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Capsule Review

Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire

In This Review

Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire
By David Cannadine
Oxford University Press, 2001 244 pp. $25.00 Purchase

This delightful and instructive book argues that historians have failed to treat adequately the interrelationship between the United Kingdom and its empire. Although many scholars have dealt with race, Cannadine argues, they have neglected an even more important factor: class. To him, the empire was about reflecting and reinforcing British social heirarchies, underpinned by "a seamless web of layered gradations ... sanctioned by tradition and religion." In India, for example, this precapitalist class system produced a "layered, Burkian, agrarian image of Indian society" that served as a model for later colonies. Public pageants centered on the British monarchy also played an essential role. Of course, this hierarchical image masked a far more complex reality, and Cannadine explores with subtlety this gap and its sometimes tragic consequences. He also shows how the empire's death at the hands of nationalism and "the ideology of equality" meant rejecting British social order and turning to the American model. As for today's Commonwealth, Cannadine concludes, it is no longer about power -- only sentiment.

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