Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


Empire Families: Britons and Late Imperial India
Elizabeth Buettner
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
£25.00, 270 pages, ISBN 0-19-924907-5.

Antoine Mioche
Université de Versailles/Saint Quentin en Yvelines


In 1982 historian Paul Kennedy asked why and how the British Empire lasted so long. It was a welcome break from historians’ long-standing preoccupation with tracing the first signs and causes of the Empire’s decline and fall, for if there lingered in Kennedy’s resulting essay a whiff of the forensic, the question was no longer so much that of the causes of death as that of the remarkable resilience of the departed. It may not have denoted, in the last analysis, a much more charitable view of the Empire than that propounded by declinist historiography, but it did open up a new field of inquiry—not into the causes of either imperial expansion or imperial contraction, but into what kept the Empire ticking over. Elizabeth Buettner’s book, Empire Families: Britons and Late Imperial India, appears as an original contribution to this under-developed field.

Indeed, there is in Buettner’s choice of place and period for her study a strong suggestion of imperial maturity and imminent demise. Yet there is also in the choice of the family as an entry-point into imperial history an opportunity to substitute something akin to Braudelian durée for the life-cycle image inherent in the treatment of human societies as political organisms. Families, like societies, for which they offer an alternative analogy, usually survive longer than their members, although they too may not last for ever. It is an interesting angle, all the more so as the family itself, in its “Anglo-Saxon” guise, lent itself in British imperial rhetoric between c.1860 and c.1930 (and arguably for longer on either side of these limits) to a reiteration of the old paternalist faith in social cohesion through natural hierarchy, and a belief in an ordering of human relationships that was capable of evolution. Logically, given the nature of the metaphor, Empire Families sees the family as a factor of differentiation, as well as of unity, and as a factor of continuity, as well as of discontinuity. Its originality, however, lies in dealing, not with the family, but with families, generations of real-life Britons who furnished not only the cadre of imperial administration and trade, but also renewed in their own flesh and blood, and perpetuated in their own and their countrymen's minds, the often complex individual and (this is the point) collective ties between the United Kingdom and the Indian sub-continent. Partly, therefore, Buettner's study, the revised version of a Ph.D. dissertation presented at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, bears on the social dynamics through which the family became the literal, as well as the figurative, expression of imperial authority. It is a bold cross between sociology, anthropology, history and post-colonial studies, aiming to identify in the construction by British expatriates of an imperial identity and in its transmission across generations one of the modes of perpetuation of British rule in India.

Judged by this objective, Empire Families leaves its reader in two minds. To the author's credit, there are many penetrating observations and analyses. Thus, for instance, we are given to understand how the impermanence of British expatriates' sojourns in India served in fact as a guarantee that the coloniser would not be absorbed into the society of the colonised, and that he would thus perpetuate the difference of status on which, besides military force and his resort to countless native intermediaries, the authority of the Raj rested. This, Buettner explains very skilfully in a passage devoted to nuances of social rank, was what prompted her to style the expatriates in her study “British Indians” in order to distinguish them from other British subjects in the sub-continent—the native Indians, but also domiciled Britons and (above all) those whom official terminology from 1913 termed “Anglo-Indians” to relieve them of the obloquy (as they themselves saw it) of their earlier description as Eurasians. British Indians’ perpetual comings and goings between metropole and colony, as well as dispelling any suspicion of mixed lineage, immediately damaging to their social prospects and ultimately detrimental to the continuation of imperial rule, were however, Buettner says, to create in them a cultural identity that was itself hybrid, neither fully metropolitan, nor fully foreign—the identity of colonials caught between two worlds, the one no less idealised than the other by virtue of their membership of both, or arguably of neither. A complementary thesis of Empire Families is thus that the Indian Empire, alongside its stiff and arcane classifications of race and rank, reveals a degree of blurring of the frontier between metropolitan and imperial history.

In this respect, Empire Families must be seen as partaking of the wave of recent work which, from diverse perspectives, reaffirms the importance of the imperial experience in shaping the metropole's identity, culture and society [Colley, Gikandi, Gould, Hall], and more or less overtly goes on from that disputed [Porter] premise to analyse the metropole as an imperial construct in its own right—seeking at times to recycle the declinist schema [Robertson], but more often attempting to deny the objective reality, the legitimacy, or at least the relevance of contemporary British identity as a pure fabrication foisted by the elites on their unsuspecting countrymen [Cannadine] with a view either to throwing a veil over an age-old tradition of ruthless territorial imperialism on the part of England [Gillingham], or to creating, justifying and perpetuating in Great Britain an artificial (and odious) class structure [Cannadine]. This is not without its problems. It is one thing to emphasise, rightly if not very originally, the benefit for historiography of recognising and analysing the connexions between the metropole and her Empire. It is quite another to determine with any precision their nature, extent and duration. And it is another still to turn general claims of connectedness and difference between the core and the periphery of Empire to polemical use through a historiographical approach to one's subject matter which predetermines one's conclusions. Regrettably, much of Buettner's theoretical framework boils down to the perfectly respectable notion of a social construction by British Indians of their difference from other residents of India, but it becomes caricatured into its own inversion and the most unfortunate essentialisation by Buettner herself of the “difference” of the coloniser.

