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The Imperial History Wars

  • Dane Kennedy

The key question posed by this essay is why historians' interest in Britain's imperial past has increased rather than diminished in recent decades. It argues that this interest has been sustained in part by a preoccupation with certain contemporary social and political issues, and differences of opinion about these issues have helped fuel the “imperial history wars.” The nature of the debate has differed for American- and British-based historians. For the former, British imperial history has served as an analogy for thinking about America's racial politics and its role as a global power. For the latter, it has served as a focal point for contending claims about Britain's past and deepening anxieties about its future. The essay concludes by urging historians to be more self-reflexive about their own practices and more rigorous in exposing presentist claims about the past.

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1 The list includes Linda Colley, James Epstein, Catherine Hall, Philippa Levine, Richard Price, and Martin Wiener. On the imperial turn, see Burton, Antoinette, ed., After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation (Durham, NC, 2003).

2 Recent examples include Howe, Stephen, “British Worlds, Settler Worlds, World Systems, and Killing Fields,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 40, no. 4 (2012): 691725; Ghosh, Durba, “Another Set of Imperial Turns?,” American Historical Review 117, no. 3 (2012): 772–93; and Ballantyne, Tony, “The Changing Shape of the Modern British Empire and Its Historiography,” Historical Journal 53, no. 2 (2010): 429–52.

3 For a model on how to address these interconnected issues with sensitivity and insight, see Eley, Geoff, A Crossed Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor, MI, 2005).

4 See Linenthal, Edward T. and Engelhardt, Tom, The History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York, 1996); Macintyre, Stuart and Clark, Anna, The History Wars (Melbourne, 2003); MacMillan, Margaret, “History Wars,” in Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (New York, 2009).

5 Fieldhouse, David, “Can Humpty-Dumpty Be Put Together Again? Imperial History in the 1980s,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 12, no. 2 (1984): 923; Winks, Robin W., “Problem Child of British History: The British Empire-Commonwealth,” in Recent Views on British History: Essays on Historical Writing Since 1966, ed. Schlatter, Richard (New Brunswick, NJ, 1984), 451–92; Buckner, Phillip, “Whatever Happened to the British Empire?,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association no. 4 (1993): 332.

6 These included the Beit Professor at Oxford, the Smuts Professor and Vere Harmsworth Professor at Cambridge, and the Rhodes Professor at Kings College London.

7 Gallagher, John and Robinson, Ronald, “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 6, no. 2 (1963): 115; Robinson, Ronald and Gallagher, John with Denny, Alice, Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism (London, 1961).

8 Cain, Peter and Hopkins, A. G., British Imperialism 1688–1990, 2 vols. (London, 1993).

9 For a recent assessment of Mackenzie and the “Studies in Imperialism” series, see Thompson, Andrew S., ed., Writing Imperial Histories (Manchester, 2013).

10 A point made about Africanists by Zimmerman, Andrew, “Africa in Imperial and Transnational History: Multi-Sited Historiography and the Necessity of Theory,” Journal of African History 54, no. 3 (2013): 331–40.

11 The latter point had already been made from a political economy perspective, especially by Hobsbawm, Eric in Industry and Empire (New York, 1968) and his great trilogy on nineteenth-century Europe, The Age of Revolution (New York, 1962), The Age of Capital (New York, 1975), and The Age of Empire (New York, 1987), but this approach gained remarkably little purchase in British imperial historiography. I am grateful to Richard Price for reminding me of this tradition.

12 Said, Edward W., Orientalism (New York, 1978).

13 My first foray into this subject was Imperial History and Post-Colonial Theory,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 24, no. 3 (1996): 345–63. I recently offered a reassessment, Postcolonialism and History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies, ed. Huggins, Graham (Oxford, 2013), 467–88.

14 Stoler, Ann Laura and Cooper, Frederick, “Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda,” in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, ed. Stoler, Ann Laura and Cooper, Frederick (Berkeley, CA, 1997), 1.

15 Mackenzie, John M., Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880–1960 (Manchester, 1984).

16 Pomeranz, Kenneth, “Histories for a Less National Age,” American Historical Review 119, no. 1 (2014): 13.

17 An example of a prominent new imperial historian who embraced world history is Burton, Antoinette, A Primer for Teaching World History: Ten Design Principles (Durham, 2012).

18 The report can currently be found on the North American Conference on British Studies' website,, accessed September 2014.

19 Louis, Wm. Roger, “Foreword,” The Oxford History of the British Empire, vols. 1–5 (Oxford, 1998–1999), vii.

20 For my own critique, see Kennedy, Dane, “The Boundaries of Oxford's Empire,” International History Review 23, no. 3 (2001): 604–22.

