Troubling the Empire: An Interview with Antoinette Burton

Prof. Antoinette Burton, Catherine C. and Bruce A. Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies, UIUC

The British Empire, in its various guises, remains a rich historiographical field. Over the course of the past forty years, imperial history has undergone a series of changes stemming from the cultural turn, postmodernism, and postcolonial studies. A central element of this has been to break away from the male-dominated approaches to the ‘Official Mind’, and incorporating gender, race, and class into our understanding of Empire. Professor Antoinette Burton of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been at the forefront of this change, as part of a wider group of scholars breaking down the insular boundaries of the field. Prof. Burton is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain and its empire, with a specialty in colonial India and an ongoing interest in Australasia and Africa. She has written on topics ranging from feminism and colonialism to the relationship of empire to the nation and the world.

Throughout her career, Antoinette Burton has drawn our attention to the place of women in imperial movements in Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture 1865-1915 (UNC Press, 1994), the experiences of non-white subjects moving across the empire in At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (University of California Press, 1998), and the perpetual weakness of the empire itself in The Trouble with Empire: Challenges to Modern British Imperialism (Oxford UP, 2015). These works, as well as her extensive list of further publications, have allowed us to understand the metropole and empire as co-constitutive, with bodies and ideas crossing imperial boundaries and breaking down previously held assumptions of insularity. Revealing the voices of marginalized groups has also stimulated a wide array of research into localized perceptions of empire.

In this interview, Burton discusses the origins of her interest in gender and the British Empire, and her transition to broader questions of British imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We also spoke about the pitfalls of studying the Empire in the current era of revisionism and imperial nostalgia, and how we as historians can combat the challenges raised by the amnesia surrounding colonial actions. Finally, we talked about how both collaborative projects and the field of World History can enrich our understanding of the British Empire, as well as the benefits of these approaches to early career researchers.

James Parker

JAMES PARKER: How did you become interested in imperialism? More specifically, what inspired you to initially focus on gender in the British Empire and British India?

ANTOINETTE BURTON: Like many historical topics, I kind of stumbled into it. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, which was not a very hospitable place for challenging existing histories. I really wanted to write a dissertation on women’s history, feminist history, and there was nobody there who did that, or even who thought that it was a ‘thing’. In that sense, the gauntlet was thrown, and I was determined I was going to do it. Chicago is also known for its South Asian studies specialty, so I was also at the intersection of an Irish historian, Emmet Larkin, and a South Asianist, Barney (Bernard) Cohn. Together, they inadvertently propelled me towards this topic, the topic which was Burdens of History.

With this goal in mind, I took a predoctoral research trip to the UK. Naturally, I went to the Fawcett Library, which is now called the National Women’s Library, but was at that time located in the basement of the London Polytechnic. I had a bibliography of women’s sources by Margaret Barrow, and I saw that there was something about Josephine Butler in India referenced. I showed up at the archive looking for this, and the archivist David Duggan said ‘follow me’. He took me back to this very dusty part of the library, where there was this pile of stuff on the floor. I realized that there was this whole uncatalogued set of primary sources on the Josephine Butler repeal campaign outside of the UK, not just India but elsewhere too. So I sat down and just scratched the surface of that, and I realized that this whole feminism and Empire thing had some archival basis. That series of events really led me to Burdens of History.

PARKER: One of the most notable aspects of your work has been the way you incorporate individual figures and events as representations of broader currents in history, particularly in At the Heart of Empire. How important do you think they are for challenging our assumptions about Empire more generally?

BURTON: I’ve been drawn at various moments to individual figures. In the case of At the Heart of the Empire, it just seemed like the biographical method was the best way to slice open this question of ‘the reversal of the gaze’ at the heart of empire. At that moment, Mary Louise Pratt’s influence was prominent in the field, as was Saidian discourse. There was also a lot of discussion about the gaze, and the reversal of the gaze. There had not been any Indian people in Burdens of History, and there were some very cogent intellectual and political reasons for that, but it really niggled at me that I needed to think about the embodied experience of this reverse movement, so that was really the motivation. I landed on those three figures because they seemed to me to be representative of a particularly dense moment, the 1880s and 1890s in Britain, when that kind of traffic was getting momentum.

