Fundamental Crises of the British Empire, 1765-1960: Imperial Integration, Imperial Transformation and "Critical Collaborators"

Cooperation is an important theme in the recent upswing of research on imperial history. Imperial projections of power and domination at the periphery are now increasingly understood to have been fragile systems. Indeed, for want of developed statehood and coercive power, they would not have existed without the cooperation of indigenous local elites. But this revision of an earlier image of overpowering and expansive empires has created a new set of difficulties. It has shifted attention––as a political corrective of historiography’s long-term fixation on imperial protagonists––to the question of indigenous actors’ agency, but usually without questioning in turn the functionality of the empire itself, which once again appears as an essentially monolithic and at times even static historical structure.

The project intends, in contrast, to radically deconstruct empire, taking metropolitan and peripheral, as well as imperial and indigenous constellations and actors into account. In this perspective, empires are nothing more than dynamic relations of domination that are permanently negotiated through integrative projects and constructions of belonging. But the crucial processes take place at the periphery. Social dynamics, political balances of power, and cultural and identity-based self images at the local level determine the degree to which peripheral societies engage with the empire in the end; they determine imperial cohesion.

The position of actors or groups who form the link to the empire is highly volatile. Social and political transformation processes can spawn alternative elites who, in claiming their position as representatives, also call into question imperial power structures––although not always in a fundamental way. This is at the heart of the project’s epistemological interest. By investigating societal negotiation processes in imperial crisis situations where they occur in exacerbated form and are particularly relevant, the project attempts to gain insight into the workings of empires as such, especially with respect to their stability and mutability during crises.

One key to addressing these questions is the societal groups or elites who strive for changes in imperial power relations without, however, fundamentally questioning their belonging to the empire. In post-colonial national histories, these "critical collaborators" have stood mostly in the shadow of the heroes of independence movements. At best, they have been perceived as weak compromisers; at worst as traitors to the national cause. And yet their goals and interests are particularly instructive for our understanding of the functionality of empire because these groups had motives that fueled their commitment to both maintaining imperial cohesion and reforming empire to encourage broader participation and integration—and they reflected on these motives. The project aims to investigate negotiation processes in society about the question of belonging to an empire, paying special attention to the central role of "critical collaborators", and with reference to three fundamental periods of crisis in the British Empire from the late eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.

(Last modified September 2014)