New York Times AUG 25, 2001
Provocative Book Says Class System, Not Racial Pride, Ruled Brittania
By SARAH LYALL
LONDON, Aug. 24 "I have been caricatured as a Marxist," said
David Cannadine, who is nothing of the sort, "or as someone far too enthralled
by the establishment. But I'm somewhere in between."
Mr. Cannadine, a stylishly clever historian who is director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, clearly relishes the ability to be mislabeled from every angle. And with his new book, "Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire" (Oxford University Press), Mr. Cannadine has provided new opportunities for argument, lobbing a provocative new thesis into the crowded, squabbling arena of empire studies.
Mr. Cannadine's unfashionable contention is that the hierarchical class system that so defined England from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century was replicated in the building and administrating of its vast empire. And he says that it was notions of class as much as attitudes toward race that fueled the British empire the organization of it, the running of it and finally the dissolution of it.
His book serves as a riposte of sorts to Edward Said's highly influential work
"Orientalism" (1978), which argued that Western attitudes toward the
nonwhite world have traditionally been informed by a manufactured notion of
"otherness," used both to interpret and control it and to bolster
the West's own sense of identity. Mr. Cannadine feels that Mr. Said's thesis
is indeed valid, but only up to a point.
As for Mr. Cannadine's own thesis, it has thrown something like an ideological
grenade into the study of empire, whose practitioners generally regard race
and color and, more recently, sex as far more important driving forces than
In a recent interview in his office at London University, Mr. Cannadine said of Mr. Said, "I do think that his notion of how one part of the world views another part of the world is a wonderful subject." It is a large office, taking up two rooms and characterized by extreme academic dishevelment, with every spot jammed with stacks of books and papers including yellowing, crumbling vestiges from the 50-year-old Mr. Cannadine's college days.
"But I suppose I was trying to suggest that his way of looking at it
which is that there's the West and they're white and there's the rest of the
world and they are, as it were, colored, and there is simply a notion of superiority
and inferiority is undoubtedly part of the story. But there's another
story which goes along with it and in some senses may arguably contradict or
Mr. Cannadine has a long, serious face and large glasses that give him the look of a distinguished tropical bird. On an atypically hot summer day in London, he was wearing a dark suit. But the classic British-establishment effect was somewhat undermined when he laughed, saying he'd worn his one conservative shirt in anticipation of being photographed.
An expert in the social history of the British upper classes, Mr. Cannadine who is married to the historian Linda Colley and who has taught at Cambridge, Columbia and Princeton, among other places is the author of a dozen books, including "The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy" (1990). In conversation, he speaks very quickly, his words running into and almost over one another. He writes with style and aplomb.
"This book is a joy," Niall Ferguson wrote of "Ornamentalism"
in The Sunday Telegraph.
Besides "tipping its hat to Edward Said," Mr. Cannadine said, his title is a reference to the use of pageantry in the empire, the trappings of class. The British Empire, he writes, "was about antiquity and anachronism, tradition and honor, order and subordination; about glory and chivalry, horses and elephants, knights and peers, processions and ceremony, plumed hats and ermine robes; about chiefs and emirs, sultans and nawabs, viceroys and proconsuls; about thrones and crowns, dominion and hierarchy, ostentation and ornamentalism."
In Mr. Said's eyes, however, Mr. Cannadine just doesn't get it. "I thought
it was a perplexing book, because it was like somebody looking at a large human
body and concentrating on the tie and the jacket and forgetting the rest,"
Mr. Said said, speaking by telephone from New York. For one thing, he said,
Mr. Cannadine had improperly understood his argument in "Orientalism"
"that the notion of the Orient was the creation of outsiders, and
that it was a way of fortifying English identity and not just of creating other
races." In addition, Mr. Said said, Mr. Cannadine simply missed the larger
point about empire.
"He treats empire as a long daydream," he said. "But empire was a vicious thing. It's quite an astonishing failure of a historian not to note that empire was actually about power, about powerful people imposing their will on less powerful people."
But the scholar David Armitage, the author of "The Ideological Origins of the British Empire" (2000), among other things, applauded Mr. Cannadine for what he said was characteristic scholarly daring.
"As always, he's managed to set off a debate, which is going to be extremely
fruitful as we discuss his book," said Mr. Armitage, an associate professor
of history at Columbia and an old friend of Mr. Cannadine. "He may have
gone too far in provoking people with his thesis, but he's written an essay
it's not meant to be a total history and is clearly trying to
"He's pulling off a bold move to speak to what has been an amnesia about the relationship between class and empire," Mr. Armitage said. "Class has always been the elephant in the room."
Critics of Mr. Cannadine, particularly those who look at the empire from the
side of the conquered rather than the conqueror, tend to argue that the elephant
speaks with an English accent and may be smaller than Mr. Cannadine claims.
