On the 2 September, 2016, ‘Snapshots of Empire’ hosted its first workshop. Thirty delegates gathered to discuss themes connected directly to imperial governmentality, including: imperial administration and governance, the infrastructures of communication and connection across empires, relationships between bureaucracies in London and colonial relations in different sites of the British Empire, and governing mobility across empires.
After an introduction to our work in progress from each member of the Snapshots project team, the workshop featured thoughtful responses from Dan Clayton, John Darwin, Catherine Hall, and Clare Anderson regarding changing imperial historiographies and the responsibilities of the researcher. These talks called us to question how we, as historians of empire, approach our materials and accommodate other studies.
Clare Anderson: Penal transportation and shifting the perspective of empire
First to speak was Clare Anderson, who raised interesting questions that asked how we can better understand the diversity of the empire and the mobility of its people. She proposed penal transportation – which constitutes the primary focus of her ‘Carceral Archipelago’ project – as an interesting avenue for understanding moments of meeting between Empires, and thinking beyond coincidences and how events occurred similarly in different places. ‘Carceral Archipelago’ takes a different approach to addressing a similar question to that of ‘Snapshots of Empire’: How were people meeting and exchanging ideas? And what did this mean for the development of governance?
Most importantly, Anderson’s project highlights how the convicts caught up in these systems experienced inter-Imperialisms and the other processes of empire. Anderson emphasised the importance of remembering the individual when discussing the history of empire, which is a point that Catherine Hall likewise took up later during the workshop. Clare’s reflections on our ‘sister projects’ can be found here, on the ‘Carceral Archipelago’ blog.
Dan Clayton: Geographies of Empire
Dan Clayton brought interdisciplinarity to the event, reminding us of the many valid methodological approaches for the historical study of empire. It is easy as scholars of empire to pigeon-hole ourselves within our own disciplines, forgetting alternative methods that might be useful. At Snapshots we are, ourselves, an interdisciplinary team. However, Clayton reminded us of the many kinds of geography that should be incorporated into a comprehensive study of imperial networks. He raised five particular themes for consideration:
- Physical Geographies – It is important to write conceptually about the connection between geography and empire. Aside from the flows of people, ideas, commodities, organisms and objects constituting the spatiality of empire, about which much has been written, there are many physical geographies inherent in empire and it is important to think about place; how places were mapped and visualized. Mapping, coastal surveying, and other forms of place-making all had their own particular histories.
- Trust – What happens when trust is threatened? How do you repair it? What happens when trust breaks down? Through a consideration of trust, troubled or fragile relations between the India Office and the Colonial Office, between London and the colonies, and between the colonies themselves can all be elucidated.
- Scale and Specificity – Scale is a particular focus of our work at Snapshots, as we try to get rid of a top-down perspective of imperial governmentality by looking at connections. However, Clayton raises the question whether sometimes in studies of global empire the specificities can be lost. It is important to consider the peculiarities of the offices of empire, politics and culture in the metropole, the influence of non-elites, issues of violence and race, and many other important issues. This raises the troubling question, how a historian can balance a broad approach, such as that adopted by Snapshots, while still acknowledging the important specificities.
- Imagining the Future – How can we construct a new narrative of the past that imagines the future. Is the 1838 snapshot, with its emphasis on Emancipation, about the dream of freedom? How does an imagining of the future impact the present? An understanding of the future must bring the past with it.
- Meaning – Where does meaning congeal? We must look for ‘subaltern gestures’ even in a government-focused project, such as that being conducted at Snapshots of Empire. Is there a place where the meaning lies? Can we think that meaning congeals in any one place? If not, then what does it mean? Can meaning stretch transnationally?
John Darwin: The ‘Official Mind’?
Traditionally, John Darwin tells us, historians of empire have fallen into two categories: those who prefer to write about a particular colony or region, and those who try to write about it as a whole. Darwin acknowledges Clayton’s point about the importance of specificity, but notes that many studies in recent decades have neglected to consider the influence of constitutionality and the governing laws of the British Empire.
