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The Ways of Empire

A Conversation with Wm. Roger Louis

HUMANITIES, July/August 2000 | Volume 21, Number 4

Endowment Chairman William R. Ferris recently spoke with Wm. Roger Louis about the new Oxford History of the British Empire. Louis, an American, talks about the controversy surrounding his selection as editor-in-chief of the series as well as its effort to include colonial perspectives on British imperialism. Louis occupies the Kerr Chair in English History and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin and is a Fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford; he is also a distinguished author and the editor of numerous volumes, including Adventures with Britannia.

William R. Ferris: I thought we would start by talking about the five volumes of the Oxford History of the British Empire that were published to such wonderful critical reviews. In the Times Literary Supplement, David Cannadine called it "an extraordinary feat of organization and scholarship providing the authoritative history of the British Empire for our generation." You certainly deserve credit as editor-in-chief of the series. I want to ask you first, how would you describe the History?

Wm. Roger Louis: The project got started in a proposal that was made to the Oxford University Press in the early 1990s. The time was ripe for a reappraisal. The ideological wars of the 1960s, the emotions raised by issues of nationalism and decolonization--all of these had diminished, and we were able to recruit historians of India and of Asia and of Africa as well as Britain to participate in the project.I think that gives you some idea about the scope.

We began with just three volumes--from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth and the twentieth century; we then decided that we should start at the beginning and invited Nicholas Canny of the National University of Ireland to do the volume on the origins of empire. We later recruited Robin Winks of Yale to do the volume on historiography, on how historians have changed in their interpretation of the empire over time.

Ferris: This is clearly the successor to the Cambridge History of the British Empire, which has been a standard for more than fifty years. Why was it time for a new history?

Louis: The old History was begun in 1929, but it was not finished until 1961, so it reads today like a period piece. It reflected the constitutional and administrative preoccupations of the era. Clearly, the view and the perspective on the empire changed since the 1950s, when the last volume was produced, and that is one of the reasons why we thought that it was a good idea to launch the new appraisal.

Ferris: How is the Oxford History different from the Cambridge History?

Louis: One of the ways in which it is different is that it consciously, deliberately sets out to include the perspective of the ruled or the governed as well as the British perspective. We took a great deal of care to try to recruit area experts or historians who are historians of India, of Southeast Asia, of the Middle East, of Africa, of the Caribbean, as well as British historians. In the series you get the vantage point of those who were ruled as well as those who ruled.

Ferris: At the beginning, I understand there was something of a flap over your appointment as editor-in-chief. Some Britons were upset about an American leading the project, and they worried that you might misunderstand the "imperial ethos." In an article in the Sunday Times, Lord Beloff, who led this attack, worried that it would be "fumbled in a rush to be fashionable" and noted that "traditionally Americans do not like empire." These were strong charges. What in particular do you think made them nervous and made them feel that someone from a former colony would take the wrong attitude?

Louis: First of all, this was a controversy in the British press and in the British public rather than in academic circles. There did seem to be the anxiety that it was an American who would be the editor-in-chief of the series. The indictment ran, "Why are we allowing the Americans to rewrite our own colonial history?" and so on.

It was not actually Max Beloff himself who was making this accusation against me, but it was picked up by others in the press who thought that an anticolonial bias would creep into the series. So I spent a lot of time with journalists trying to explain that it wasn't where you come from that mattered; it is the quality of the work. And this controversy actually collapsed under the weight of its own silliness, because if you follow it to its logical conclusion then Englishmen wouldn't be able to write about the American Revolution or Americans wouldn't be able to write about the French Revolution, and so on. Eventually we resolved this with a great deal of publicity for the Oxford History of the British Empire that we otherwise wouldn't have had. Some people actually asked me how I managed to put Max Beloff up to it. I didn't. But it was a serious question. There were people in Britain--especially in the right-wing conservative or Tory segment of British opinion--who did have reservations about it. I think that now, having read the actual work, they've come around to the view that it is--even they admit--a balanced treatment.

Ferris: Do you think that Britons are nervous about Americans writing British history?

Louis: No, I don't think that British historians are any more nervous about that than Americans are about British writing American history. I think this is a false lead. I don't think that historians are worried about these types of things.

