An evaluation of Bernard Porter’s observations that ‘… there can be no presumption that Britain – the Britain that stayed at home – was an essentially ‘imperialist’ nation in the 19th and 20th centuries’ (by Tammy Cairns)

An evaluation of Bernard Porter’s observations that ‘… there can be no presumption that Britain – the Britain that stayed at home – was an essentially ‘imperialist’ nation in the 19th and 20th centuries’ (by Tammy Cairns)

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it has been argued by a number of new-imperial historians including Antoinette Burton, Catherine Hall and John MacKenzie, that empire was seen and experienced everywhere within British society. Ranging from the high culture of art and opera, to the low culture of penny-gaffs and popular songs, it has been claimed that the influence of empire was lurking and that those members of society that bought into these forms of entertainment were essentially imperialist to some degree. In a highly controversial work, Bernard Porter challenges these assumptions by claiming that although Britain was imperialist in the sense of acquiring and ruling an empire, the empire did not need to have deep roots within British culture, nor did it affect Britain to any great extent (Porter, 2004, p.24). Throughout this piece I will be examining the key arguments of recent imperial history to determine how ‘imperialist’ Victorian and Edwardian Britain actually was.

One of the key themes within Bernard Porters work is not that Britain was unaffected by its empire, as he states himself ‘the signs of Britain’s empire are there, in her literature, culture, and so on…’ What this does not show, however, is whether the empire was an important part of the individual’s identity (Porter, 2004, p.164). Porter sets out to highlight what he sees as the distinctions between ‘impact’ and ‘influence’, therefore although the Empire impacted on British society this does not necessarily mean that it influenced people’s thoughts and consciousness (Porter, 2008, p.102). So how would it be possible for historians in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries to assess the influence the Empire had on the British population at home in the metropole? New imperial historians such as Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose acknowledge that the Empires influence was ‘undoubtedly uneven’ (Hall and Rose, 2006, p.2), making such an investigation extremely difficult without using the influence of new ideologies and historical theories which have developed since the 1960s. The traditional empirical approach used by historians such as Bernard Porter and David Cannadine will undoubtedly hinder any form of understanding the cultural influences of such a theme as Empire.

Bernard Porter’s book The Absent-Minded Imperialists is ultimately concerned with what he regards as the ‘breadth and depth’ of the imperial impact on Britain, which he claims has been generally overrated in recent historiography (Porter, 2008, p.102). He argues many British people, possibly even a majority were almost entirely ignorant of the empire and that it wasn’t until 1880 that awareness grew (Porter, 2008, p.102). The idea that most of the British population were ignorant to Imperial concerns highlights a severe misunderstanding of the British population, especially the assumed ignorance of the working class. It has been claimed by a number of historians, including John MacKenzie that the abolition of slavery movement resulted in Lancashire textile workers leading a boycott of American slave grown cotton (MacKenzie, 2008, p.663), as well as claims that the abolition for slavery influenced the campaigns against the Corn Laws. Therefore Imperial (or ex-imperial) issues were not only acknowledged by British citizens, but also directly influenced their actions.

A critical read of new imperial history would cause many to question the motives and set out objectives of some of the recent works, especially as both Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose themselves acknowledge the impact of empire was often implicit and understated. Never do they claim that the majority of the population were essentially strongly imperialist with ‘gung-ho’ attitudes, nor do they go down the other route of describing Britons as anti-imperialist, yet they do acknowledge and rightfully so, that the everyday lives of citizens were infused by the presence of imperialism (Hall and Rose, 2006, p.2). This is also acknowledged by Patrick Wright who describes the empire as ‘omnipresent in the everyday lives of ‘ordinary people’ – it was there as part of the mundane… taken for granted, neither questioned nor especially valued’ (Wright, cited in Hall and Rose, 2006, p.22). The fact that the British Empire was such a large commodity and that empire was forever present in the metropole does make one question why historians neglected and ignored the question of the empires impact on Britain for so long. This is especially interesting considering Bernard Porters acknowledgment that the new imperial historian’s habit of seeing empire everywhere was scarcely surprising given that there was so much of it about during this period in certain forms (Porter, 2004, p.6).

