Webinar Featured

Webinar: Empires in World History


Krishan Kumar is a Professor at the University of Virginia. He was previously Professor of Social and Political Thought at the University of Kent at Canterbury, England. He received his undergraduate education at the University of Cambridge and his postgraduate education at the London School of Economics. He has at various times been a Talks Producer at the BBC, a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, and has held Visiting Professorships at Bristol University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Central European University, Prague, the University of Bergen, Norway, and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. He has also been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Among his publications are Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World”; and Empires: A Historical and Political Sociology. Mr. Kumar’s current interests focus on empires and imperial peoples. Related interest include nationalism and national identity, Europe, global history, and problems of historical sociology.

Lawrence Goldman

It’s my absolute pleasure to introduce to you Professor Krishan Kumar, from the University of Virginia. We first met very long ago in the 1980s and I have been an enormous fan of Krishan’s work over the years. What brought us together was something entirely different and shows Krishan’s remarkable range. We were both interested in the history of modern British social thought, and indeed the history of sociology. Krishan holds a chair in sociology and his work was extremely influential for me at an early stage.

He has gone on to write on a whole range of subjects, and most notably on the subject of empire. He is the author of Visions of Empire: How 5 Imperial Regimes Shaped the World, and more recently, in a distilled form, he published a book. Empires: A Historical and Political Sociology. So I feel that we are in the hands of an absolute expert on his subject and it is my very great pleasure to have him share his thoughts with us.


Krishan Kumar

I’m delighted to be part of this project, and delighted to have a chance to talk about the subject which has been of interest to me now for at least 10 years, if not more. I’ve chosen to pitch the talk in the broadest possible terms, because I think that might then encompass a wide range of interests, and solicit, I hope, questions that might touch on things that I don’t have time to go into, but I will have at least opened up some of the areas for us to talk about. So I called it “Empires in World History”, and I want to start off with 2 quotations that set the tone and the themes of this talk.

One is from a colleague of Lawrence’s, John Darwin. His book After Tamerlane. And John says in his book, “Empire has been the default mode of political organisation throughout most of history. The history of the world is an imperial history. A history of empires.” And that is a very striking statement it seems to me, and something that once you start thinking about, it seems fairly obvious, but it isn’t something that most people have actually said or noticed.

Another historian, Sebastian Conrad, writing a book on global history, has said rather disparagingly, “Empire is the darling of world historians”, as if to say, “Yeah, of course they’d be interested in it, but maybe they shouldn’t be so interested”. But I think John Darwin is absolutely right. There is something fascinating about the fact that ever since the earliest civilisations in Mesopotamia and Egypt and India and China, political form has taken an imperial form. Why that should be exactly is maybe something we could talk about. What is it about empires? Is it just lust for power? Is it just an expansionist urge on the part of rulers? Or is there something more accommodating about the imperial form that it somehow manages to hold people together in a way that other forms have not been quite so successful at. It’s a question, I think, that has no clear answer but would be really worth asking. But it is certainly true that Empire has revived in the last 20-25 years after a period in which it was mostly a concern of specialist historians.

I remember when I was doing an undergraduate degree at Cambridge in the 1960s, I was actually tutored by one of the most famous imperial historians, Ronald Robinson. He was my tutor, but I never took a course on empires, because we were rather turned up our noses at empires. It was associated with very, very right-wing, conservative people, the League of Empire, Loyalists, there all kinds of people around that we didn’t really want to identify with. And it’s only more recently I think that I have realised just partly what an opportunity I missed by not taking a course with Robinson and Gallagher, and some of these famous historians who were around in Cambridge at that time, but I have been catching up.

So that is my first point. The ubiquity of empire. Ubiquity in time and space, everywhere we look at all times we see empire.

My second quotation is another favourite of mine. This comes from the novelist V. S. Naipaul, in one of his novels The Mimic Men. The protagonist says “The European empires have changed the world forever. Their passing away is their least important feature.”

That’s a typical kind of Naipaulian throwaway. A kind of exaggeration as if to say the end of empires is not terribly important. What is much more important is what they did. And I think he’s right about that. Pairing away the exaggerations, leaving that aside, I think he is right to say that what the European Empires have done to the world has changed them forever. I think that was certainly the theme of my book Visions of Empire: How 5 Imperial regimes shaped the world so that’s going to be something I want to talk a bit about.

We can obviously cast a net of empire very widely to talk about non-European empires. I myself have now become particularly interested in the Chinese Empire, and I would like to see this long lasting empire, 2,000 years of Chinese imperial history, I would be very interested to see how that fits into what I might call the family of Empires. Was the Chinese Empire unique, as many people, and including the Chinese, seem to like to think? Or can we see the Chinese Empire within the context of other empires?

My hunch is that we can. My hunch, I’m not the only one, thinks the Chinese Empire does belong to this family of empires, and that we can compare the Chinese Empire with other empires. Typically other land empires. I will come back to this distinction in a moment between land and overseas empires because it’s kind of different entities.

But the Chinese Empire was a vast land empire that had very long history. We can compare it, with, say, the Roman Empire, which is contemporary in many ways, but also some of the other land empires, like the Habsburg Empire, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, those are the kinds of comparisons which I think would yield quite a lot of interesting insight into how the Chinese Empire worked.