Preaching ‘Holy War’ during an uprising in British India, 1897. Artist F. Meaulle, Le Petit Journal, October 3, 1897, Print Collector.

PARKER: Do you see human narratives as essential to making history relevant to non-experts?

BURTON: I think they are. When I wrote that book, we didn’t care about this so much, that’s something that has come later for me anyway. But I was always engaged with people in Britain who were trying to bring this interracial history to the fore of the discourse, and also in the national curriculum. So when I was writing that book in the 1990s, there were very heated debates in Britain about who belonged in the national story and who didn’t. In Britain, perhaps more than the United States, there has been more of a public discourse about that, and although I’m not sure I wrote the book for that arena I was definitely in conversation with those who were fighting at the battlements. Primary amongst those was Rosina Visram, who was the author of a pioneering book in the 1980s called Ayahs, Iascars, and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (Pluto Press, 1986), which remains the gold standard for thinking about Indians in Britain, and all subsequent work including my own is deeply indebted to her. She had been a school teacher as well as a historian so I was in deep conversation with her for many years about the urgency of that form of representation. So although I wasn’t necessarily writing for that audience, I felt like I was contributing to a wider struggle, a political and public struggle.

PARKER: Given the erasure of women from colonial and metropolitan archives, what kind of methodological tactics do you employ? The field is one that has previously been dominated by the official mind and so-called ‘great men’. How does gender reorient our understanding of imperial trends and movements?

BURTON: I obviously went looking for women, but it’s not like there’s a ton of them in the archives. I also turned to a kind of broader engagement with the limit of the archive itself. I edited the collection Archive Stories in which I tried to think aloud and to think in partnership with others who were questioning what the limit of the archive is, and encourage us to draw on other forms of memory. That’s what led to Dwelling in the Archive, which is really a story about twentieth-century women, but argues that novels and memoirs should count as archival evidence. I think that represents not just the addition of women to the canon, but also throws down a kind of epistemological challenge to the official archives that’s not limited to women or colonial others, but exists as part of a wider cultural or postcolonial shift.

In terms of historiographical application, there’s been a lot of change in the field, partly the result of efforts by those such as Catherine Hall, Mrinalini Sinha, Philippa Levine, insisting that we rethink the boundary of metropole and colony. I think the gender and feminist agenda of those spatial rethinkings are really important to materialize in the history. To some degree women and gender have been domesticated in this history of British imperialism; that is to say there are people who do those things, and they do them well. I wouldn’t say that the historiography as a whole has grappled with the urgency or the indispensability gender; many are happy to let those of us on the margins do as we will, but not necessarily take it on board. I’ve spent most of my career excavating important figures and themes, but ultimately with The Trouble with Empire in 2015 I felt I had to meet mainstream imperial history on its own ground. Women are present, to the extent that they form part of resistance movements, but it is also a feminist book in that it refuses to take the story that Empire tells to itself for granted. I try to denaturalize that argument about hegemony and extension, and complicate it through the trouble argument. I see that as a feminist and postcolonial methodological move that carries women and gender and sexuality along with it, because those are all part of a bigger political struggle to create and to think about how to write anti-imperial imperial history.

‘Arabi Pasha’ and his troops ride through Alexandria during the Anglo-Egyptian War, 1882. Illustration by S. Durand, The Graphic, 22nd July 1882, Hulton Archive.

PARKER: Do you still feel that the field of British imperial history is as bifurcated between old and new imperial histories as it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s?

BURTON: Not so much on the surface, although people still tend to put ‘new imperial history’ in air quotes, even though it isn’t really new anymore. I suppose it’s taken hold. I’m not sure exactly whether it’s here to stay. As with so much else, we see the small progress of the ‘90s and early twentieth century being turned back a little bit. I never thought we had arrived; people would often say to me ‘you’ve spent a good fifteen years trying to get in and now you’re in, so what are you complaining about?’. We’re actually not in. If you look at who occupies positions of British history at the most important private universities on both sides of the pond, they are not people who do the kind of work that Heather (Streets-Salter) and I do. They’re just not. One lesson there is that those places are not the most important places for intellectual life or history-writing about the British Empire. But there is a political economy of prestige and accomplishment, and that is obviously still a very prevalent aspect of the market today which leads to a greater degree of publicity for some approaches over others. I do think that in respectable historiographical circles it is probably not possible to separate home and away any more, but I’m not sure that the kind of radical potential of that critique has really taken root.

