From Imperial Science to Post-Patriotism: The Polemics and Ethics of British Imperial History


From its inception in the late nineteenth century, British imperial history was intended to provide ideological and practical support for empire. Although this sub-discipline has evolved through multiple theoretical ‘turns’ in recent decades, inflected by the methodological developments in global history, imperial history is still used to naturalise global power structures and geopolitical and economic imparities. As several global and imperial historians have remarked, there are serious ethical challenges associated with yoking history to policy, and to public understandings of the past. To meet these challenges, Richard Drayton and Dane Kennedy have urged academics to adopt a ‘post-patriotic’, self-reflective imperial history, one which transcends ideology. These influential historians have also denounced a scholarly focus on the epistemic violence of empire, arguing that this obscures ‘real’, physical violence. However, these historians’ entreaties are marked by their own positionality, one which focuses on ideological and political battlegrounds between polities and empires, at the expense of a truly global focus on the most pressing planetary conjuncture of our time: climate crisis, and its connections with empire. This essay summarises these debates, as well as recent global histories which have closely analysed the interconnections between empire and climate change, indicating a tipping point in global environmental historiography. Using the concepts of the Great Divergence, postcolonial theory, and ‘climatic orientalism’, several global historians have shown that the two dovetailing forms of violence—epistemic and physical—are mutually reinforcing within the history of empire and climate change. Ultimately, this essay suggests that within existing analytical frameworks, the discipline of global history is well-equipped to assess the complex role of imperialism in causing and intensifying climate change. Thus, global historians ought to continue contributing to this inherently interdisciplinary, transnational field.

Author Biography

Emma Gattey, University of Cambridge
Faculty of History, PhD Candidate in History