But let me step back into the Western sphere. I’d like to concentrate very much on the Western tradition. And that’s what I want to begin with. The idea that there is a tradition of empire in the West which we don’t normally talk about or think about. We tend to treat each empire as discrete entities. The Roman Empire, Habsburg, the Ottomans. I think what we can trace is a very clear line of influence, particularly beginning with Rome and the Roman Empire.  One of the chapters of my books is Roman Empire: Parent of Empire. Because so much of the ideological thinking and justifications of empire seem to me to have come from what people thought the Romans had done. That’s an important thing to say. I’m not necessarily talking about exactly what Roman Empire was, what it did. But how was it seen? Partly by the Romans themselves. How they projected their empire, how they talked about it, and how later people saw the Roman Empire. What they thought was important.

And here I’m struck very much by the idea that actually came about sometime just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, we say that traditionally, the last year of a ruling Western Roman Empire was the year 476 CE. It was then revived in name by Charlemagne, under the name of the Holy Roman Empire, in 800 CE.

And it was around that time that people began to talk about this concept of the translatio imperii. The translation of Empire. Empire moving from one ruler to another, in a sense continuing the same line of empire. The very fact that the Holy Roman Empire chose to call itself Roman, of course, is very important, but we mustn’t forget that the Holy Roman Empire, which was found by Charlemagne in 800 AD lasted until 1806. It lasted a thousand years. It was finally abolished by Napoleon. And it wasn’t because Napoleon wanted to abolish empire. He just wanted to set himself up as emperor, and there couldn’t be 2 emperors in Europe or the world. So, if Napoleon was going to be emperor, then the whole Roman Empire had to be suppressed. Although he too, nodded in a sense, to that tradition by marrying the daughter of the last Hapsburg Empire, Mary Louise, I think it was, that was his second wife. He deliberately chose a Hapsburg woman to be his second wife, to say: “Yes the Holy Roman Empire is over, but I am continuing in my name, the Napoleonic Empire is, in effect, successor. It is part of this translation of empire.”

And I’ve been very struck looking at, say, the later empires, like the Spanish Empire when they conquered the Americas and established their colonies. There was an intense discussion in Spain about how this related to the Roman Empire. What were they doing? Was it the same? Was it different? The Romans knew nothing about this strange continent across the Atlantic. In fact, the Romans had across the pillar of Hercules a slogan, ‘Nec Plus Ultra’. No further. We don’t know what goes on, and Charles the Fifth very adroitly and boldly removed the name from it. On his slogan, on his banners, was ‘Plus Ultra’. “No we’re going beyond. We’re going beyond the Romans. So yes, we succeeded the Romans, but we are doing more than they are.” But I think that continuity is so important. Arguing, what was it the Romans did? Are we following in their succession? The British had exactly the same debate. In their case it was quite interesting. There was a big debate in the nineteenth century about the British Empire and the Roman Empire. Comparisons and contrast. A bit like a student essay. Compare and contrast the British Empire with the Roman Empire.

Some people wanted to follow the tradition of Greece. I think Gladstone, in particular, was very keen on the idea that the British Empire was not like the Roman Empire, but was much more like the way the Greek set up their colonies, setting up independent extensions of Britain, but not ruling them directly. Whereas Disraeli was much keen on the idea of empire. He was a Roman, if you like, as opposed to Gladstone’s Greek, and he was one, of course, who made Queen Victoria Empress of India. I think he’d like to have her Empress of everything. The whole British Empire. But the House of Commons objected, they didn’t like the idea. Empire was somewhat suspicious in their minds. The Empire they knew was the empire of Napoleon the Third across the water, they weren’t at all keen on that. It spelt dictatorship and all sorts of things. So they said, “Okay, Empress of India, but not of all the rest.”

And so Queen Victoria and her successors remained Emperors and Empresses only of India. It’s something I think people don’t quite realise.

Nevertheless, the appeal of Rome persisted. So we are talking here about a very very long tradition, in which Rome is seen as having set the parameters of empire. If I may also just throw in, before Rome was the empire of Alexander the Great, and the Romans were fascinated by Alexander. In fact, all we know about Alexander the Great’s empire actually comes from Roman writers. The histories we have of the Alexandrian Empire are Roman ones. They had access to the original materials. There were contemporary sources from the fourth century as to what Alexander had done, and the Romans had them but we’ve lost them. So the only sources we have from what Alexander’s Empire was like are Roman sources. They in effect invented Alexander. They invented the empire of Alexander the Great, and they saw themselves as doing what Alexander had done. So while I want to say, Rome is the parent of empire, in some ways they themselves acknowledge Alexander as their great predecessor. And we can talk a bit about that too if there’s more time, to say: “What’s the connection between Alexander’s Empire and Rome?”

But what they’ve got, and again what they thought they’d done better than Alexander is a series of themes, which I think are very important.