There is a long-standing claim that the way in which the British Empire was governed was closely related to the views of, and the imaginations of, officials: the ‘official mind.’ Studies of the official mind emphasise the presence of a ‘special historiography’ generated between officials and clerks, and argue that the centrality of India in terms of determining Britain’s understanding of Empire was so strong that it tended to determine how things were done elsewhere in the world.
Darwin acknowledges that there is some merit in this notion that there was a set of generalised ideas as to how the colonies should be managed, but highlights a contradiction: On the one hand, this theory proposes a set of generalised rules, but neglects to consider the specified ways in which places were conceived. ‘All one has to do,’ Darwin comments, ‘is look at the continuity (or lack thereof) of colonial policy to question the imposition of an imperial mind.’ He looks at Snapshots of Empire as throwing down a challenge to the ‘official mind’ school of thought, asking ‘does the official mind theory really work?’
To effectively dissect the ‘official mind’ theory one must consider the many and varied conditions of imperial governance. First, historians must be aware of environmental pressures, from Parliament, the colonial press, and domestic press and politics. Secondly, one must consider the problems of imperial governance and that what worked in theory was not always effective in practice. For example, how cooperative were the colonial governors? If that was the Colonial Office’s only source of information, how reliable was it when governors were often selective with what they chose to send back? Thirdly, historians must consider the bureaucratic culture, and any changes that might have occurred. How might changes to the bureaucratic chain affect how information was processed?
Catherine Hall: Finding the Individual
Catherine Hall brought three key points to bear upon the workshop, all of which are of immense importance. While the first two relate to how we view our material, the second addresses how we view our own work within the wider community of historical research.
First, Hall built upon Anderson’s comments, regarding the importance of the individual. Even when conducting broad, sweeping studies that focus upon processes rather than people, the individual is still important. Whether that is the clerk sitting in the Colonial Office, who sorts incoming correspondence, or the colonial Governor who decides what information to send home to London and what to keep back, or the British slave-owner arguing against Emancipation, or the convict being transported from England to the Australian Penal Colonies. In a project such as that being attempted here at Snapshots, where the focus is so broad, it is easy to forget the individual perspective. However, as Hall notes, remembering the individual can be crucial to understanding the reality of how policies came into effect and were enacted on the ground.
The second similarly emphasises the human element, as Hall directs our attention to the importance of race. An understanding of how difference was constructed across empire is crucial. Racialisation, she argues, was absolutely key to the history of the British Empire, while slavery played an important role in the foundational notions of race in Britain. Race, as a constructed category based in culture or society, shaped every other aspect of empire.
The third point Hall made was the importance of viewing our work, as scholars of empire, as but one piece within a large elaborate jigsaw puzzle. Our work does not necessarily negate others; but rather, our work should be considered in relation to other studies. By elaborating questions and putting all the pieces together, connecting our work to others, together we can build something different.
What can we conclude?
Together, these four talks made a lot of important points and raised many more questions. First, clearly, is the importance of remembering specifics and to, when possible, incorporate human elements. When conducting large-scale, global, projects, it can be difficult also to remember to scale down. However, by attempting to do so, even with sometimes limited means, can reveal greater depth and meaning. Likewise, however, it is also important to not get too lost in the specificities and to remember the spatial, political and social context.
Secondly, the point clearly raised by all these topics is that the study of empire is an enormous undertaking, and one that cannot be tackled by a single scholar, practicing a single methodology. It is important to think interdisciplinarily, incorporating foreign-seeming methodologies; by getting trapped within disciplinary boundaries we only limit ourselves. This, however, leads to a perhaps even more crucial point: when thinking about empire, cooperation and collaboration with other scholars is key. It is impossible to do it all alone. When one situates one’s own work within the wider field, thinking laterally, openly and generously, and not competitively, we create a bigger and better, and deeper, picture than would otherwise be possible. Such thinking likewise makes interdisciplinary work possible, incorporating input from different scholars.
Here at Snapshots of Empire we are attempting to tackle an enormous subject within a very limited period of time. However, we hope that at the end of this fifteen months we will have something of value to contribute to the historiographical ‘jigsaw puzzle.’
We would like to thank all of our wonderful panelists. A big thank you also to everyone that attended and contributed to some very thought-provoking discussions.