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ORNAMENTALISM by David Cannadine


How the British Saw Their Empire


Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-19-514660-3
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

A fresh perspective on British history, in which Cannadine (The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain, 1999, etc.) argues against racial interpretations of colonialism and maintains that the British Empire was sustained by a universal respect for social class.

Recent decades have seen the rise of identity politics within the academy. One result of this phenomenon has been a growing tendency among historians to regard European imperialism as a conquest that was driven and held together by principles of racial superiority. Seen in this light, the “white man’s burden” was an ironic enterprise at best, insofar as it relied upon a false and utterly self-serving view of the inferior capabilities of the subject peoples (who, invariably, were nonwhite). Cannadine, however, argues that this interpretation is an oversimplification that ignores an essential reality of British attitudes toward the native populations. The prejudices that the Englishman bore against the Indian, African, or Asian were precisely the same that he held against his fellow countrymen—namely, that they formed a hierarchical society in which a few enlightened souls stood together at top against an ignorant and vicious rabble below. Thus, the colonial administrators always tried to rely as much as possible on the preexisting structures of authority (maharajas, native chieftains, etc.) in establishing the order of their rule—and the author points out how the native populations, more often than not, responded enthusiastically to attempts to strengthen their loyalty to the British crown (most notably through military service in bloody wars that usually addressed few issues of much concern to them). Ironically, Cannadine finds the most blatant acceptance of racism among the white settlers (the Boers and the Americans, primarily) who were the most dissatisfied with British rule.

A controversial work that is sure to spark debate—and a painstaking and temperate argument, written with a good command of the facts and a remarkable sense of proportion.