Jack P. Greene. Evaluating Empire and Confronting Colonialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 403 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-03055-8; $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-107-68298-6.
Reviewed by Jordan Fansler (University of New Hampshire)
Published on H-War (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Jack P. Greene’s latest work is a study of the concerns over empire raised in Britain during the latter third of the eighteenth century. He traces how metropolitan discourse on empire (the work deals solely with reflections of metropolitan Britons on their empire to the exclusion of colonial voices) changed to include more criticism of the empire and colonialism. From the outset, Greene acknowledges that his use of “colonialism” is anachronistic. The term carries modern connotations that include various forms of violence against indigenous peoples under the empires, which were not part of eighteenth-century definitions, but this incongruence is fully intended. Despite not sharing those modern sentiments, Greene emphasizes that some eighteenth-century Britons were ambivalent and raised questions about the morality and costs of empire. It is an ongoing theme of the work that though these questions were being raised in various public forums, this did not necessarily translate into widespread acceptance or influence over imperial policy.
Greene describes how, prior to the Seven Years’ War, discourse on empire was dominated by the “language of commerce” and wealth. Concerns with activities outside the metropole were routinely blamed on the “alterity,” or otherness, of colonials and creoles who were not to be considered truly British. This left Britons free to continue to claim the highest civilizing morality for themselves and insulated them from blame for misconduct in the empire, while reaping its economic benefits.
The Great War for Empire, however, brought about great changes in the empire, the way it was administered, and the way it was discussed. With the French no longer a valid rival for dominance, a new language of “imperial grandeur” became possible, as well as a new level of hands-on metropolitan administration. This increased active administration by true Britons, meant imperial embarrassments were no longer excusable as perpetrated by un-British “others,” while the lack of a threat to British dominion gave political observers the space and even the duty to question imperial activities.
Greene argues that empire had become a source of pride in and of itself, rather than simply a source of wealth, and this necessitated a critical eye. The language of imperial grandeur was used by those interested in demanding obedience from rebellious colonies or native groups, but opponents called on languages of liberty, justice, and humanity to persuade their fellow Britons to recognize imperial wrongs. The critiques extended to the treatment of Indians by East India Company and imperial officials, to the heavy-handed actions against American colonists, to atrocities against Africans on both sides of the Atlantic, and to the systematic discrimination and oppression in Ireland (Greene notes that the critiques only rarely included the treatment of Native Americans, p. 347). Despite the breadth of their commentary, these critics accomplished little actual change in the empire beyond simply raising awareness of the issues.
Each of the eight chapters is organized around a specific set of “languages” which was used to frame the discussions of certain topics, in roughly chronological order. Chapter 1, for instance, looks at the end of the Seven Years’ War and how languages of “commerce, liberty, security, and maritime supremacy” served as the medium for understanding the empire’s benefits in an economic context. Chapters 3 and 6 explore how the language of “imperial grandeur” emphasized the international prestige provided by an extensive empire, while drawing greater scrutiny to its actions. Chapters 4 through 7 focus on commentators’ use of some combination of the languages of liberty, humanity, and justice, among others, to counteract the economic and prestige arguments, in condemning imperial policy toward Asians, Africans and slaves, Americans, and the Irish, respectively. This organization around languages works well to highlight the terms of debate, but tends to run some of the similar languages used to confront different imperial problems together.
Evaluating Empire does very well to suggest how social and political criticism can be engendered by military triumph or defeat. According to Greene, it was the security and confidence provided by the Treaty of Paris that created the conditions for dissent and critique. In this way, rather than turmoil engendering frustration and criticism, victory led to reflection and calls for improvement. Greene also shows, however, how military defeat could drive the criticism as a function of searching for reasons behind the unfavorable outcomes, as occurred during the American War for Independence. These lessons extend beyond the first British Empire and speak more broadly to the relationship between war, society, and dissent.
By Greene’s own admission, the work is primarily an exposition of the instances of these concerns he has found over a decade of considering the topic. The book stands as an excellent resource for those exploring contemporary debates on empire and opposition policies. Greene’s conclusions, and the trends in the languages of dissent and colonialism he describes, are enlightening. Without in-depth analysis of the trends’ intersection with intellectual movements or reform or domestic agenda, the book tends toward an index of public discourse. The work therefore stands as the beginning of discussion in several senses. For its topic, Evaluating Empire focuses on early instances of critiques against empire which were unsuccessful but can be drawn as precursors to subsequent reform movements and scholarly interpretations. In leaving several avenues unexplored, Greene’s work also suggests further opportunities for exploration of these overlooked “languages” and their speakers, opening possibilities for others to branch out and find their roots, successors, partisan connections, or myriad other contexts in which to place them.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Jordan Fansler. Review of Greene, Jack P., Evaluating Empire and Confronting Colonialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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