Again, there is much to be said for the book. Using sources to good effect, Empire Families explains very well, for instance, that sending British Indian children back to “Blighty” at age 5-8, in the sincerely held, but retrospectively rather bizarre belief that third-generation Indian-born Britons would become infertile, reflected a deep-seated anxiety that they might otherwise become culturally and racially assimilated and thus lose their social and political status as Europeans. Similarly, widespread concern lest children surrounded by native servants should fail to learn to speak good English, and lest in particular they should acquire the accent and speech patterns of the “chi-chi” English spoken by Indians and Eurasians, is plausibly interpreted by Buettner as a sign of British Indians’ phobias, inhibitions and rigid social mindset—though, here, instead of stressing the snobbishness of colonial rule, she might have reflected that such fears were also, and perhaps more significantly than any constructed notion of racial and social superiority, testimony to the insecurity, even the physical and psychological fear, that is never far below the surface of Empire. Young British expatriates, if raised in India, ran the risk of crossing social, cultural and ethnic demarcation lines, and of thus finding themselves in a no man’s land between coloniser and colonised. In observations such as these, quasi-anecdotal evidence yields a richness of meaning well beyond its restricted material value. Buettner deserves praise for the manner in which she extracts valuable insights from unpromising sources.

Sadly, she also too often cannot resist forcing her primary material into a theoretical mould which, conversely, trivialises or narrows its import. Thus does Empire Families combine great sharpness of vision with a kind of interpretative dogmatism, perceptible not least in sometimes dry and jargon-ridden language. Here is one example. School, as might have been expected, was a choice field for the expression of British Indian parents’ social aspirations. Those who could afford to do so, says Buettner, sent their offspring back to the metropole, where, boarding at school or with remote uncles or cousins, or even with complete strangers who made a living from taking on young expatriate charges, they felt the pain of separation from family and servants in India and became aware of their emotional and æsthetic commitment to the subcontinent, its people, its bright clear skies, its luxuriant vegetation and its dramatic scenery. Evidence, one would have thought, that India was not just an abstract “Other” demeaned by colonial representations. Yet, and rather contradictorily, it is evidence for Buettner either that mature, post-1947 British Indians have tended to idealise the India of their youth; or that they rebelled in their adolescence against the nationalism and class/race indoctrination of their parents, as they were made to confront the hiatus between their images of “home” and the grey, cold and unwelcoming reality of a remote island off the coasts of Western Europe.

As for those Britons whose finances precluded such a return to roots—and here Buettner does well to remind us that roughly half the Europeans living in India at the end of the nineteenth century were “poor whites”—they lived in fear of déclassement. In the schools that were founded locally to cater to their needs, Buettner brilliantly traces and analyses all the lesser and greater neuroses of a system of social stratification even finer and more rigid than in Britain. Evidence, one would expect, of the fact that the colonial imagination was not uniformly triumphant. Rather evidence for Buettner, based on the unobjectionable observation that such Britons felt the need to articulate their difference, of the fact that any kind of difference is purely in the mind and is ipso facto an act of domination. Being imaginary, difference is artificial and calls out to be cancelled by righteous academic intervention. Does that not deny India, as well as Britain, any geographic, historical, cultural, social specificity?

To Buettner individuals signify only inasmuch as they belong to “types” or categories, especially the two hypostatised categories of “coloniser” and “colonised.” It is the group (the family, the metropole, the Empire) that matters in her book, for it is only through focusing on the group that she can criticise the social and mental process through which it constitutes itself, the representations with which it equips itself. This means that even the group in the end proves a hindrance to moral rectitude, because doing away with representations inevitably requires doing away with their vehicle. In a theoretical framework such as that which underpins much of Empire Families, not only are individuals irrelevant, but it becomes necessary to censure any society as ultimately an illusion and a fraud. With individuals gone, and societies standing condemned, one appears to be left with pure essences. The irony, of course, is that in the process of castigating group consciouness as a creation of the mind, deconstructionist critique in fact objectifies, through simplification and the denial of specificity, that which it means to condemn. Instead of facing her contradictions, Buettner comments here, as in several other places, in over-elaborate terms:

Ancestry and physical appearance played important roles, but acted in combination with the cultural attitudes and academic credentials children acquired alongside the geographical location of their school to influence perceptions of their racial status. [74]

Why doesn’t she just say that, in British India and in the eyes of British Indians, it was better to be white, (reasonably) well-off and enrolled at the “right” school? Could it be because, once it is put in plain language, her remark comes across as anything but perceptive, and seems (sadly) of much wider application than British India?

