Class and status drove the British empire, David Cannadine (2001) argues



Some years ago, I began to read about the British empire and gradually began to picture what the empire – and historiography related to it – was about. At the current post, I’ve added a recent update (see the Dec. 7, 2020 EuropeNow article which follows) to a post written many years ago: the main text at the post you are now reading dates from Aug. 5, 2012.

I began reading about the British empire because I wanted to learn more about an obscure British colonel who in 1797 built a log cabin at the western edge of what is now the City of Toronto. The cabin was torn down, the evidence indicates, in 1955. Accounts of local history being what they are, however,  many accounts claim, without evidence, that the cabin was torn down in 1952.

A Dec. 7, 2020 EuropeNow article is entitled: “Britain’s Postcolonial Crisis: The Denial of Racism in Little England.”

An excerpt reads:

This essay is not about statues inasmuch as it is about the contemporary denial of racism in Britain. However, my argument is that it is the same logic that inspires so many people to view the British empire as being a philanthropic endeavor—as seen in their vehement defence of colonial statues—that also drives the view that Britain is not “racist” in the present day. In other words, there is an inherent connection between Britain’s “postcolonial melancholia” (Gilroy 2004), and the country’s commitment to post-racialism. I will demonstrate this argument by focusing on how representations of a benign, charitable British empire relate to the state’s exonerating themselves from any responsibility for the disproportionately high COVID-19 mortality rate for Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) Brits in the present day.

A Nov. 29, 2013 Independent article is entitled: “Revealed: How British Empire’s dirty secrets went up in smoke in the colonies: Thousands of confidential papers were destroyed as British rule neared its end in many colonies.”

A June 29, 2015 New Yorker article is entitled “The Great Divide: The violent legacy of Indian Partition.”

The article notes:

The question of how India’s deeply intermixed and profoundly syncretic culture unravelled so quickly has spawned a vast literature. The polarization of Hindus and Muslims occurred during just a couple of decades of the twentieth century, but by the middle of the century it was so complete that many on both sides believed that it was impossible for adherents of the two religions to live together peacefully. Recently, a spate of new work has challenged seventy years of nationalist mythmaking. There has also been a widespread attempt to record oral memories of Partition before the dwindling generation that experienced it takes its memories to the grave.

An April 11, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “The Things I Carried Back.”

An excerpt reads:

My impatience with ideology has carried over in recent years to my encounters with the societies in the West that are my home: to the widespread propensity, as I have sensed it, for people who lack the excuse of brutal duress that is a constant in the totalitarian world to fall sway to the formulaic “isms” of left and right, each of them full of Yeats’s ‘passionate intensity,’ that excuse, and indeed smother, free thinking.

David Cannadine’s most recent book, The undivided past (2013) is discussed in a July 8 & 15, 2013 New Yorker book review.

According to the review, Cannadine opposes the tendency to view people as “belligerent collectivities.”

He is also described as favouring a focus on diversity within groups.

In the words of the reviewer, Cannadine argues that “The long history of Christianity and Islam, both of which comprise hundreds of rival sects, is not just one of conflict but also of peaceful cohabitation and collaboration.”

According to the review, Cannadine views polarized histories and binary us-and-them narratives as useful for politicians.

He is described as arguing that a history based on our “essential unity” rather than our divisions is our “just inheritance.”

Cannadine’s perspective is of interest. They stand in contrast to the perspective that underlies his earlier overview (described below) of what the British empire entailed.

I would add that there are limitations to the form of print journalism that is built upon narratives based upon conflict. Building a story based on opposing forces is one way to structure a narrative. But other ways to get the attention of readers, and media suitable for other ways of attracting and sustaining attention, are possible.

A related topic concerns the distinctions among fiction, nonfiction, and the borderland between the two genres.

With regard to fiction, I have an interest in the short stories of Alice Munro; Citizen Kane directed by Orson Welles; the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz: The story of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, a physician and a prolific writer born in Germany in 1878; and Berlin Alexanderplatz, the 940-minute (upwards of 15 hours) movie directed by Rainer Fassbinder. The movie is available as a set of DVDs from the Toronto Public Library. An Aug. 10, 1983 New York Times review provides a good overview of the movie.

A further work of fiction that interests me is Maus: A survivor’s tale (1958) by Art Spiegelman.

Of related interest is Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, film, and the death of Weimar culture (2009), a study by Peter Jelavich which in my view provides an excellent, evocative overview of the dynamics of the borderland between fiction and non-fiction at a particular era in history, at a particular region of the planet. The book establishes a context for Steven Heller’s Iron fists: Branding the 20th-century totalitarian state (2008).

