In This Chapter


Authored by: Philippa Levine , John Marriott

The Ashgate Research Companion to Modern Imperial Histories

Print publication date:  May  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754664154
eBook ISBN: 9781315613277
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042525


 Download Chapter



What is a modern empire? Beneath this seemingly innocuous question lie some troublesome currents. Becky Conekin, Frank Mort and Chris Waters, 1 1

Becky Conekin, Frank Mort and Chris Waters, ‘Introduction’, in their Moments of Modernity: Reconstructing Britain 1945–1964 (London, 1999), p. 1.

writing together, have pointed out that ‘there is no historical or sociological agreement about the meaning of the term’ modernity. Slippery though the term is, it has nonetheless been in constant use among historians, and has fuelled valuable debates in the imperial field. The idea of colonial modernity has often been criticised for its tendency to highlight either western achievements (the positive view) or western impositions (the negative view), but this volume contends that while the term ‘colonial modernity’ needs to be scrutinised critically, we are by no means ready to abandon it. In his chapter in this volume John Marriott points out that the very idea of modernity derived in part from the processes of imperialism, but since it was not a uniform, consistent or uncontested phenomenon, the modern empire remains difficult to define with any precision. A modern empire, we might say, is an empire of the modern era. Tautology apart, this tends to raise as many questions as it answers. If, for the sake of argument, we agree with Chris Bayly that the modern era began around 1780 does it necessarily follow that modern empires also began at that time? 2 2

C.A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Oxford, 2004).

The British perspective gives some weight to this argument, for Britain had just lost the thirteen colonies and was in the process of consolidating its hold over India, thereby laying the foundation for an empire of unprecedented scale and power. At a wider level, we might argue that this moment also signalled the ascent of European imperial might. This rather linear narrative of imperial ascent, however, marginalises imperial formations outside Europe, of which there were no small number. The Chinese, Ottoman and to a lesser extent Mughal empires were still powerful when European imperialism was growing in the eighteenth century. If, on the other hand, we define a modern empire as one displaying ‘modern’ characteristics, then we have to decide what these characteristics are, and identify their manifestations in various imperial experiences at different times. This almost inevitably complicates any notion of a linear narrative of the creation of a universal modern era, and also undoes a wholly Eurocentric reading of both modernity and empire. Tani Barlow has argued, for example, that ‘the modernity of non-European colonies is as indisputable as the colonial core of European modernity’. 3 3

Tani E. Barlow (ed.), Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia (Durham, NC, 1997), p. 1.

China was motivated by profit very early. The eighteenth-century Ottoman Empire was visibly consumer-oriented and the Mughal economy was monetised, also by the eighteenth century, all characteristics often associated with modernity. In thus moving the frame of modernity beyond and outside Europe as we have attempted to do in this volume, a broader reading of the contours and boundaries of colonial modernity both widens and deepens our scope.

Search for more...
Back to top

Use of cookies on this website

We are using cookies to provide statistics that help us give you the best experience of our site. You can find out more in our Privacy Policy. By continuing to use the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.