2 April 2018

Pomp & Circumstance - Struggling with Empire

I often feel like I’m not cut out to be a good historian. I’m not very good at instantly zeroing in on the pith of an argument and picking it to pieces. It usually takes me awhile to figure out what’s going on, both what’s being said and what’s being implied beneath the surface. It usually takes me a lot longer to figure out what my own position might be. And, perhaps most alarming of all, my position might not necessarily be to one side or the other of what’s being said. Horror of horrors – I often find myself to be a middle-roader, coasting down the middle-lane, smiling at all those passing by on one side and all those shooting past on the other. This is what occurs to me most often when I’m sitting in academic seminars; the realisation of my own intellectual inadequacy, i.e. – the fact that I have no brain.

Critical thought is difficult. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to work at it. And even then I’m still not sure of what I actually think. I tend to see the good in all things and maybe unconsciously I disregard the stuff that doesn’t directly chime with me. Rather than engaging with the negatives, I always seem to choose to focus on the positives and try to run with those instead. And that’s usually when I get walloped by someone sidling up beside me with a big argument I simply seem to have failed to notice. My academic outlook and performance often feels like the Monty Python fish slapping dance sketch.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Over the Easter weekend I read David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (Allen Lane / Penguin, 2001). This book had been on the edge of my radar for some time. A book of possible relevance to my PhD. I was vaguely aware it had caused a bit of an academic ripple when it was first published, not least because I’d come across a number of articles written ‘in reply’ to it not long after it was published in a special edition of the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History (Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 2002). An aspect of my PhD examines personal perspectives of empire and imperialism – how individual people fitted into the web-like matrix of connections that spanned and linked the networked colonial machine, and thereby how those individuals meshed together as the components which ultimately drove the inexorable giant engine of empire. How their interactions drew each of them together into a greater whole, how their individual actions (simply in pursuit of making a living, making ends meet in a colonial world) combined – almost inadvertently perhaps – to form this oddly indefinable and intangible fact of reality which, for want of a better term, many have described as the broader ‘imperial project.’

I’m still very much trying to grapple with how any historian can confidently come up with his or her grand theory of empire. My route to my current PhD is oddly circuitous. I began as an amateur archaeologist, going on to become a student of anthropology (with as much archaeology as I could cram in). Hence I was used to the idea of the bigger picture, the broader canvas and the grand sweep of time, seemingly being pieced together from the minutiae of pot sherds and burn marks left in the ground. For instance: “This piece of Samian ware tells us all we need to know about how the Romans went about occupying and then ruling Britain via indigenous proxies or client kings.” … Does it? Blimey, that’s amazing! – Likewise anthropology: “We can conjecture a lot about the origins of culture through a theoretical model based upon the socio-linguistic norms hidden in the meta-myths of traditional societies, such as those found in the tribes of the Amazon rainforests.” … Really? Blimey, that’s amazing!

It took me a while to figure out that this is all conjecture. The art (and the artifice) is not necessarily in the argument but in the arguing. Convincing others that your interpretation of the evidence is the correct one. Scepticism is the foundation of all academic debate. Not taking anything at face value all the while that what’s being presented is often being presented as the incontrovertible truth. I first learnt this lesson physically one summer whilst working as a member of an archaeological dig (I won’t say where). There were two trenches dug not too far apart beside a small stream in a highly acidic soil. One trench – Trench A – seemed to be filled with an assortment of “later” material – medieval walls and a well with some nicely preserved organic finds. The other trench – Trench B (the one I spent some two or three weeks digging in) – was a barren boringscape of differing soil colours and wrist-grating alluvial gravel deposits. It was like trowelling through semi-solid concrete that stuck to your hand shovel like congealed porridge, and all for no reward. But it did teach me about the subtle gradations of soil features, which on later digs helped me to spot near imperceptible changes and disturbances in different soil lenses and deposits. But then one day someone in our trench hit an undoubtable treasure – a jet finger ring with a Chi-Rho symbol. Late Roman, early Christian – far older than anything that had so far come out of Trench A. Trench B team was exultant. After weeks of being belittled by our chums in Trench A, now they were the ones who were sulking. The excavation director, who we thought had near enough forgotten we existed, appeared like a shot. Trowel out, a couple of deft flicks – then, standing back for a couple of contemplative wheezes on his cigarette, he selected a nearby undergraduate on their first summer dig assignment. “Look here,” the dig director said, before bending forward and then, with the point of his trowel, he scored a long six foot by two-ish foot oblong in the mud. “You see that? The very slight difference in soil colour inside and out? The alignment, East-West? That’s an early Christian grave, that is. Nothing organic left because of the soil acidity. Bottom it out for me. It’s probably only very shallow.”