"It's a very British book," said Gyan Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton University whose field is Indian colonial studies. He did not mean that as a compliment.
"It's the kind of book I might ask my graduate students to read to give them an idea of how British historians continue to kick and scream against looking at empire in a more serious way," Mr. Prakash continued. Mr. Cannadine's most telling offense, he said, was his failure to acknowledge that however much the British Empire may have been run according to class, it was still based, fundamentally, on race.
"The empire itself was based on a racial divide you cannot get away from that," he said. And while acknowledging Mr. Cannadine's polished writing style and artful wit, he said that "Ornamentalism" was a "fluffy" piece of scholarship. "I identify this kind of writing with a nonserious, Oxbridge kind of high-table banter," he said.
But Mr. Cannadine whose book's subtitle, after all, identifies it as
a work about British attitudes toward empire said that he did not intend,
in "Ornamentalism," to consider class at the expense of race, but
rather alongside it.
"It's a very strong impulse in certain quarters at the moment to say that empire is all about race," he said. "But I'm rather skeptical of explanations which simply say here is one thing which explains everything. Empire is about a lot of other things, too, and unless we accept and recognize and explore the fact that empire is a complicated, nuanced thing, we misunderstand it, and we misunderstand how the world has developed since."
Mr. Cannadine's book also stresses that empire is crucial to an understanding
of 19th- and 20th-century British history and also of contemporary history,
as Britain still gropes for a useful role in its depleted postimperial world.
It is a point that historians say has not been so explicitly stated in this
way before, and even critics like Mr. Prakash applaud him for it.
"The book is a belated recognition of an argument that people have been making for two decades, that empire was central to the history of Britain itself," Mr. Prakash said. "British historians were writing the history of Britain within the British Isles, and what happened out there in the empire didn't concern the mainstream of British history."
Mr. Cannadine is precise in his language, temperate toward his critics and
open to debate, always leavening his opinions with "on the other hand."
Indeed, in an unusual fit of scholarly generosity or seen from another
way, an acknowledgment of holes in his thesis he has devoted a chapter
of "Ornamentalism" to possible arguments against it.
Much of the book is taken up by often amusingly over-the-top examples that bolster Mr. Cannadine's central point. According to the principle of "aristocratic internationalism" that governed British imperial attitudes, he writes, "princes in one society were the social equals of princes in another, and so on and so on, all the way down two parallel social ladders."
Thus it was that when the Hon. Arthur Hamilton Gordon was installed as governor of the newly annexed island of Fiji, he studied Fijian so that he could address the local chiefs in their native tongue and help bolster the established social order. Meanwhile, his wife was mightily impressed by the "undoubted aristocracy" and elaborate manners of upper-class Fijians. "Nurse can't understand it at all," she told her husband, referring to their imported English servant. "She looks down on them as an inferior race. I don't like to tell her that these ladies are my equals, which she is not!"
Similarly, in his eulogy to King Hussein of Jordan at a memorial service in
St. Paul's Cathedral in London, Prince Charles a keen proponent of the
old class structure, even as it seems to be toppling around his ears
noted that Hussein represented "a wonderful combination of the virtues
of the Bedouin Arab and, if I may say so, the English gentleman."
Mr. Cannadine, who was born in modest circumstances in Birmingham when Britain still had an empire, and who watched it disappear during his childhood, will not commit to an opinion on the merits of the empire itself. Reviewers and rival historians regularly make the assumption that because he writes about the upper classes, he is a snobbish supporter of the system he chronicles.
Not so, Mr. Cannadine said: "I don't feel I'm in business to hand out
brownie points retrospectively to historial events or phenomena in that sort
Part of what he wanted in the book, he said, was to recapture the way the empire actually looked, "because it's gone, because of how extraordinary it was, and because I wanted to get some perspective on how it worked and what its legacy in the postimperial world is."
New York Times Book Review AUG 26, 2001
'Ornamentalism': Married to the Raj
By FOUAD AJAMI
A quarter-century ago, James Morris gave Pax Britannica a magnificent retrospect
in ''Farewell the Trumpets.'' ''Is this the truth? Is that how it was?'' Morris
wrote. ''It is my truth. It is how Queen Victoria's empire seemed in retrospect
to one British citizen in the decades after its dissolution. Its emotions are
colored by mine, its scenes heightened and diminished by my vision, its characters,
inevitably, are partly my creation. If it is not invariably true in fact, it
is certainly true in the imagination.'' Morris, born in 1926, had seen the imperial
sunset, followed the retreating imperial armies. Now the British historian David
Cannadine, born in 1950, has come forth with his own evocation of the empire.
His generation, he tells us, had barely ''hung, by its finger ends, on the coattails
of empire.'' His project is, by necessity, a different enterprise, for the imperial
idea was destined to shift and change with time.
