Vestiges of Empire: Preserving Imperial Bodies, Cities, and Lands in Britain’s Colonies

AHA Session 251
North American Conference on British Studies 6
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Wellesley Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Mary A. Conley, College of the Holy Cross
The City as Colonial Fetish: New Delhi and the Cultural Politics of Imperial Space, 1911–31
David A. Johnson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Imperial Taxidermy: International Conservation and the African Landscape
Angela D. Thompsell, The College at Brockport (State University of New York)
Andrew R. Muldoon, Metropolitan State College of Denver

Session Abstract

This panel explores British efforts to preserve the empire in the twentieth century through social policies.  By examining the rhetoric and legacies of these varying endeavors side by side, these papers draw out the ways in which imperial stewardship and international pressures against imperialism acted in concert to preserve the dominance of British – and Western – priorities in Britain’s former colonies.  Stewardship long served as a justification of European imperialism, and this ‘sacred’ trust – as it was often described by Britons and colonial subjects alike – was underscored after World War I by the international declaration of British and French trusteeship over the Central Powers’ former colonies.  Nascent nationalisms and the increased articulation of colonial demands during the interwar period also forced Britain to attend more closely to the well-being of its colonial subjects and resources.  In her paper on imperial efforts to improve colonial medical services in Jamaica as part of the 1940 Colonial Development and Welfare Act, Darcy Heuring demonstrates that such initiatives were enacted in an effort to preserve the empire, but that they often failed and produced unexpectedly problematic results.  David Johnson’s analysis of the construction of New Delhi between 1911 and 1931 argues, however, that efforts to solidify imperial control were not aimed at merely preserving the status quo, but at winning the hearts and minds of colonial subjects through urban planning.  By building imperial ‘progress’ into the fabric of New Delhi, colonial officials strove to demonstrate the superiority of British organization and rule, thereby creating, they hoped, an increased desire for an imperial presence.  While such efforts did little to slow demands for independence, they did contribute to the continued ties between post-colonial India and Britain.  The third paper in this panel, by Angela Thompsell, moves away from government efforts to consider how international conservation organizations often achieved similar results in Britain’s colonies in Africa.  The twentieth-century ethic of conservation was shaped by imperial ideologies, but it was articulated as an international priority, making it necessary for new governments to demonstrate their adherence to this sign of responsible governance.  The rhetorical shift from imperial to international conservation is, thus, an overlooked but important moment in the construction of imperial legacies in post-colonial Africa.  Taken together, these three papers examine Britain’s belated efforts to preserve its empire by performing the ‘sacred’ duties of stewardship and how such policies could interact in unexpected ways with international concerns to preserve the dominance of Britain’s social priorities and practices in the former colonies.  These themes will be further elucidated by Andrew Muldoon who will serve as the panel’s commentator.  Muldoon’s recent study of the efforts to preserve the British Raj through the 1935 Government of India Act and his interest in the international oversight of imperialism in the twentieth century position him at the nexus of these papers’ engagement with imperial social policy, international influences, and the vestigial presence of British culture in the post-colonial moment.

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