The Imperial Embrace

Linda Colley

A little more than two centuries ago, the French writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier saw imperialism displayed upon a Parisian breakfast table. The polished mahogany surfaces, like the steaming coffee, brought the colonies of the New World instantly to his imagination. The fine porcelain, he judged, had been shipped by armed merchantmen from China. The sugar spoke to him of Caribbean slavery, and the scented tea of Indian plantations. The world the Europeans looted was no longer a distant enterprise. It was part of the very fabric of their lives at home. Yet, as he noted this, Mercier was clearly congratulating himself on his rare measure of perceptiveness. He did not believe that those eating alongside him saw what he saw, or understood.

Here, summed up in a domestic interior, was the paradox of imperialism’s impact on Europe. It was all-pervasive: in that consumer goods, the theater, books, music, botanical collections, visual images of all kinds, political speeches, and sermons regularly alluded to colonies and conquests. At the same time, empire often went strangely unacknowledged—even by those who benefited from it most. And, in the minds of many, it remained entirely peripheral to the main business of life. In Culture and Imperialism Edward Said makes clear that he is aware of this paradox. But, from a historian’s viewpoint, this ambitious, impassioned, often brilliant book is flawed by his refusal thoroughly to confront it.

His declared aim is to assert and examine the worldwide cultural impact of the imperial experience, not just the impact on the colonizing powers but also on those in the colonies who wrote resisting them. In practice, this means that he devotes the first two of his four chapters to France and especially to Britain in the nineteenth century (though he includes as well a highly original reading of Verdi’s Aïda). Said also concentrates, unsurprisingly, on the novel, one of the “principal purposes” of which, he believes, was “almost unnoticeably” to sustain Europeans’ consent to overseas expansion. This was true not just of novels from the final frantic phase of European imperialism after 1870—the works of Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle and the young André Gide, for example, which are obviously drenched in the imperial project. For Said, as for many recent literary critics, the cultural impact of empire was crucial very much earlier than this. He repeats here his own imperial reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), and draws on the work of scholars such as Suvendri Perera, Patrick Brantlinger, and Sara Suleri to point to the insistent echoes of empire in the novels of Thackeray, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, and Scott.

Much of his analysis is sharp, cogent, and impressive. Said is entirely right to argue that literature is never “antiseptically quarantined from its worldly affiliations,” and to reprove earlier critics for approaching English literature as though it only concerned England. Now, though, it is the opposite tendency which is becoming a new orthodoxy. There are few major writers in English, and to a lesser extent in French and Spanish, from the sixteenth century onward, whose works are not being rigorously scrutinized for the taint of empire. And this approach brings both gains and distortions.

Many of the really devout believers in empire were from the margins.

When Said argues that because Mansfield Park, by his own admission, mentions Antigua half a dozen times, it should be read alongside the works of Eric Williams and C. L. R. James, or reprimands Austen for failing to offer “a non-white Caribbean any status imaginatively” other than that of a “sugar producer in a permanently subordinate position to the English,” I sense a loss of perspective and a lapse in careful reading. (Fanny Price, we are explicitly told by Austen, questions Sir Thomas about slavery.) I also wonder if the hunger for imperial allusions has not excluded something rather more surprising.

Given the scale of Britain’s imperial enterprise—by 1820 it already embraced some two hundred million souls—what is surely remarkable is not that this should have influenced its literary culture, but that it failed to influence it far more than it did. Said seems half aware of this. For much of the nineteenth century, he suggests, the European empires resembled servants in a great house: they were seldom acknowledged by those who dominated them, but were nonetheless indispensable. The very infrequency and casualness with which writers referred to empire, their “power to give or withhold attention,” was part of the ruthless confidence of the imperial embrace. Perhaps so. But another explanation would be that most Victorian novelists normally confined themselves to making only marginal references to empire because it rarely seemed all that important in their own minds or to most of their readers. This, after all, was the burden of Sir John Seeley’s argument when he complained in The Expansion of England (1883) that the British had acquired their vast empire in a fit of absence of mind. “We think of Great Britain too much,” he wrote, “and of Greater Britain [sic] too little.” And such comments on the limits of empire’s cultural penetration were made, and regularly made, throughout the nineteenth century and after. Why?

Some of the reasons were pragmatic. Said’s comment that before 1870, French imperialism was the concern only of “arms dealers, economists, the military, and missionary circles” is true to a degree of the British situation as well. It is striking how many of the really devout believers in empire were from the margins in some way. They were on the run from problems at home, or from the Scottish Highlands or Ireland, or—like Cecil Rhodes, or General Gordon, or T. E. Lawrence, or E. M. Forster, or Paul Scott—they were homosexuals. Not until the end of the nineteenth century was there mass British emigration to the colonies rather than to the United States. Nor was the empire invariably celebrated for its transforming effect on British wealth, as Said implies. Recent research corroborates what anti-imperialists often maintained at the time: that colonial trade and investment enriched particular individuals and interest groups but may have had a positively damaging effect on the economy as a whole. But the main reason why large numbers of Britons were unmoved by their vast empire may have been their religion.

Said describes himself as a secular intellectual, and includes here a pointed anecdote about how, while lecturing in Egypt, he misheard a veiled woman’s reference to the “theocratic’’ as “socratic.” Such enlightenment brings its own limitations. For the culture of imperialism—like the culture of many past and present African and Indian opponents of imperialism—was permeated by religious fundamentalism and cannot be understood without it. French and Spanish imperialism was shaped by Roman Catholicism. British imperialism, both in terms of its outrageous extent, and in terms of the ambiguous responses it encountered at home, was a function of uncompromising Protestantism. The Calvinist Protestant belief in the concept of the elect led some Britons to argue that, since they were the best, it was right and preordained that they should rule over as much of the world as possible. Hence that truly astonishing passage in John Ruskin’s Slade lectures in 1870, which Said quotes here, in which Britain’s colonies are described as “motionless churches, ruled by pilots on the Galilean lake of all the world.” But this sense of privileged, Protestant election could lead other Britons to regard contact with abroad—whether this meant Africa, or India, or Catholic Europe—as a contamination which must be avoided as much as possible.

