguments are the essence of historical practice, and they force historians to recognize the chronological divisions they take for granted are not the result of natural sedimentation, but of deliberate methodological and theoretical choices. What definitions of the Empire as an ideological construct, as some form of Britishness, as an economic regime, and as a multiplicity of political institutions, all have in common is the idea that “Empire” is a concept which historical actors have utilized for a variety of essentially deliberate purposes. Historians of the Empire who take such a view must pay as much attention to how and why the concept is used as it is, as they do to the phenomena it is purported to describe.

The Empire as a Discursive Field

A more radical approach to the ideological origins of the British Empire can be found in the work of historians inspired by thinkers such as Edward Said, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. It was once the historian’s simple if tedious task to use the archives to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to the rise and decline of the British Empire. That task has often been preformed with what seems now to be both a great deal of empirical rigor and a certain epistemological naivety. Historians assumed that the men who created and controlled the British Empire were rational agents acting upon the world in such a way as to extract from it what they wanted, and they read archival evidence in the light of that assumption. But in the 1980s, inspired by developments in literary theory and anthropology, and in particular Edward Said’s Orientalism, historians of the British Empire outside the charmed circle of Oxbridge began to challenge that assumption. [23]

In Orientalism Said had shown that when Europeans wrote about what they called the Orient they consistently relied on a closed set of tropes, metaphors, and narrative structures to organize their information. They seemed to inevitably describe the oriental as, amongst other things, irrational and feminine, and by contrast the occidental as rational and masculine. They did so even when such representations were at odds with the circumstances and events which they were describing. As a consequence, Said argued, European knowledge of the colonial world inevitably provided a justification for European imperialism, even if that was not the author’s intent.

Antoinette Burton, Anne McClintock and Mrinalini Sinha, to name just three historians, have argued in the same way that the history of the British Empire, and the archival evidence on which it was based, needs to be understood as elements of a larger discursive field in which the historian, as well as the historical actors being studied, are firmly embedded. [24] Historians who treated the traditional archival sources of British Empire historiography as transparent accounts of the past risked reproducing the racist and imperialist misapprehensions of their informants. Such sources are not merely fragments of historical evidence but the products of a particularly modern, post-enlightenment world-view that was willfully indifferent to the actualities of imperial rule. The historian’s task then, is not to retrace the footsteps of imperial agents, but to show how the very categories such people used to understand the world reinforced the asymmetry of colonial power relations.

This definition of the Empire, and of the historian’s project, is very different indeed from those that preceded it. But despite the hostilities that exist between the practitioners of diplomatic, political and economic histories of the British Empire, and what they call cultural or literary historians, there is some common ground. It is a striking irony that historians such as Cain and Hopkins who see imperialism as an attempt to exploit the distance between core and periphery, and the postcolonial historians who see imperialism as a discursive practice that inscribes the difference between the Occident and the Orient onto daily practices, all agree that the British Empire is essentially binary in nature. It is the blinding purity of this logic that has made it so difficult for historians to see the many millions of imperial subjects, people who wandered into, out of, and around the Empire indifferent to the economic, political, and cultural distinctions beloved of metropolitan theorists, politicians, civil servants and their historians alike. That analytic Manichaeism is the bad habit which the scholars of the new imperial history are trying to cure themselves.

The Empire as a Network of Transnational Flows

These new imperial historians have been trying very hard to transcend the metropole-periphery distinction by showing how Britain and its Empire were mutually constituted. Perhaps the most celebrated attempt has been that of Catherine Hall in Civilising Subjects. [25] In that work Hall studies the complex interplay that occurred between Birmingham and Jamaica during the middle of the nineteenth century. She shows how the attitudes and behavior of non-conformist missionaries and businessmen from Birmingham who traveled to, and had connections in Jamaica, were shaped by both metropolitan and provincial factors. Hall reveals not only how imperialist and colonizing discourses changed over time, but the manner in which the particular contexts in which they were voiced shaped them, and the way historical causality did not simply flow out of London, but back to Britain from the colonies, and from colony to colony as well.