Ferris: Some people view the British Empire with a romantic fondness, while others see only evil in imperialism. Is it possible to find a middle ground?

Louis: The dilemma that we faced in that was how to answer the question: Was the British Empire after all a good thing or not? There are chapters throughout the series that raise these very basic issues, such as, can the lasting impact of British rule ultimately be judged as beneficial or harmful? I don't think there is any single answer to this question, or at least I don't think that it is to be found in this series, because it takes what you would call a pluralistic approach that, in turn, reflects the uneven and complex nature of the colonial experience. You will get quite different answers to that question if it is answered from the point of view of India or from the point of view of Britain.

Ferris: Are historians interested anymore in whether empire was "right" or "wrong"?

Louis: That is a similar question to the one we were just talking about. You do have the sense on the part of the British--and the sentiment is still strong today--that there was a strong ethical sense of responsibility for the administration of the colonies. The district officer was accountable to the colonial administration and, for example, to the governor of Tanganyika; the governor of Tanganyika was responsible to the colonial office; the colonial office was held accountable to Parliament. In that sense there was accountability. On the other hand, you will never be able to persuade some of the nationalists that the British Empire was anything other than economically exploitative and, on the whole, a pretty brutal business, as indeed it was. The question could be answered in quite different ways depending on your perspective. Our purpose was to try to arrive at a balanced answer by looking at all sides of the question.

Ferris: I would like to talk for a moment about the volumes and the picture of the British Empire that they depict. It is a curious history because it doesn't have a precise starting date.

Louis: Right.

Ferris: Instead it suggests that the empire was an accident, the result of the development of long-distance trade routes and the founding of colonies in North America. How does an empire start by accident?

Louis: That is a very interesting question because "empire by accident" is the phrase associated with Sir John Seeley, who was the famous historian of the late nineteenth century. In a sense he was the first professional or academic historian of the empire. It was in his book, The Expansion of Empire, that he used that phrase. That was where he remarked that the British seemed to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.

What he was doing was trying to provoke thought on exactly that question: what were the origins of the empire? He was drawing attention to the burdens of empire because his goal was to try to recruit competent administrators, for example, to the Indian civil service.

At the time--today as then--things always seemed confused and politically charged. But with the distance in time and in an attempt to be as dispassionate as possible, it is possible to see the underlying economic and military as well as the religious and demographic patterns or rationale.

Ferris: Did people realize that they were on the threshold of an imperial age?

Louis: I don't believe they did, and in a way, that gets into the eighteenth-century volume, because people in the eighteenth century tended to think of the empire in terms of trade and commerce. It wasn't until probably late in the eighteenth century--certainly in the nineteenth century--that you got a unified concept of empire as we think of it today.

Ferris: Your volume on the eighteenth century calls it a "crucial period" for the creation of the empire. How did trade, migration, and warfare influence the expansion of the empire into North America and Asia?

Louis: It is precisely those elements that you just mentioned. It's migration, religion, trade, and war that did create the empire in America and in Asia. The American Revolution severely damaged the British imperial structure, but the system itself, nevertheless, survived and grew into an empire that encompassed a large part of the world during the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth. The eighteenth century deals with the American Revolution. Would you like for me to make a point about that?

Ferris: Yes. How did losing the American colonies affect British attitudes toward empire?

Louis: What the volume does is deal with the American Revolution from a British perspective. I think this is certain to be of great interest to a lot of American readers, because it demonstrates how the British colonists in North America really did attach a fundamental significance to their status as Englishmen, as Englishmen abroad, who should have all of the rights of Englishmen living in England. The paradox is that, in many other parts of the world, British rule was authoritarian.

Let me put it a different way. In the American Revolution, it is the language of liberty that informs the ideology of the Revolution, yet you have plantation owners in the West Indies that didn't find it difficult at all to use the same vocabulary in a slave society. So there are two sides to British dominion in the eighteenth century: the one of evolving representative government--not only here, but in Australia, New Zealand, and other places of white settlement--and the other of what was called "enlightened despotism," in which you can find the origins of the "white man's burden." You have two traditions and they are both contributing to a British national commitment to empire, a sense of British identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it is a very ambiguous legacy because you have representative government on the one hand and the colonies of white settlement and authoritarian government in most of the rest.