The undergrad and the rest of us stared and stared, trying to make out the difference in colour. It seemed brilliant and baffling in equal measure. Debate raged amongst the diggers of Trench B for days afterwards. Some were adamant they could see it, others that it was all made up. The ring wasn’t a grave good. Yes, it was. No, it wasn’t. Our area supervisor thought it had simply been washed into the area as part of an alluvial deposit from the nearby stream. As you can expect, I never fully made my mind up – I could see the virtue and the plausibility of both arguments. What mattered most was who argued the case most ably. The dig director won of course, because he was the director, with greater experience, greater aptitude, a sharper eye, etc., etc. The site supervisor – whilst more experienced than the hapless undergrad who’d been selected to hollow out the shallow trough of ‘a grave’ – was still only a novice himself, still earning his archaeological spurs; ‘twas ever thus, perhaps.

But essentially this is the game of academia. It’s a knock-about match of tennis in many respects. A learned and academic sage (namely Dr Indiana Jones) once noted that history and “archaeology is the search for fact not truth (If it’s truth you’re after … the philosophy class is right down the hall).” But interpretation is the keystone upon which academic careers and reputations are built. The span of the arch can be wide in terms of quantity and quality of evidence, but the keystone of your argument is what essentially holds it together. Find a fact that knocks the keystone out and it all comes crashing down. But is that necessarily a bad thing? – Perhaps not if it manages to advance or alter the focus of debate?

Anthropology taught me the value and the power of conjecture and speculation. It used to frustrate me immensely that there was a seemingly huge gaping void in terms of evidence – how can you formulate a theory of the origins of culture when so much remains speculative and unknowable? Biological anthropology can suppose when a particular hominid may have evolved a voice box capable of producing speech and ergo language, but is relative growth of brain size enough to claim that such an evolutionary leap as the ability equates to the actuality of language occurring, and ipso facto that communication equates to the establishment of culture? – Chimps communicate, but is that culture? – What is culture?

I thought I’d find myself on surer ground when I embarked upon my MA in modern world history. After all, archives comprise written records which can furnish and inform the past more directly and in ways which fossilised hominid larynxes and roughly grave-shaped soil stains can’t quite fully muster, right? – Not always. Archives can be unreliable, especially if they are created to a premeditated agenda. Say, an imperialist agenda, perhaps. There’s seemingly no escaping politics, every argument has its angle … And that’s why I find grand historiographical theories so intriguing.