PARKER: What are the current issues facing historians of imperialism? Our current political moment has seen a rise in imperial revisionism in the media. What do you think academics should be doing to combat this?

BURTON: I think there are multiple levers to pull, and I think that all kinds of institutional work are important. With reference to the work that we write and teach, I think there is just boatloads of evidence to stand up to claims of empire’s basic goodness and benevolence. I think that we have done a ton of work in the past twenty years that people need to be revisiting and grappling with in order to fully articulate our counterclaims. We cannot lie down in the face of a return to “good” imperialism, and I think that we have plenty of compelling evidence to dispute current revisionist approaches to imperial history. I’m a little leery of an unalloyed return to ‘Evidence’ because evidence (or a lack thereof) is what has gotten us into this challenge in the first place. I know that in scientific circles there is a call for fact-based truths, and I’m all for that but I also know that evidence and facts often exclude the people that we should care about. All we have is our work, and when that work is political and engaged in a dynamic relationship with the present, then that is a lot of evidence to have in your back pocket.

PARKER: How have postcolonial studies and the cultural turn contributed to imperial history? How would you advise graduate students on the incorporation of these approaches into colonial narratives, and what are the potential pitfalls of doing so?

BURTON: I think that it’s really important to think of all of those things as fields of study in their own right, and really spend time grappling with the history of those fields. Here at Illinois, I spend a lot of time with graduate students who don’t want to end up excluding gender, race, sexuality in their work on empire. To try and counter this, we return to some of the basic texts; Joan Scott’s Gender: A Useful Category of Social Analysis (1986), paired with Stuart Hall’s Race, the Floating Signifier (1997), as well as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) or Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (2006). These works help students to really go to ground in understanding what gender is now, to resist a definition of gender that is simply identitarian, rather than as Scott would say a force signifying political power, and to think about gender as the product of bodies in collision with historical forces.

This approach allows us to think about gender as a property or a category rather than a dimension of identity alone. Whatever the topic, whether it be the cultural turn or gender or the intersectionality of gender, race, class, and sexuality, I think it’s really important to have a body of texts or videos to return to. For instance, Stuart Hall’s work on race or Kimberlé Crenshaw’s video on intersectionality offer really powerful spatial representations of the stakes of various axes of identity simultaneously. Just making sure that people understand that these are critical objects of enquiry, rather than ideas to plug and play, helps students to challenge the construction of identitarian definitions. You really have to think how to make those things central and ask how they disrupt existing preconceptions in your own field of study.

PARKER: One of the most noticeable things about your career has been your willingness to engage in collaborative work, for instance with Tony Ballantyne. What are the benefits of collaboration for historical projects?

BURTON: Intellectually they’re very enriching, and Tony (Ballantyne) has been a great partner for many years, I’ve learned so much from him and from others that I’ve collaborated with like Jean Allman when we co-edited the Journal of Women’s History, as well as Isabel Hofmeyr and a variety of others. I just love bringing others into conversation, and in many ways I learn so much more from them than I could ever learn from independent research. There are questions that just cannot be answered without collaboration; when Isabel and I did Ten Books that Shaped the British Empire (Duke UP, 2014), there’s just no way I could have possibly done anything like what all those folks did to populate the deep histories and entanglements of the texts that they chose.

My book An ABC of Queen Victoria’s Empire (Bloomsbury, 2017) is twenty-six letters of which I did around nineteen myself. I realized I couldn’t actually finish that alone, so I asked seven other people take up the remainder as I knew I was at the limits of my knowledge. The ABC format is just so digestible and teachable, and I’m involved in another with my colleague Renisa Mawani. We’re doing a bestiary, we each did two letters and farmed out the rest. So collaboration is a lot of fun, and it often moves the direction of the work away from what you thought it was going to be, which is also fun.

