Martin Farr, Xavier Guégan, eds. The British Abroad since the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 2: Experiencing Imperialism. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 280 pp. $100.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-30417-9.
Reviewed by Marjory Harper (The Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, The University of Aberdeen)
Published on H-Albion (July, 2014)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)
Tourism and imperialism were integral to the multilayered experiences of the British abroad, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is the second volume of a two-part study of British travel and travelers which seeks to analyze the manifestations and repercussions of Britishness in an imperial and postimperial context. Most of the twelve chapters in this volume, like those in its sister publication, have been selected from papers initially presented at a conference, and the double-barrelled output is part of the British Scholar Society’s Britain and the World series.
Generating a coherent thematic publication from a set of conference papers can be the scholar’s version of herding cats, but the editors have successfully identified four broad headings under which to group the selected contributions. Part 1, “Establishing the Empire,” is concerned not with territorial acquisition per se but with the way in which intellectual, theological, and anthropological issues affected those physical developments. Part 2, “Experiencing the Empire,” focuses on individuals’ perceptions in an age of imperial expansion, with reference to gender issues, stereotypes, and “constructed fantasies.” The third section, “Experiencing Other Empires,” adopts various methodological lenses to view British travelers’ perceptions of other empires in parts of South America and North Africa, while part 4, “Experiencing a Post-colonial World,” considers how the passing of empire--particularly the British empire--involved the construction of new strategies and vocabularies of remembering.
Much of the opening contextual chapter is couched in opaque, inaccessible prose, but readers who survive an off-putting introduction are rewarded with an eclectic, perceptive, and innovative set of studies. The purported interdisciplinarity is limited, since ten of the fourteen contributors are historians, while the others are literature specialists, but that slightly overstated claim does not detract from the quality of either the book’s structure or contents. There are three contributors to each of the four sections. In part 1, Matthew Day demonstrates how eighteenth-century governments used travel collections from the previous two centuries as diplomatic tools which allowed them to acquire information about colonial territories and to negotiate rights of possession with rival nations, an activity that sometimes required inventive reading and the creative adaptation of evidence. Michael Talbot argues that British foreign and ecclesiastical policy in Palestine in the nineteenth century was significantly affected by the writings of travelers and missionaries whose images of a cursed and desolate land invoked apocalyptic biblical prophecies and triggered the Restorationist movement for the return of the Jews to Palestine as a necessary precursor of the Second Coming. The consequences were far-reaching, including, ultimately, a mass Jewish return to the Holy Land under British protection. Henrika Kuklick’s study of early twentieth-century Khartoum completes the opening section. It explores how the British regime in Sudan “cultivated the production of colonial ideology,” capitalizing on propaganda opportunities such as royal visits in order to portray Khartoum--with its planned architecture and internationally renowned public health programs--as a safe haven for tourists in the midst of a chronically insecure territory (p. 7).
In turning to the imperial experience, Jane McDermid uses the voyage journal of Elizabeth Macquarie during and after her seven-month journey to Sydney as a prism through which to view and interpret her views about empire and her own preparation for taking up the role of a colonial governor’s wife. Embarking with her well-traveled husband on her first trip beyond Britain’s shores, Macquarie recorded impressions that blend her strong convictions about the superiority of the British empire with a desire to learn from the places and people she visited, and an awareness of threats to British imperial power. Xavier Guégan’s contribution draws on travel writing in India and the Ottoman Empire to consider how the “modernizing” travel novels and visual images of the Victorian era created both stereotypical depictions of civilizations trapped in their past and--through the writings of female travelers--a new discourse that challenged traditional male views. The section is rounded off with John MacKenzie’s incisive evaluation of travel guides, in which he demonstrates the contribution of that neglected source to the various fantasies through which the British empire sought to justify its existence. Avoiding the Eurocentric bias of the Grand Tour, he introduces the reader both to “the classics of the imperial genre” (by John Murray, Thomas Cook, and Karl Baedecker) and to the publications of shipping lines. The persistence of an imperial mind-set reflected in the longevity of many of these guides meant that, even in the decolonizing decades of the 1950s and 1960s, travelers were still absorbing the sentiments that had characterised the Victorian era.