I’ve taken a very long route to get back to my initial starting point – reading David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism – because that’s what the process of doing a PhD is all about. Thinking through why we think what we think, and moreso perhaps, why we don’t always see what we think until we’ve tried to write our way out of it or through it. I knew the book had caused a stir. I could see Cannadine was controversially pitting his theory of ‘ornamentalism’ – that the British Empire was essentially all about the British obsession with extending hierarchies of class and status, rather than the more predominant and far reaching theory of Edward Said’s ‘orientalism’ – that empire was all about codifying racial hierarchies, the scientific project of racializing and exoticising ‘the other’ as essentially fitting into a formal structure, an ‘us and them’ situation of the dominant and the subordinate. Instead Cannadine posits that extending social equivalence voids Said’s racial contentions – the fact that the British could bestow the same honours on Lord Curzon, as Viceroy of India, and the Begum of Bhopal, as exemplified in the paired photographs of them both wearing the same robes and insignia of a knight grand commander of the Order of the Star of India (c.1900 and c.1890 respectively, figs. 19 and 20). Cannadine thereby claims it is time to “reorient orientalism” (p. 125) by acknowledging that “the British exported and projected vernacular sociological visions from the metropolis to the periphery, and they imported and analogized them from the empire back to Britain, thereby constructing comforting and familiar resemblance and equivalencies and affinities.” (p. 122) He does so by solely focussing on all the pomp and flummery of empire’s elite, especially as it was extended to the nobility of the subject peoples, stating that class was of greater equivalence than race. But reading this line of thought, without wholly disagreeing with it, it seems to show its own narrowness of focus – particularly by the example he gives of its limitations, e.g. - the fact that the Chief of Basutoland was refused his request to visit Rome en route back to his homeland from London for fear that the pomp and circumstance of the Pope would upstage and thereby undermine the pomp and circumstance he’d witnessed in Britain (p. 113). Clearly not all sovereigns are equal, which goes as much for George V as it did for the Chief of Basutoland – hence the smoke and mirrors of maintaining prestige and appearance needing to pre-empt the chance of unfavourable misinterpretation.

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, c.1900

I read this book thinking imperialism isn’t so much about the merits of ornamentalism over orientalism, but rather as something running concurrent to it. Ornamentalism (as many of the contributors to that special edition of the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History justly demonstrate) only really applies to the top brass of the Empire elite. As a social history the book’s claim “to put the history of Britain back into the history of empire, and the history of empire back into the history of Britain” (p. xx), rings rather hollow – what about all the other echelons of society? Ornamentalism is, if anything, just an aspect of empire. As a book it is eminently readable and it is furnished throughout with apposite and pithy points of evidence. I couldn’t disagree with it wholly as I could see the virtues within its thesis, such that I can see it informing a view of empire rather than embodying a definitive picture of empire. As Cannadine himself states, empire means “different things to different people in different places” (p. 182). He attaches as an appendix a telling chapter, written earlier than the book, which locates himself in relation to his subject as ‘a child of empire.’ Whether you read this first or at the end it will shape or re-shape your view of the book because it reinforces my point that all arguments are about personal perspectives and how you manage to (or don’t manage to) persuade people of your own particular conjectures. 

The Begum of Bhopal, c.1890

This is all very pertinent still today. Even though Cannadine’s book is now nearly 20 years old, the variously contested debates about the legacy of empire is something which is still very much a ‘live topic.’ Think of the recent wrangles over the various ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaigns, and the imperial nostalgia which seems to be a large part of the current push towards Brexit. I recently attended a one-day symposium at the British Museum titled: Exhibiting the Experience of Empire. Listening to the wide range of speakers, one of whom even sung a large part of her presentation, I was struck by how emotive the topic of empire can be, even still today. Ornamentalism contends that empire is a done and dusted topic, no longer really live – which, in and of itself, has been posited as an argument for shutting down argument (see again the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 2002). But the mixed reactions to recent attempts to draw together definitive pictures of this topic – for example, think of the recent exhibition Artist & Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past at Tate Britain (see here) – show that this topic is very much alive and fighting to be reckoned with, and reconciled in some, as yet unfound, way.

Exhibiting the Experience of Empire Symposium at the British Museum, 2018

Everyone is affected by this legacy of empire to varying degrees. I remember being struck by the absurdity of the pomp and ceremony surrounding the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. It seemed oddly anachronistic. There was stuffy old Prince Charles, weeping. Tony Blair, standing alongside, looking oddly awkward and distinctly out of place, not least because he was the brand new Prime Minister of progressively modern New Labour, poised to revolutionise the UK and catapult it into the 21st century, at last. And then in came the goose-stepping soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army. It was baffling and comical. Until then I’d thought empire was dead and buried; alive only in the fading photographs and memories of our grandparents and great grandparents, if they’d lived long enough and we’d been lucky enough to have known them. But here it was, enacting a distinctly mournful last hurrah. It all seemed very Monty Python-esque to me. Empire was always a game of smoke and mirrors, pomp and prestige, artifice and appearances. Similarly Ornamentalism is exclusively preoccupied with appearances rather than actualities. Cannadine mentions George Orwell in passing, but it’s not the George Orwell who felt silly shooting an elephant in front of the natives, all for the sake of the white man’s burden and the necessity of maintaining imperial prestige.