The study by Peter Jelavich also helps one to gain understanding of James Tyner’s conceptualization of the role of the geographical imagination as a driving force in the occurrence of genocide.

A valuable overview regarding current conditions in Kenya is available in Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations (2008).

A March 21, 2014 Foreign Policy article addresses the history of decolonization and the concept of self-determination.

A May 6, 2014 Foreign Policy article is entitled: “‘Everyone Is Corrupt in Kenya, Even Grandmothers’: Is East Africa’s economic powerhouse becoming the continent’s newest lootocracy?”

An Aug. 15, New York Times book review is entitled: “Imperial Son: ‘Churchill and Empire [(2013)],’ by Lawrence James.”

An Aug. 28, 2014 Guardian article is entitled: “Closed shop at the top in deeply elitist Britain, says study: Elitism so embedded in Britain that it could be called social engineering, social mobility commission concludes.”

An Oct. 29, 2014 Spacing article by David Hulchanski is entitled: “Toronto’s mayoral election in four maps.”

The article notes: “Most western and northern European comparator nations, with the exception of the United Kingdom, are less polarized [than Canada] because they make better policy choices.”

A Jan. 16, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Kenya is run by mafia-style cartels, says chief justice.”

The subhead reads: “Top judge says corruption is endemic, with politics and organised crime increasingly linked.”

A Feb. 24, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Privately educated elite continues to take top jobs, finds survey: Privately schooled people still dominate law, politics, medicine and journalism despite signs of progress, says Sutton Trust.”

An Aug. 18, 2016 Guardian longread article is entitled: “Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire: The Harvard historian Caroline Elkins stirred controversy with her work on the crushing of the Mau Mau uprising. But it laid the ground for a legal case that has transformed our view of Britain’s past.”

A Sept. 26, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: The racist ideas of slave owners are still with us today: The surge in hate crime since the Brexit vote is one legacy of an overlooked period of British history.”

A Sept. 27, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “Prince William gets lesson in colonialism, cultural genocide at Black Rod ceremony: ‘The current Crown approach of deny and delay cannot continue,’ Grand Chief Ed John tells Prince William.”

An Oct. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Britain’s view of its history ‘dangerous’, says former museum director: Neil MacGregor, once of British Museum, says Britain has focus on ‘sunny side’ rather than German-like appraisal of past.”

A June 16, 2017 Atlantic article is entitled: “The Hoarding of the American Dream: In a new book, a Brookings scholar argues that the upper-middle class has enriched itself and harmed economic mobility.”

An excerpt reads:

As a result, America is becoming a class-based society, more like fin-de-siècle England than most would care to admit, Reeves argues. Higher income kids stay up at the sticky top of the income distribution. Lower income kids stay down at the bottom. The one percent have well and truly trounced the 99 percent, but the 20 percent have done their part to immiserate the 80 percent, as well—an arguably more relevant but less recognized class distinction.

A July 26, 2017 London School of Economics article is entitled: “Reading List: 8 Books on Indigenous Research Methods recommended by Helen Kara.”

[End of updates]


Oblique photo of Etobicoke Creek mouth, May 2010. Photo credit: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority

Aside from the broad outline of his career, we know little about Colonel Samuel Smith, who in 1797 built a log cabin near the Etobicoke Creek mouth in what is now Long Branch (Toronto, not New Jersey).

Extensions and siding were added to the colonel’s cabin over the years. The house was in continuous use for about 152 years from 1797 until around 1949. It was torn down in 1955.

We can say that the story of Long Branch as it relates to the presence of human beings, started with arrival of Palaeo-Indian nomadic hunters in the area about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. We can say, in a manner of speaking, that when we think of the area 10,000 years ago, we’re picturing a world that on many levels is distinct from the one that residents of Long Branch now inhabit.

We can also say that in 1797, Smith’s cabin was located, in a manner of speaking, in another country – another world – one that we can enter using our imagination, assisted by the available historical, archival, and archaeological evidence.

As with any country, in order to picture it, we must first imagine it, as Benedict Anderson has famously noted.

When the colonel first arrived, Long Branch was covered in forests. Not far from his cabin, now-disappeared smaller streams flowed into Lake Ontario. Once-enormous flocks of passenger pigeons, now extinct, gathered in the area. The Etobicoke Creek mouth, subsequently polluted and pretty much engineered out of existence, was a major wildlife habitat and scenic beauty location.