Turning away at times from the ahistorical vacuum into which her theoretical choices lead her, Buettner also unearths true little gems, which restore some subtlety and complexity to her investigation of an important episode of British imperial history. But this she seems to do against her better judgement. Her study of the influence of Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” (1888), and autobiography, Something of Myself— (begun in 1935), —on the genre of memoirs and narratives of children’s estrangement in Britain is well worth reading. Unfortunately, it leads her to pronounce that “Kipling’s recurring presence in subsequent autobiographical writings about parent-child separations makes it impossible fully to dissociate their ‘reality’ from his precedent” [123]—where the inverted commas around the word reality bear witness that she has set out not to analyse, but to discredit British Indians’ self-representations. To her, Kipling’s merit as a writer who captured the rich, ambiguous, often ridiculous, even contemptible, sometimes fragile, quality of life and social relations in Britain’s Indian empire is as nothing compared to the fact that, in the last analysis, that empire was a mere fiction, a figment of the literary imagination, cruel to its children as well as to the native population. Are we not entitled to feel some concern when a historian, not content to stand back in a scientific spirit from her sources, in effect reduces them (and all history) to pure literature, biographical fiction? Buettner’s attitude is all the more surprising as she claims to subscribe to the idea that a society’s self-representations are themselves part of the social reality which forms the historian’s subject matter.

One passage encapsulates the problem in its most blatant form. Buettner is dealing here with the exchange of letters between British Indian parents in India and their children in England. The father of little John Watson, age 12, is an officer in the Indian Army—which, far from helping to characterise him as an individual, sets him squarely down as the representative of a “type.” In a letter home of 1886, the boy inquires of his mother whether his father, who, he learned from a previous exchange, has gone in pursuit of outlaws in a wild, wooded area of the country, has had any opportunity yet of shooting a lion. Regardless of the age of the boy, who has just explained to his mother that he is fighting off homesickness by drawing pictures of lions, tigers and leopards, Buettner deliberately suggests an analogy which is quite unwarranted by her own quotation from the letter: “While his father apparently pursued both Indian people and wildlife with a rifle, John proceeded to capture them in pen and ink during drawing lessons at school” [132]. All is said: the Indians are treated as wild beasts (but who, apart from Buettner, ever said that John’s father was going to shoot the outlaws?); and representation, here in the form of a child’s drawings, is an act of domination and repression, a crime on a par with assassination.

In this vein, and taking the art of misrepresentation against the evidence of one’s own sources to a height unsurpassed in the book, is the case in the same section of Empire Families of an eleven-year-old girl also writing to her parents. Of her school mates, she says: “It is almost odd to hear other children talking of their parents as being always with them[,] something too nice for us to enjoy. I seem almost to ache with longing for you” [138-39]. Taking the view that letters composed in such temporary estrangement reveal the suppression of the terrible and shameful secrets of family life, Buettner follows this up with remarks on the silence of children about the pain of separation. Aware of the contradiction, she then supports her claim by resting her case on inexistent evidence:

While a considerable number of family letters survive to document the ramifications of parent-child separations, countless others either were not preserved or possibly never written in such substantial numbers. […] Would these letters [had they been written and preserved] have reflected weaker family bonds or sentiments that were less intensely felt? Many parents may well have felt less devoted to their offspring than the writers discussed earlier. [139]

This is no longer history, as this reviewer understands it at least, but speculation on the contents of documents which no longer exist and may never have existed.

Behaviour of this kind is all the more to be deplored as Empire Families draws on sources that are many, rich and varied—Indian and British school archives, private correspondence, official reports, memoirs, interviews, newspapers and magazines, novels and short stories, autobiographies etc. These furnish Buettner with countless notations that ring true, especially in the later sections of the book. One learns, for example, that the public or grammar schools patronised by the sons of middle-class British Indians taught syllabuses in which “classical” education occupied much less space, if any, than “modern” subjects, because their pupils were mostly destined for a career overseas in the armed forces, civil engineering or the Indian Civil Service. Only those wishing to go on to university would have needed to study the classics. If, then, Britain’s Indian empire served as a replica and a buttress of the metropolitan social order [Cannadine], one has to confess that, aside from the very highest, university-educated echelons of imperial authority, it was a less prestigious version of the metropole. In British India, the British expatriate might rise socially at less cost. Buettner gives us a brief glimpse of the fact that the Empire could in this way be synonymous with social mobility for Europeans—something that would be consistent with the (even by contemporary accounts) exaggerated emphasis on rank in India, both as a form of compensation for lesser prestige and as a mode of regulation of mobility. But, obsessed with categories, bent on essentialising both native Indians and British Indians, convinced that all social order is static, as befits an instrument of domination, Buettner herself misses that which she lets us see—the fluidity of social rank, with its two extremes of déclassement and promotion.