PARKER: There’s a perception that collaborative work is less important than individually produced works, and that these kinds of collaborative experiences are considered less valuable by hiring panels. How early do you think people should be looking into doing collaborative work, and do you push back against this hierarchy of significance?

BURTON: I like to think that sooner rather than later the institutional frameworks that assess and assign value will incentivize people to think collaboratively, alongside the kind of individual work that we do. I really don’t want it to become a question of either/or, though. I do a lot of collaborative work, and in my role as Humanities Center Director at Illinois I’m also the PI for a big Mellon Foundation grant where it’s all collaboration all the time. In that project, we’re trying to encourage people to resist their monastic inclinations, but I myself basically am a hermit. I love to be in the archive, I love to be digging, and I love to be doing my own writing. So I don’t think it should be either/or. I think that it is very hard to do both, but I do hope that the next generation will be able to make the case for the power of collaboration, alongside the ongoing case for the really thoughtful monographic project.

PARKER: Much of your more recent work can be seen as part of a wider trend towards world history, and that approach certainly lends itself well to studies of empire and imperialism. However, the two fields have often failed to engage adequately with one another. What do you see as the best way of bridging this gap?

BURTON: In my own work, I’ve been hyper-aware that the easiest pathway to global history is through imperial history, and that they are also not coterminous. In my own rendition of these fields, I’ve been very influenced by the historical relationship between empire and the world. I work in the nineteenth and twentieth century and it’s very hard not to understand those histories of empire and the global as being intertwined, due to a variety of historical forces, both high diplomatic and from below. If you work in an earlier period, that case is not impossible to make but the fit is not as tight; in the era before the nation state the question of ‘what is the global’ is a whole different ball game. So I think it’s important to be vigilant about the boundary between the Empire and the global.

For what it’s worth, we do a global history preliminary exam at Illinois; if the student is also an imperial history specialist, one of the questions we ask is ‘what is the proportional role of Empire in the making of the global?’. How does one rank the role of imperialism in the story of globalization in the nineteenth and twentieth century? Or you can be thinking about that boundary line?  Sometimes it’s clear and sometimes it’s not.

Group of Australian South Sea Islander women labourers on a sugar cane plantation near Cairns, Queensland,” ca. 1895. Queensland State Library.

PARKER: The field of British imperial history is highly fluid, how do you see your own research shifting in your future projects? What are you working on currently?

BURTON: I’ve always toggled between various domains of enquiry. As editor, I’m finishing work on the six-volume Bloomsbury series ‘Cultural Histories of Western Empires’. There are volume editors for each one, and then I’m the series editor, which has been an amazing learning experience. In my own work, I’m on the threshold of moving in the direction of the ‘animal turn’, as the bestiary project with Renisa Mawani suggests. I’m very interested in the creature worlds of the British Empire, and how these figured in the Victorian imagination. There’s so much work on animal studies, which has an interesting relationship with environmental studies, and the intersection of these themes in the British Empire appears to be a growing area of research. I’m trying to get myself up to speed, and to decide on what I want my intervention to be. In our bestiary, I wrote entries on L is for Lion and S is for Scorpion, which was very fun. In terms of visual archives alone my own new animal project is so vast and exciting, but I’m not sure what form that’s going to take here as yet.

PARKER: What have been your favorite recent works of history, or what are you reading currently?

BURTON: Not directly in the British field, there’s a book called Metroimperial Intimacies: Fantasy, Racial-Sexual Governance, and the Philippines in U.S. Imperialism, 1899-1913 (Duke UP, 2015) by Victor Mendoza, which is about the US and the Philippines which is relatively new. I’m also just reading an older book by Mark Driscoll about the Japanese Empire, called Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895–1945 (Duke UP, 2010) which is also really smart. I think it’s interesting in both of those cases that although they’re not British Empire, they have really portable methodologies and theoretical frameworks which are not always found in British Imperial history. The final one is Shefali Chandra’s The Sexual Life of English: Languages of Caste and Desire in Colonial India (Duke UP, 2012) which is a real tour de force, about India and women, and the politics of language acquisition in India. It’s a superb work.

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