Hall’s heavily biographical approach has proved popular among historians attempting to reformulate the relationship between metropole and colony because it is grounded in the ever-so empirical and material movement of bodies from one place to another, and back again. By focusing on the way people actually moved about the Empire historians have revealed a whole network of travel that cannot be defined in terms of core-periphery flows because it cuts across them. Such an approach also allows one to avoid characterizing imperial culture as a monolithic and ahistorical because rather than analyzing content it focuses on the actual mechanisms by which knowledge is produced and dispersed. Alan Lester, David Lambert and Tony Ballantyne have all recently published on what they call the circuits or webs which connect colony-to-colony as well as colony-to-metropole. [26] Their work shows the degree to which binary models of imperial power fail to account for the way the people who lived in the Empire actually behaved. They may well have been subjects of the political Empire that was ruled from a metropolitan center, rational actors in the economic Empire that benefited a metropolitan center, and figures embedded in the culture of Empire that privileged a metropolitan center, but that does not mean they organized their lives around that center.

Empire á la Mode: What’s Next?

In this quick survey we have seen the British Empire as a geo-political super-state whose center was the British Isles, an economic or discursive regime, an ideological construction, a network of flows, as a series of empires, and as the very origin of Britain itself. What should be clear is that the concept of the “British Empire,” whatever its ideological and political valence, is used by historians to organize data into arguments about what they think is important about the past. In certain periods and among certain groups certain modes of argumentation have become predominant. That means it is possible, if one so chose, to arrange historiographical essays on the British Empire into Whiggish narratives which proceed in stages from the past – when historians struggled to even grasp their subject let alone understand it – towards the present – when historians have the theoretical and methodological tools to at least pin that subject down. But arguments about what truly constitutes the Empire, or more accurately what historians of the British Empire should be paid to study, rather miss the point. The Empire is so broad a category it can accommodate almost anything a clever scholar might wish to put into it. David Fieldhouse, writing in the mid-eighties, suggested that in the postcolonial era the critical issue for historians of the British Empire was not the content of their unit of study, but the unit itself. [27] This continues to be the case.

Part II: Further Experiments with Space and Time

The twentieth century saw three major historiographical experiments with space and time: global history, the history of ocean basins, and micro-history. In each instance historians attempted to re-conceptualize their subjects by radically shifting the geographic and chronological scale of their projects. In the first two cases there has been considerable, perhaps even inevitable overlap with the history of European empires. In longue dureé histories of oceans and of the globe after all, it is empires rather than their young cousins the nation-states that hog the geo-political stage. That is less obviously the case with microhistory however. Microhistorians traditional preoccupation with individuals, villages, or isolated regions, seems at first glance the very antithesis of imperial histories. Nonetheless their theories and methods would be yet another valuable addition to the ever-expanding methodological tool box of British Empire historiography.

Historians’ growing interest in the way people have moved around the globe, across oceans, and through empires, is not simply a matter of statistical analysis and arrows on maps but, as the New Imperial Historians have already recognized, of intense archival investigation. To understand such phenomena as migration chains for instance, historians need to pay close attention to the social, cultural and economic conditions which motivate long-distance moves, the material conditions of transport, and the manner in which relations between locals, newcomers and other potential migrants are established and re-established. Such information is more likely to be found in provincial and national archives than those that are self-consciously imperial, or by rereading traditional sources, as they say, “against the grain.” In both the new imperial history and microhistory the historian searches the archives for histories that previous accounts of the past have failed to incorporate. Such forgotten or obscured events and stories are meant to show how competing histories not only fail to illuminate the full complexity of human experience but actually obscure some of the crucial processes that drive that experience. Historians of transnational flows are more likely than microhistorians however, to slip back into grand narratives about European expansion and global modernization because they are more interested in the drama of movement than in the production of the local.

Ocean Histories and Empire

In 1949 Fernand Braudel published The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World of Philip II. [28] Despite the mention of Philip II in the title it was not a political history but what Braudel called a longue dureé study of the Mediterranean. His initial subject, the political empire of Philip II, became merely an entrepôt to his profound and influential meditation on Mediterranean civilization. Braudel, who was influenced by the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss, identified three types or modes of time: thelongue dureé, the conjunctural, and the événementielle. He argued that the events of political history, which had long been the proper subject of the historian, were but froth on the sea of history. Conjunctural history, the most poorly defined of these concepts, was the study of decade long cycles of events – such as Kondratieff waves. And the longue dureé, Braudel’s most lasting contribution to the discipline, was a mode of analysis in which the historian studies those economic, social and cultural structures which persist for long periods of time, even for centuries, underneath the history of the event. [29] The proper subject of the modern historian was currents and tides of demography and culture which changed so slowly most people were not even aware that they had.

