The British Empire: Pomp, Power and Postcolonialism

Author: Johnson, Robert


ISBN 978-1-84760-016-5 80 pages; file size 790 kb Licence: one printing allowed, copying disabled
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This study guide to Imperialism by one of our most prolific historians offers a concise overview of Britain's role in Colonialism, the slavery issue, the British Raj and the scramble for Africa, and probes the motives for empire and continuing issues of post-colonialism.


I: A Journey over Palm and Pine: An Overview of Histories, Peoples and Developments 1. Early Colonialism: Exploration, Exploitation and Chartered Companies; 2. The Company Raj (India) and the Loss of the American Colonies; 3. Slavery, Anti-Slavery, Liberalism and Imperialism; 4. Imperial Expansion in the Nineteenth Century; 5. War, Retreat and Transformation in the Twentieth Century
II: Problems in Interpretation: Historiography, Post-Colonialism and Sources 6. Historiography: approaches to the history of the British Empire; 7. Post-Colonialism: Explanation and Evaluation; 8. Sources: Eurocentrism, the “˜silenced” sources, and the problem of “˜representation”
III: Issues and Debates 9. Controversies over the Motives for Empire; 10. The Colonies of Settlement: Colonisation, Identities and Narratives; 11. The Nature of Imperialism: How did the British Empire Function? 12. Collaboration and Resistance; 13. Race, Class and Gender

About the author

Rob Johnson is at All Souls College, Oxford. He is the author of a number of publications including British Imperialism: Histories and Controversies (Palgrave, 2002); and his most recent books are Spying for Empire: The Great Game in Central and South Asia, 1757-1947 (Greenhill 2006), and A Region in Turmoil: South Asian Conflicts, 1947-2001 (Reaktion, 2005). Prior to his academic career, Rob was a Captain in the British Army. In his spare time he leads adventurous expeditions to remote parts of the world and he is currently writing a new history of conflict in Central Asia.


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The British Empire: Pomp, Power and Postcolonialism

Review Comment

The British Empire: Pomp, Power, and Postcolonialism, by Dr Robert Johnson provides a useful and concise overview of British imperial history, combining a descriptive outline of events with original historiography. Johnson provides an account of the main events that led to the acquisition, rule and loss of the British Empire as historical and theoretical debates that reach beyond the standard textbook account. The British Empire is an excellent introduction to the subject though it would also be a useful reference for those interested in imperial historiography.
Johnson emphasises the complex nature of imperialism by focusing on its diversity, stressing the unique dimensions of each colony, time, and encounter within the British Empire. He counters many common myths and assumptions while avoiding unwarranted generalisations in his own account. For example, he challenges the assumption that all colonised peoples were victims of the empire, emphasising that `natives' often embraced European contact - Johnson stresses the vulnerability of the British Empire, premised on myriad local bargains and vulnerable to defection from the collaborators who sustained it. He highlights that although British investments in South America have been used to argue in favour of an informal empire no such claim has been made about even larger investments in the newly formed US Republic. Johnson also casts doubt on the widespread belief in a `divide and conquer' system of rule, while arguing that the myth of the Atlantic 'trade triangle' belittles the complexity of imperial commerce and power. Most importantly, Johnson sheds light on the present - 'the strongest themes of the period, commerce, security, and competition'', he argues, 'lay interwoven with issues of identity, biology, culture, and environment' - without anachronistic language. The British Empire is thoroughly researched with reference to all the key writers on the topic, including Porter, Cannadine, MacKenzie, and Said. Although there are few references to archival materials evidence such as this would have been beyond the work's scope, which is to provide a narrative and historiographical overview of the existing interpretations and debates. Johnson's work is sharp and concise - it is all the more rewarding as a result.
A valuable aspect of the work is Johnson's ability to explain the theory behind contemporary understandings of the British Empire's past, particularly post-colonial theory which he relates to struggles still being fought today. Although controversial, Johnson's stance is well-informed. The British Empire provides a comprehensive coverage of the topic suitable for both the student and the expert. Its elegant prose only adds to its delight.

--reviewed by Wil on Amazon

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