One was the idea of Universalism. It’s one of the one of the central themes of all empires. Unlike, say, the nation State, which is our contemporary form, the dominant form today is the nation state. Nation states accept that the world is a world of nation-states, in other words, that there are other nation states, you might think your nation state is the best and the greatest and you’ll pump your chest in a very patriotic way but you do acknowledge the existence of other nation states with their own principles. Empires don’t do that. In principle, for all empires they are the only empires in the world. If they have to accept the existence of other states, which may call themselves empires, they kind of reluctantly concede that there are these other entities, but they feel that their principles are the ones for the whole world.

They have a universalist ideology. This I think does go back to Alexander, but definitely the Romans proclaimed it, just as the Chinese. The word the Chinese use for themselves, the name they give them themselves is Zhongguo which means “The Middle Kingdom”. It doesn’t mean that there are kingdoms on either side, so perhaps it’s better to translate that as meaning “the centre of the world” because that’s how the Chinese saw themselves I think. Zhongguo is the centre of the world. I think that expresses the universalism of all empire. They all think they are the centre of the world, and they strive as far as possible to make the world in accordance with their principles. This is kind of universalising, and we have plenty of statements among the Romans making these cases, making this claim. There’s a famous one in Virgil’s Aeneid, that the gods gave Rome Empire without end, empire without end. Sine Fine, that’s the statement in the Aeneid which is constantly quoted, because all the European upper classes were classically educated right up to the early twentieth century. So they were all familiar with the Aeneid, and they’re constantly in justification of their own empires. The British were constantly quoting this line from the Aeneid that “God has given Romans empire without end”, and the British and the others, the French, of course, will say “Yes, we are the inheritors of that bestowal by the gods on us.”

So that notion is very strong. Empires strive to establish themselves on a global scale, even though, of course, as we all know, perhaps luckily, there are limits, practical limits. But the ambition and ideology of empire is universalist.

The other theme I think that comes from Rome directly, and again I think they picked this up from Alexander, was the idea of empires having a civilising mission. That can be expressed either in secular or religious form. The Romans had both before Christianity was incubated in the Roman Empire, before, in fact, Rome adopted Christianity as the State religion their notion of civilisation was a combination of Roman institutions, Roman law, the Roman language. They did think they had found the right way, and as they extended their empire, these institutions were extended from the Middle East all the way up to North Britain up towards Hadrian’s Wall.

There was ‘Romanisation’ across this vast territory, but it wasn’t done in specifically religious terms, except to some extent the Emperor himself who was thought of as a god. Once they adopted Christianity, this is fairly late in the West, but it continued in the East when the Roman Empire and the West collapse. Of course it continued in the East under the name of the Byzantine Empire, what we call the Byzantine Empire, even though the Byzantines continue to call themselves Romans right to the end, right up to the point when they were conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. As far as the Byzantines were concerned, they were the Roman Empire.

It’s true that Greek became more central than Latin but that has always been true, even in the Roman Empire in the previous centuries, the Eastern Roman Empire had always been mainly Greek speaking, and the Western Roman Empire had been Latin speaking. So Byzantine Empire was really a continuation of this and Christianity of course, was central to their mission. And in later empires of course religion becomes the central mission that they adopt, Christianity for many of the Western empires, Islam, of course, for the Arab empires and then the Ottomans. Christianity could take various forms as well. Catholic Christianity for the Habsburgs, Protestant Christianity for the British, Orthodox Christianity for the Russians.

So there are varieties of these religious missions, but I think until the 19th century, religion tends to define the ways in which empire see their civilising mission. Christianising for so many of them, the Spanish and the Portuguese in the New World. This was the way they justified their mission there. I think you can accompany this with the idea that this was a cover for other things, or that they were doing other things like plundering the world for gold and silver, exploiting its resources. I can’t make sense of these empires unless I take seriously the idea that what they were doing was attempting to diffuse this particular form of thought and culture that we mean when we talk about religion.

I think it was serious. I’m really taken with the debates in Spain in the sixteenth century, between people like Bartholomee de Las Casas, and Sepulveda. Really high level, amazing set of debates about what the Spanish were doing in the New World. What justifications have they for conquering these people? They didn’t take it lightly, they didn’t think “well, we’re Westerners, we’re Christians, we have the right”. Las Casas said: “You don’t have that right. You’re Christians, and you have to treat people like Christians. The Indians have souls, we have to treat them as humans with souls and that means we have entirely different policies”. It’s a really serious debate. But I think all the other empires actually learned from the Spanish. I think the Spanish in many ways were the kind of pioneer empires. They were the first to encounter new peoples, and they had to make some sense of that and their relationship to it.

So the civilising mission, I think, is one other theme that comes from Rome. A third one, I think, is the idea of citizenship. Roman citizenship was a prized thing, and so what the Romans were able to do to the various people that they conquered and absorbed was hold out the promise of citizenship.

