Is Bernard Porter the Ultimate “Imperial Britain-bashing” Party pooper?

A paper-length book review of Bernard Porter’s The Absent Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Will the “real imperialists” please stand up?


Has the Victorian imperial legacy finally caught up with imperial British historiography especially that written by British historians? Has this body of literature finally ruptured to reflect the highly complex and divided nature of its subject, imperial British society (of the 19th century)?



So wrote the Preacher, “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.”

-Song of Solomon 2:15.

Bernard Porter’s book is most illuminating especially if read as a caution to the new imperial history school’s proclivity towards making the generalization that imperialism suffused British society.  He makes a well-evidenced argument to the contrary. That is, Britons were either ignorant of the empire, indifferent or were just not interested in the whole affair. This is opposed to what historians, and a few culturalists, such as Edward Said, Catherine Hall, Jeffrey Richards, John Mackenzie, Antoinette Burton, Thomas Metcalf and Dane Kennedy have argued. That is, as mentioned, that imperialism was everywhere thoroughly pervasive in British society. He is able to make this argument because of the narrow and selective manner which he chooses to define the term “imperialism.”[1]

For him, “imperialism” should not include, as interpreted by the people he wishes to caution or correct (if not out-rightly dismiss) proselytism, foreign trade, overseas travel and or other aspects, which he sees bizarre candidates such as masculinism, zoo-keeping or museology, militarism or England’s social mission. As such, Porter is opposed to such loose applications of the term as applied by his chosen theoretical antagonists. In spite of this, however, his own use of the term is elusive seeing as he does not adhere to any particular definition. Instead, he meanders in his usage saying that there is a multiplicity of applications.[2]

Porter argues that since British society was a complex and divided society, and the empire vast and geographically removed (remote), there was no single way of experiencing it. He attributes the phenomenon to only a small group of zealots who were the clearly only actively committed imperialists. As such, he observes, there was no widespread imperial mentality rife in British society in the 19th [3] and 20th centuries. The imperial enterprise according to Porter, therefore, was designed, championed and benefited the small group of people who were more often than not from the British professional middle class and a few bourgeoisie and their collaborators in the dependencies and colonies.[4] Other British people such as Porters own family among others who were either middle-class or from the proletariat were ignorant of the whole phenomenon. In making this argument, Porter uses a great deal of evidence drawn from magazines, novels, school textbooks, parliamentary debates, and works of art such as sculptures and paintings among other sources that are, for him, the repositories of what the British really thought about empire.

This then is the methodology that he uses to make the plausible arguments about the extent to which British society was involved in empire, and importantly, to what extent the greater part of the population were aware of it as well as its impact on them. Building his argument from the imperial experience of his own middle-class family, Porter says that like most others, none of his relatives migrated to the colonies, served in the armed forces, had recollections of empire or involved in missionary work abroad. At any rate, he notes, if anything some of the British classes were equally victims of the imperial project as were colonial subjects perhaps because of the fiscal exertions that they were made to bear by the metropolitan government. With an almost imperceptible righteous indignation, Porter repudiates the categorization or condemnation of whole nations as one thing or another. In the preface, he says that one whole country does not rule another whole country, something that could actually stand uncontested if it was actually unanimously shared by people, especially in this era of suspected Anglo-American imperialism. (This is, however, something that is discussed much later, below). Porter says that while proprietors, purchasers and salesmen will, of course, have been in touch with the empire, for example, the workers were probably not and that on the whole, people are usually ignorant of the sources of their foodstuffs unless they are clearly labeled.[5] If the British Empire had a face, therefore, it would be that of upper class paternalists; men in parliament with colonial interests. While the middle-class might have been acquainted with the empire, and even a few of them interested in it and been brought close to the imperialists world, this doesn’t mean that the middle-class in general shared this interest.

In this sense, the British public was passive with regard to empire. For example, the widespread view at the time was that Member of Parliament constituents were by and large ignorant of the empire and unconcerned about its fate. People, as such, did not feel any personal and material stake in the colonies, for instance, in the contemporary sense of initial public offers or shares in the London Stock Exchange.[6] Subsequently, involvement, awareness and impact of empire, contrary to what new imperial historians would argue, was more problematical and not that obvious or ubiquitous. That is, not as broad or deep. Instead, the impact of imperialism was on British society and culture was uneven at various levels and generally superficial really, so argues Porter. It only concerned, really, the small number of people who ran it. Picking out if not on, Catherine Hall (2002) he says that the relationship between Britain’s external imperialism and her domestic society was much more ambivalent than reading her suggests.[7] Indeed, contends Porter, the Victorians were not entirely undemonstrative but they seem never to have demonstrated over until the 1880s.

Porter’s book lies along the thin line between out of hand dismissal as a late imperial apologist read or a work of sheer brilliance with regard to its cautionary tone, especially considering that he is an old hand. Beyond this contradiction, one must note that his one admitted area that he does not adequately deal with is the question of imperialism and race (p.314). Porter does say that he finds it difficult pointing out that “the main area of difficulty…the one where it may be felt that this book has underestimated the impact of empire most seriously, is probably ‘race.’ British racial attitudes are often attributed to or connected in other ways with imperialism as to almost identify them together in some people’s minds.”

But that is as far as he’s willing to concede any theoretical ground of argument saying that fusing the two would be an act of laziness. Instead of dealing with the question of how race and empire are related in the manner that say, Hall (2002), Metcalf (1997) and Kennedy (2005) do, Porter jumps into another “important” question.[8] What he deems to be the more important question is what difference the British Empire made to the nature of its racism. In what by now is his characteristic problematization, he -quite plausibly too- that racism is not a monolith as it has a bewildering variety of forms.[9]

This then is the closest that he comes to saying that racism like imperialism was manifested differently just as the latter was uneven at different societal levels. Such an observation is quite illuminating actually because it shows that racism[10] as manifested in the thought John Stuart Mill was equally harmful if not more obnoxious and wounding because it was as much patronizing as the biological strand. Accordingly, Porter observes that different kinds of imperialism gave rise to different sorts of racial attitude, not all of them racist. That even the ways that racial attitudes were formed at different levels of society were different. The stay-at-home populations, for example, formed theirs via the influence of cheap magazines or passive reception of news of barbarous societies from the colonies. He goes on like this and finally concludes (p.318) that Catherine Hall’s great court of public opinion where Mill’s and Carlyle’s ideas of difference wrestled was dominated by racial, social and cultural discourse to the exemption of empire.

Empire, he says, was marginal to the debates. Exactly where Porter draws the distinction between the two phenomena that were so intricately intertwined in this particular discourse is not quite clear here. It is my considered opinion that whatever path chosen towards prejudice, racial or otherwise, no matter the strand or intensity of it, it remains as such. That is, prejudice. With reference to British imperial racialism, postcolonial theorists, not to mention the great majority of colonial peoples who bore the brunt or were affected in one way or the other by the phenomenon, such insights as Porter brings are totally lost on account of another kind of ignorance that mirrors that of the British working and middle-classes! This then opens a whole cohort of arising questions that threaten the solidity of Porter’s arguments and premise.

Some of these questions, in brief outline are, for example: even with the impressive amount of evidence adduced and worked with almost forensic precision of a master historian at his best, how dare he arrive at such conclusions as he does about the pattern of imperial British mentality or its lack thereof without the benefit of a posteriori facts? It is most difficult, if not simply impossible, to determine the level of awareness of empire or its impact when one is removed from the subject in time. Such conclusions reached on the basis of say, the number of statues in London with an imperialist theme, how many people read William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Dicken’s novels The Perils of Certain English Prisoners/All the Year Round or how Thomas Caryle’s failed to influence British society with his highly idiosyncratic imperialism due to his deeply emotional and irrational style (109) are insufficient. Equally, one wonders whether it makes any difference whether or not the impact of the empire on British society was direct or indirect, the former being, according to Porter, how the people thought and behaved.

As we have seen, the British (private investors/merchants, government or populace, whoever) obviously did not elect to memorialize imperialism through the dedication of a significant number of statues to it.[11] Another problem that is inherent in Porter (2004) is his preoccupation with precision, which might explain the enormity of the evidence that he consults. For example, whether it is 4% or 6% of the people read or heard of one British writer or other ending in his assertion that imperialism had not entered the British psyche before the 1880s is as misleading as he wants us to believe the “steeped” version of imperial history. Thus, we should be as wary of cocky specificity as we should of unsupported and unmerited generalizations. Lastly, it is important to note that whereas the main beneficiaries of imperialism, zealots, might not have shared what accrued thereof with the middle and working classes, they nevertheless shared the British identity. As such, attribution of responsibility or locus of imperialism is naturally to the British or the island they call home. If little foxes mess the vineyard, it doesn’t matter that they are a few out of the many. What matters at the end of the day is that they are foxes!

Two problems of the Porter premise (one of which is outlined above) merit further elaboration. One is with regard to the core of his argument. That is, the fact that the majority of Britons did not know about empire, either because it was outside their immediate economic interest; or simply because it was a little-know imperial enterprise undertaken by a few little foxes at the colonial office in London, in colonial government or those who were tending vineyards and sugar plantations in Jamaica, the Rift Valley Highlands in the Kenya colony, otherwise known as the Happy Valley. I would like to deal with the latter especially because it has a particularly familiar contemporary ring to it.

One needs not to go or look far to see the parallel between the manner in which the early and mid-Victorians were deliberately kept in ignorance of the whole scheme by the other little foxes, just like the majority of British and Americans were kept out of the markedly curios Middle East policy around 2003. This is a point, particularly as it affects Americans in the context of a perceived Anglo-American imperialism, which is not lost on Porter (319-321). The American little foxes or “zealots” actually have a name- viz. – neoconservatives. The point that I wish to make here is two-pronged: Firstly, it would seem that secrecy is part and parcel of the dramaturgy of political authority borne in the all-too-human and classical dynamic of power, the need-to-know. As such, government obscurantism that kept the British ignorant of and involved in should be factored in Porter’s observation. This would have the effect of blunting his argument.

Secondly, while it can be accurately be said that there is no imperial mentality that imbues American society, there is no denying that this is not the perception outside the United States. While that doesn’t change the domestic self-identity or perception of Americans as a non-imperial society, it goes to prove that responsibility in the international arena is allocated to nations and not a select few “zealots.” While most would want to take the high road on this fact, it is undeniable that one of the greatest challenges of our times has been conceived as a clash of civilizations because of a small terrorist group that constantly ruins the blooming vineyard international or multicultural relations. As such, Porter’s argument that whole nations do not rule other whole nations might sound like a lonely voice from the wilderness. After all, empires, like wars are most often than not invoked in the name of nations. Lastly, one could also argue, in addition to obscurantism that people, and whatever documents their behavior and thought about something can be selective, hence a kind of social or popular denialism especially if there are any reasons for second guessing. And, indeed, as Porter himself acknowledges (Pp.314-315), imperialism involved a political and philosophical thought process in which the British people (read Hall’s public opinion and Metcalf’s ideologues) constantly preached to themselves why the imperial enterprise was justified.   As earlier noted, with regard to Hall (2002) some of these ideas on race and social philanthropy turned out to be self-delusional or disillusioning.

Further, the manner in which Porter works his sources is wanting. It would seem that in his use of novelists, he is selective. He says that at least one novelist made a healthy living from books that were mostly set on the European continent. It doesn’t helps that he adds that Dickens, Thackeray and others were never chary of sending their characters to France and Germany (p.140). While he makes reference to other authors who took theirs to colonies and dependencies, I am personally surprised that he doesn’t discuss Thackeray’s Vanity Fair extensively like he does the rest. I suspect that the reason for this omission is because in this novel the author satirizes the class mobility of English society, which, perhaps, Porter would like his readers to think of as being mutually exclusive. But, if Vanity Fair’s anything to go by, British social classes were anything but exclusive. Hall (2002) for example, in the opening chapters shows how imperialism provided an unparalleled avenue and opportunity for those who, like Edward John Eyre, secretly nursed aristocratic ambitions or societal prominence. While the novel is based on a middle-class family, the Sedleys, Joseph Sedley Junior –who is a civil servant working for the East India Company- with his childhood friend George Osborne, are Victorian dandies, who imitate English bourgeoisie concepts of gentility. Thackeray indicts the British middle classes for such aristocratic obsession. As such, in a sense in Vanity Fair, there is a fusion rather than opposition between the 19th century English classes.[12]

To harp on racial prejudice a tad longer- in Britons (1992) shows how the British nation was forged between 1707-1837, part of which coincides with the Victorian era. This she does with reference to the micro-view of the vast majority of citizens whose attitudes, feelings and reactions to empire and imperialism. Britain as a nation, she argues was formed as people pondered on what it meant to be British in the relatively peace Victorian era with reference to imperial ambitions and contact with the other as much as it had done in the tumultuous times of having to face-off with the French. One of the factors she discusses that led to this identity-formation among others like politicization and radicalization of women, the unity of protestant religious sentiments and milling-around the monarchy and governing classes by the masses is the recruitment of men into the military. Like in the American case referred to earlier, while the public might be ignorant of the secret designs of those in power, the strong public anti-imperialist sentiment cannot discounted with regard to troop loses in battle. The anti-war sentiments during the Vietnam war is a good case in point although in the British case, such loses were at a bare minimum. But that is not the point- what is important is that Porter recognizes that anti-imperialism in Britain, which counts for empire-awareness, or does it not? At any rate, it would be difficult to imagine how the same phenomenon could inspire nationhood and British identity if people weren’t aware of it! This goes to show the worrying incongruity of British imperial historiography, which while not particularly desired, leads to vexing questions if the reading of the same phenomenon and period yield diametrically and radically opposed visions.

When all is said and done, however, Porter (2004) is a breath of fresh air. As other authors have shown, David Gilmour –The Ruling Caste: The Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj, 2007)- a small group of British officials (not military or missionary) did manage somehow to cordon-off empire administering it almost like a family fiefdom for hundreds of years. This particular more so in south Asia where just over a thousand civil servants ruled a population of about three-hundred million people of India, Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh. These among others in South Africa, Jamaica, Kenya, Australia -mostly settler British colonies- and in London, were the notorious and nasty little imperial foxes that trampled on vineyards far away from home giving the British a bad name. This highly motivated group of people was successful in creating the impression that British society was imbued by imperialism.

[1] These are in the main also postcolonial theorists who argue that British 19th century society was “steeped” or “saturated,” in British national culture or was an integral part of British social, political and cultural history. Catherine Hall prefers to say that imperialism “imbricated” British society a term that Porter notes down and criticizes (p.33).

[2] What would perhaps come closest to his chosen definition of the term is political control and domination of a few people for their own narrow group interests through and by whatever means available to them.

[3] It is important to point out that Porter thinks that the 1880s marked the exceptional period in which there was a marked entry into the British mind of the imperial sentiment.

[4] Some of these people are specifically men like Leopold Amery, Chamberlain, Lord Curzon, Milner and Rudyard Kipling especially the latter who tried in the late 19th century tried to whip up popular British interest and support for the imperial enterprise. It is noteworthy to note that Porter does not think that thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Carlyle had the kind of readership or influence that Catherine Hall thinks that they had especially with regard to the discourse on race in the great court of public opinion (see page 109).

[5] Even in the case where they are, however, for example, Demerara Sugar, people still do not make that mental connection to the place.

[6] Surprisingly, the London Stock Exchange started around 1709 and perhaps it’s about time some historian looked here for us to start to understand or better still refute some of the arguments that Porter makes. See an outline of its history on- For now it is enough to note that the origins of share trading are intertwined with British overseas private interest, which, thanks to Porter, I am no longer free to refer to as (formal or informal economic) imperialism in India and China.

[7] See page 307, Porter (2004).

[8] Showing, especially as Metcalf (1997) does, that the British developed theories of race and difference as they tried to define themselves as a people and they attempted to justify they domination of other people. He makes it sound, annoyingly one might add, that the connection that these authors make lends itself a little too easily to them. After all, as he poses, don’t empires require an assumption of superiority by the imperial nations over those they colonize? In posing this question he even forgets his own loathing of such generalizations of whole nations colonizing other whole nations!

[9] Doesn’t that sound familiar? It sounds like how he opens the book-that is, by semantically problematizing, imperialism and thus ends the book as he started it.

[10] Porter thinks that such an ideology should actually not be labeled racist but “culturalist.”

[11] Since Porter constantly refers to the suspected contemporary Anglo-American imperialism, one wonders whether some corporate entity or other might want to erect a monument symbolizing success in, for example, trading in Iraqi oil.

[12] See Sarah Rose Cole’s (2006) The Aristocratic in the Mirror: Male Vanity and Bourgeois Desire in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair online-

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Nicholas Githuku

Assistant Professor, African History at York College, CUNY
Nicholas Githuku is a Ph.D. holder in African Studies. His research interests include: War & Peace Studies in general; Conflict and Security and mediation in general and trends in the Great Lakes the Horn Regions of Africa; Memorialization of War; Development studies (Sub-Saharan Africa): Postcolonial/Contemporary Kenyan Politics; European History (1648 to 1900); First and Second World Wars; and Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Balkans) History.