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May 09, 2006

Writing Empire: A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire 1660-1840 - (Ed.) Kathleen Wilson

Posted by Jeremy Black

A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire 1660-1840
edited by Kathleen Wilson
Pp. xv+385. Cambridge University Press, 2004
Hardback, 45; Paperback, 19.99

This is a modish prospectus and collection that rarely addresses the central issues of who fought, and paid, for empire, and why - nevertheless there is much here of interest.

A thoughtful introduction by Wilson argues that between 1660 and 1840 the taxonomic projects of ethnography, natural history, and global knowledge, as well as the ideology of the diffusion of civilization began both to fuel and to reflect British economic, political and territorial expansion. According to Wilson, in this rapidly-changing world, notions of national belonging were formulated and altered to suit new international and imperial circumstances and the question of national identity itself became particularly unsettling.

These and related arguments are explored in four sections: "Empire at home: difference, representation, experience"; "Promised Lands: Imperial aspirations and practice"; "Time, identity, and Atlantic interculture", and "Englishness, gender and the arts of discovery". This range allows for a great variety in individual contributions, encompassing for example England and the Holy Land in the plebeian millenarian culture, in which Eitan Bar-Yosef throws light on the changing boundaries of the geographical imagination in about 1800, and Nicholas Rogers on the reputation of Wolfe: during the War of American Revolution the heroic general was associated with the spectrum of political opinion.

Sudipta Sen's examination of the political economy of "responsible government" in late-eighteenth century India, notes:

the salience of a moral concern in political-economic affairs.
Assessing the exploration of Africa in the same period, Philip Stern focuses on the purposes of the African Association, and its success in defining the African interior as a project of state and as a subject of inquiry germane to gentlemen, commerce and empire alike.

The flavour of the collection may be grasped by Kate Tettscher's contribution on "Writing home and crossing cultures: George Bogle in Bengal and Tibet, 1770-1775", in which she argues that in the familiar letter it is possible to find fresh ways to construct colonial identity, assess the impact of empire on metropolitan culture, and understand the hybrid construction of Englishness itself:

in the imperial context, letters act much like colonial functionaries themselves: crossing cultural boundaries, disrupting fixed notions of national and personal identity.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The British Seaborne Empire (Yale University Press, 2004) and The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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