It was always a possibility. Race and ethnicity was no barrier, absolutely no barrier at all. I think there was very, very little race consciousness in the Roman Empire. What mattered was to what extent you adopted Roman institutions. You learned the language, maybe you wore a toga, you accepted Roman rule, but otherwise you were actually allowed to practice quite a lot of your own traditions and your own culture. The Romans did not try and assimilate people into full-fledged Romans, and I think that was another lesson that later Empires learned. Assimilation, full assimilation is a dubious course. I think the French are the ones, perhaps of the late Roman empires who most tried to make their peoples, the peoples they ruled in Africa in Southeast Asia, they had a kind of assimilationist ideology which I think in some ways sometimes worked against them. The British were much more careful about that I think. They did not try and impose assimilation, you had to accept British rule, in terms of British legal system, British administration of course, there are all kinds of things you have to do. But rule was much more indirect, and the acceptance of local leaders, like the princes of India. The British Raj was divided between direct rule and very indirect rule. A third of the whole of India was ruled by the princes. And although it’s true the British always had a resident in the court of the Princes, so of course British control was there, but I think it was genuine to let local leaders, and the same thing was true in Africa, let the local chiefs and the local princes manage their people and keep a kind of indirect control which I think was much more successful in many ways than the more direct centralising policies of the French. But nevertheless, they all accepted this notion that one of the things empires have to do is to manage diversity. There are lots of ways of doing that, but if I’m trying to think of why perhaps empires have become interesting again today, why there’s been a renewal of interest in empires in recent years. It’s I think because we ourselves are faced in so many societies with this problem with the management of diversity. Of course, it’s partly due to immigration, there are lots of new cultures now in European societies. What are the lessons that empires might have to teach us about the management of diversity?

I think that’s actually one of the most interesting things to look at because we have such a body of experience to draw upon. You know this long history of empires, the ubiquity of empires is its strength in terms of experiences, lessons perhaps that can be learned from them, but certainly there are many things, I think, that empires can teach us.

So that’s my first main theme. This notion of the tradition of empire, the extent to which we have learnt or empires learned from Rome, what it was to be an empire. The image of Rome gave us our notion of what it was to be an empire.

Let me turn now to my second main theme, which is really to make a distinction in the history of empires. I’ve said that empires are ubiquitous, and they exist in time and space on a very large scale, but there are certain discontinuities. Actually, the first one which I’d love to have more time to talk about but don’t have time to talk about now is what I call discontinuities created by the Axial Age. The Axial Age is a concept that was coined by German theologian Karl Jaspers to explain why it was that somewhere between 800 and 200 BCE, all the great world religions came into being more or less simultaneously, really quite an astonishing phenomenon. Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, the early Greek philosophers, the Jewish prophets. Interestingly Jaspers didn’t include Christianity and Islam in this Axial Age, because he just saw them as offshoots of Judaism, which, in a technical sense, they are. So 800 to 200 does not include Jesus or Muhammad of course.

But nevertheless, what he showed was that the growth of a certain form of thinking, certain kind of spirituality that in a very short period and on a global scale, from China all the way over, took over societies, and I think the empires that were formed as carriers of these religions, the Persian empire that carried Zoroastrinism, the Roman Empire that came to carry Christianity, the Chinese Empire that carried Confucianism, later on of course the empires that carried Islam, that this Axial Age transformed the nature of empire.

We have empires before the Axial Age, we have these great empires, the Mesopotamian Empires, the Acadians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, we have the Egyptian Empire, but I think they have a different way of operating than the post-Axial Age empires. So that’s one of my great first watersheds, and I’m really happy to talk more about that if we have time.

The second one, and one for me that’s immediately more important, is that the watershed that was created by the Western overseas empires, that began with the Portuguese and the Spanish, let’s be clear about that, the Portuguese and the Spanish really were the pioneers, the British and the French, later on come to be the biggest imperialists in the world but it’s the Portuguese in the Spanish who begin it. Going down the coast of Africa, crossing the Atlantic, and then, of course, conquering. In the case of the Spanish, conquering the Incas in the Aztecs, and in the case of the Portuguese by settling in what became Brazil. They do something, and they are followed then later on by the Dutch and the French and the British, who come in on the coattails of the Spanish and Portuguese, but do it pretty effectively. What they are now doing is something very different from the earlier kinds of empires, which are more like land empires.

Here’s a distinction between two kinds of empires, land empires, and overseas empires. Most of the empires of the ancient world are land empires. Alexander’s empire was this vast Eurasian empire that stretched from Macedonia all the way to India. The Romans, of course, again, they don’t build an empire quite as large as Alexander, but it’s a land empire. The Persian Empire is a land empire. What we now get is this thing called the Overseas Empire, that the Western Atlantic countries, Spain, Portugal, England, France, Holland, begin to construct these vast overseas empires, and this brings in absolutely new things in the history of empires. Because you’re now encountering, across vast differences, peoples whose existence you didn’t even know about. Let alone would understand. I mean the Spanish and the Portuguese encounter groups in the Americas, in South America particularly, which they never knew even existed. And they have to learn how to deal with entirely new peoples and new religions and new cultures. They have to learn it. They learn it the hard way. When the other Europeans come in on the scene, and they already know what the Spanish and the Portuguese have had to deal with.

So when the British arrived in North America and they encounter the North American Indians, they are already aware that there are these “new peoples” which the Spanish and the Portuguese have already handled. But this does introduce a new kind of idea, I think, in the history of empires. How do you deal with global presence? How do you deal with an empire that’s not just made up by expanding to absorb your immediate neighbours, which is mostly how the land empires develop, but how do you deal with a far-flung empire, divided by oceans and incorporating people who have really different values, different religions?