Colonel Samuel Smith was a loyal subject of the British empire, an empire that lasted close to 300 years. We can say, based on what we know of the empire, that class and social standing were arguably the key dimensions of the colonel’s life.

Ornamentalism: How the British saw their empire (2001) by David Cannadine focuses upon the empire’s heyday from the 1850s to the 1950s. As with a more recent study by Kwasi Kwarteng (2011), Cannadine (2001) places class very much to the foreground of analysis of Britain’s empire.

Concept of a vast interconnected world of imperial experience

In Ornamentalism (2001), Cannadine discusses previous books about the British empire.

One approach views the rise of the empire as the outcome of impulses originating in Britain. A first group of writers sees the impulses as primarily of an economic nature. A second group sees them in terms of military and strategic imperatives. A third group detects an altruistic impulse at play. A fourth group attends to law, governance, and constitutional evolution in imperial history. An alternative approach focuses on the imperial periphery, on the experiences of the peoples affected by the empire.

Cannadine prefers an approach that takes into account the ‘one vast interconnected world’ of the imperial experience. In that world, Britain was part of the empire, and the empire was a part of Britain: The metropolis influenced the periphery and was influenced by it.

Cannadine foregrounds class as key feature of imperial social structure

Ornamentalism (2001) focuses on how the British, at home and overseas, envisioned and imagined their imperial society. The author addresses the empire as social structure and social perceptions. The’s book intent, according to the author, was to understand the empire in a new and original way, as having been the vehicle for extension of Britain’s social structures and projection of British perceptions.

As in a previous book, Class in Britain (1998), Cannadine is concerned with a ‘layered, individualistic hierarchy,’ a model of British society that he asserts is more appealing and convincing than the two- or three-stage models of social structure – them versus us or upper-middle-lower class – adopted by others. He argues that to the extent that the British empire was a unified enterprise, it was driven by an effort to tie together the periphery in the image of the ranked social hierarchy of the metropolis.

He suggests, in that regard, that Britons saw themselves “as belonging to an unequal society characterized by a seamless web of layered gradations, which were hallowed by time and precedent, which were sanctioned by tradition and religion, and which extended the great chain of being from the monarch at the top to the humblest subject at the bottom” (Ornamentalism, 2001, p. 4).

Cannadine’s characterization of British imperial society has a mellifluous tone to it. Whether or not the characterization is apt, or whether the topic warrants the tone, is a question that naturally comes to mind.

In the hierarchical model to which he refers, both class and race are viewed as playing a role, but Cannadine generally foregrounds class as the predominant feature. With regard to race, by the end of the eighteenth century, British notions of racial hierarchy were exemplified in Cecil Rhode’s claim that “the British are the finest race in the world, and the more of the world they inhabit, the better it will be for mankind” (Ornamentalism, 2001, p. 5).

Starting with the British colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America, hierarchical attitudes and traditional preferences, both ethnic and social, including an attitude of contempt toward Indigenous non-white races, had been strongly in evidence from the beginning. A general hardening of attitudes toward colonial Indigenes subsequently found replication in the nineteen-century settlers in the four dominions of the empire including Canada.

Cannadine argues, however, that distinctions within the empire were not entirely related to a hierarchy of race. He notes that when the English first encountered the Native peoples of North America in the pre-Enlightenment sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they did not see them collectively as an inferior race. Instead, the author asserts, they saw the latter societies as hierarchical societies not unlike their own.

He adds that Britons’ sense of hierarchy “was not exclusively based on collective, colour-coded rankings of social groups, but depended as much on the more venerable colour-blind ranking of individual social prestige.” That is the book’s central argument.

Documentation of British imperial atrocities

Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005)

June 2017 comment regarding the British empire

I’ve been reading extensively, adding to my modest knowledge of world (including Settler and Indigenous) history, since the time when I originally wrote this post. It’s my sense, at this point in my reading, that the focus on class and status is indeed one of the salient features of the British empire.

Racism is also one of its salient features.

David Cannadine’s historical overview is of interest, but offers a limited, narrow view – because it skirts evidence related to racism – of what the operation of the British empire entailed.

In this context, a valuable overview of Settler history, British and otherwise, is offered in a balanced and well-researched study entitled: Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (2017).

James Q. Whitman, author of the above-noted study, notes (p. 141), “The British had aimed for world domination long before Hitler.”

A June 20, 2017 London School of Economics and Science article is entitled: “Book Review: The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees.”

1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    An Oct. 18, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Racial identity is a biological nonsense, says Reith lecturer: Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says race and nationality are social inventions being used to cause deadly divisions.”


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