Cannadine is writing against the background of postcolonialism and postmodernism
and all the literature of third worldism that has produced ''history from below,''
from ''the periphery,'' and has seen precious little in the empire save for
its ''construction of otherness,'' its alleged racism and plunder and arrogance.
Though Cannadine may take issue with the observation that he has come forth
to defend the empire, something of a defense of the imperial idea animates his
thoughtful and spirited book. Cannadine is a student of British metropolitan
history and is best known for a seminal work, ''The Decline and Fall of the
British Aristocracy.'' ''Ornamentalism,'' his venture into imperial history,
is derivative of his concern with class in Britain. That imperial edifice was
less about race than about class and status, he insists. It was an aristocratic
system, carried to distant dominions by a predominantly rural gentry that valued
hierarchy, elaborated it and ornamented it, through the institutions of class
it found among the princes of southern Asia and the kings of the Ashantis and
the sultans of Malaya and the desert chieftains of Araby.
The British grandees who built and maintained the empire were squires ill at
ease with the modern world. In Simla and Cairo, in the White Highlands of Kenya
and in the pristine Arabian deserts, they recreated the traditional, layered
society they favored at home. There was escapism and fantasy, there was kitsch,
but, Cannadine insists, there was little racism. The taipans, the big merchants
in Hong Kong, may have maintained a color bar against the Chinese, but that
was the exception, not the rule. Truer to the imperial edifice was the sentiment
of one of its towering figures, Lord Curzon (viceroy of India, foreign secretary),
who thought of race consciousness as a lower-class attribute. For Curzon, a
man with roots in a country estate in Derbyshire that reached back 800 years,
the magic of empire was the splendor and the ceremony, the emirs and chiefs
who yearned for imperial honors and savored imperial ritual.
Britain may have been lost to democracy and industry, but the empire offered
the disaffected patricians an alternative; a better world could be had ''east
of Suez.'' For Cannadine, it is thus that the empire -- nostalgic, conservative
-- is best understood. It was about neither race nor profit. It was about ''antiquity
and anachronism, tradition and honor, order and subordination; about glory and
chivalry, horses and elephants, knights and peers, processions and ceremony,
plumed hats and ermine robes; about chiefs and emirs, sultans and nawabs, viceroys
and proconsuls; about thrones and crowns, dominion and hierarchy, ostentation
It had all begun, this culture of ornamentalism, with Benjamin Disraeli, who
passed the Imperial Titles Act in 1876 that declared Queen Victoria Empress
of India. ''This audacious appropriation consolidated and completed the British-Indian
hierarchy, as the queen herself replaced the defunct Mughal emperor at the summit
of the social order: she was now an Eastern potentate as well as a Western sovereign.''
Gone was the zeal for the remaking and the Westernization of India that had
been the ideal of Thomas Babington Macaulay and the reformers let loose on India
policy in the 1830's and 40's. The princes were now the pillars that held up
the Raj. And for nearly a century, until India's independence in 1947, the British
ideal called up an image of a timeless India to keep at bay the very forces
British rule was fostering: modernity, nationalism, the idea of a unified Indian
nation that the railroads and mass education had made possible. The architecture
of the Raj gave expression to this escapism. Its dominant style, ''Indo-Saracenic,''
consisted of ''flamboyant confections with turrets, domes, pavilions and towers,
atavistic in their cultural resonances, and redolent of continuity, order and
tradition.'' It was ''instant antiquity,'' Cannadine observes, the Gothic Revival
transported to India. In 1911, the ground was broken for a whole new imperial
capital in New Delhi. The Raj would implant itself there, away from Calcutta
and commerce, away from the agitators and the gathering storm.
The plumed hats and the ceremonial swords have been put away, the Union Jack
hauled down again and again, Cannadine tells us with some measure of nostalgia.
The empire expired as it had to; Empire Day became Commonwealth Day in 1958;
seven years later, Winston Churchill died, and his grand funeral was a requiem
of sorts for imperial power. There remained one big possession: Hong Kong. Its
handover in 1997, the centenary of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, brought
the imperial venture to a close.
In vast stretches of the old empire, the ground now burns, and plunder and breakdown are nationalism's harvest. In the privacy of their small worlds, away from the postmodernists and the radical historians writing ''peripheral'' history, there can be heard fond retrospects of the empire and its pageantry by ordinary, unfashionable men and women. Were these people to tell us what they recall of the empire's doings, I suspect that they would echo some of the truths of Cannadine's subtle and learned retrieval of that imperial history.
A choice was given the peoples of the British imperium: good government or
self-government. We know the choice they made. But the dead are owed a word
of gratitude, some acknowledgment of what they labored for and bequeathed in
Fouad Ajami is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of ''The Dream Palace of the Arabs.''