Indigenous Cultures and the Imperial History of Britain’s Empire

Madeline Grimm on John M. MacKenzie

Historians have long struggled to tell the complete story of the British empire, in part because Britain’s centuries-long dominion was described differently by historical actors living across its territories. In a new history of imperial culture, John MacKenzie suggests that scholars often sidestep these diverse perspectives and trace the empire’s political and economic expansion through the decisions of its administrators. According to MacKenzie, debating the good or bad intentions of imperial leaders effaces the historical realities of people living under the empire. 

As far as the academy is concerned, this critique is overstated: MacKenzie himself has been challenging the top-down approach to imperial history for several decades. However, outside of scholarly circles, arguments about imperialists’ motivations have driven a severe polarization in public perceptions of the empire in recent years. On the one hand, many British people and citizens of former colonies would now state that imperial administrators set out to exploit native populations and destroy local traditions. On the other hand, there is a resurgent defense of the empire as a beneficent and salutary enterprise. As with many debates, polarization has reduced the scope of discussion to only two narratives. But neither interpretation adequately explains the empire’s complicated power dynamics, and in this context, MacKenzie’s book is a welcome tonic.

John M. MacKenzie. A Cultural History of the British Empire. Yale University Press, 2022, pp. 432, $65.00 (hardcover).

During a 1930 visit to the Kenyan settlement of Nyeri, the biologist Julian Huxley noted the importance of cultural imperialism to the British: 

“No imperialists save perhaps the Romans have ever exported their domestic habits and their recreations so wholeheartedly all over the empire.” 

MacKenzie reveals that this process was not a zero-sum cultural conquest: the British never fully controlled where and how their cultural imports were adopted. The culture of British India or the British West Indies was a shared production, despite unequal power balances. In this light, imperial culture does not fit neatly into defenses or denunciations of the empire, and MacKenzie convincingly argues that attempting to erase or ignore the empire’s cultural legacies would erase the historical experiences of British colonists and indigenous peoples.

Rather than concentrate on a particular region or period, MacKenzie follows the global dissemination of British-sponsored ceremonies, sports, painting, statuary, photography, theater, and mass media, including newspapers, film, and radio. (A survey of just a few cultural exports not appearing here, including the English language, British literature and educational systems, and Christian religious practices, would stretch to several volumes.) MacKenzie limited himself to a group of activities that could be covered by a single book, which he categorizes as “the performing, visual, and material aspects of culture, and the modes through which these are generated and communicated to wider publics.” The meaning and structure of British pastimes varied across the metropole and would evolve further as they were adapted into indigenous lifestyles.

For example, MacKenzie writes that Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales made distinct cultural contributions to the empire, some of which he touches on in passing. In a chapter on team sports, we learn that the Scots favored football the most, whereas Englishmen considered cricket to be superior and a sport especially reflective of their “restraint, modesty, and lack of pride.” MacKenzie suggests that imperial culture borrowed the most from England, and he gives almost all his attention to English cultural pursuits. He attributes this imbalance to the program of cultural imperialism carried out by medieval and early modern English administrators and colonists in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Once the English conceived of themselves as superior to their neighbors, MacKenzie writes, they developed a commercial and military imperial apparatus that sent them into the Atlantic and beyond. 

Ironically, the British did not see sports as a useful tool of cultural imperialism and did little to encourage the adoption of British sports by colonial subjects, which is one of the empire’s most prominent legacies. Regardless of where they settled, colonists organized familiar games. Merchants transported thoroughbred English horses and foxhounds to India and South Africa, where, lacking foxes, gentlemen often hunted jackals. In Australia, kangaroos served as the substitute prey. Lower-class settlers were typically excluded from equestrian games, as these activities required horse ownership and often club memberships. But they found ample opportunity to play team sports like cricket and football. MacKenzie attributes the wide dispersal of these activities to the army, whose officers wanted to promote soldiers’ physical fitness and group loyalty and divert them from less wholesome recreations. Local populations began to take up cricket, football, and rugby in large numbers during the nineteenth century, and in the following century the success of teams composed of Australian, Indian, African, and Caribbean peoples fueled national pride and political resistance to British rule. 

MacKenzie’s analysis of cricket is synthesized from two renowned studies, C.L.R. James’ 1963 memoir Beyond a Boundary, which focuses on cricket in the West Indies, and Ramachandra Guha’s 2002 history of the sport in India, A Corner of a Foreign Field. Both authors note cricket’s unique potential for anti-imperial activity. For the English, cricket symbolized their intelligence and sense of propriety, thanks to its elaborate rules governing play, equipment, and dress, which included regular tea breaks. In the British West Indies and India, indigenous populations learned cricket largely through imitation, and, although some interracial matches took place, teams were organized along race and class lines. When Indians began to form their own cricket clubs in the mid-nineteenth century, they segregated themselves by communal differences. 