Empire is decidedly not dead and buried. It pervades our present like a Dickensian spectre. Touching and tainting, inspiring and unsettling the present in multifarious ways. The nostalgia of past greatness waiting to be reclaimed by glorious Brexit, enabling a return to some sort of global ‘free trading’ Britain. Strong and stable. Ornamentalised by a return to blue passports. Orientalised by an unprecedented and heavy-handed crackdown on “illegal” immigrants – here I’m thinking specifically of the bureaucratic and Kafka-esque absurdity of Commonwealth citizens who settled in the UK over half a century ago whilst only children and having lived legitimate law abiding lives here all those years, who are now being threatened with detention and extradition to “home” countries they have never known let alone ever called or thought of as “home” (see here). Sadly we’re back to John Bull and Johnny Foreigner again. The legacy of empire is increasingly leeching into our present and poisoning these supposedly ‘post-colonial’ times.

As a student of imperial history, attempting to grapple with the various ways in which empire needs to be read and represented today, I’m frequently baffled by the bigger picture. It seems the more I read upon the subject, the more my mind is like a large open duvet cover inside a washing machine. Whatever the brand, whether I choose Daz or Ariel – Niall Fergusson or Eric Hobsbawm – is only a part of it. As the topic spins round my mind, all the books, articles, exhibitions, archives, perspectives, prejudices, blind-spots, arguments and counter-arguments, as much as my vapid indecisive, open-minded, sponginess of critical acumen – all of it finds their way inside the open duvet cover, such that when the washing machine stops spinning, I am left trying to untangle and make sense of a huge jumble of things that have clumped together inside. It is a dank and heavy bundle of laundry that needs to be sorted through. But, to my mind at least, that’s the essence of doing a PhD. It takes time to work through it all, to work it all out, and make my own mind up. Each piece needs to be flattened out and hung up to dry of its own accord and in its own time. Yet, however neatly I manage to do so, I know I will always find that there is still a sock missing at the end. And whether or not someone else finds that sock before I do is what will always make all the difference. But who knows, if I keep trying and don’t give up, maybe I might make a decent historian yet.

Re-reading the above, I should perhaps add that I’ve also had a cold all Easter weekend. The last hot toddy I made was possibly a little stronger than I realised – but what the heck, I’m still posting this piece regardless, duvet cover analogy and all – after all, no one reads blogs anymore anyway, do they? – #phdchat

Happy Spring Holiday everyone!


  1. I still read them. Especially intelligent blogs with substance like this one. I quit Facebook (after a month-long experiment), so I have more time on my hands than most. Sometimes I wonder if anyone is still reading books, although I do see a lot of people on airplanes clutching their Kindles. Since you brought up archaeology, I'd like to bring up an actual practice of diggers in the Levant. When somebody spots a corner or edge of anything interesting the director is called over to basically take credit for it, although after it is extracted and cleaned each digger takes a turn with the camera holding the object as if it had been their own personal discovery. I like to think this forms a suitable analogy with what often actually happens in academic types of studies. The smoke and mirrors are built into the system, and we put forward impressions of creativity and discovery we don't deserve, or don't much deserve. Well, back to the fish slapping game.

    1. Many thanks, Dan. That's very kind of you, and all the more heartening coming from a fellow blogger with a kindred interest in Tibet too. I like the story of archaeology in the Levant. It's a practice I can picture well enough too! In a sense anything found on a dig belongs to all the diggers, but digger's envy can be an acute thing. I was on another dig once where a digger said they couldn't understand why they couldn't keep the things they found for themself - not exactly a team player or a disinterested scientist-like attitude. That season (for the first time before or since) a number of finds and a few personal possessions (including my very own trowel) went missing. The Police were called, and we of course all had our suspicions, but nothing could ever be proved. Strangely though that person's application to join the dig again the next year was not successful.


Thanks for reading. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment.