British Histories: A Historiographical Map Come Full Circle


A brief historiographical essay based on the following books:  Duncan Bell, The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and Future World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton: University Press, 2007);  Nicoletta F. Gullace, The Blood of Our Sons: Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); Gertrude Himmelfarb, Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (New York, Vintage, 1992); Neil Parsons, King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); John Gallagher  Ronald Robinson, Africa and the Victorians, (Macmillan, 2nd ed., 1981).

This historiographical paper builds upon the previous one, Britain in Perspective. In the latter, it was noted that Britain has a complex and variegated national narrative at once domestic, continental and international.  The paper also covers intertwining and overlapping themes that recur across these geopolitical contexts. In Britain in Perspective, it was argued that the state of the corpus of British history is fragmentary. The paper argued that there is a tendency towards compartmentalization of experiences, themes and events: on the one hand, there is an exclusive focus on domestic British history while, on the other, stands imperial British history. In between, it was noted, exists an ever growing body of work referred to as “new imperial history” emergent in the early 1990s. “New imperial history” refers to, among others, Christopher A. Bayly (1989), John Brewer (1990) Linda Colley (1992, 2005), Catherine Hall (2000, 2002), Mrinalini Sinha (2005) and P.J. Marshall (2007).

As earlier noted, this intervening literature serves to connect the overarching strands of British history. Put differently, the main perspectives of British history did not, and have not, developed exclusively parallel to each other but always towards each other. Building upon these observations, this paper will be more ambitious in that it seeks to not only show how both histories (national and imperial) are thematically intertwined but also attempts to map out where the five books analyzed herein lie in the general bibliography of (all) British history. That is, it not only teases out overlapping themes or differences between these books but also situates them within an even more complex thematic dichotomy of British history that goes beyond the basic imperial and national typology of the previous paper. In so doing, the paper will cite related work encountered in the British history readings as well as other general work where possible.

The five books (R. Robinson and J. Gallagher [1981]; G. Himmelfarb [1992]; N. Parsons [1998]; N. Gullace [2002]; and D. Bell [2007]) that are the core focus of this paper, examine one aspect or another of the so-called late Victorian and Edwardian period of British history.  It is, therefore, appropriate to start with a brief commentary of this “high noon” in the country’s past.

This era of history was characterized, as E.A Wrigley notes, by Chance and Change (1988). It is The Age of Improvement (2000), of evangelical revivalism coupled with sensibility characterized by increasing consumerism. It was also the moment of modernity. It was an age that has been brilliantly captured by various talented writers and historians such as Uglow (2003) who sees her bourgeoisie capitalist men as the mid-wives of a brave new world: the nineteenth century was underlined by the firm belief that anything was possible. People like Joe “Gunpowder” Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton,  James Watt, Josiah Wedgewood, Thomas Day, Robert Owen, Charles Booth and Emma Martins among others believed that they “could do anything” –if they could but only conceive it, then they could achieve it and they actually did make “things happen.”[1] People like this were carriers of the spirit of the time or time spirit, which makes the Victorian age distinctive in British history. It was Britain’s time on the world stage spurred by a scientific and technological race to the top. Scientific innovation and invention at this time drove economic transformation, which in turn impacted British society in various ways.

As a result, these advances, technological and economic, were accompanied by attempts at social experimentation and engineering to counter arising social ills and imbalances in wealth. The Victorian age was, therefore, not only an age of discovery and hope but also fear and anxiety. These apprehensions were not the singular results of the Hard Times (1854) wrought by the Industrial Revolution. They were also generated by the encounter between the sophisticated and “civilized” Victorians with the “primitive” other from Jamaica, Africa and elsewhere where the British were present.

With that said, suffice it to say that in as much as there was transition during the Victorian era, there was also continuity.  This was especially so in the realm of social values. English society was still very much class-based and rested upon newly fangled middle class values or virtues, which were also shared by other social groups. These were values such as respectability, justice, thrift, self-reliance and individual responsibility, chastity and the central importance of family.[2] This then, in a nutshell, summarizes what was happening in Britain and elsewhere at this time, where the British happened to meander. The five books reviewed in this paper address one aspect of this age. But before proceeding any further, a note problematizing this era with regard to the quagmire of (time) periodization is necessary.

This methodological and bibliographical digression arises out of the inclusion, in this period, of Gullace (2004) that spills out of the Victorian age proper. More specifically, and as a there arises the question of whether the activism of radical feminists, which formed a backdrop to the Great War (that availed the opportunity for women’s suffrage lobbyists) corresponds with, or bears out, these nineteenth-century virtues.[3]  This question aside, it is worth noting that with respect to periodization, as R. Price (1999) borrowing from E. Said’s Beginnings (1975) aptly notes: “Beginnings possess an implicit power to produce meaning” and “to establish beginnings and endings around historical periods may be regarded as a policing strategy. The practice of boundary setting involves the installation of a series of premises and assumptions which determines what follows. Where we start and where we end and how we get there do not lie implicit and latent in the matter of history itself…. Such matters are created by historians themselves as they order the material within certain categories and declare certain chronologies ‘periods.’” [4]

Price (1999) goes on to say that, as a result, “some things are suppressed while others are privileged” yet “such artifices are enabling and empowering, for they make historical statements that illuminate a problem,” a period, or if you prefer, an analytical/thematic entry point. It is the present author’s opinion, in light of this observation that the noticeable differences, not only between the books under review but also within British history itself –domestic and imperial- are, in many ways, superficial.  That is to say, those apparent differences boil down to a question of emphasis and problematization.

Put differently, seemingly concrete topical differences actually do cohere to form, contribute to, a comprehensive narrative of Britain and a significant portion of that of the world. As such, drawing linkages or teasing out thematic overlap and similarities is not a far-fetched task, which is what this paper seeks to accomplish with regard to seemingly disparate studies.

But first is to note that this observation is not just true for Victorian historiography within which these books fall, but also for the wide and complex thematic range within which the paper attempts to situate them. What then are the overarching thematic categories or “boundaries” of, or in, British history?

Once again, this comes to us through the stupendous bibliographic compilation by R. Price who offers a sweeping (new) interpretation of modern British history.[5]  Preoccupation with British political economy and economic history aside, by which is meant history dominated by Keynesian economics and the study of modernity and modernism as well as the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. The dominant categories of British history are as follows: those that dwell on the Industrial Revolution and the concomitant seeds of decline therein; those to do with British nationalism and nation-building; those that deal with the making of the British state; and those that focus on the country’s politics and political system among others. Even more profound is Price’s minute and finer branches of history about working class culture, socialism and social movements, which, of course, prominently features the work of E. P. Thompson such as his The Making of the English Working Class (1968) and Customs in Common (1991); its counter-part literature, that is, middle-class society and culture; and, lastly that which has to do with race, gender, sexuality and class.[6] This bibliographic shelving is not immutable and one finds that some of the titles occur in more than one category of this typology. One of the tasks in this paper is to situate the five books (as well as others encountered in the British history reading course when necessary) within Price’s exhaustive bibliographic map.

In his British Society, Price (1999) writes about how historians succumbed to the temptation of viewing Victorians as they wished to be thought of by posterity. He writes, “Historians have …accepted the governing notions of the Victorians themselves as describing the appropriate historical categories of the period. …The writing of Victorian history, therefore, has been its subordination to the assumptions of the Victorians themselves.” Price (1999) convincingly argues that the portrayal of the nineteenth century as being “prefigurative of the twentieth century is a proclivity that has its origins in Victorian times.”

He writes, further, that it “was the moment of modernity, the turning point from the ‘old’ world to the ‘new’ is not an invention of historians.”[7]  This aptly describes The Idea of Greater Britain (2007) by D. Bell who reechoes the voices of leading journalists, politicians, writers and intellectuals of the day in Victorian England. Bell (2007) analyzes “the contours of imperial discourse” in order “to illuminate some important and underappreciated aspects of Victorian political thought.”[8]

As a study dedicated to the discussion of the pressing idea of Greater Britain or the British Empire among the metropolitan elite through colonial propaganda in public media, this book stands in stark contrast to The Absent Minded Imperialists (2004). Unlike the former, Porter (2004) argues that the idea of Greater Britain did not suffuse British thinking in as much as it may have been heavily touted by imperial enthusiasts. The two books, however, share at least one similarity: Bell focuses on the views of high-ranking intellectuals whose impact on British society is not empirically possible to measure. Porter’s book also suffers a similar empirical limitation –it is not possible to determine to what extent British society, middle-class or working class, consumed or was influenced by pro-colonial propaganda. Bell’s supposition that the vision of Greater Britain “was not simply the preserve of a few leading public intellectuals,” and, further, that “it was widespread, though often diffused, in the popular languages of imperial Britain,” is, to say the least, difficult to prove. In the same vein, as a result of its orientation or methodological strategy, the book is not only elitist but also comes out more than just a little Whiggish.

Moreover, Bell writes that “the fresh air and uplifting lifestyle promised by the colonial propagandists was contrasted with the urban squalor of the late Victorian Britain.”[9] Indeed, the term “urban squalor” comes up a few more times and he does note that resources splashed in the imperial project could have better been spent if availed for poverty alleviation at home.[10]  In addition, he captures the plight of the urban working class in a manner reminiscent of Himmelfarb (1992). Bell (2007) writes that it was being driven to drink and to corruption more generally. …The agrarian ideal had transmuted into its antithesis –a grim blend of urban squalor and a depressed and pauper-strewn countryside.” [11] This description of the working class is similar to that in Himmelfarb (1992). Unlike Himmelfarb, however, Bell (2007) does not dwell much on the plight of poor, deserving or undeserving. Notably, both Himmelfarb and Bell strike a conservatist note. Although his work is not mapped in Price’s historiographical list of British history, undoubtedly, the book’s spot is on the British Empire bibliographical shelf.

Himmelfarb (1992) is also not in this comprehensive bibliography. If it did, however, then it would be alongside G. Stedman Jone’s An End to Poverty? A Historical Debate (2005) a book that continues the discourse about the challenge of poverty, and social ills occasioned by the Industrial Revolution. Himmelfarb (1992) is critical of social history, to which she seeks to respond. Like Bell (2007), Poverty and Compassion (1992) is an intellectual history that takes political history seriously.  Himmelfarb’s main aim is to take stock of the evolution of the idea of poverty both as a statistical and perceived phenomenon in industrial Britain. Central to the book is the philanthropic work of Charles Booth who dedicated the latter part of his enterprising career not as a bourgeoisie capitalist pursuing profit but, rather, concern for the moral and economic squalor in East London.  In this highly articulate and lucid book, one gets an inside scoop of the origins of the welfare state not as a government initiative but, instead, through the activities of individuals such as Booth and organizations such as the Salvation Army. As earlier noted at the beginning of this paper, the springs of charity and poverty alleviation were values spawned by the middle-class underpinned by the overriding concern with the question of moral character. One of the reasons why this book is remarkable is the way in which Himmelfarb juxtaposes the supposedly opposed human motivations of interest and sentiment.

People such as Booth are seen to surmount profit interest.[12] Rather than pursue personal gain through capitalist accumulation, philanthropists like him chose to participate in the pursuit of the common good instead. In so doing, they were inspired by personal responsibility to help their fellow men. In extending help to the less fortunate, they hoped to be their best selves, which was the basis of individual morality, and common good, that of social morality. Himmelfarb’s work (1992), in contrast to Uglow’s (2003) more sedate discussion, is a more serious and analytical text. The latter does not adequately tackle the question of “personal interest” or exhaust the issue of “sensibility” although both are treated separately in chapters dedicated to each.

Further, a rather conservative historian, Himmelfarb castigates E.P. Thompson’s (1963) class analysis arguing that there was no single working class culture.  Citing G.S. Jones she argues that the working class in the late-Victorian  era was “not at all radical but rather, was one that gave a ‘de facto recognition’ to capitalism and to the entire social order –monarchy, aristocracy, empire” and the religious establishment.[13] In effect, she not only challenges class analysis but, like Colley’s Britons (2005) subsumes it to a binding and abiding sense of Britishness throughout all levels of society. Thus, for both Colley (2005) and Himmelfarb (1992), class consciousness plays second fiddle behind British nationalism and/or patriotism. This British patriotism was not monolithic but differentiated as Gullace demonstrates in her book The Blood of Our Sons (2002).

In Price’s bibliographical classification, Nicoletta Gullace (2002) is to be found next to Hall et al. Defining the Victorian Nation: Class, Race, Gender and the British Reform Act of 1867 (2000) among other volumes under the title “development of politics and the process of reform.” But it can also be said to be a study about gender and sexuality like J. Tosh’s Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2004), P. Levine’s Victorian Feminism (1989) and M. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1988). In this book, Gullace reconstructs the unique cultural environment pervasive in wartime Britain between 1914-1918 “in order to map the way propaganda, advertising, and popular entertainment absorbed images of the war to promote new ideas about gender and civic participation.[14] She relies upon disparate sources such as official documents and legislative bills, and popular culture material ranging from cartoons, poems, novels, paintings, non-verbal gestures as well as theatrical productions as the here withal of this project of reconstructing this cultural landscape.  These texts and images enable her to determine the prevalent attitudes regarding gender, politics and citizenship in wartime Britain. Gullace effectively demonstrates how radical feminist groups policed manhood and contested the myth of male combat as the single most important determinant, qualification and consideration for citizenship. Female patriotism was demonstrated through the ultimate sacrifice of the blood of the sons of British women, and thus, challenged the idea of citizenship being tied ineluctably to the male body.

As such, manhood and/or male combat alone were neither adequate as markers of civic responsibility nor were they only ones.  With these out of the way, anyone could aspire towards British patriotism and enjoy accruing benefits including the right to vote, feminist radicals argued. Thus, a significant proportion of women at the end of the war were able to win this right “not by throwing bombs but by making them; not by raising children but by sending them to die.”[15] Femininity itself had morphed: it entered twentieth-century modernity, a far cry from what it had been in the late eighteenth century (during the Napoleonic Wars) and throughout the Victorian age.  It no longer was a subordinate and nurturing femininity operating within the accepted boundaries of Victorian womanhood and rules of propriety.

By nineteen-fourteen, these idealized paradigms of womanhood, it would seem, had shifted or were shifting thus moving women beyond the pale of the longstanding separate spheres ideology.[16] Nothing, perhaps, demonstrates this more forcefully than women’s celebration of military service underlined by their call of the nation to arms. While pushing for recognition by the state and suffrage, women willy-nilly advocated and sanctioned war.

Put differently, lobbying for citizenship on the bloodied plank of their sons’ war service involved the legitimization of warfare and military service. This, then, is what dealt the most serious blow to the idea of women as mothers and nurturers and, instead, inaugurated one that subverted Victorian womanhood. The ubiquitous call to arms was particularly a monstrous distortion of femininity.[17]

As earlier noted, the book compares favorably with the work of Wollstonecraft, Barbara Taylor’s Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (1983), the emergent new cultural history approach championed by Aletta Biersack and Lynn Hunt (1989) and Gender and the Politics of History by Joan W. Scott (1999). With regard to the socialist brand of feminism identified with Emma Martins and Robert Owen, twentieth-century feminist radicalism differed from the former by virtue of breaking the Napoleonic era and Victorian epoch mold as noted above.

Gallagher and Robinson (1981) was an unaltered reprint of their 1961 publication credited with the post-1960 revolution in British imperial historiography. The novelty of this study lay in managing to shift the focus of study from the center (Britain) to the periphery (British African Empire) with regard to British imperialism. Its main contribution to British imperial historiography, to which it belongs, is delineating the causal roots of Empire that are explained both in terms of what was happening in Europe and also, the amenable indigenous factors and conditions that made conquest and colonization possible.[18] The said Victorians in this book are not representative of all sections of British society.

Instead, they represent or refer to the motivations of that country’s statesmen in its late nineteenth century excursion into Africa in general and Egypt in particular. In this way, therefore –that is, by focusing upon the generation of the idea of a Greater Britain at the level of official policy reaching the county’s informal commercial tentacles and formal apparatus of political control to Africa- Africa and the Victorians (1981) is similar to the much later work by Bell (2007). With regard to forceful political control, especially in tropical Africa where the imperial encounter between the agents of empire and indigenes was marked by violence, this was necessitated by the fact that the latter were relatively successful in negotiating Empire with the former. As such, Gallagher and Robinson (1981), in as far as this breakdown of relations between Europeans and Africans is concerned, is comparable to P. Marshall’s The Making and Unmaking of Empires (2007), which explains the end of one empire (British America) and the beginning of another (the British Raj) in terms of negotiations of imperial and colonial power. N.Parsons’ King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen (1998) exemplifies the exemption to the rule of breakdown of relations between imperial agents and indigenes.

Parson (1998) is a unique book because it merges the center (Britain) and the periphery (British Southern Africa): the latter is literally placed in the former when three Tswana Chiefs –Khama, Sebele and Bathoen- make a trip to Britain where they play to their middle-class gallery of admirers. Thus, this work, unlike Gallagher and Robinson (1981), Marshall (2007) and Bell (2007) which re-centre the centre vis-à-vis the periphery, lies at the critical intersection of African imperial and British national history. In as far as national history is concerned, it tells us volumes about middle-class Victorian values so eloquently espoused by Himmelfarb (1992) –see above. The three chiefs are, for their “puritan” middle-class benefactors and followers in Britain, the rewarding mantelpiece of protestant Britain’s civilizing mission.

This project of what one might, perhaps, refer to as evangelical imperialism, was intended to confer Victorian values of self-reliance and responsibility, respectability and thrift to their religious “subjects.” Victorian Britain also felt beholden to charity-inspiring virtues such as chastity and justice, which motivated them to not only help their charges such as the Tswana Chiefs keep their religion, but also their independence. In helping the Chiefs to secure their independence, like in the clash of evangelical and commercial imperia (in imperio) represented by the Birmingham Baptist missionaries and plantocracy in Jamaica, respectively as discussed in Hall (2002), London Missionary Society humanitarians confronted avaricious British privateer imperialists embodied by Cecil Rhodes in Parsons (1998). The clamorous reception and celebration of the Tswana Chiefs beyond the confines of the missionary circle can, therefore, be understood in terms of how these three “English” gentlemen, bedecked in true Victorian fashion, paraded the success of the Civilizing Subjects mission of celestial brotherhood and humanitarian universalism in their British tour.

To return to the issue of collaboration and resistance, these three modern Africans made a diplomatic foray to the imperial center of power, which was rewarded by their visit to Windsor Castle. There, in their “nice frock coats” they met the little Queen who was “‘all smiles’ and in good sooth…” and acquitted themselves extremely well –for natives.[19] At the same time, they were able to prevent Bechuanaland from being swallowed by either the Cape colony or Rhodesia under the grasping hands of Cecil Rhodes. This “collaboration” was a feat of diplomatic resistance (through negotiation). Its centerpiece was the Chamberlain settlement of 1895, which Parson says was the Magna Carta of the chiefs of the Bechuanaland Protectorate.

This, at the risk of repetition, bears out the negotiation of empire thesis of P.J. Marshall (2007). Parsons (1998) and, indeed, this historiographical essay, demonstrates that as daunting the task of contrasting British national and imperial literature may be, it can be pleasantly rewarding. Interlocking themes –from the heart of empire to its most remote limits and back; from exclusive national histories and those of the British Empire; from the top-upright and bottom-inversed perspectives of Britain and its Empire; and from the safe, open and non-controversial imperial histories to the uncomfortable underbelly of the business of Empire- recur with resplendent abandon. The actions of the British –what they did, how and why they did certain things–  in far and distant lands tell as something about who they were at home in the British Isles and abroad. At the same time, their encounters with others tell us how this changed them. The fact that these themes exist encapsulated in apparently exclusive British histories does not mean that a continuous and single narrative cannot be traced, or at least, uniform threads that run between and within them.

[1] See Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five friends whose curiosity changed the world (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) 171. Also see B. Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993).

[2] See how Gertrude Himmelfarb weaves all these values to spin a remarkable tale about the emergent problem of poverty and how it was tackled by the science and social arithmetic of woe in Industrial Revolution Britain in her book G. Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (New York, Vintage, 1992).

[3] The easy and ready answer is that radical feminist lobby for voting rights was a break with the virtuous Victorian past: this is addressed much later in the paper.

[4] Richard Price, British Society, 1680-1880: Dynamism, Containment and Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1.

[5] This bibliography of British history is available online. The present author has, however, taken liberty to populate R. Price’s shelving of some of the books encountered in his readings, which he does not situate in his extensive bibliography.

[6] Other categories included in the Price bibliography are military history, total war, civil society and public sphere, Britain and revolutions and Britain post-1945.

[7] British Society, 4.

[8] Duncan Bell, The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and Future World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton: University Press, 2007), 11.

[9] Ibid, 142.

[10] Ibid.,187.

[11] Ibid, 52.

[12] By extension, Booth’s background in private business is reminiscent of Robert Owen another successful entrepreneur and manager who switched careers from the pursuit of individual self-interest to social engineering discussed in B. Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993).

[13] Gertrude Himmelfarb, Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians (New York: Vintage Books, 1992) 14, 15. This is perhaps the author’s strongest statement of proof that the British working class were patriotic and that they were bound with other classes in society –aristocrats, land owners and the middle class- through shared Victorian values.

[14] Nicoletta Gullace, The Blood of Our Sons: Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War (: New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) 2.

[15] Gullace, The Blood of Our Sons, 194.

[16] Gullace, The Blood of Our Sons, 65, 44, 87 & 156: this radical shift was from a fearful and frail, nurturing and subordinate femininity to a more Amazonian, modern and patriotic femininity.

[17] Gullace, The Blood of Our Sons, 84.

[18] That is, Gallagher and Robinson offer a discussion of “Non-European foundations of European Imperialism,” which is also the title for R. Robinson’s “Sketch for a Theory of Collaboration” in (eds.) Roger Owen and Robert B. Sutcliffe, Studies in the Theory of Imperialism (London: Longman, 1972) 117-142.

[19] Neil Parsons, King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) 227-227.

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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.