antoinette burton on teaching victorian imperialism
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The week that I received copies of these three engaged and thoughtful responses to Empire in Question I was two-thirds of the way through the syllabus for my 400 level course, Victorian Britain, which I teach in the department of History at the University of Illinois. In fact, we were poised between General Gordon’s vainglorious death in the Sudan—with its ramifications for both Gladstone’s second ministry and the “scramble for Africa”—and the partisan political work of Irish nationalists at Westminster—that eventuated in the ill-fated Home Rule debate of 1885-86 and the rout of the Liberals from office for the better part of two decades. Inhabiting the world of that syllabus as one often does at the upper-division level of the curriculum, where you can dig deeply into primary sources and build narratives and counter-narratives and engage students in lively debate about the fate of, in this case, nation and empire in “Britain’s imperial century,” I was struck at once by the sheer generosity of my colleagues’ comments, and by the limitations of my own syllabus as well. Had I ever mentioned, let alone thoroughly explored, the Anglo-Saxonism at the heart of much racial thinking in the nineteenth century that Elaine Freedgood references? One way to do so in the context of our syllabus readings would be to examine those Victorian suffragists who invoked Magna Carta and the relationship of “British cultures” to “Indo-Germanic races.” Though the staging of Magna Carta pageantry was a prominent feature of Edwardian suffrage work, references to the superiority of Anglo-Saxon civilizations to Norman counterparts were all over early Victorian feminist periodicals as well, and were especially evident in the work of Helen Blackburn. Identifying what’s at stake in conceiving Victorian Britain as a story about “islands of whiteness” and its counter-narratives is a pedagogical preoccupation for me, and it’s salutary to be reminded of the many ways that the colonial rule of racial difference—to echo both Partha Chatterjee and Catherine Hall—can be approached.
Do I sufficiently address the inter-imperial rivalries and cross-imperial pressures that shape so many of the major imperial events—and with them, the rise and fall of governments—of the later nineteenth century, from the Crimean War to the South African War? I typically end my course with the 1905 Alien Act and the founding of Sinn Fein that same year. But following Joanna de Groot’s observations it would be interesting, and provocative, to situate those confessional acts alongside the Russo-Japanese War, as a way of truly globalizing the end of Victoria’s reign and anticipating the conflagrations of 1914-1918. The specter of an aggressively imperializing Japan laying claim not simply to a place at the table at Versailles but to a kind of racial equivalence with white Europeans on the basis of its imperial success over Russia fifteen years before would make for an instructive complement to similar Victorian-era claims and presumptions. If this seems a temporal stretch for a Victorian history course, it is in part because determining the beginning and ending dates of “Victorian Britain” is an ongoing challenge of the syllabus, which I used to take to the threshold of World War I but which I now end, effectively, with the afterlives of what was formerly known as the Boer War on a variety of imperial and domestic fronts.
And last but certainly not least, do I pay enough attention to the political economy of the imperial nation-state in this period, moving beyond the metaphor of “flow” that some critics of the cultural emphasis of the imperial turn have suggested, both implicitly and explicitly, is insufficient for getting at the relationship of consumption and trade and “material processes” to citizenship and imperial political culture in a global frame?
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