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The Lords of Human Kind

European Attitudes to other Cultures in the Imperial Age


Victor Kiernan


Critique – Influence – Change Series, #10

London: Zed Books, 2015

Paperback. xxxvi +354 pp. ISBN 978-1783604296. £ 12.99


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



Victor Kiernan’s masterpiece was first published in 1969* and drew on decades of reading and critical thought. It employed a vast array of literary sources, ranging from the memoirs of missionaries, letters by the wives of diplomats, and diaries of explorers to the fictional writing of numerous authors. As the subtitle indicates, The Lords of Human Kind presents the attitudes of Europeans towards non-Europeans during a broad span of time from approximately 1800 to the middle of the twentieth century. Whether energised by military conquest, commercial exploitation, religious evangelisation or permanent settlement, most Europeans adopted contemptuous or hostile views of the cultures with which they came into contact, only occasionally finding points for admiration.

After an introduction on Europe in early times and the territorial ambitions of its various powers, Kiernan devoted seven chapters to European aspirations for world domination in the nineteenth century. These are organised spatially, beginning with a substantial and very coherent treatment of the British presence in India. By contrast, the remaining chapters are more disparate in structure, tracing European attitudes and activities in ‘Other colonies in Asia’, the Islamic World, the Far East, Africa, the South Seas, and Latin America. The French in Indo-China and North Africa are treated with surprising brevity, as are German and Portuguese exploits in Africa. Likewise, the impact of European settlement and westward (and northward) expansion on indigenous peoples in North America is passed over rapidly. Despite their many insights, none of the chapters matches the strength of argument displayed in the 45 pages devoted to India. And, of course, the general theme has attracted a vast amount of research since Kiernan drafted his work in the 1960s, and again following the appearance of the penultimate edition of The Lords of Human Kind in 1995.

To elucidate this impression of varying depth of treatment, it is necessary to trace something of the career of V.G. Kiernan, as he styled himself. Born in Liverpool in 1913, and given three remarkably ‘imperial’ forenames (Edward, Victor, Gordon), he was the son of a foreign correspondence clerk for the Manchester Ship Canal Company. His father was fluent in several European languages, including Spanish and Portuguese, and Victor followed in his footsteps. After a classical education at Manchester Grammar School, he read history at Trinity College, Cambridge. Graduating in 1934 with a starred first, he undertook research on British diplomacy in China in the 1880s. He joined the Communist Party in 1934, and upon completion of his dissertation four years later, chose to spend a year of his Trinity College fellowship in India. He remained there until 1946, teaching at the Sikh National College and at Aitchison College. He was inspired by politically progressive Indian poets and learned Urdu to translate their works for publication in the West. Vacations were spent with communist leaders in Bombay. Kiernan returned to Cambridge but when his fellowship was over his political persuasion made him unacceptable in Oxbridge. Fortunately, his published work on China earned him a lectureship (1948) and eventually a personal chair (1970) at the University of Edinburgh. The six decades following his return to Britain revealed Kiernan not only as a historian but also as a polymath. Later works embraced titles on Shakespeare, and on Horace, as well as an array of books on political and cultural history relating to North America, Europe, duels, colonial empires and armies, and the history of tobacco. He enjoyed supporting – and sparring with – members of the British group of Marxist historians, and in 1952 wrote for the first issue of Past and Present. Joining its editorial board in 1973, he was an energetic and assiduous referee of manuscripts. Kiernan left the Communist Party in 1959, but retained his Marxist principles. His first marriage was short-lived and much of his life was spent as a ‘bachelor don’ in Edinburgh, but he remarried in 1984 and lived for the rest of his very productive years in rural Scotland, dying peacefully in his sleep on 17 February 2009, at the age of 95.

The edition of The Lords of Human Kind under review appears in the ‘Critique, Influence, Change’ series from Zed Books. It is essentially the 1995 text, for which Kiernan wrote a 25-page preface, accompanied by an appreciation of his oeuvre by John Trumpbour, and tributes from his friend Eric Hobsbawm, and from his wife Heather. In an obituary in The Guardian dated 18 February 2009, Hobsbawm remarked how, in the 1960s, Kiernan ‘discovered his unique gift of asking historical questions, and suggesting answers, by bringing and fitting together an unparalleled range of erudition, constantly extended … He became the master of the perfectly chosen quotation inserted into a demure but uncompromising survey of a global scene’. In his tribute included in this volume, Hobsbawm declared:

I always had the impression that he himself was constantly surprised by a world that was not quite like his, a world where people did not travel with Latin editions of Horace or Virgil, or treated every human being with good-tempered courtesy, or wrote English with beauty and correctness but no concession to colloquialism. [His life confirmed] that goodness, honesty and virtue, with the lightest of touches, are still to be found in the world [xii].

Setting her husband’s work in context, Heather Kiernan remarked:

Eric Hobsbawm and V.G. Kiernan stood out among the twentieth-century British Marxist historians for their ability to look at history with a global vision. While their contemporaries Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton and E.P. Thompson primarily tackled English topics in their mature historical work, Eric and Victor made ambitious forays across time and continents [ix].

Perhaps because of his breadth of vision and the diversity of topics about which he wrote, both within and beyond the broad scope of ‘history’, V.G. Kiernan probably did not receive the recognition that he deserved. Without doubt, this printing of The Lords of Human Kind is most welcome and will continue to figure on the reading lists of countless students of world history and the history of colonisation. Their challenge will be to explore and to distil the quantities of material that have been published since the book’s appearance almost five decades ago.


*As The Lords of Human Kind : European Attitudes towards the outside World in the Imperial Age. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.



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