So I think what we find when we study the British and the French and the Dutch and the Belgian, and the Spanish and Portuguese empires of course, we’re learning a new way of managing diversity. I’ve said that managing diversity is one of the key principles. The Romans had to do it. All the land Empires have to do it. But the challenge for them is much less than it is for the overseas empires, because they’re managing diversity on a scale which is more regional than global. Even in the case of the Roman Empire, if you look at the people they conquer, going out to the Tigris and Euphrates going north to Britain, they’re kind of racially within the same categories.

They have different traditions and cultures, but they’re knowable in a way I think that was less possible for the Portuguese and the Spanish and the British when they went across the oceans. Learning how to manage these new people was in fact a great new challenge.

If we’re talking about impact again, the same thing is true. I think the European overseas Empires now extend European culture, European civilisation on a much vaster scale. With the European empires, what we’re talking about here is really the birth of modernity. We’re talking here about the ways in which Western principles and Western ideas come to encompass the whole world through the vehicles of these European empires. They’re carrying across the oceans all kinds of ideas and institutions which come to make up the framework of most of the modern world. If we look around the world today, there are, of course, lots of different kinds of traditions, but the general form of most modern societies, whatever they call themselves, are actually fundamentally Western forms. A country like China, which calls itself communist, communism itself is a western ideology. Karl Marx spent most of his time working in the British Library in London. It’s a Western ideology that’s now been exported and taken over by countries that are non-western. But I think what European empires, the European overseas empires did, and this is, I think, the point of that quotation by V.S Naipaul “They transformed the world”. Their reach was so total. By the end of the nineteenth century European empires controlled something like 85% of the world’s land surface. 85%. The only major country that was not part of the European sphere, the euro-sphere we might call it, is China, which was not colonised. But it was semi-colonised. The Europeans were grabbing bits of the coastal region, they established these so-called extra territorial regimes in nearly all the coastal cities, Canton, Shanghai, all the way up the east coast. China was kind of right for taking over, but they didn’t for all kinds of reasons, partly competition between themselves, they decided to exercise what we might call informal empire.

But otherwise the rest of the world had been carved up by the Europeans. And whether that’s good or bad, this is another question altogether. When one talks about the European impact, we’re talking here about technological, economic, military, political, we’re not necessarily talking about moral or cultural superiority. I think we need to be really clear about that. Europe did take over the world, and it took over the world because of developments that have taken place in Europe, particularly the scientific and the industrial revolutions that gave it a degree of power that was irresistible. No other country in the world could resist European power. When the British steam ships steamed up the Pearl River in the first Opium War against China, and they came across the city of Canton, the Chinese had nothing to stop them, absolutely nothing. It was a completely asymmetrical conflict. That to me symbolises the extent of European power in the nineteenth century, particularly their ability to more or less go wherever they wanted, and to overcome any resistance that was offered. That’s pretty unique in world history for one part of the world to have such power. But that to me is the historical significance of Western overseas empire that was pioneered by the Spanish and the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.

Now I realise I shouldn’t be going on for much longer, maybe just a couple of minutes more. I would say one last thing, because it’s become such an important theme today and that is the idea of legacies of empire. We all know that empires today are, in a sense, history. Nobody likes to call themselves an empire, Niall Ferguson, I think, described the Americans as an “empire in denial”. Many people want to talk about the American Empire just as we now quite regularly talk about the Soviet Empire, during the period of the Soviet Union nobody in the Soviet Union would have described themselves as an empire but these days Russians have no problems about talking about the Soviet Empire. I think it’s a reasonable thing to talk about America as an empire, but nobody uses term any longer. Empires become a dirty word. It’s a negative term. But people are fascinated by what the empires may have left behind. A lot of that, too, remains negative. I mean, these days empires are blamed for all kinds of things. Racism, genocide… I’ve seen accounts in which the empires are seen as having invented genocide in effect, particularly in the ways in which Europeans dealt with the native peoples, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, that’s often described as a genocide. Race relations today, the attitudes of white people and black people in particular, is traced to European empires, especially where the empires involve slavery. Slavery, has now come to be almost synonymous with empire. I think one of the rather unfortunate ways in which the discussions are going today is this kind of collapsing of slavery, genocide, empire, as if they’re all the same thing as if we can talk about them as all a package. And I think that’s an unfortunate thing, because that’s not the truth about empire. For one thing, slavery was not a permanent part of empire. The British ruled India without slaves. When Africa was acquired in the late nineteenth century, slavery had already been abolished, as it happened, by the British, and they had policed the world to try and suppress the slave trade. So I don’t think the equation of slavery and empire, makes sense. Yes, slavery was there in the British and the French empires, all the empires in the early stages did have slavery. Whether that was necessary I don’t know. Whether it was a necessary part of their rule is, I think, still something that’s very much an open question. It existed, but it was then also abolished. By the middle of the nineteenth century practically all the European empires had abolished slavery. So I think it’s bit unfortunate.

