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Edward Said famously argued in Orientalism that Europe’s long-standing racist perceptions of the East constructed a view of the oriental “other” as a foil by which the Christian West defined itself. The Orient, Said writes, helped to define the West as “its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience,” and this, in turn, led Europeans to justify imperialism as a project of extending the benefits of progress and western civilization to oriental peoples (Said, 2). Rather than critiquing Said’s work for its internal contradictions and theoretical shortcomings – as D.A. Washbrook, for example, has done – David Cannadine responds by shifting the emphasis from race to class. “We should never forget,” writes Cannadine, “that the British Empire was first and foremost a class act, where individual social ordering often took precedence over collective racial othering” (10).

For Cannadine, an historian of British class and the aristocracy, the empire “was at least as much about the replication of sameness and similarities originating from home as it was about the insistence on difference and dissimiliarities originating from overseas” (xix). Britons tended to understand the empire in the class terms familiar in Britain. According to Cannadine, this was particularly true of the British governing classes, who sought out cultural and social similarities among the indigenous elites based on British notions of class and hierarchy as a way of creating alliances and winning collaborators. “Titles and orders, ribbons and stars,” writes Cannadine, “helped to promote a sense of common belonging and collective participation, and it created and projected an ordered, unified, hierarchical picture of empire” (98).

Cannadine’s critique of Said is explicit. “It is time we reoriented orientalism,” he writes. “The British Empire was not exclusively about race or colour, but was also about class and status” (125-26). It could be argued that Cannadine overstates the case for class. When one is searching for evidence of a particular type one is bound to find that evidence ubiquitous. Nevertheless, where Cannadine’s study is stronger than Said’s is in his account of the limitations of “class” as an organizing principle – perhaps a contribution of Linda Colley, Cannadine’s wife and one of Said’s chief critics, who pointed out that British views of race not only changed over time but were also considerably more complex than Said’s theory of racial “othering” allows. Cannadine readily acknowledges the gap between the theory and practice of a hierarchical, class-based empire. Collaborators not only defied the British during they heyday of imperialism, Cannadine writes, but equally throughout the period of decolonization indigenous peoples repudiated the ornamental proconsular regimes and swept away the “entrenched aristocracy” of the old social order. Thus, Cannadine’s Ornamentalism does not simply criticize the weak historical methodology, distasteful jargon, or even the theoretical weaknesses of post-colonial theory. Rather, Cannadine argues convincingly that class, as much as race, shaped the course of the British Empire. In doing so he demonstrates the complexity that Said and the post-colonial theorists fail to account for.
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VINE VOICEon August 7, 2002
This book presents a clear and concise perspective of the British empire. Not only does the author give a good general overview of this huge topic, but his views are clear and to the point. The empire meant different things to different people. What the author has tried to show is that the British did not base their empire on race, but class. An important distinction which balances many of the anti-empire racial perspectives that politically correct historians have been so fond of pointing out recently. Cannadine agrees that there was a racial element for sure, but that class hierarchy and ceremony were the predomenent factors involved. Seen in this way we get a much different idea of what the Empire was to different people. It is less a Black and White view which may not be popular to those who like to see things in more simplistic terms. Still, a nice read, with clear and concise writing. It will deffinitely stimulate your thoughts on the topic.
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on September 9, 2001
Monarchs and aristocrats are not very pleasant people. Rulers like Wilhelm II, Victor Emmanuel III and Hirohito have all played their part of making their country safe for fascism and dictatorship. Even the British ruling house are not a nice lot; more often than not they are philistine, reactionary and unimaginative. But the historian of aristocracy-AH, there's a different subject altogether. David Cannadine in his various books and collections of essays have portrayed in subtle, mordant detail the world of the declining aristocracy. Whether it is discussing the inability of Winston Churchill to get off the London Metro, or George V's inordinate admiration for shooting small birds and collecting stamps; whether it is the fact the George VI had one of the five greatest art collections on the planet but was too dull to appreciate it, or whether it is how the British monarchy moved from the amateurish funerals of George IV and William IV to the top notch rituals of the Late Victorian era, Cannadine provides a humorous sceptical eye on the world of monarchist kitsch.
Cannadine's latest book is fundamentally flawed, but it is based on wide reading, is gracefully written and contains many fascinating details. The book has been advertised as a new approach to understanding empire: instead of it being based, as Edward Said supposedly argues, on racial hierarchy, it was really based on class superiority. Actually Cannadine argues that class "was as important as (perhaps more important than?)" race. And so Cannadine discusses how in the "white dominions" the British sought to ensure strong governor generals, aristocratic upper houses, and elaborate new orders. We go to India where the British treat the hundred or so princely states with elaborate tact and generosity. We see the British working with local princes and rules from Fiji to Malaya to Zanzibar to Ghana. In the twenties and thirties we see the British prop up new quasi-independent monarchies in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. All over the world we see among the British officials and the local rulers the world of the countryhouse, the fox hunt and the cricket match. Naturally enough this imperial order was obsessed with giving itself honors and glories, such as the Irish Lord Dufferin, who eventually got a "proper" English peerage, as well as the governor generalship of Canada, the viceroy of India and the knighthoods of six separate orders. There are no fewer than six Lake Victorias, while cities and towns and every conceivable form of geological and geographical body was christened after the queen from British Columbia to Belize to Rhodesia.