Braudel’s longue dureé approach has since been profitably applied to (at least) two other bodies of water: the Atlantic and the IndianOceans. Atlantic History in particular has become a powerful intellectual and institutional player in the academy. [30] While it generally lacks the theoretical and philosophical framework of Braudel's Mediterranean its stripped down simplicity has made it much easier to utilize. Bernard Bailyn, one of Atlantic histories most celebrated practitioners, argued in 1996 that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries Western Europe, West Africa, and the Americas were sufficiently integrated that the historian could treat them as a single unit of analysis. [31] The conceptual unit of the "Atlantic World," has become an increasingly popular tool among historians of not only early modern Britain and colonial America but also of the Caribbean, West Africa and Brazil. It has successfully freed historians from the shackles of nationalist historiography to roam the whole of the Atlantic littoral.

The history of the Indian Ocean has been similarly re-conceptualized. [32] Just as Atlantic studies came to be dominated by historians of British colonialism in North America, so Indian Ocean studies has become dominated by historians whose initial focus was on the European imperialism in India. The towering figure in the field is K.N. Chaudhuri, who inTrade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean and Asia before Europe applied sophisticated economic analysis to the ocean. He was followed by historians such as Ashin Das Gupta, M.N. Pearson and Sanjay Subrahmanyam who all, from varying perspectives, treated the Indian Ocean as a persistent and coherent social and economic world.

There are a number of continuities in approach that run from Braudel’s Mediterranean through Atlantic and Indian Ocean histories. The most obvious is that a body of water functions as a means to justify the study of previously disparate subjects by linking them into a single, coherent and discrete economic unit. As the geographic scale of an historian’s subject is increased the conceptual distance between its constituent parts decreases. Madrid and Alexandria become part of the same sprawling community, as do Bristol and Kingston, and Goa and Zanzibar. In the same way by increasing the scale of periodization, the chronological distance between people living centuries apart is also annihilated. These connections provide wonderfully evocative tools for historians’ interested in identity and ideology as transnational phenomena. By revealing communities that exist across such traditional categories of analysis as nationality and ethnicity they expose both the inadequacies of those categories as explanatory devices, and the manner in which they too, are elements of what Braudel called a particular mentalité, or world view. [33] There is always a danger however that these new “worlds” become reified – that they are so convincing the historians stops thinking of them as an analytic category or a thought-experiment and begins to treat them as independent phenomena.

Recent critics of Atlantic history, such as Philip Stern and Peter Coclanis, have suggested that while it has produced a proliferation of fascinating studies, and shown how oceans have provided connections between communities historians previously thought isolated from each other, they have also reproduced some of the same problems they were meant to resolve. The national history – in all its isolated and disconnected glory – has been replaced by the histories of Atlantic or Indian Ocean Worlds, that exist in their own splendid isolation, looking inward from their littorals towards an empty sea. [34] In this sense although they may reveal a great deal about particular ocean basins within an imperial history, they say little about how empires have connected those ocean basins.

Global History and Empires

Both Coclanis and Stern suggest that one way to resolve the problem is to stop thinking about discrete oceanic worlds and increase the scope of the historical exercise. They are interested in showing the connections that tie these various worlds together into much larger units. Such global or world histories have a long and rich history of their own, and like histories of the Atlantic or the Indian Oceans they are often preoccupied with the origins of modernity, albeit economic rather than a cultural. [35] But while the ocean histories tend to find their particular fault line in the early modern period, the watershed of the global history is generally located in the mid-nineteenth century, when economic and demographic processes of a global scale become easier to identify and discuss. The British drive for free trade in the nineteenth-century, so beloved by historians who imagine the British Empire as an economic regime, is a key turning point in many such histories. [36] As a result global histories often reproduce familiar narratives of economic modernization in which the economy of the Atlantic world becomes the sole engine of historical change. A growing number however, identify a variety of metropolitan centers acting on a variety of peripheries – the work of Keith Pomeranz on China and the world economy is a good example. [37] The richest intersection between global histories and the historiography of the British Empire so far is to be found in such comparative efforts. In C.A. Bayly’s Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780-1830 , whose title belies its sweeping range, British dominance in the nineteenth-century is illuminated by his reflections on earlier land-based Asian empires. [38] Histories such as those of Pomeranz and Bayly are by necessity synthetic in nature, and are productions of a life time of scholarship which may help us frame and reconsider research questions but they are not the product of archival evidence per se. A microhistorian would argue that such large claims are so abstracted from lived human experience that they cannot hope to provide us with an accurate description of the past.

