Sunday, September 27, 2009
Porter, Bernard. "The Anglo World of Settlers, not Dominators." TLS September 23, 2009.
Belich, James. Replenishing the Earth: the Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World. Oxford: OUP, 2009. Writing history is largely a matter of what filters you use. Different-coloured filters bring out different patterns. For most recent chroniclers and analysts of the Anglo-Americanization of the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the filters used have been those that show up the “imperialism” of the process. The most startling novelty of James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World is that it scarcely mentions imperialism at all, except to marginalize it (“with all due respect to the rich scholarship on European imperialism, in the very long view most European empires in Asia and Africa were a flash in the pan”); yet it still makes a pretty convincing job of explaining the huge and important process that is its subject. Even where it does not totally convince, it is immensely illuminating, as new filters invariably are. This is one of the most important works on the broad processes of modern world history to have appeared for years – arguably since Sir Charles Dilke’s pioneering Greater Britain introduced a concept very like Belich’s “Anglo-world” to his Victorian contemporaries in 1868. Dilke’s book was written before the word “imperialism” came into vogue, at least in connection with British overseas expansion. Empire carries essential connotations of power, or domination, whose major manifestation in Britain’s case was India – which again finds no place in Belich’s book, and hardly featured in Dilke’s either. Dilke was interested in something else: the migration of the British people over the globe, including North America; with the aid of some state power, certainly – the general protection afforded by the Royal Navy, occasional military expeditions to pull the migrants out of trouble, charters and treaties – but not in order to dominate anyone. Rather, the aim was to reproduce British-type “free” societies, usually freer than Britain’s own, in what were conveniently regarded as the “waste” places of the earth. Belich calls this “cloning”. It was an entirely different process from the more dominating sort of “imperialism”, representing a different philosophy, involving different social classes, and mainly affecting different regions of the world. Belich believes that it was a far more important influence than what is generally understood as imperialism on the whole course of modern history. Belich’s approach brings out two further features obscured by conventional models. First, “settlerism” was transnational, in several senses, quite apart from the obvious one that it pushed beyond national frontiers. Other peoples did it besides Britons or even northern Europeans: Belich has interesting sections on Iberian, Chinese and Russian movements of settlement, the last-named mainly in Siberia, uncannily similar in many ways to the great “Anglo” ones. Or, rather, the “Anglo” one; for Belich is insistent that the British colonization of Canada and Australasia, and the Americans’ opening up of their West, were not merely similar but essentially the same phenomenon, umbilically linked, to a far greater extent than national accounts of each of them – and especially the myth of American “exceptionalism” – would lead one to believe. That is the first thing you discover when the imperial element is filtered out. The second is that this kind of colonization was not necessarily a case of the centre “exploiting” the periphery. Settlers positively sought out “oldland” goods and capital rather than having them forced on them. They arguably gained more from the exchange than the metropoles did. At the very worst, “exploitation was mutual”. The cultural ties between them were also voluntary. It was the Australians who wanted to retain their British identity, rather than its being forced on them, and Britain which eventually cut the tie between them (by joining the Common Market). Resentment over their rejection by Britain led Australians to reconfigure themselves thereafter, fashionably, as colonial victims; but for most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Australians and Californians preferred to regard themselves as “co-owners” of the great British and American enterprises – even as superior partners: fitter, more democratic, less debilitated by “civilization”, “Better Britons” (or Americans) – rather than marginal to them. Some even dreamt of shifting the metropolises of their worlds to their new lands: to Bismarck, North Dakota, for example, which one optimist in the 1880s “predicted seriously would someday be the centre of Western civilization”. It was this kind of process and feeling that created what Belich calls the “Anglo-world”, and contributed – more than a more one-sided “imperialism” could possibly have done – to its success. . . . Read the rest here: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article6845826.ece.