Monday, 21 May 2012

Imperial History and the Public

I was at the National Maritime Museum at the weekend, and some things I saw made me think. I was in the excellent East India Company gallery (which was made with assistance from my MA supervisor, Prof. Huw Bowen), and at the end, it asks visitors to comment on the disputed legacy of the EIC.
As far as I could tell (and perhaps, as a scholar, it is difficult for me to have a 'member of the public' opinion), it was a well balanced, well told story, which both told of the immense riches the company brought to Britain, and  the effects, good and bad, this had on India and China.
The comments contained a predictably wide ranging spectrum of opinions. One Indian visitor reflected that British rule had united his country, and had, despite the bad, had lasting good effects on modern India. Several voiced disapproval of the policy of profit above all else, notably the plight of the Indian and Chinese. Both, I think, hold a lot of merit.
One, however, made me question myself. It was, in essence, a tirade against the 'bias' of the exhibition, stating that it focused on the bad only.The arguments are familiar to any imperial historian. We are taught to be ashamed of what was out country's crowning moment. All imperial historians push this myth, with their left leaning agendas.
It is often assumed this is the voice of an older generation, however. But I am starting to think it might not be. Recently, one of my students voiced a similar opinion about the course I was teaching. Frequently, when asked what I study, people respond with pride about the empire, assuming I am some sort of 1900s historian waxing lyrical about how we brought civilisation to the savages.
So where is this coming from? People often say that it is taught badly in schools, but I don't know of anyone who ever got taught about it before university. So if, not taught there, then where? Are people just taking the opinions of an older generation as fact? Are scholars like Niall Ferguson being seen as the most reasonable voice on the Empire? Or are imperial scholars out of touch with the public, and/or reason?
I would be interested to hear any views on this.


  1. Dear Steven (if I may), it has been some time since I last checked in on your blog. I'm glad to see that your research program is ongoing, and I read your post with great interest. Not having seen the National Maritime Exhibit to which you refer, and living/teaching university in the USA, I probably have no business making comment. But I do think you have raised an important issue. Here in the States, at least, the study of history seems to receive low priority in secondary education. So many of my students simply have no diachronic perspective at all when they enter as first-years. This is fixable, but the political climate on these shores seems antithetical to a critical historical perspective. That said, the real reason I'm writing to you is inquire whether you are familiar with the book cited herein: "The story of how oil went to sea on a large scale is a very interesting and is well told by Daniel Yergin in The Prize (approx. 800 pages). As touched on in my first post, it involved the Royal Navy, in particular, “Jacky” Fisher (First Sea Lord from 1904-1910) Winston Churchill, plus a cast of other interesting characters. Fisher is well known for modernising the Navy; by 1901 he was convinced of the need to convert to oil. Yergin describes him as “The God-father of Oil”. I haven't read Yergin's book but it sounds interesting. Do you know it, and if so, could you tell me whether it worth reading? All best to you, Paul

    PS -- Here's my source:

    1. Hello Paul,

      Thanks for reading this, and indeed for commenting.

      My focus is almost entirely on coal, and generally 1870-1900, so I haven't come across that book. I am familiar with the history to some extent, but it is is only an epilogue to my study really. There has been some recent work on it, however. I can ask around if anyone has read it though if that is of any help?

      Sorry to have not been of much use,

      Best wishes,


    2. Just to update you, not found anyone who has read it yet, but apparently Yergin is very good, so may well be worth reading. Also recommended is The Seven Sisters by Anthony Sampson.

      Hope that helps,


    3. Thank you so much, Steven. This is most helpful. I appreciate your asking colleagues for me. I note that my university's library does have Yergin's book. I'll check it out the next time I'm working there and need a break from my own research (which is in the field of linguistics, actually -- maritime history ca. 1880-1920 is a hobby, of sorts). I note from the online catalog that the book won a Pulitzer Prize. Thanks, too, for calling my attention to Simpson's The Seven Sisters, which I see is also in our library.

      All best to you in your work. Looking forward to reading more about it on your blog.


      Paul (Roberge)
      Chapel Hill, NC, USA