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Book Review

 

Samson, Jane. Race and Empire. (London: Longman, 2004). 192 pp, $20.00.
 

     In recent years, there has been a proliferation in the scholarship of the history of empires. While much of this academic literature is too specialized to be used in undergraduate or high school classes, some useful books have been published that can serve as teaching tools in such venues. Among those monographs, however, few explore the connections between imperialism and racism especially in world historical perspective. This is curious given the crucial impact that these two phenomena have played throughout world history.

     Jane Samson's Race and Empire seeks to address this gap in the literature. The book traces the history of western empire from the late fifteenth century to the present. Like several other works in the Longman Series in Seminar Studies in History, Race and Empire is a suitable background text for an upper level undergraduate class. It would be a helpful text for instructors who are looking for materials in courses that deal with such themes as imperialism and racism. The book could be used as a reading in a global history class or as a supplementary reading in a world history college survey. Furthermore, Samson's monograph could be valuable background reading for world history teachers who want to brush up on their history of western empire and/or for those who want to get some suggestions for interesting comparative themes to incorporate into their world history teaching. Like other studies in the Longman series, Race and Empire provides a selection of primary documents that are useful teaching tools. These excerpts help to underscore the themes raised by the monograph and can serve as a basis for discussion. The book also provides a chronology, several maps, a list of short biographies of historical players, and a bibliographic essay for further reading suggestions. These resources are useful to students and teachers.

     Samson argues that "people make race," (3) and maintains that the argument about whether "racism" or "imperialism" came first is "fruitless." Instead, she sees the "relationship" as "symbiotic."(5) She explains that, "[T]he purpose of this book will be to explain and contextualize different theories of race and empire and the choices people make in order to favour some theories over others."(4) Samson discusses the historical disputes of race and empire and introduces debates among historians on these issues ╬ all this in a precise, succinct, and clear manner.

     Race and Empire is a comparative study, though as so many comparative studies, it is not comparative throughout. In the analytical section of her book (chapters two to five), Samson briefly introduces her themes and then focuses her discussions on specific empires. An inclusion of the United States, a country often neglected in discussions about empire, is especially valuable. The book tends to slightly favor the English-speaking world as Samson is an expert o the British Empire but also because Britain held supremacy as an imperial power for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Still, Samson genuinely attempts to strike a balance between western and some non-western powers. Along with discussions of British and American efforts of empire building, she discusses Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, French, German, Dutch, and Italian endeavors of constructing and rationalizing empire and race.

     Samson's analysis of the connections of race and empire is divided into four thematic chapters. The first chapter in this section deals with early modern empires in the new world. Her analysis traces the western theological debates about race and empire back to the medieval world as well as the colonization of and slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Instructors and their students can also use the documents in the back of the book dealing with the arrival of African slaves in Europe as well as the excerpts by Spanish intellectuals on Indian rights to deepen their understanding of race and empire in this period. The next chapters deal with what Samson calls the "Modern Empires," "Settlement and Consolidation, 1820-1880," and the "Age of ÔScientific Racism,' 1880-1950." In these chapters, she closely examines the development of western thought on empire and race for over three centuries. Excerpts from the writings of some of the intellectuals discussed in these chapters can be found in the document sections and should provide ample material for class room discussion which should aid students in further understanding the issues raised in Samson's analysis. 

     Some readers will be disappointed that Race and Empire focuses predominantly on how Westerners rationalized race and empire. This is a central omission for a book, which according to Samson, is a "comparative study of imperial race relations." (XII) Throughout the book non-western peoples and their interaction with the impositions of imperialism and racism are only mentioned in passing. An elaboration on how imperialism and racism impacted non-western peoples would have added a useful perspective. Readers are also left to wonder whether non-western peoples played a role in the formation of empire and race. Another question that emerges from the book is whether the diverse interactions between western and non-western people helped in the creations of varying systems of empire and racial order. Because a non-western or indigenous perspective on empire and race is missing from this book, instructors who use Race and Empire will need to find alternative materials to bring these perspectives to their classes.

 

 

Christoph Strobel
University of Massachusetts, Lowell

 

 
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