Microhistory and Empire?

Laura Putnam recently wrote an article in which she suggested a rather different response to the problems of Atlantic history than the step backward recommended by Stern and Coclanis. [39] In her view Atlantic historians should, like the microhistorian, step forward. Putnam argued that Atlantic and micro-history already had a great deal in common, and by emulating the conceptual and methodological rigor of microhistorians in their studies of the British Caribbean, she and her colleagues would be well rewarded. It is my inclination to think that the historiography of the British Empire in general would be enriched by such efforts.

The concept of micro-history was developed by Italian historians in the 1970s. [40] The historians Carlo Ginzburg and Giovanni Levi argued that the modernization theories used by sociologists and social historians to frame their research led them to ignore a great deal of what was actually going on. Levi and Ginzburg argued that if historians paid closer attention to what was happening in individual lives, among families, and in face-to-face communities, they would realize that their theories and generalizations about what had occurred in the past did not stand up to the historical evidence. The microhistorians were particularly interested in cultural and social outliers, members of minority groups who seemed out of joint with their times. Perhaps the two most famous of such studies were Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou. In both texts the historian used inquisitorial records to reconstruct the world view of early modern heretics. These remarkable archival sources allowed the historian to reconstruct a different version of the past then the one that had been normalized by the elites who have traditionally controlled the creation of records. In these instances the concept that these historians deconstructed was that of a monolithic Christendom, an idea mobilized by both the agents of the inquisition to dominate distant communities, and by post-Reformation historians to make sense of their past.

At first glance the microhistorical approach seems similar to the regional and national studies that had Fieldhouse fretting back in the 1980s that the history of the Empire was going to devolve into its constituent parts and vanish altogether. But that similarity depends upon the assumption that the Empire is a geo-political unit comprised of nations and proto-nations (another type of geo-political unit) which are in turn comprised of provinces and proto-provinces (more geo-political subunits) and so on until we get to the geo-political subunit of the individual imperial subject. And such an assumption is precisely the sort of administrative and intellectual device that the microhistorians were attempting to defuse. Ginzburg’s miller and Le Roy Ladurie’s peasants refused to be contained by the historiographical and administrative categories employed by inquisitors and historians but that was not the fault of the miller and the peasants. The inquisitor’s response to this refusal was to murder them and the social historians to ignore them. Ginzburg and Le Roy Ladurie took a different tack. They resolved the problem of what microhistorians came to call the outlier by discarding the old categories and trying to reconstruct their subject’s lives without recourse to larger histories.

There is certainly no shortage of outliers in the history of British expansion, men and women whose voices never predominated, but who nonetheless had opinions, ideas and experiences of the political, economic, social and cultural phenomena that have been, are, and could be made to fit into the category of Empire. Laura Putnam is quite right to suggest that it is such people that both microhistorians and Atlantic historians seem most eager to pursue. In the same way the transnational histories of Catherine Hall, Tony Ballantyne, and Alan Lester, the Empire is viewed through the lens of the remarkable biography in order reveal processes and patterns other methods have failed to illuminate. Of course it is still the Atlantic World or the British Empire those historians are trying to see and to reconfigure. A microhistory of Empire on the other hand, would not be one that incorporates outliers into the history of Empire by writing increasingly inclusive accounts of it. Rather, it would be a history of individuals and communities whose existence overlaps with the historiographical categories such as “the British Empire,” or “ British Imperialism,” but which is not made to fit the grand narratives which those categories are generally used to construct.

