Roundtable on Histories of Empire: the past in the present

The history of the British Empire has been reinvigorated recently by the new imperial history turn and a focus on the social and cultural histories of imperialism. However, the narratives, echoes and influences of imperialism have not yet been fully integrated into modern British histories. There is still a clear distinction in many British universities between ‘British’ and ‘imperial’ history (although this distinction is blurred in many international institutions), and many historians of British domestic history seem reluctant to think about how the imperial impacts on their work. Universities in Britain are being confronted with their own complicity in imperial histories – the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, for example, which began in Cape Town but soon reached Britain amid cries for syllabi to be decolonised – in a way that makes many institutions deeply uncomfortable. Researching and teaching the histories of Britain and the British empire, in a world where narratives and identities are both fragile and weaponised, is increasingly a political act.

Furthermore, the British media and public has a troubling relationship with imperial history; according to a 2016 YouGov poll, 44 per cent of people surveyed felt that Britain should be ‘proud’ of Britain’s imperial history and 43 per cent said that the British empire was a ‘good thing’. In the context of the referendum on British membership of the EU, politicians and journalists have frequently turned to a narrative celebrating an imperial past when Britain was ‘great’; talk of Brexit and the British – especially the British ‘working class’ – has frequented elided or negated entirely the historic and contemporary presence of migrants from the empire within the (ex)metropole. Similarly, the long history of white British migration out from the metropole has been ignored by a media saturated with stories of immigrants ‘swamping’ the United Kingdom. Historians of the British empire might have moved away from celebratory accounts of civilising missions, but this has not been reflected in a wider popular understanding; slavery, for example, comes into popular narratives only through celebration of British ‘humanitarianism’ in ending the slave trade in 1807, with little interrogation of either how Britain perpetuated slavery before and after this date, or slavery’s centrality to the political economies of empire and metropole.

This roundtable brings together historians from different periods, regions and approaches to ask questions about how empire should be understood within modern British history. Some of the questions to be explored will include: the different turns in imperial history and how our own work relates to them; questions of empire and heritage, community outreach and the role of museums; ideas about how to communicate imperial history to the public and how to counter existing celebratory histories/silences in public discourse about empire; the ways in which teaching and researching British imperial histories can be a radical political act; and how to think about the echoes of empire in contemporary British politics and culture. We will also welcome contributions from the audience and further questions exploring topics along these lines.

Charlotte L. Riley, University of Southampton

Christienna D. Fryar, SUNY Buffalo State

Clare Anderson, University of Leicester

John McAleer, University of Southampton

Katie Donington, University of Nottingham

Saima Nasar, University of Birmingham

Sumita Mukherjee, University of Bristol

Sundeep Lidher, University of Cambridge

Chair: Sadiah Qureshi, University of Birmingham