Where I think it would be interesting to look more at is the impact of empires in what we might call the metropolises of the Empire. In other words, what’s the legacy of empire in Britain, in France, in the Netherlands, in Portugal, Spain… What can we see in the culture and society of these countries that we can trace back to their imperial experience?

Just to give one final example. The current dilemma that’s taking place in the United Kingdom as to whether it will hold together. Will the UK survive? We know that there are secessionist movements in Scotland, there’s a possibility that Northern Ireland might decide it’s better to join up with the Republic of Ireland, and they too will secede from the United Kingdom, the Welsh are rather reluctant but might well follow and England will be left high and dry on its own.

Now this may or may not happen but it’s certainly a possibility. And a lot of people have traced that to the end of empire. That the British Empire held the parts together. In fact, in many ways the United Kingdom itself can be seen as an empire, a mini-empire. The English conquer the Irish, they conquer the Welsh, they force the Scots into a Union… The United Kingdom is a kind of mini empire, an internal empire. But then they constructed this much larger British Empire, in which the Irish, the Scots certainly, the Welsh, everybody participated. But once the Empire had gone in the sixties, maybe there was less reason for these other non-English parts of the United Kingdom to feel that being part of the United Kingdom was in their best interest. To put it rather crudely, the spoils of empire had gone, so maybe they might be better off on their own. The Scots for a while had North Sea oil, and they were thinking it was for them, and they should have their own and they’d better off without the British, without the rest.

So I think we can look at some of the present stresses within the United Kingdom very much in terms of an Imperial hangover and imperial legacy. There is a connection, I’m sure, between what’s going on in the UK today and the fact that the British once had an Empire which was a very important cement, an important glue, holding together the part. Once the Empire goes, there’s a tendency for the parts to begin to feel that maybe they can be better on their own.




Lawrence Goldman

Thank you so much for that almost imperial overview of empire. That was quite remarkable. Thank you for all the stimulation you’ve given us. Let me begin with a question, and you touched on this right at the beginning when you talked about Empire being the default position in world history. We now live in an age of nation states. There are more nation states today than there have ever been before. I wonder, if we’re thinking about the end of empires and of course that’s been a theme in your discussion, if historians and others can really talk about the end of empire without also talking about the rise, not of Universalism, but a kind of nationalistic particularism, the rise of the nation State. And have we essentially overthrown one identity for another much more limited identity, and that that is ultimately to be held in balance, when we think about the end of empire?


Krishan Kumar

Yes, and it’s a really important theme, and I think the common way of seeing this has been to see nationalism as an antagonistic principle to Empire. The Empire is more of a diversity of people. Nationalism says, one nation, one state. So it seems as if in principle, and I think in principle that’s true, in principle nationalism and imperialism are at daggers drawn. There seems to be an absolute collision. And it’s certainly true that in the nineteenth century one of the problems that was faced by empires was a rise of nationalism, threatened to break up Hapsburgs, the Ottomans, all of them were faced by this, also with the overseas empires, and there are two things about this that strike me.

One is that the rule of empires lasted much much longer than people tend to assume. Because nationalism arose in the nineteenth century, there’s been a kind of notion that already the empires were kind of archaic, they were outmoded, they were almost premodern. And yes, they clung on till the First World War, and maybe even clung on till the Second World War but really they were on their way out and the nation state was a new thing. Woodrow Wilson declaring the principle of self-determination in his principles. It seemed as if Empire was simply outmoded. I think we should relook at that history, and see how important empires were, right up to the 1960s. You know, the First World War was a world war between Empires. It did end a number of the empires. The Land Empires at the end of the First World War, the Hapsburgs, the Ottomans, the Romanovs. Yes, they went, but the overseas empires actually were reinvigorated by the First World War. Partly because they took over the spoils of those other empires. They went to the British and the French, particularly the German Empire, divided up between British and French, the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the Middle East, divided up between British and the French.

There was no sense necessarily that these empires were on their way out, so I think we need to rethink the history of the world actually, but certainly in Europe, not to see the end of empire too prematurely. I think empires remain, and the Second World War again, was a war between empires, including the Japanese Empire and if we can talk about America as an Empire, the American Empire, it’s only from the 1960s onwards that we can really say that maybe the era of the Nation State came into being, and I’m very struck by one thing Lawrence that I’m sure you also know, when the United Nations was founded in whatever it was 1947, 1948, I think there were only 57 members. Only 57 nations states that were eligible. You had to be nation states belong. Now they’re a 193.

So nearly all the growth of nation states in the world has been in the last 50 or 60 years. That, to me is a really telling statistic. The nation State was not the dominant form. It was not. It may have been, that if you like, the coming thing, even that I’m not actually sure about. But empires continue, in a sense, to rule the world for much longer than most people think. Empires were really still in the ascendant right up to the period after the second war. That’s the first point.

The second point that I’ve always wanted to make is that empires themselves were often the creators of nationalism. They invented it in so many places. It was a dangerous game, but they often found it convenient to invent nations as alternatives or opposition to the nationalisms that they feared. So take, for instance, the Habsburgs who we’re worried about Polish nationalism in Galicia. So what do they do? They stimulate Ukrainian nationalism.