21 Louis, Wm. Roger, “Introduction,” in The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 5, Historiography, ed. Winks, Robin W. (Oxford, 1999), 142.

22 Levine, Philippa, ed., Gender and Empire (Oxford, 2004); Morgan, Philip D. and Hawkins, Sean, eds., Black Experience and the Empire (Oxford, 2004); Beinart, William and Hughes, Lotte, Environment and Empire (Oxford, 2007).

23 Darwin, John, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (New York, 2012), 12. Italics added.

24 Albright on the NBC Today show on 5 February 1998; Foreign Minister Hubert Verdrine in “To Paris, U.S. Looks Like a ‘Hyperpower,’” New York Times, 19 February 1999.

25 This paragraph draws on my essay, On the American Empire from a British Imperial Perspective,” International History Review 29, no. 1 (2007): 83108. For an early warning of the neocon agenda, see Thomas E. Ricks, “Empire or Not? A Quiet Debate over US Role,” Washington Post, 21 August 2001, A1, A13. The intellectual roots of neo-conservatism's embrace of empire are traced in Norton, Anne, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (New Haven, 2004).

26 Michael Ignatieff, “The Burden,” New York Times Magazine, 5 January 2003, 22–54. The liberal case for an American empire is dissected in Bacevich, Andrew J., American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA, 2002).

27 Calhoun, Craig, Cooper, Frederick, and Moore, Kevin W., eds., Lessons of Empire: Imperial Histories and American Power (New York, 2006).

28 Ferguson, Niall, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York, 2004).

29 Fleming, N. C., “Echoes of Britannia: Television History, Empire and the Critical Public Sphere,” Contemporary British History 24, no. 1 (2010): 9.

30 Ferguson, Niall, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (New York, 2005).

31 Buchanan, Patrick J., A Republic, Not an Empire (Washington, DC, 1999).

32 C. Preble, “‘Empire’—A Losing Political Issue,” The Hill, 20 April 2004,

33 Porter, Bernard, Empire and Superempire: Britain, America and the World (New Haven, CT, 2006).

34 Maier, Charles S., Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors (Cambridge, MA, 2006), 43.

35 Parsons, Timothy H., The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall (New York, 2010).

36 Kagan, Kimberly, ed., The Imperial Moment (Cambridge, MA, 2010). On Kagan's role in Afghanistan, see Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian Analysts Gained Petraeus's Ear While He Was Commander in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, 18 December 2012.

37 Go, Julian, Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present (Cambridge, 2011).

38 Crocker, H. W. III, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire (Washington DC, 2011), 3, 4, 78, 146.

39 H. W. Crocker III, “What America Could Learn From the British Empire: Frugality,” Washington Times, 27 October 2011.

40 Quotes come from the film 2016: Obama's America (2012). Also see D'Souza, Dinesh, The Roots of Obama's Rage (Washington, DC, 2011).

41 Quoted in Joan Walsh, “Mike Huckabee's Mau Mau Fantasies,” Salon, 2 March 2011,

42 Quoted in Richard Reeves, “That Mau Mau in the White House,” Real Clear Politics, 15 September 2010,

43 For a valuable overview, see de Groot, Joanna, Empire and History Writing in Britain c. 1750–2012 (Manchester, 2013).

44 Robert Cooper, “The New Liberal Imperialism,” Guardian, 7 April 2002.

45 See Naughtie, James, The Accidental American: Tony Blair and the Presidency (New York, 2004).

46 Quoted in Richard Gott, “Let's End the Myths of Britain's Imperial Past,” Guardian, 19 October 2011.

47 Benedict Brogan, “It's Time to Celebrate the Empire, Says Brown,” Daily Mail, 15 January 2005. Brown went on to say: “we should talk, and rightly so, about British values that are enduring… Our strong traditions of fair play, of openness, of internationalism, these are great British values.”

48 Andrew Gimson, “Conservative Party Conference 2011,” Telegraph, 5 October 2011; “British Empire Medal to Return says David Cameron,” BBC News, 28 October 2011,

49 “William Hague Says UK Must Shed ‘Guilt’ Over Empire,” BBC News, 31 August 2012,

50 Rory Baxter, “Pupils Should Be Proud of British Heroism,” PS Public Service.Co.UK, 23 April 2013; Laurie Penny, “Michael Gove and the Imperialists,” New Statesman, 1 June 2010.

51 Ferguson credited his sons with the inspiration for this idea, though he also acknowledged that his daughter showed less enthusiasm for video war games. See Jeevan Vasagar, “Niall Ferguson aims to shape up history curriculum with TV and war games,” Guardian, 9 July 2010.

