c. a. bayly
Even a generation ago, British domestic history still seemed like a celebra-
tion of G. M. Trevelyan’s vision of English exceptionalism. This was a
history only occasionally, if rudely, interrupted by neo–Marxist historians’
stories of class struggle. As for imperial history, the Whig picture of the
progressive development of colonial freedoms had, it is true, been eroded
by the rise of a nationalist hagiography and a related Marxian historiogra-
phy of colonial exploitation. Yet much of what was taught about empire
in Britain and the U.S. still concerned constitutions and the ‘‘man on the
spot,’’ while colonized people were either ‘‘collaborators’’ or politicians
on the make, often both at the same time. The changes that have occurred
since about 1970 have encompassed a conceptual revolution that has fur-
ther destabilized the Whig model and focused attention on race, gender,
and the formative influence of empire on British life and thought. An-
toinette Burton, as these essays show, has been a leader and exemplar in
this revolution in historical writing.
Many of the most fully researched and powerfully argued pieces in this
collection concern women, gender, and empire. Burton began, as it were,
with the ‘‘woman on the spot,’’ appalled by the absence of women in the
archive and in imperial historiography. She was spurred on by Gayatri
Spivak’s classic article ‘‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’’ But she moved for-
ward, through studies of Mary Carpenter and the Zenana Mission in
India, not only to analyze what has been called ‘‘maternal imperialism,’’
but also to show how women’s activism in the empire contributed power-
fully, if ambivalently, to gender politics in Britain itself and to the rising
demand for women’s su√rage. Empire, then, was a field of forces within
which Britain itself emerged as a modern nation.
Previous Page Next Page