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Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195157949
ISBN-10: 019515794X
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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Imperialism, Cannadine argues, was a vehicle that enabled the British to replicate and export their own "hierarchical social structure" to their colonies. This need was especially pressing as industrialism changed the social order in their own country. In some undeveloped nations, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the Britons could start to build this stratified society from scratch. In other regions, such as India, Africa, and the Far East, they simply worked to preserve the already established order, such as the "caste-based indigenous Indian society" and the rule of the "Malayan sultans and African Kings." Cannadine stresses that the British system was not about race but about class and status. The British viewed most of their own people as far beneath these foreign chiefs, sultans, and pashas. Inevitably, though, the dominions became increasingly unimpressed by the pomp, ceremony, and British authority, and as nationalism grew stronger, all vestiges of British rule came under attack. Often repetitive and slow, this book reads like a university thesis, but the arguments and ideas are insightful. Appropriate for academic or large public libraries with British collections. Isabel Coates, Brampton, Ontario
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New Yorker

This revisionist look at the British Empire argues that it was primarily based not on a conviction of racial superiority but, rather, on a vast and complex social hierarchy, in which rank trumped color. Britain exported its élites—sending aristocrats, Gothic architecture, and pheasant as far afield as Australia—to create a simulacrum of Victorian society abroad, and also bolstered the status of indigenous rulers: Indian maharajas, Middle Eastern emirs, and West African chiefs. Cannadine is excellent on the uses of pageantry and on the kitschy extremes it had reached by the nineteen-twenties. He is convincing, too, in his assessment of how imperial grandeur was used to distract Britons from social upheavals at home. But although he tries to soft-pedal the racism of the Empire, he cannot disguise the prejudices of the colonists, and sometimes the anecdotes he cites to illustrate a non-racist world view seem to prove the opposite.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (December 5, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019515794X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195157949
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 0.6 x 5.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #186,314 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
David Cannadine, a self declared "Child of Empire" has what can only be described as an obsession with the British Aristocracy. Unlike some of his other works such as "Decline and fall oft the British Aristocracy" where he allows bittersweet emotions such as nostalgia to be evoked at the passing of an era, or the undisguised glee of an outsider indulging in schadenfreude in "Aspects of Aristocracy: grandeur or decline" this book presents a much more balanced analysis.
His thesis is that there was a complex interplay of class and race in the Empire, but in most cases class trumps race.
The defining example from the book is an exerpt from the "Raj quartet" where the british aristo identifies more clearly with his Indian counterpart who went to public school than to the uncouth white police constable. However the police constable viewed himself as superior to the Indian because of his race.
Its thesis accords well with my experience in public school at Winchester College in England where I felt accepted as a peer despite being Asian. But my same peers were openly disdainful of poor uneducated Pakistani and Bangledeshi immigrants. (They welcomed the educated Indians much more easily)
Perhaps these sentiments were what prevented mass support for Oswald Mosley and Fascism in the 1930s despite prevalent anti-semitism. It has been argued by John Lucas that Nazism as an ideology failed because Hitler had made his elite too small. The British extended their elites to the sultans, nawabs, emirs and kings all over the Empire and used them to bind the Empire together.
This book provides an interesting contrast to America where race is so much more important. Black and white interracial marriages are quite commonplace in Britain. In my opinion it better to recognize nobility in another person and disdain the baseness in another person regardless of the colour of their skin.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a much better book than I had originally expected. It is also a much easier read than I had anticipated. It's certainly not dry-as-dust narrative history. I had first read a review of the book in History Today which suggested that Ornamentalism by David Cannadine cast a new light on the importance of rank and ceremony in binding the British empire together across the globe, especially during its peak from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. This was enough to whet my appetite. That, and an interesting reminder in the title that Edward Said had already written in his book Orientalism about the fascination that the East (Near, Middle or Far, depending on the distance from London as the epicentre) had for British empire-builders, and a suggestion that the ideological traffic of empire was more than just a one-way street. Ornamentalism certainly delivers on its promise in painting a complex cultural picture of cultural and ideological interchange between ruling hierarchies throughout the British Empire. The author shows how this order was identifed and then explicitly sustained through mechanisms such as the British peerage system (think about all those thousands of OBEs). Cannadine also shows how order abroad confirmed and upheld order at home. This "Burkean" view of society bolstered (even upholstered) the fortunes of conservative British politicians from Disraeli to Churchill. As this world view dissolved through the twentieth century, so did British support for carefully constructed local elites overseas. In my own country, small conservative New Zealand, attachment to the Mother Country died hard. British titles were only abolished in New Zealand in 2000. Ornamentalism argues its own corner.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
David Cannadine supposes that there might be more to the British Empire than simple racism. The reviews here at Amazon neatly prove his supposition to have been true. The critiques offered are all of the 'you did not pander to the antiracist ideology; you are an evil racist supremacist and you write badly, too' genre.

Well, Cannadine writes superbly, in the detached manner not of a 'child of the empire' but of an Englishman who wonders whether, indeed, he was one, and, if so, how much?

His argument apparently has taken his PC readers so much by surprise that they cannot comprehend it, but to someone, like myself, who lives in Hawaii, it is a commonplace. Hawaii was colonized by Americans, not Britons, but they behaved exactly the same -- despising, or at least keeping their distance from, the commoners; but happily intermarrying with the 'natural' aristocracy. Once Hawaii became a republic and the aristocracy was extinguished, they stopped intermarrying with them, as all natives were then 'common.'

This little story from the islands was written large in the British Empire. Cannadine does not pretend there was not a color line, but he notes -- and any Australian would say, 'Right, mate!' -- that the elite in the metropole despised the white colonists more than the black elites they chose to cosset and use in the policy of indirect rule.

Britain was becoming an urban and more democratic place, but the men who ran it were not, as Arno Mayer described (for Europe as a whole) as 'The Persistence of the Old Regime.'

The proconsuls of empire and the men who selected them in London were devoted to a rural, hierarchical, anticapitalist society; some explicitly yearned for 'feudalism.
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