52 Jeremy Paxman, “‘Our Empire Was an Amazing Thing,’” Telegraph, 16 February 2012.

53 Richard Eden, “Sir David Attenborough Battles Jeremy Paxman over the ‘Good’ British Empire,” Telegraph, 3 June 2012. In a rich irony, David Attenborough defended the 1973 BBC series “The British Empire” against critics who complained that it cast the empire in too negative a light: he was then the BBC's director of programming. See Fleming, “Echoes of Britannia,” 4.

54 Jeal, Tim, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer (New Haven, CT, 2007).

55 Tim Jeal, “Remembering Henry Stanley,” Telegraph, 16 March 2011.

56 Ibid.

57 Rama Lakshmi, “In India, Cameron Voices Regret for 1919 Massacre,” Washington Post, 21 February 2013, A10.

58 Newsinger, John, The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire (London, 2006).

59 Gott, Richard, Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt (London, 2011), 3.

60 Hunt, Tristram, Ten Cities That Made an Empire (London, 2014); Kwarteng, Kwasi, Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World (New York, 2011), 2, 8. The journalist and historian Pankaj Mishra also recently launched a high-profile salvo against Ferguson, calling him an “evangelist-cum-historian of empire” and comparing him to the early twentieth-century American racial theorist Lothrop Stoddard in an incendiary review in the London Review of Books 33, no. 21 (2011), 1112. Ferguson threatened to sue Mishra for defamation. See Peter Beaumont, “Niall Ferguson Threatens to Sue over Accusation of Racism,” Guardian, November 26, 2011. Mishra has also recently published a study of Asian critics of empire, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (New York, 2012).

61 See, for example, Mehta, Uday Singh, Liberalism and Empire: A Study of Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago, 1999); Pitts, Jennifer, Turn to Empire: The Rise of Liberal Imperialism in Britain and France (Princeton, NJ, 2005); Mantena, Karuna, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton, NJ, 2010); and Koditschek, Theodore, Liberalism, Imperialism, and the Historical Imagination: Nineteenth-Century Visions of a Greater Britain (Cambridge, 2011).

62 Lawrence James, “Yes, Mistakes Were Made, But We Must Never Stop Being Proud of the Empire,” Mail Online, 18 April 2012. Also see Jane Warren, “Why Should We Apologise for the Empire?,” Express, 12 May 2012, and John Allen, “To Talk about British Atrocities in Kenya During the Mau Mau Era is Nonsense,” Guardian, 9 May 2012,

63 Elkins, Caroline, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya (New York, 2005); Anderson, David, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (New York, 2005).

64 For commentaries on the case from each of the three historical experts, see David M. Anderson, “Mau Mau in the High Court and the ‘Lost’ British Empire Archives: Colonial Conspiracy or Bureaucratic Bungle?”; Caroline Elkins, “Alchemy of Evidence: Mau Mau, the British Empire, and the High Court of Justice”; and Bennett, Hew, “Soldiers in the Court Room: The British Army's Part in the Kenya Emergency under the Legal Spotlight,” all published in Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39, no. 5 (2011): 699748.

65 David M. Anderson, “Atoning for the Sins of Empire,” New York Times, 13 June 2013; Caroline Elkins, “Britain Has Said Sorry to the Mau Mau. The Rest of the Empire is Still Waiting,” Guardian, 6 June 2013.

66 Robert D. Kaplan, “In Defense of Empire,” The Atlantic, April 2014,

67 Colin Freeman, “Britain May Have Invaded 90 Per Cent of the World, But We're Not Hated Everywhere,” Telegraph, 8 November 2012. The article was a commentary on Laycock, Stuart, All the Countries We've Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To (London, 2012).

68 Davies, Norman, The Isles (New York, 2001), 1053.

69 Wiener, Martin J., “The Idea of ‘Colonial Legacy’ and the Historiography of Empire,” Journal of the Historical Society 13, no. 1 (2013): 32. For someone who once famously argued that British industrial decline in the late twentieth century was attributable to the embrace of gentlemanly values by the middle class a century earlier, Weiner's insistence that the adverse effects of British imperial rule has passed its sell-by date for the Indians, Africans, and other former colonial peoples who gained their independence some fifty years ago seems curiously inconsistent with his earlier views on the past's power to shape the present. See Wiener, Martin J., English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850–1980 (Cambridge, 1982).

70 Darwin, Unfinished Empire, xii, xiii. Also see his The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System 1830–1970 (Cambridge, 2009). Taken together, Darwin devotes nearly 1,300 pages to this ramshackle empire in these two books.

71 This is the subject of a forthcoming book edited by Antoinette Burton and me, titled How Empire Shaped Us (Bloomsbury), with contributions from a wide array of British imperial historians.

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