What has the British Empire done to you? This is a question asked by two very different guest speakers at the University of Southampton in the past couple of weeks. The first is the renowned political journalist, TV presenter and beard aficionado Jeremy Paxman. His study of Empire has been chosen for the university’s One book, one Southampton scheme, which aims to engage Southampton local residents with university staff and students on a particular topic.
The second was sociologist, postcolonial theorist and Warwick University Professor Gurminder K. Bhambra, currently visiting fellow at Princeton. Professor Bhambra was invited to give the annual Marshall Lecture, in which she discussed Paxman’s interpretation of the British Empire.
At the start of his book Paxman raised the question of what ruling the world did the British people themselves. He then proceeded to ignore this question throughout the rest of the book, but that’s OK because Paxman is totally cool with people who avoid answering questions:
Paxman, a one-nation Tory, has a very one-nation Tory view of Empire as well. Missionaries in Africa really cared about the people they were converting, and though there was violence lots of good things came out of the British Empire as well. His lecture showed paintings of the British chatting with Indians over a relaxing cuppa, or mingling together at a friendly cock-fight.
Bhambra’s analysis of Paxman’s vision of empire was superb. His history, she argued, dwells on all the nice stuff. He rightly decries slavery as ‘one of the most disgraceful episodes of British history’, but diverts immediately to abolitionism. The government, meanwhile, was ‘complacent’ about the slave trade rather than ‘complicit’. In short, Paxman is writing old Whiggish history. It’s the sort of history that emphasizes British progress, British liberty and British exceptionalism. Of course Paxman’s history is not as nauseating or whitewashing as the old Whig historians of the 1920s. H. E. Egerton, for example, wrote about British masters who earned their slaves’ affection and admiration through kind treatment. No, Paxman is clear that the slave trade was truly atrocious. His focus, however, is weighted heavily towards the abolition movement, giving the impression that the Pax Britannica empire of the nineteenth century was dominated by progressive, idealistic campaigners for social justice. Yes, these people existed, but the British Empire was bloody, brutal and racist well into the twentieth century. Over 26,000 women and children died in our concentration camps during the second Boer War, yet Paxman speaks of these camps mainly as something opposed and exposed by British campaigners.
I guess what really annoyed me was that Southampton University didn’t call Paxman up on any of this. He was treated as a celebrity guest, brought in to give a mediocre lecture solely for the University to show him off. Anyone in the history department could have given a better talk on empire, but most of the people attending his lecture didn’t care about the subject anyway. They were there to see Paxman in person and get him to sign their books. The questions put to him were about his favourite interviews and whether he believed in God. Just read the Wessex Scene’s OMGpaxman review of the evening for the general attitude of the crowd.
Hundreds of people showed up for Paxman, including the Vice Chancellor. The lecture was filmed and widely publicized. Professor Bhambra’s lecture, meanwhile, had a much smaller audience with no one from the higher echelons of University management, but an infinitely better subject matter. In their attitudes towards these two lectures the University has shown that they care much more about attention than about academia. The history they champion is old, out of date and frankly rather insulting. If you want to get Paxman in, get him in to talk about journalism or politics, but please, please don’t use him as a shining example of academic imperial history. Not even Paxman himself says he’s an academic.