It is obviously difficult to assess the impact of new imperial historiography without an understanding of its key theories and influences. Obviously historians of more traditional empirical approaches to the subject reject the influence of inter-disciplinary studies, post-structuralism and the cultural term. They also often claim that the writers influenced by these approaches are ‘theorists’ who merely speculate. As Porter himself writes ‘people who look for things sometimes find them when they are not there’ (Porter, 2004, p.13). At the same time though he acknowledges that the ‘facts’ rarely ‘prove’ very much and that no one can ever know for sure what the truth is (Porter, 2008, p.107). In his own words essentially he admits one can never know for sure to what extent the British public bought into imperialism, despite his best attempts to prove it played no part in influencing public’s thoughts. His main critique of the Culturalist view of empire is that it fails to ask how the connection between empire and culture was made and realised, rather than the realisation itself (Price, 2006, p.619).

The impact of the British Empire on popular entertainment ranging from literature to music is a prime example of how it subtly influenced the population at home. As Penny Summerfield claims the nineteenth century music hall was a ‘fount of patriotism’ (Summerfield, 1986, p.17), despite there being no evidence that the audience felt the sentiments they were singing deeply and unequivocally. That said there was clearly more to the music halls then a simple form of manipulation, and there must have been more to entice the paying public in then a lack of alternative entertainment. John A. Hobson previously described the music halls as a hotbed of ‘jingoism’ imported from the empire and fed into the minds of the middle and labouring classes (Hobson, 1901, pp.3-4). More recently however, Dave Russell suggested that the sheer weight of material implies the music halls must have actually catered for the public’s interests rather than constructing them.

‘There is far too much of it to be the result of music-hall writers creating, rather than, at least in part, capturing a genuine sentiment… Patriotism, broadly conceived, whether it be an interest in Empire, a hostility to Germany or a vague belief in British superiority, must have been a definite element in the consciousness of all classes’ (Dave Russell, cited in Richards, 2001, p.vii)

Similar sentiments are expressed by John Mackenzie who acknowledges that the pervasiveness of empire in entertainment reveals inseparable cultural practices and offers vital clues to the attitudes of different social classes and individuals (MacKenzie, in Porter, 1998-9, p.272). The huge success of art exhibits, the number of imperial exhibitions after 1851 and the amount of plays and theatrical productions both local and national highlight the interest the British population of all classes must have had for the Empire in general.

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the growing number of imperial literature and youth movements cannot be discredited as both influenced by popular sentiments and influencing the population. Despite Porters observations that most mentions of the empire in novels were nearly always incidental and minor (Porter, 2006, p.140) the fact that so much empire related literature was published highlights the market amongst consumers. As Joanne DeGroot shows, the consumer market for such literature grew from a readership initially focused on educated elites in the eighteenth century, to a wider middle-class audience in the nineteenth century (DeGroot, in Hall and Rose, 2006). This market continued to grow and develop with literature aimed towards the youth and children by the end of the century.

Rudyard Kipling, Rider Haggard and G. A. Henty are the most iconic and successful examples of a whole spectrum of empire writing which extended beyond fiction to include journalism, verse, travel narratives, journals, pamphlets and lantern shows (DeGroot, in Hall and Rose, 2006, p.176). The example of the Boys Own Paper alone illustrates the growing demand for such fiction with sales of 200,000 copies per week, rising to a readership in excess of 600,000 per issue by 1914 (MacKenzie in Porter, 1998-9, p.289). The youth of Britain must also be examined if we are to seriously assess how legitimate Porter’s above statement is. The youth movements that sprung up as a form of social control during the late Victorian and Edwardian period were hugely imperially based, Baden-Powell himself was a former colonial officer. The formation of organisations such as the Boy Scouts, Boys Brigade and Lads Drill Association have all been discussed by leading historians who examine the nationwide objective to mould boys of all social classes into model citizens, and as Michael Hatt words it, to carry on the work of empire (Hatt, in Barriger, Quilley and Fordham, 2007, p.155). Clement Attlee (1883-1967) himself puts the sentiments of such organisations perfectly when he claims ‘most of us boys were imperialists’ (Attlee cited in MacKenzie, 2008, p.663).