This latter reaction informed a great deal of nineteenth-century literature. Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park certainly draws a (declining) income from his Antiguan plantations. But it is while he is absent there that his daughters go astray and contemplate acting “Lovers’ Vows.” Conversely, Fanny’s virtue appears, right from the start, in the fact that “she cannot put the map of Europe together” but is rather “formed for domestic life, and attached to country pleasures.” This is not so much home being invoked in deliberate contrast to a colonial Other: this is home asserted as the only sure anchor for virtue, the only place that matters; it is unabashed Tory insularity. By the same token, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone can certainly be read as a piece of orientalism. But it can more plausibly be viewed as a typical piece of mid-Victorian anti-imperialism (un-imperialism would be a better term). The novel’s villains are those Britons who have compromised their identity by playing the imperial game, the evangelical, and the soldier who steals the diamond. Not until the stone is safely out of Britain and restored to India can good order at home return. Only from the 1870s on, as Britain’s own internal fabric began to unravel, did this distancing from matters imperial fade. Once their sense of special election at home was under threat, more Britons did become willing to invest in an aggressively imperial ideology by way of compensation. Yet the culture of imperialism still remained circumscribed. Kipling’s reputation, as Said notes, was “always slightly apart from the great central strand” of English literature.

I stress these limits to British cultural receptivity to empire for two reasons. First, because they have obvious implications for the last chapter of this book, in which Said denounces postwar American imperialism. He argues rightly that empire, in various forms, has been a part of the American dream since the Revolution. But his equally accurate observation that “strangely, ... American domination is insular” will seem much less strange if we remember that this, too, is a deeply Protestant culture, quite as divided over the merits of empire now as Britain once was. Denizens of the City on the Hill, Americans, just like Britons in the past, exhibit a beguiling capacity to conflate their own particular foreign policy objectives with the global good (“Operation Just Cause,” “Operation Restore Hope”).

Said the anti-imperialist warrior takes over from Said the cultural critic, and anger distorts analysis.

At the same time, many of them persist in believing that the outside world is mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and best left alone if their nation’s distinctive qualities are to be preserved. This ambiguity in response does not restrict American imperialism in practice any more than it restricted the British, but—as in the latter case—it does work to limit empire’s imaginative appeal and penetration in the metropolis.

Second, and more important, Said’s tendency to overstate the cultural hold of empire on the imperial powers is symptomatic of a deeper unevenness in his approach. For much of the time, he is a careful scholar, possessed of a range of erudition and breadth of vision that one can only marvel at. Sporadically, however, Said the anti-imperialist warrior takes over from Said the cultural critic, and anger distorts analysis. Ironically, this leads him not only exaggerate the European response to empire but also to overemphasize the degree of colonial submission to empire. I say ironically, because much of the second part of his book is a vivid examination and celebration of anti-imperial critics such as C. L. R. James, George Antonius, and Frantz Fanon. Yet even as he savors their resistance, Said succumbs to the temptation of exaggerating the power and ubiquity of the imperial enemy he despises. “The discrepancy in power between the white rulers and the native subjects was absolute,” he contends. “For the victim, imperialism offers these alternatives: serve or be destroyed.” But the relationship between colonizer and colonized was rarely that clear-cut in fact. And colonies, like empires, are not all the same.

Yet Said often writes as though very diverse territories succumbed to imperialism equally and entirely. India, he tells us, was “dominated by Britain for three hundred years.” Not so. The British were the dominant European power in India for less than two centuries. And even at their most powerful, they were too few in number to transform the lives and culture of a majority of their ostensible subjects. By 1947 only three million out of more than three hundred million Indians could speak English. The British, thinks Adela in A Passage to India, “remain in exile. The important towns they build are only retreats.” And she is substantially right.

Said can also be too sweeping when treating the “white” colonies. It is simply not the case that “Australians remained an inferior race” in the British imagination “well into the twentieth century.” There was and is prejudice certainly (on both sides). But British novelists were just as likely to view Australians through a Rousseau-like lens, portraying them as fellow Brits—but better and braver because less spoilt by a corrupt civilization. The sailor hero of Conan Doyle’s “The Abbey Grange” would be a case in point. By the same token, it is unwise to discuss W. B. Yeats in the context of Irish resistance to “an alien and occupying empire” without showing some recognition of the fact that Irishmen made up a third of Victorian Britain’s imperial army, and a goodly number of its most active colonizers. Why else is the eponymous hero of Kim called in reality Kimball O’Hara?

To recognize these difficulties is not to detract from the importance of either this book or its theme. Literary critics, and in particular Edward Said, have played a major part in making the phenomenon of empire intellectually interesting again. But those who write about the intersection of culture and empire need to possess a firm knowledge of both. And they must beware of exaggerating the significance of this connection, dramatic and remarkable though it was. For most of the time, though not for all of the time, empire simply did not loom all that large in the minds of most men and women back in Europe. Nor did empire loom all that large in the thoughts and lives of many of the men and women who were technically subject to it. Only among those who fought against empire—and among those, like Said, who fight against it still—did it assume its full terrifying centrality. This may be unfair. But empire always was.

Linda Colley is a British historian and the Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University. Her book Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1992) won the Wolfson Prize.
Originally published:
October 1, 1993


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