Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire

Once the purview of established university chair holders for whom empire radiated outward from center to periphery, British imperial history has undergone some important transformations in the last two decades. Not only have all manner of practitioners—literary theorists, cultural critics, and feminists—rushed in, but former colonials of all varieties have also explored terrains that others feared to tread, especially where the impact of empire on the metropole is concerned. The new generation of scholars has brought with it new tools for research as well, from Foucauldian analysis to poststructuralism to critical race theory, all in an effort to understand the role of British imperialism on both a local and a global scale and to recast the fixity of those structural identities in the process. Surveying these proceedings, David Cannadine has lighted upon the paradigms offered by Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) as the most influential of all recent developments. He does so because of its insistence on the role of “otherness”; because of the emphasis he believes it places on race as a category of analysis; and because of the attention he suggests it pays to the experiences of colonial natives. Cannadine’s new book is his rebuttal to the biases he perceives in recent scholarship on imperialism. In this eye-catching, synthetic brief for imperial history from the perspective of imperial Britons, Cannadine attempts to reclaim empire from contemporary Saidian influences and to make a case for it as a “class act”: the province of social history rather than the unwitting hostage of racial (and, to a lesser degree, gendered) interests, whether historical or contemporary.

Does it matter that Said is a straw man in this account, or that he can hardly be characterized as someone who championed subaltern “victims” as the true subjects of colonial history? Evidently not. Cannadine’s narrative leads readers through a simulacrum of the grand imperial tour. Colonies, mandates, and monarchs dominate, with geographical realities like “India” only briefly interrupting the march to the end (“Dissolution”) of empire. Relying on a vast secondary historiography, Cannadine reiterates his point about how class trumps race by offering examples across time and space. These are often illuminated by photographs that struggle to fulfill the interpretive promise of “ornamentalism.” From the twin images of the Maharaja of Gwalior and Lord Curzon (1899) that frame the opening to the one of Queen Elizabeth and King Hussein (1984) that closes the book, the pictures produce a decidedly orientalist effect, especially in the absence of any sustained visual analysis. By the end, Cannadine seems almost diffident about his overarching thesis. How else to explain the appendix, which attests in full and apparently unapologetic postcolonial mode to his own imbrication in a postwar decolonizing culture? Readers may wonder why ornamentalism merits a book rather than an essay, but only if they underestimate the Anglo-American appetite for narratives of empire that eschew the kind of attention to racial violence and struggle characteristic of some of the best work in the new imperial history.

Whether the events of September 11, 2001, will dull those appetites remains to be seen. More pressing for historians is to recognize the political significance of Cannadine’s rhetorical choices. Unlike many of his contemporaries contributing to the recent Oxford History of the British Empire (1998–1999), Cannadine has not opted for dyspepsia as his register for responding to what many see as the depredations wrought by recent comers to imperial history. Rather than pathologizing Said and his followers (who are in any event a diverse and by no means slavish lot when it comes to the power and possibilities of Orientalism), Cannadine acknowledges them and even anoints a few of their innovations in a series of ornamentalizing gestures reminiscent of that signature export of high imperial culture: patronizing indulgence. Critics of postcolonialism will no doubt rejoice at the caricature of Orientalism that Cannadine stages here. But if to ornamentalize is to trivialize, then this book has a lot to account for, since, as historians of modern Britain know, to dismiss or even subordinate race to class is to risk turning a blind eye to its ongoing impact in Britain, from London to Oldham and beyond. Those interested in doing imperial history in the twenty-first century are well advised to read Cannadine’s book against its real “other.” This is not Said’s Orientalism but rather Lord Bhikhu Parekh et al., The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (2000), which argues, among other things, for an end to the term “English” because of its racially coded connotations and the often murderous hatred of communities of color it has bred in the postimperial British Isles. The task of ornamentalizing that is an unenviable one indeed.

Antoinette Burton
University of Illinois,