In addressing the experiences of British travelers in other colonial empires, Kerry Sinanan considers John Stedman’s journal of a late eighteenth-century sojourn in Suriname; David Rock looks at Anglo-French intervention in the Rio de la Plata in 1845; and John Fisher explores the challenges of official travel in Morocco between 1845 and 1935. Stedman, who was hired by the Dutch to help quell Maroon uprisings in Suriname, fell out with his publisher over the heavily edited version of the journal which was published in 1796: writing to his wife, he complained that “my book was printed full of lies and nonsense, without my knowledge” (p. 137). Sinanan’s chapter considers the original unpublished version, which reflects his quest “not just to inform, but to reform” (p. 151). It offers a complex representation of his experience of empire, which embraces a range of perspectives, including abolitionist sentiment and proslavery political economy. The five-year Anglo-French blockade of the Argentine Confederation on the Rio de la Plata has been denounced by nationalist writers in Argentina, who focus on the action as a stage in the development of national identity. It was a rare exception to Britain’s avoidance of the use of force in Latin America, and its ultimate failure reinforced the preference for an informal empire exercised through a combination of free trade and local sovereignty. Particularly intriguing in David Rock’s chapter is the contrasting attitudes of local Anglophones, represented by the author William Henry Hudson, and Jane Robson, who had been brought up in the turbulent environment of the Scottish agricultural settlement of Monte Grande. Official travel to Morocco increased significantly in the late nineteenth century as a result of comfortable and regular steamship transport, as well as the 1856 Treaty which allowed the appointment of British consuls in interior towns as well as on the coast, and allowed British subjects to travel or live in any part of the sultan’s dominions. John Fisher analyzes official perceptions of Morocco, with reference to the lingering image of a timeless, fairy-tale land, the prevailing political disorder, and the juxtaposition of East and West in and around Tangier.
Travelers to Iraq also had to reconcile images taken from The Arabian Nights with much darker impressions and experiences. To Freya Stark, part of Baghdad’s resident British community in 1937, the city was a “dingy hybrid between East and West”, and James Canton’s very topical chapter explores changes in British perceptions of Arabia between the 1930s, when Britain’s influence in the Middle East was strongest, through the period of gradual withdrawal in the 1950s and 1960s, on to the present day. The penultimate chapter, by Anna Bocking-Welch, moves to Africa, taking the output of an amateur writer and photographer, Charles Chislett, to discuss the ambivalent and sometimes contradictory themes of nostalgia, decline, amnesia, optimism, and paternalism reflected in his observations and ciné films recorded during the era of decolonization. Finally, Marc Alexander and Andrew Struan use the recently published Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (2009) as a tool to chart changing conceptions of “incivility” among British travelers to those they encountered through imperial expansion and travel. Quoting Arnold Toynbee’s observation that “civilisation is a movement, not a condition,” they identify five distinct phases in which Britons have conceptualized what it means to be “uncivilized,” noting the effects of exploration and travel on their understanding of the relationship between the citizen and the state (p. 245).
Imperialism is, according to historian Barbara Bush, “a complex and messy concept that defies historiographical compartmentalisation and will continue to generate historical debate.” This collection successfully demonstrates the complexities while simultaneously achieving coherence out of the messiness. The editors and contributors are to be congratulated for assembling a varied and nutritious menu which feeds our understanding of the British experience of its own, and other empires, and will doubtless contribute to ongoing research and debate.
. Barbara Bush, review of The New Imperial Histories Reader, ed. Stephen Howe (London: Routledge 2009), in Reviews in History (November 2010), www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/989, accessed July 21, 2014.
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Marjory Harper. Review of Farr, Martin; Guégan, Xavier, eds., The British Abroad since the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 2: Experiencing Imperialism.
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