Parsons, Timothy H. The British Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A World
History Perspective (Rowman and Littlefield, New York and Oxford, 1999).
154 pp, $16.95.
The last few years have seen a renewed interest in the British Empire. Popular
books and television programs by Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama have been
joined by a wide variety of scholarly monographs that have highlighted the
impact of the Empire on both Britain and the world. Discussions of a United
States Empire, and historical examinations of the roots of modern conflicts
in the Middle East, India and Ireland, have added to the interest in the
British Empire. The subject has, however, engendered controversy. Critics
point out that racism, the subjugation of indigenous peoples, and slavery
were at the center of the imperial enterprise while others suggest that,
on balance, British rule was beneficial as it led to the spread of trade,
technology and democratic institutions.
In this short, well-written, introduction
to the British Empire from the early nineteenth century to the beginning
of World War I, Timothy Parsons, a professor of history at Washington University
in St. Louis and a specialist in African colonial history, examines the
imperial experience from a global perspective. The British Imperial Century
concentrates less on the causes of imperialism than on how the indigenous
peoples influenced Britain and helped them to maintain their rule in the
colonies. He focuses on India, Africa, China and the Ottoman Empire during
the period which saw the largest expansion of the Empire as Britain gained
new colonies and consolidated its control over its informal empire. The
book is a useful guide to undergraduate students but not one that would
generally interest serious scholars of the field.
The bulk of the book chronicles the expansion of
the British Empire and the role indigenous people played in shaping British
rule. Parsons argues that Britain extended its empire because of domestic
economic changes, regional tensions, and competition from European rivals
in the late nineteenth century. British rule depended on a degree of local
support, and their control of territories was never total. In India, the
vastly outnumbered British had to grant the indigenous people a role in
government and allow the population to continue their traditional way of
life. This system of indirect rule was exported from India to Africa in
the late nineteenth century where African interpreters, civil servants,
and commercial agents acted as intermediaries between the Africans and the
British. Indians and Africans maintained their pre-colonial institutions
and religious practices or adapted them to meet new circumstances. Many
also used the economic, educational and political opportunities of colonial
rule to advance their own agendas.
In contrast to experiences in India and Africa,
Parsons suggests that the Chinese and Ottoman Empires retained a degree
of sovereignty by resisting formal British colonization. The greater social
cohesion and economic vitality of the Chinese and Ottoman Empires meant
fewer of their subjects had the inclination to cooperate with the British.
With no local partners to help them subjugate the people, the British relied
on informal influence to protect their interests. British merchants had
to be content with the trading posts in China from which the Chinese government
gained substantial financial tariffs. In the Ottoman Empire, the British
established tax-exempt commercial enclaves.
Parsons makes clear that British and indigenous
people influenced one another. The British presence caused environmental
and biological changes including the diffusion of infectious diseases that
proved fatal to indigenous people and severely disrupted their societies.
The British Empire provided an extension of global trade, and the diffusion
of the English language as well as Christianity. Subject peoples did not
simply adopt British cultural patterns but adapted them and merged them
with their own cultures. The British also adopted cultural practices from
their colonies and transferred them from one part of the empire to other
parts. Parsons further claims that many British administrators adopted cuisine,
dress and religion from the colonial peoples and continued to practice them
when they returned home. Moreover, some subject people worked and studied
in Britain and further influenced the popular culture of Britain over the
course of the imperial century. The British adopted new products like tea
and sugar, hundred of English words had Indian origins, and the art, literature
and music of Britain betrayed colonial influences.
The brevity of the book has led to a few
shortcomings. Although Parsons engages some of the main historiographical
debates surrounding the British imperial enterprise, he does not provide
footnotes, name historians, or tackle historical arguments in any depth.
Therefore the book will appeal less to academics and graduate students and
more to undergraduates and general readers. Furthermore, and disappointingly,
the book is not richly illustrated and only includes six black and white
maps and no photos or cartoons from nineteenth-century publications to illustrate
some of Parsons' claims of cultural diffusion.
|The book could have benefited from a concluding
section on contemporary Britain to support Parsons' assertion of the cultural
impact of the colonies on Britain. Surely the greatest influence these Asian
and African countries has had on Britain was not in the nineteenth century
but in the post World War II era. British cities have been transformed by
the Indian curry houses, Muslim mosques, and African influenced music that
immigrants from former colonies brought to Britain. Moreover, a major example
of the cultural exchange between Britain and its colonies, sport, is never
mentioned by Parsons. The British gave the world team games such as football
(soccer), cricket, and rugby, but these sports in Britain and abroad are
now becoming increasingly dominated by the former colonies and the ancestors
of the colonial immigrants.
|The British Imperial Century will prove
useful to teachers of world history. Parsons synthesizes a vast array of
literature on the British Empire that will help overworked instructors.
He adds a "further reading" section at the end of each chapter for those
interested in additional research. Most usefully, Parsons neither ignores
the oppressive nature of British rule nor downplays the significance of
expanding global trade, technology and education in his narrative. Instead,
Parsons restores the agency of non Western peoples and shows how they influenced
the development of the British Empire. The emphasis Parsons places on the
transmission of cultural practices and economic goods between different
peoples is particularly useful for world history classes. Overall, this
book is highly recommended for classroom use.
John F. Lyons
Joliet Junior College