None of which is to say that the British Empire should no longer be studied. As an idea the British Empire has inspired, appalled, and intrigued countless men and women for a very long time, and shall no doubt continue to do so for an equally long time to come. That is reason enough to keep thinking about it. And it remains a useful administrative and disciplinary tool for organizing historians into manageable groups, attracting students to the classroom, and generating funding. It is also a marvelously expressive piece of rhetorical short-hand, which calls forth all manner of striking images and emotions. But the constellation of human behavior the phrase purports to describe is so varied, vast, and multifarious it can be used in as many ways as there are British Empire historians. One means to avoid becoming bogged down in the interminable debate that invariably accompanies the use of such a flexible and productive concept is to set it aside occasionally, and to lose oneself in the details of the world that, despite its prodigious capacity and boundless appetite, the idea of the Empire, like the Empire itself, can never quite seem to contain.


[1] David Fieldhouse, “Can Humpty Dumpty Be Put Together Again? Imperial History in the 1980s,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 12 (1984): 9–23. Review of The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume V, Historiography edited by Robin W. Winks. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1999.

[2] See new articles

[3] Stephen Howe, “The Slow Death and Strange Rebirth of Imperial History,” Journal of Imperial

and Commonwealth History 29 (2001): 131–41

[4] J.R. Seeley, The Expansion of England, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971) p. 12. That suggestion evokes the possibility that from the very conception of the project the Empire’s professional biographers were feeling ontological anxiety about their subject.

[5] Wm. Roger Louis, Introduction, The Oxford History of the British Empire: Historiography , Volume V (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 8

[6] J.A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1954); V.I. Lenin,Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism : A Popular Outline, (New York: International Publishers, 1939)

[7] See J. Gallagher and R. Robinson, “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” Economic History Review, 6, I (1953), pp. 1-15; J. Gallagher and R. Robinson with A. Denny, Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism , (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1981).

[8] J.S. Galbraith, “The Turbulent Frontier as a Factor in British Expansion,” Comparative Studies in History and Society, 2 (1960), pp. 150-68.

[9] See Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 179.

[10] P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688-1914 , (London: Longman, 1990), pp.

[11] Cain and Hopkins, p. 10.

[12] David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

[13] David Armitage The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (CambridgeUniversity Press: Cambridge, 2000)

[14] Linda Colley, “Britishness and Otherness: An Argument.” The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 31, No. 4, (Oct., 1992), p. 325. See also Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005).

[15] J. G. A. Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, Journal of Modern History, 47

(1975): 601–21.

[16] Frank Welsh, The Four Nations: A History of the United Kingdom (New Haven, CT/London:

Yale University Press, 2003), Hugh Kearney, The British Isles: A History of Four Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). See also Laurence Brockliss and David Eastwood (eds.), A Union of Multiple

Identities: The British Isles, c.1750–1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997);

Kearney, ‘Four Nations in One’, in Bernard Crick (ed.), National Identities: the Constitution of

the United Kingdom (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 1–6.

[17] For migration see Eric Richards, Britannia’s Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (London: Hambledon and London, 2004). For migration and the Atlantic world see Bernard Bailyn, ().

[18] Nicholas Canny (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998).

[19] For examples of approaches in which the Empire has become Britain see: C. Bridge and K. Fedorowich, eds., “The British World: Diaspora, Culture and Identity,” Journal of Commonwealth and Imperial History, special issue, 31 (2), 2003; The British World: Diaspora, Culture and Identity (London, Frank Cass, 2003). See also S. Ward, ‘The British World’, Australian Historical Association Bulletin, 94, June 2002, pp. 30 –3; P. A. Buckner and C. Bridge, ‘Reinventing the British World’, Round Table, 92, (2003), pp. 77–88; C. Bridge and K. Fedorowich, “Mapping the British world,” Journal of Commonwealth and Imperial History, 31 (2003), p. 2.

[20] See for example Alfred Zimmern, The Third Empire, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1926)

[21] See for instance Philip Buckner, ed., Canada and the British Empire, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2008), especially John Herd Thompson, “Canada and the ‘Third British Empire,’” pp. 87-106.