Ferris: Let me carry that point a little further. The nineteenth century has been called Britain's imperial century, and, in fact, Britons began to speak of a "British Empire" in that period, as you mentioned.

Louis: Right.

Ferris: What did they mean by those phrases, "Britain's Imperial Century" and "British Empire"?

Louis: They meant by that--especially historians looking back to it--that the nineteenth century was first and foremost the British century because of the territorial extent of the empire, extending over a fourth of the globe; the apparently unbounded confidence of the Victorians; the unbounded power of the nineteenth-century empire. This was something that really did fire the imaginations of the nineteenth-century builders of empire. But one of the important things, I think, was the idea of how empire had changed from the eighteenth century from an empire when it was regarded as principally one of trade and commerce to one that the British thought of as an empire of rule and of administration over lands, peoples throughout the world. You had a single unifying concept, but one that was very, very complex, because in the late Victorian empire, you had self-governing colonies with predominantly white populations, and you had crown colonies and protectorates with non-European subjects. Above all, you have the British Raj in India as a sort of empire in its own right.

There was another thing that is important about the nineteenth century, and that was the industrial and the technological lead that the British had over all of their rivals. By the late nineteenth century, that lead was kind of disappearing because of the rival navies--the German navy and so on--challenging the Royal Navy and also the British Empire. This was also the time when you have the rise of nationalism in the colonies of white settlement in Ireland as well as India. By the turn of the century, even though the British had become more jingoistic, they were becoming also much more insecure.

Ferris: For the most part, the British Empire enjoyed popular support at home. Why did Britain support it?

Louis: There was a popular sentiment and commitment to empire, but this did not necessarily extend throughout all of British society. There were many people in Britain who opposed the empire. The anticolonial movement that we now associate with the third world as well as the United States was strong in Britain itself. During the period of the Boer War, with people like John Hobson and Emily Hobhouse protesting against what they thought were the excesses of British imperialism, this was a check on the popular support or the jingoistic expression of British imperialism. It is a very complex phenomenon. If you say that there is public support of the empire, there is a public consciousness that we do have a responsibility to administer as best we can these dependencies throughout the world. There was also a very strong sentiment that the only good rule is self-rule, that the only good government is self-government, and these have English roots as well as American.

Ferris: The twentieth century saw the dismantling of the British Empire. As the century began, it covered nearly one-fourth of the globe. But a few months after victory in World War II, Churchill was out of office and we were beginning to see the tide toward independence in India and elsewhere. What role did the two world wars play in destabilizing the empire?

Louis: In a way, the British Empire was a victim of the two world wars. I think you were very right in your summary about the trends in the empire in the twentieth century because until World War II the prevailing assumption was that the British Empire would continue to endure for decades, if not for a century. No one really dreamed that it would come clattering down so quickly, as Churchill had said. By the end of World War II, it was clear that India was going to have independence eventually. But there were very few in 1945 who would have guessed that Indian independence would be granted so soon--only two years later--and that there would be two successor states, Pakistan as well as India; and that both would remain in the Commonwealth.

You mentioned the dissolution of the rest of the empire beyond India and Pakistan from the late 1950s on through the 1960s. We are now talking predominantly about the African empire. This came with such a suddenness that it continues to astonish people even today that the British colonies were granted independence so precipitously (many in Britain say, so prematurely), taking into account what happened later on in Uganda, and so on. It does raise very basic questions. I think you could summarize it by saying that the empire came to an end because of the change in international climate: the worldwide movement against colonialism and because of the rise of nationalism in Asia and later in Africa.

Ferris: Could you talk about the role of nationalism in this whole process?

Louis: Nationalism in Asia had very deep roots that went back to the nineteenth century. In the case of India, the Nationalist Movement Congress was very strong in the decades before the Second World War, so that it was widely acknowledged that it would be only a matter of time until India became independent.

In Southeast Asia and in Africa and other parts of the world, it came rather with a suddenness that caught most contemporaries by surprise. There was also the element of contemporary decision. For example, everyone now remembers--or those who lived through it certainly remember--the great Congo crisis in 1960. Everyone thought at the time this was a disastrous experiment, giving a colony independence before the Africans were ready for it. But at the time, the Belgian decision to grant independence actually accelerated the British decision to grant independence.