In sum, Empire Families lacks a coherent and convincing thesis. It is rather the juxtaposition of a broadly post-colonial theoretical framework, used here without much originality or nuance, and a multitude of precious observations and leads for further research. The two interact, but too often at the cost of doing the sources violence or not pursuing alternative or additional interpretations. Too much emphasis is accorded to the construction of the "otherness" of Indians and Anglo-Indians, and of the identity of British Indians, and too little space is devoted to the modes of transmission of that identity, notwithstanding the many pages on schools. The family theme, so prominent in the title of the book, is as a result marginalised and trivialised. One cannot refrain from thinking, for instance, that many children, and not just those of British Indians at the turn of the twentieth century, follow in the footsteps of their parents. Likewise, is it not the case that the families of many a serviceman, diplomat or international executive must, even today, show signs of the dual identity of British Indians, caught between ‘home’ and an overseas posting? If so, what is the specificity of India, besides its usefulness for embracing in the same moral reprobation “class,” “race” and “gender”? And what of the relevance of the years 1880-1940, except insofar as they imply with hindsight an epiphany in 1947, when the artifice, illusion and fragility of the British Empire in India were finally made known to the world (a discursive ploy one would not have expected in a book so virulent on the subject of discursive strategies of representation)?

It is quite remarkable also that Buettner nowhere justifies her choice of the subcontinent and of the “late imperial” phase of British rule there. In page after page, it is indeed as though one could substitute China or the Congo for India. “India” and “the [British] Empire” are often used interchangeably, as the phrase “India, Africa, and other overseas regions” aptly suggests [156]. India, it seems, is emblematic of the whole British Empire—though why this should be is never made clear. India, for Buettner, signifies not itself, but beyond itself. India is not so much India as a paradigm.

To conclude, the failing of Empire Families lies in its wavering between, on the one hand, a form of critique which disembodies and dehistoricises individuals and groups alike, and on the other hand, a historian’s painstaking combing through a huge amount of sources, which uncovers a comparatively neglected side of British imperial history. The book is an exercise in the archeology of imperial representation, in which ideology too often predetermines the outcome of research, even against the evidence adduced to support the historian’s claims. This is not to deny the importance of representation, but to stress the need to remain specific and respectful of evidence. Elizabeth Buettner has used sources which more traditional imperial historiography has tended to overlook. She often quotes fascinating extracts from them, and she makes a generally good case of the fact that British Indians were more than ordinarily preoccupied with status, self-image and, ultimately, power. But a work of herculean proportions is made to fit uneasily into an analytical frame that cannot contain all that it has to say and thus becomes something of a strait jacket. Readers who share Buettner’s taste for sweeping generalisations will probably not learn a great deal from this book. Those who do not, or not to the same extent, will need patience to mine the nuggets in a work which brings to light much that is valuable on the psychological, emotional and social history of the British Empire, not just in India, and much which, by virtue of this, may help account for its longevity.

Works cited
ARMITAGE, David, ed. Theories of Empire, 1450-1800. Aldershot & Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate, 1998.
CANNADINE, David. Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire. 2001. London: Penguin Books, 2002.
COLLEY, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. 1992. London: Vintage, 1996.
--- . Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850. London: Jonathan Cape, 2002.
GIKANDI, Simon. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
GILLINGHAM, John. "The Beginnings of English Imperialism." Gillingham 3-18.
---. The English in the Twelfth Century: Imperialism, National Identity and Political Values. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2000.
GOULD, Eliga H. The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
HALL, Catherine. Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867. London: Polity Press, 2002.
KENNEDY, Paul. "Why Did the British Empire Last So Long?" Kennedy 197-218.
---. Strategy and Diplomacy 1870-1945. Eight Studies. 1983. London: Fontana Press, 1989.
PORTER, Bernard. The Absent-minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
ROBERTSON, John. "Union, State and Empire. The Britain of 1707 in its European Setting." Stone : 224-257.
---. "Empire and Union: Two Concepts of the Early Modern European Political Order." Armitage : 11-44.
STONE, Lawrence, ed. An Imperial State at War. Britain from 1689 to 1815. London & New York: Routledge, 1994.


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.