[22] C.A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780-1830 (London: Longman, 1989)

[23] Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York: Vintage Books, 1994)

[24] Antoinette Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture, 1865-1915 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1994); Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York, 1995); Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The Manly Englishman and the Effeminate Bengali in the Late Nineteenth Century (Manchester, 1995).

[25] Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Colony and Metropole in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 , (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)

[26] Tony Ballantyne, Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire (New York: Palgrave, 2002); Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005); David Lambert and Alan Lester, eds., Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006)

[27] D. Fieldhouse, “Can Humpty-Dumpty be put together again?: Imperial history in the 1980s’,”

Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History , 12 (2), 1984, p. 16.

[28] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world of Philip II trans. Sian Reynolds (New York, 1972)

[29] For relatively concise definitions of these concepts and his debt to Levi-Strauss see Fernand Braudel, On History (Chicago, 1982).

[30] Bernard Bailyn, “The Idea of Atlantic History,” Itinerario 20, no.1. (1996): 19-44; Nicholas Canny, “Writing Atlantic History; Or, Reconfiguring the History of Colonial British America,” Journal of American History 86, no. 3 (December, 1999): 1093-1114; Alison Games, Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); Colin Kidd, British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800 (Cambridge, 1999); Thomas Benjamin, Timothy Hall, and David Rutherford, eds. The British Atlantic in the Age of Empire (Boston, 2001); David Armitage, “Three Concepts of Atlantic History” in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (Basingstoke, Eng., 2002), 11-27; Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (Cambridge Mass., 2005); Elizabeth Mancke and Carole Shammas, eds., The Creation of the British Atlantic World, (Baltimore, 2005);J.H. Elliot, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 (New Haven, 2006);

[31] See especially Bailyn, "The Idea of Atlantic History," Itenerario 20, no. 1 (1996), 19-44.

[32] Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 2006); K.N. Chaudhuri, Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilization of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge, 1990); Ashin Das Gupta and M.N. Pearson, eds. India and the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800 (Calcutta, 1987); Gupta, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, and Lakshmi Subramanian, Politics and Trade in the Indian Ocean World: Essays in Honour of Ashin Das Gupta (New Delhi, 2001); Milo Kearney, The Indian Ocean in World History, (London, 2004); M.N. Pearson, The World of the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800: Studies in Economics, Social and Cultural History , (Aldershot, 2005); Sanjay Subrahmanyam , The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700 (London, 1993); André Wink, Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World, (Leiden, 1991).

[33] Some recent examples would be Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000); John Sensbach Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Christianity in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, Mass., 2005).

[34] Peter Coclanis, “Atlantic World or Atlantic/World?” Philip J. Stern, William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. LXIII, No. 4 (Oct. 2006), 725-742; and in the same issue Peter Coclanis, “British Asia and British Atlantic: Comparisons and Connections,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. LXIII, No. 4 (Oct. 2006), 693-712.

[35] For examples of contemporary attempts see: E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (Harmondsworth, 1968); Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System (New York, 1980); Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, (Berkeley, 1983); Philip Curtin, Cross-Cultural Trade in World History, (New York, 1983); Pagden, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France, c. 1550-c. 1800 , (New Haven, 1995): Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley, 1998); Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik, The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present (Armink, NY, 1999); C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Malden, 2003); Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffery G. Williamson, Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (Cambridge, 1999); Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the Making of the Modern World ( Princeton, 2000); A.G. Hopkins, ed., Globalization in World History (New York, 2002)

[36] See especially Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffery G. Williamson, Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (Cambridge, 1999).

[37] For example Pomeranz, The Great Divergence.

[38] C.A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World, 1780-1830 (Harlow. 1989); see also Fred Cooper, “” The Problem of Colonialism:

[39] Laura Putnam, “To Study the Fragments/Whole: Microhistory and the Atlantic World,”
Journal of Social History , Vol. 39, No. 3, (Spring 2006) pp. 615-630.

[40] Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, tr. Barbara Bray (New York, 1979); Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller , tr. John and Anne C. Tedeschi (Baltimore, 1980); Ed Muir, ed., Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe, (Baltimore, 1991); Ginzburg, “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Problem,” in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method , tr. John and Anne C. Tedeschi (Baltimore, 1992), pp. 96-125); Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park, Pa, 1992); Ginzburg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know About It,” Critical Inquiry, 20 (1993);