Ferris: Instead of portraying the British Empire as declining and falling apart along the lines of Gibbon's depiction of the Roman Empire, you suggest that it experienced a period of revival and renewal after World War II. In what way did that take shape?

Louis: The point about Gibbon is very interesting, because in making the point about the decline and fall he was raising a question that preoccupied historians then and forever after about whether there was a constant line of decline that also characterized the British Empire. Our answer in the five volumes in the Oxford History is that the empire went through periods of revival before it actually came to an end in the 1960s or later, if you want to carry the story down to the decision to withdraw all forces east of Suez in the Rhodesian question and the Hong Kong issue that you mentioned earlier.

The reason this has preoccupied us especially is that about a dozen years ago or so people were very much preoccupied with the United States being overextended militarily as well as economically. That was what Paul Kennedy was arguing in his famous book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. I don't think that people would argue the same case today, but at the time Paul Kennedy did strike a nerve because he was suggesting that we might be going the same way as the Brits; in other words, that the American presence in the world will be like the British presence was in the nineteenth century and that we are destined for decline and collapse.

That is a roundabout way of answering your question about whether there is revival as well as a straight linear descent. In a sense, I think we no longer think in the same way that people were thinking in the 1980s. There has been a reassertion of America's place in the world; we've entered a new era in which we are economically and militarily dominant in a way that few people would have thought that we would be even a decade ago.

Ferris: We have been talking about the British Empire by itself. I want to ask you to venture a few historical comparisons, one ancient and one contemporary. Two of the most famous and perhaps notorious empires are the British and the Roman. Is it possible to draw similarities between the two?

Louis: The comparison drawn by British contemporaries was that the British Empire was the greatest empire since the Roman Empire, and even greater because it extended over a much more vast part of the world. The reason why the Roman Empire is often a point of comparison is because of Gibbon and because of the point that he was making about decline and fall. The other point that I suppose you're leading up to is a comparison between the old British Empire and the United States today.

Ferris: Exactly. I was going to mention Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, who wrote an article in 1940 called "The American Century."

Louis: Right.

Ferris: In this article he envisioned the twentieth century as "the American Century" and urged the American people to shoulder the burdens that such a destiny required. That doesn't sound too far off from rhetoric used by supporters of the British Empire.

Louis: That is a direct echo of nineteenth-century British imperialism, especially by Rudyard Kipling. I know people read Henry Luce and are familiar with the idea of "the American Century" today, and most people are slightly appalled that he saw such a direct connection between the British Empire and the place of the United States in the world today.

There are some obvious differences between the old British Empire and the American empire, the main one being that we never possessed, and I hope never will, anything that was equivalent to the Indian empire or the Indian Raj. On the other hand, there is a point of comparison, because we have in a sense inherited some of the peacekeeping functions of the old nineteenth-century British Empire. There is today a sort of pax Americana in the way that there used to be a pax Britannica. In a sense, all of the dilemmas and the problems that the British used to face--though in quite a different form--are just as difficult and agonizing or as painful for us today as they were for the British at the time.

Ferris: Our conversation leads me to wonder if empires are still possible. Some scholars have called the American presence in Europe after World War II an empire by invitation. Is that the future of empires?

Louis: I certainly don't think that we will ever again see the empire in the form of the old British Empire, with a formal governmental control of one people over another people. What probably does exist are more informal means of going about the same thing. Without declaring an empire you still control the political economy of a country.

Ferris: I would be negligent, Roger, if I didn't ask you about your relationship with the Endowment, which has clearly been significant over the years, and how that has shaped your work and life as a scholar.

Louis: Bill, I have been the beneficiary of the NEH since I held one of what used to be called the senior fellowships. I will be now, this summer, directing my sixth seminar for college teachers, which I think is really one of the great glorious jewels of the NEH program. Of course, the NEH was one of the co-sponsors, along with the Rhodes Trust, of the Oxford History of the British Empire, so I think the NEH has done great things.

Ferris: We talk about the food chain of intellectual and cultural life in our country, and I think your career and the work that you do clearly demonstrates how things begin with scholarship and then reach widespread audiences once they are published. I cannot tell you how proud we are of the fine work that you are doing.

About the Author

Funding Information

NEH provided $300,000 for the research and writing of the new Oxford History of the British Empire.