And so the reason why we have Ukrainian nationalism in the western half of the Ukraine at the moment, is entirely to do with the fact that they were part of Galicia, the old Hapsburg Galicia, and the Hapsburgs deliberately stimulated the Ukrainian nationalism as a counter to the Polish nationalism that was far more dangerous. The Russians did exactly the same in their part of Poland and Belarus, they also stimulated Ukrainian nationalism as a counter to the dominant, most feared form of nationalism, which was Polish.

I think the British did something very similar in India. I think the British stimulated Muslim nationalism as a counter to Hindu nationalism, because the Indian National Congress was dominated by Hindus and the British thought, and we have lots of evidence that that’s what they thought because they said it at the time: “We will encourage Muslim identity”. There was almost no demand until about 1940, nobody imagined that there could be a separate country carved out of India called Pakistan. The Muslims weren’t demanding that. They wanted autonomy, they wanted their own provinces, they could have that, so there was no reason why there should be a partition, which I think has been a tragedy.

But responsibility for that is partly due to the British stimulating Muslim nationalism as a counter to Hindu nationalism. So I think we see a much more complex relationship between nationalism and imperialism. Yes, in principle, the nation State stands as a counter to the empire, but empires were in the business, often, of using nationalism, stimulating nationalism for their own purposes, and if in the end that blew up in their faces, that is not an unusual thing. The unintended consequences of action. Even though I don’t think nationalism actually ever destroyed the Empires. I think what destroyed the Empire were wars. I mean, they were both destroyed, both kinds of empires destroyed in world wars, but not by not by the nationalists.


Lawrence Goldman

Your point that empires have only very recently declined, has been taken up by a number of our questioners. One has asked whether, in fact, America today is a continuation of previews empires, that rather than even thinking of America as its own empire, which many do, we should think of it simply as a further development perhaps of Western empire in the Americas, and then actually there are a couple of questions, about wait for it, the European Union, and to what he extent this in its form and in the kind of paths of development it maps out for itself, is also some form of empire. During a Brexit debates, there were claims of empire on both sides. Brexiteers had imperial nostalgia, whereas those who were Remainers, from the other point of view, were clearly trying to build a European empire. So I wonder what you would say to our questioners, who actually perhaps agree with you that empires are really not a thing of the past.


Krishan Kumar

I think these are both terrific questions. And actually, I should just say I teach a course on the sociology of empires, and we’ve just been discussing those two very questions: America’s empire and the European Union as an empire. So I’m really delighted to have a chance to respond.

I think the case for seeing America as an empire is a strong one. Certainly the Americans did have a big debate at the end of the 19th century, after the Spanish-American war, as to whether they should follow the European pattern and acquire overseas colonies. It was a really intense debate, Theodore Roosevelt was very keen on following the European pattern, and you may remember, that Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem on the White Man’s Burden was first published in an American newspaper. He was addressing the Americans and saying, “take up the white man’s burden, we Europeans, we’ve done it! We’re tired now. Now it’s your turn. You should be taking up the torch of empire”. So yes, there’s a clear connection between the sense of America as a continuation. There was a real debate at the end of the 19th century. “Isn’t it America’s turn?” It’s a white civilisation. It’s an Anglo-saxon civilisation. It’s a Christian civilisation. It’s just, you know, in this notion of translatio imperii, the translation of Empire. “Yes, America take your turn”.

I think what’s interesting is that the Americans said to that “No, thank you”. And they were led by formidable figures like William James, a great psychologist, and Mark Twain, who argued passionately that America’s origins were anti-imperial. America was one of the first, maybe the first anti-colonial revolution. The American Revolution was an anti-colonial revolution. The colony is breaking away from Britain. How could America be imperial if its origin is anti-imperial? I think that has been a very strong argument within American discourse that they cannot accept being imperial, being an empire, when they were founded on a kind of anti-imperial principle.

So although they had the chance to pick out many colonies, they could have stayed in the Philippines. They could have taken over Cuba. They did take over Puerto Rico, but they didn’t make it a colony. It’s a very strange limbo like thing. It’s neither a State nor a Territory. I think it calls itself a commonwealth, but we in Virginia are a Commonwealth and Puerto Rico is not a commonwealth like Virginia, so who knows what Puerto Rico is. But they very distinctly, said no, thank you we will not be a European empire in the sense of having overseas colonies.

