Wikimedia The British Empire in 1907

The Folly of Empire

The Trouble With Rise-and-Fall Narratives

At least since Rome, when historians have told the story of empire, they have reached for grand narratives that follow a rise-and-fall trajectory. Empires, in these accounts, are defined by a period of gradual ascendancy followed by a steep decline. Such narratives have been especially persistent in histories of the British Empire, which often draw on the example of Rome’s catastrophic end to plot a melodramatic narrative stretching from initial glory to eventual defeat, spanning several centuries of British rule.

Yet this narrative is a myth. There was no glorious rise. Imperial power was never unambiguously successful. In its modern incarnation, the British Empire was only ever haltingly successful, especially given the vast and far-flung territorial possessions that constituted it from the 1830s to the 1930s. And just because the British defeated mutinies, broke strikes, and suppressed political dissent, historians should not assume that they secured unproblematic social and political order.

In fact, the British Empire was in constant trouble. Students of the British case are familiar with troublemakers such as Mohandas Gandhi or the Irish Republican Brotherhood—men who challenged the social and political order at home and abroad in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But British imperial historians too often do not make the disruption such figures caused the center of their accounts. Even when historians concede that these dissenters shaped the end of empire, they rarely recognize that unrest characterized the imperial era more than did expansion and hegemony.

British imperial leaders, far from presiding over order and stability, struggled across the nineteenth century to manage the unrest generated by imperialism and to contain the spillover of anticolonial sentiment in its most subversive forms “at home." Officials were routinely confronted with their own mismanagement, both in the everyday functioning of empire and in the crises that erupted with regularity. Historians would do well, in other words, to stop seeing empire in terms of rise-and-fall arcs and take a more skeptical view of the inevitability and unchallenged dominance

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