As the nineteenth century progressed, the belief and pride in Empire was steadily inculcated into the psyche of the British population, consequently a mass market developed in response to the trends consumers expressed through their purchases (Richards, 2001, p.14). This idea is supported by MacKenzie who links consumerism to brand loyalty, many brands of which reflected patriotic pride, symbols of empire and the excitement of imperialism (MacKenzie, in Porter, 1998-9, p.288). From popular brands selling the everyday items imported and associated with the empire such as: Players and Wills cigarettes, Brooke Bond and Lipton teas, Pears soap and Tate and Lyle sugar, in such a new consumerist society it is often hard to determine if customers bought these products because of their quality, price or patriotism for the British Empire. Although these items and brands would have been advertised using images of empire, at the same time they were placed in stores alongside bread, milk and other everyday essentials which makes it difficult to assess the impact imperialism had on the customer.

Unlike the purchase of fine silks and precious stones associated directly with exotic locations, teas, sugars and cigarettes had become part of the everyday, commodities that even the working classes were able to buy on a regular basis. It is therefore impossible to assess how much thought they put into the choices they made when buying everyday consumables, despite Prices assumptions that in the late nineteenth century ‘new methods of product advertising… emerged… to foster an imperial patriotism’ (Price, 2006, p.616). This highlights an example of how empire was constructed in British culture, but makes it harder to determine a direct link between how this was responded to by the public. Unlike the entertainment on offer, literature available and association’s people joined, some food purchases for example were not possible to get without them being imported from the colonies. Therefore, we cannot associate the purchase of such items with the same imperialist sentiment that the audiences of music halls and readership of imperial adventure stories suggests.

In conclusion, although Bernard Porter raises a valid point that we can never know or understand to what extent the British public felt and imagined themselves as imperialist, it is also important to remember that the traditional approach to history can only produce limited results. A top down, cynical history of imperialism will never highlight how the everyday population saw themselves and the world around them. A popular song, the catalogue of an exhibition, or the script for a radio broadcast or film although allowing us an insight into the forms (and even function) of imperial propaganda; do not show us to what extent they were actually received by the public (Thompson, 2005, p.83). However, as previously discussed there must have been a market for such products and entertainment or else low numbers and low revenue would have forced the artists, writers and producers to pick different subjects and step away from imperialism. We may never know how seriously the man in the music hall took the lyrics of By Jingo any more then we could know today how much a person eating a Big Mac supports the Americanisation of culture without asking them. What we can confirm though was that imperialism was all around the metropole during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and that it must have had some effect on the population. The large audiences at the exhibitions, the readership of imperial novels and the changes to consumerism might not disprove Porters statement but they do raise questions to its legitimacy and provide another way of interpreting culture during this time.

De Groot, J. (2006), ‘Metropolitan desires and colonial connections: reflections on consumption and empire’ in Hall, C. and Rose, S. (eds.), At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 166-190

Eley, G. (2010), ‘Imperial imaginary, colonial effect: Writing the colony and the metropole together’, in Hall, C. and McClelland, K. (eds.), Race, nation and empire: making histories, 1750 to the present, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 217-236

Hall, C. and Rose, S. (2006), ‘Introduction: being at home with the empire’ in Hall, C. and Rose, S. (eds.), At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-31

Hatt, M. (2007), ‘Uranian imperialism: boys and empire in Edwardian England’, in Barriger, T., Quilley, G., and Fordham, D. (eds.), Art and the British Empire’, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 153-168

Hobson, J. A. (1901), The Psychology of Jingoism, London: Grant Richards

MacKenzie, J. (1998-9), ‘Empire and Metropolitan Cultures’ in Louis, W. R. (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire, 5 vols. Vol. III: The Nineteenth Century, Porter, A. (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 270-293

MacKenzie, J. M. (2008), ‘DEBATE: ‘Comfort’ and Conviction: A Response to Bernard Porter’, in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 659-669

Porter, B. (2004), The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Porter, B. (2008), ‘DEBATE: Further Thoughts on Imperial Absent-Mindedness’ in Journal of Imperial and Commonweatlth History, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 101-107

Price, R. (2006), ‘One Big Thing: Britain, Its Empire, and Their Imperial Culture’, in Journal of British Studies, vol. 45, pp. 602-627

Richards, J. (2001), Imperialism and Music: Britain, 1876-1953, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Summerfield, P. (1986), ‘Patriotism and Empire: Music-Hall entertainment, 1870-1914’ in Mackenzie, J. (ed.), Imperialism and Popular Culture, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 17-48

Thompson, A. (2005), The Empire Strikes Back?: The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-nineteenth Century, Harlow: Longman


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