What they are, however, I think, is a land empire. To me, the comparison is with the Russians, the Russians expanded eastwards, from Moscow all the way to the Pacific taking in Siberia, and then Central Asia. This huge land grab displacing people on the way. America did exactly the same, except their movement was the east to the west. The Russians went west to east. Americans went east to west, and they actually met in Alaska because Alaska was a Russian province, which was then finally sold to the Americans. But it’s fascinating to me that the Russians are going this way, the Americans are going this way. They meet in Alaska. They don’t have a conflict over it. The Russian don’t think there’s anything in Alaska. They sell it. It’s 20 years before it’s discovered Alaska sitting on vast quantities of gold and oil. I don’t know what the Russians think today about that sale. So as a land empire. I think there’s a real case for talking about the American empire. Particularly the way they dealt with native Americans. That’s the biggest commonality, moving the Indians. Again, people talk about genocide. I don’t think that’s the right term, it was not an intention, but displacing the Indians, corralling them in reservations, giving the land to the colonists…

The British tried to stop them. In fact, many people say one of the causes the American Revolution was that the colonists were worried about the fact that George III wanted to stop precisely that expansion, and they said no. Forget about the Boston Tea Party, and all those other things, it’s just that the colonists wanted to the right to cross the Appalachian Mountains, and the British were saying, “No, you can’t do it”. So they said “Alright, get out British, we’ll do it.” And they did. In that sense, I think, talking about America as an empire really makes sense.

The EU as an empire is also fascinating one. There’s a very interesting book which was written actually by one of your colleagues, I think, Jan Zielonka, he was at Oxford but he’s no longer there. But Zielonka wrote a book called Europe as Empire in 2003, or just a bit later, and he compared the European Union to the Holy Roman Empire. He did think it was Imperial and he was particularly concerned about the fact that the way in which the founders of the European Union were treating the Eastern members, the new members from Eastern Europe who would join, the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Poles, were as he saw it, (and he’s Polish by origin himself so I think he’s very aware of it), they were being treated as dependencies of the most developed, wealthier Western ones. So he saw a very strong imperial pattern there. He wasn’t necessarily against that, because he thought the European Union was a great experiment, but he felt there was a need to readjust the relationships.

The Holy Roman Empire is a good model, because it was a very loose agglomeration of States which shared certain things. They had an emperor but of course there was a high degree of autonomy and sovereignty in its various parts. You have cultural commonalities, you have a certain sense of shared civilisation but you don’t have the kind of forcible imposition of central rule.

So I think there are many ways in which the European Union could be thought of as an empire, and I think it’s a fertile way of thinking about it, maybe because it emphasises the fact that the Nation State is not necessarily the best form for the future. The problems that the nation state faces suggest that the Imperial form may have a lot going for it. We may not want to call it empire anymore, because that’s a hard thing to do. Nobody wants to be an empire, but the imperial form, the way in which empires govern their management of diversity and difference, maybe that is something that the world is reaching out for, and it’s showing itself in various forms, including the EU.


Lawrence Goldman

I think we have time, perhaps, for one more question. It’s a question that’s come in about trade which helps us link back to some of your opening remarks about the debate in Britain, in Victorian Britain, about the nature of Empire and the different views. You mentioned your tutor Robbie Robinson, a very famous historian of empire, who of course came up with the idea of a free trading Empire, that the British actually didn’t really want to seize and control territories, all they wanted was to trade and control world trade in that manner. And our question is whether for modern empires or recent empires over the past centuries, actually what’s going on here is trade, and that perhaps the political control or control of territory is secondary to what’s essentially an economic motive, whether it’s mercantilist in the early modern period, or getting hold of raw materials and so forth in a later phase. So I just wondered what you thought about that.


Krishan Kumar

Yes, I think the Robinson and Gallagher contribution on the notion of Free trade imperialism has been incredibly important, and certainly very influential. It gives rise to this idea of the informal empire. To go back to the last question about the American Empire, many people would say that in the 20th century, America exercised informal empire to the extent that the economic power around the world was so great that they could impose it, if necessary with a little bit of extra force, just as the British in the 19th century didn’t colonise Argentina, which has always been seen as one of the great examples of informal empire. But every so often there was a British fleet that could steam up to the river plate just to remind the Argentinians that if they didn’t do what the British wanted there was force behind it. So, free trade empire does involve a certain degree of at least the threat of force. It’s not entirely peaceful, but it’s true that economic imperialism is a very important form. My worries about this concept of informal empires is that it takes away the specificity of empire and how we analyse it. Once you start expanding the boundaries of empire to talk about influence on this scale, economic influence, it seems to me that it’s very difficult then to talk about empire in relation to other forms.

It’s such a wide-ranging thing, without any boundaries, there are no boundaries to informal empires, and I found it very problematic. I prefer to keep empire within the bounds of formal empire, precisely because for one thing we certainly have enough material, we have enough examples. Once we expand it to include informal empire. Then it seems to me that we are creating a problem for ourselves because the number of cases becomes then more or less infinite. And so I resisted it.

I think we have other terms like “Hegemon”, talking about the hegemonic part. The Americans have definitely exercised his hegemony, and I think different countries have had that kind of influence. I would prefer to keep a term like hegemony for that sort of power, and keep empire for something much more formal, something much more definable, something that we can actually study.


Lawrence Goldman

Thank you for your answers, Krishan, which were every bit as eloquent as your brilliant opening presentation. We’ve had a fantastic overview of different ways of thinking about empire through history, and we’ve laid down a really definitive statement of what I think we’ll call the default position in human history. We are lucky to have been in the presence of someone who is really in control on the macro scale of his subject. Thank you so much, Krishan Kumar.


Krishan Kumar

Thank you, and please if you have any questions, feed them in, I’d be very happy to respond.

About the author


Professor Krishan Kumar