M. Thomas u.a.: Arguing about empire

Arguing about empire. Imperial Rhetoric in Britain and France, 1882-1956

Martin, Thomas; Toye, Richard
288 S.
$ 35.00
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Dr. des. Wolfgang Egner, Universität Konstanz Email:

In June 1877 the Liberal Edward Dicey wrote an enthusiastic article, Our Route to India, in which he argued for the expansion of the British Empire.[1] By publishing this essay he started a political quarrel within his own party and a public debate about the nature and destiny of the British Empire. He and his opponent William Ewart Gladstone determined the parameters for the debates about imperialism for the years to come. Most of the geopolitical arguments about the Empire were connected to other empires. Especially the connections between the British and French Empire were close and their imperial rhetoric was interrelated. The book Arguing about Empire takes this entangled history as starting point and focuses on the rhetorical and political interdependence between both empires in the times of crisis.

The seven chapters of the book deal with the time from 1881 (rather than 1882 as the title implies) to 1956, using a series of imperial crises as case studies for the rhetorical structures of empire and British-French co-imperialism. In this book the rhetorical structures are the ways how people talk about empire. The main sources are newspapers, political speeches, diplomatic and domestic governmental papers and parliamentary sources from several archives in Britain and France. Each chapter treats moments of crisis or expansion with high involvement of both the British and the French Empire: the first chapter contrasts the creation of the French protectorate in Tunisia in 1881 with the British invasion of Egypt in 1882. The chain of events continues with the Fashoda incident of 1898, the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911, the Chanak crisis surrounding the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1922, British relations towards the Vichy Regime and Free France during World War II (taking up two separate chapters), and the Suez crisis of 1956. All of these case studies are situated in North Africa or the Near East as the imperial interests of France and the United Kingdom had the most important overlaps in these regions. This selection shows that Arguing about Empire is by no means a purely discursive history as the title may imply, but a political and diplomatic history.

The authors approach imperial rhetoric from afar, overviewing the debates about imperialism to investigate the interwoven structures of the rhetoric of imperialism to shed light on the unstated interests in the building/sustaining of an empire. The authors rarely focus on single rhetorical tropes or arguments, but on general shifts in the imperial languages. Therefore quotations are rare. The authors approach is to show the general debate and context of the imperial rhetoric. The aim of this analysis is to understand and situate the function of rhetoric in domestic and international power struggles. It is shown that the preferences of different parties for specific kinds of imperial argumentation evolved together with their political goals. For example, the authors argue that the trope of the absent minded imperialist was created as a mode of self-defense for politicians (p. 82).

Beside this general goal to situate the function of rhetoric, each chapter is an analysis of the Franco-British relations in the addressed crisis. For example, the first chapter on the occupation of Tunisia and Egypt contains a knowledgeable summary of the political crisis. The political situation in France and Great Britain is described in its domestic, colonial and international facets also taking into account the situation in Egypt and Tunisia. Even the interrelation between political speeches and the stock market prices (pp. 39-40) is described. The chapter culminates in the thesis that symbolic resources like honor, respect and esteem were psychologically no less important than material interests for the empire building of the late 19th century (p. 48). In so doing the chapter makes useful remarks on how the political debates in the two empires were interrelated and how the different ways of talking about empire brought about very similar results in politics. Therefore, chapter seven is a further example. The British and French government chose the same reaction in the Suez Crisis of 1956, although the political debate and system were completely different (p. 228).

The two authors wrote an updated history of Franco-British imperialism and its relations. It is a history of imperial relations at its best. The introduction is a useful summary of the recent debates on imperial, international and global history, taking criticism such as the postcolonial one seriously, but also creating a stimulating methodological framework for their own study. The theoretical introduction will be very useful for students interested in the field. The chosen timeframe of the study highlights the connections between the different crisis and changes in the political culture of both empires. It is an entangled history that links the domestic political contexts to party politics and public debates and shows their considerable impact on international relations and vice versa.

The approach however comes with a problem. The authors develop a narrative which almost completely excludes the involvement of other states and colonial subjects in the particular crisis. The authors anticipate the criticism arguing that “French and British imperial rhetoric […] ‘made up’ the colonial peoples over whom it claimed dominion” (p.14). The exclusion would be justified if the chapters were limited to the imperial discourse, but understanding rhetoric as “above all, a social phenomenon” (p. 8), social groups who were also part of the structures of international relations would have to be included. For example, in the second chapter on the Fashoda incident, there are only marginal references to the situation in Egypt or Sudan, and other imperial powers are missing. Another example would be the fourth chapter on the Chanak Crisis that sidelines Mustafa Kemal, one of the main protagonists in this crisis. The size of the topic obviously demands selections of the type, but the assembled narrative creates the distorted image that these crises were exclusively Franco-British rather than international, and colonial subjects lacked agency.

The missing of a systematic analysis is the second weakness of the study. The authors make many significant contributions to the field of imperial studies, but the reader has to find them on his or her own in the vast material of the chapters. The conclusions to each of the sections serve mainly as bridges between the chapters. The final conclusion is an epilogue rather than an analytic conclusion; a summary of the most important results of each chapter would have been useful. However, the reader can put together the fragments and gain insights into the intricate liaison between rhetoric structures and imperial politics.

Arguing about Empire is a fascinating book that should be read by anyone interested in imperialism, international relations and political culture in the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. It uses rhetorical structures as a new lens on imperial and international history. This new perspective highlights many new insights, especially concerning co-imperialism, over an enormous timeframe. This approach of rhetorical structures as new access point to imperial and international politics might bring new life into the discipline and will encourage further research on trans-imperial rhetoric.

[1] Edward Dicey, Our Route to India, in: The Nineteenth Century, 1 (June 1877), pp. 665–685.

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