MacKenzie suggests this trend began in Bombay, where a group of Parsis, a wealthy immigrant community from Persia, formed a cricket club in 1848. Hindus and Muslims founded exclusive clubs soon after. (Given the role of communalism in Indian independence and Partition, MacKenzie might have spent more time exploring the relationship between sports and Indian identity, and how cricket transitioned from a British sport to the national sport of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.) The rivalry between these nations is still dogged by religious prejudice, although South Asian teams are no longer formally segregated by religious identity. It’s a shame that MacKenzie does not highlight more stories of local participants and observers, for whom he says sports were both “vital counter-hegemonic forces” and “key cultural transmitters of the values and attitudes of the colonists.” The lack of individual voices in such accounts, particularly non-British voices, is disappointing. It’s worth noting, as a point of comparison, how in Beyond a Boundary C.L.R. James traces the career of Learie Constantine, who pursued a cricketing career in England because of limited professional opportunities for West Indians in Trinidad and Tobago. In his play, Constantine rejected the “revolting contrast between his first-class status as a cricketer and his third-class status as a man,” by virtue of his simple affirmation that British cricketers were “no better” than West Indian cricketers. Witnessing how Constantine expressed his convictions, James realized the importance of rooting radical politics in tangible cultural experiences, even if, in other contexts, cricket affirmed British feelings of superiority. Individual stories like this offer compelling evidence of how cultural experiences shaped subjects’ attitudes toward the empire. 

Although individual characters may be few and far between in MacKenzie’s book, the surprising connections he constructs across the empire are valuable for historians and general readers alike. In chapters on imperial ceremonies, pictorial and sculptural arts, mass media and the theater, he traces the adoption and adaptation of British culture from a bird’s-eye perspective. The complicated history of nationalism and decolonization comes to the foreground in his discussion of imperial statuary. Across their realms, the British erected expensive bronze and marble statues of monarchs, military heroes, and imperial viceroys as a reminder of past triumphs and to express moral worthiness. Yet these potent symbols of the “imperial ego” were simply ignored by indigenous peoples until the twentieth century, when numerous British statues were removed or damaged in independent India, Pakistan, and Kenya. But states that acquired Dominion status, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, often kept their imperial statues while erecting new monuments to native military and political heroes. Many white citizens in the Commonwealth still feel pride in a national identity linked to the empire; at the same time, there is a vocal movement to recast these statues as representative of the bigoted ideologies that justified imperialism. 

When looking at the larger picture, it becomes clear that British cultural forms survived the early-twentieth-century wave of independence movements because, as MacKenzie argues, they were no longer exclusively British. “The nation-state order that succeeded empire,” MacKenzie writes, “continued to show features of the imperial cultural system, but each society had converted such raw material into new combinations expressing unique identities.” He implies that total cultural decolonization is impossible, something “easier to proclaim as an ambition than to identify as a reality.” MacKenzie is right that attempting to completely excise the remnants of imperialism damages a culture’s relationship to the past. However, it is also vital to remember that the exportation of British culture was a cornerstone of British imperialism, thus royal tours or international cricket tournaments will always bear a relationship to a colonizing empire.  

MacKenzie’s book offers a useful framework for understanding how Britain’s artistic and cultural heritage is linked to its imperial history and the relationships between postcolonial states and Britain today. But individual stories must be foregrounded in these projects. There has been a sustained effort in the last twenty years to revive the individual in global history and steer the field away from the impersonal, structuralist interpretations of historical change that animated the work of Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein. MacKenzie might have emphasized individual stories while preserving a broader perspective, as Clare Anderson models in her 2012 book Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, which tells the history of nineteenth-century colonialism in the Indian Ocean through biographies of slaves, sailors, and convicts. Anderson writes convincingly that keeping an eye on the individual helps historians demonstrate how “relations of power constituted empires,” without reducing imperial history to power relations alone. 

MacKenzie’s greatest contribution to imperial history is to remind readers of the centuries during which British people made art, played sports, produced films, and constructed buildings in connection to their empire and alongside indigenous peoples. This book demonstrates how easily a cultural activity can become deracinated from its “home” and serves as a testimony to a complex past and present. It sets aside the popular images of imperial benevolence and subjugation to reveal a more complete picture of the empire’s rich cultural contact zones, where indigenous peoples forged new ways of living that outlasted British rule.     

Madeline Grimm is an assistant editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. Prior to joining the magazine, she was a graduate researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Cambridge, where she focused on the intellectual history of the British empire in the eighteenth century. Twitter: @MadelineGrimm