This effusion of monarchist kitsch is very interesting, but what is its larger significance? Cannadine himself has to admit that despite their endless appetite for royalist cant, conservatives in Canada and Australia never gave their aristocrats more than an ornamental position. He also admits that in the "white dominions," including South Africa, there was no pretence of any arrangement with the indigenous population, who were dispossessed and disinherited. He also agrees that the British exaggerated the effects of caste, that many local rulers were venal puppets. But the major flaw with Cannadine's argument is that Said and his colleagues will not fit into Cannadine's misleading race/class dichotomy. Said focuses as much on religious, technocratic and Zionist prejudices as much as race. And as Barbara Fields has pointed out in two brilliant essays (which Cannadine has mysteriously ignored) "racism" is not something separate from class. After all, what unites the subordinate status of African-Americans in pre-1865 law is not their skin colour, which varies considerably, but the fact that they are almost all slaves, ex-slaves or the descendants of slaves. The development of racist ideology cannot be viewed separately from the class struggles of the past. As Fields puts it, the English were not enslaved in the 17th century because they benefited from centuries of previous struggles. By contrast Africans could claim no such benefit. Racist ideology is as much a mutation of class ideology than it is an alternative.
And so larger questions of the effect of Britain on their colonies and the effect of colonialism on British life and society are not really developed. In order to do that, we would have to look at the overwhelming colonial majority, not the small elites that the British flattered. And we would have to look at racial ideologies, the economic impact of empire, and the "wages of whiteness." Some imperialists may have preferred the "stability" and "organic" nature of colonial India. But most Englishmen viewed this stability as stagnation and treated Hinduism and Islam with contempt. Why else would the British churches concentrate so much on missionaries? And Cannadine makes no mention of miscegenation, a taboo that has been a theme of Forster and Scott and many others. The British may have admired their puppet monarchies in the Middle East. But the most important effect of their mandates was, as Tom Segev has pointed out, to insure the formation of Israel, whose socialist and nationalist ideology was as far from Ornamentalism as one could get. Edward VII, as Prince of Wales, may have stood up for the King of Hawaii, but that did not prevent the King's sister from being overthrown in a vulgar coup by the Americans. There are some errors in the book. Kwame Nkrumah was not a Marxist, South Yemen was not a Soviet satellite, and Canadine refers to "pre-1776" Ontario when he obviously means "post-1776". The ending, however, is interesting as Cannadine discusses what the empire meant during his childhood, less a home of racial others than as an abstraction of power that was slowly dissipating away into irrelevance.
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on February 15, 2004
Cannadine does an excellent job of presenting an alternative view point to the typical historiography of the British Empire. Race has always been considered a vital component of Britian's empire. However, Cannadine demonstrates the role class played in the Empire.
While Cannadine may have over played the role of class; he does present an interesting theory. This text is well worth a read. It is concise and may give you a new perspective of the British Empire.
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on May 30, 2011
This is a good, but not great, work. For a more thorough investigation of this topic, read "The Decline and Fall of the British Empire" by Brendon.
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on March 12, 2003
Professor Cannadine has already produced several loving portraits of the British aristocracy and a biography of one of its earlier chroniclers, G. M. Trevelyan. Now he adds a celebratory image of the British Empire, puffing it as the greatest show on earth.
But there is nothing original in this book. It is based entirely on secondary sources and anecdotes; for instance, he recycles the ancient jokes about the CMGs, KCMGs and GCMGs of the hugely tedious honours system.
This is an imperial-minded study of the Imperial mentalite. He displays (and himself clearly shares) the British ruling class's hierarchical and rural fantasy world, which they clung to in fear of the real world of industry, cities and democracy. He tells us of the British-imposed Viceroy of India, who in the 1930s had no fewer than 6000 servants! Like all too many historians, he indulges in abject hero-worship of Churchill the bugler of Empire.
In an extraordinary passage he writes, "For as the British contemplated the unprecedented numbers massed together in their new industrial cities, they tended to compare these great towns at home with the `dark continents' overseas, and thus equate the workers in factories with coloured peoples abroad." So `the British' observed the workers in Britain's factories, who in the eyes of Cannadine, and of the ruling class, were obviously not British at all!
In a book about Empire and class, Cannadine manages to write the phrase `ruling class' just once, and avoids the term working class altogether. As active subjects, he much prefers terms like `the British' and `the official mind'. The word `domination', when he uses it - rarely - is always in inverted commas.
Cannadine's October 1998 article in the Financial Times showed what a Blimp he is. He claimed that England - he meant Britain - was not `a particularly unequal society', and seriously suggested that "the best way to make our nation a classless society" would be "that we all stop talking about class." This book reveals the same crass idealism; not surprisingly, the Thatcherite bigot Niall Ferguson praises it fulsomely!
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