chapter  4
17 Pages

The Space of Empire and the Territory of Nations

WithUday S. Mehta

By the second half of the 19th century the category of empire had acquired a conceptual clarity and a well-defined set of abstract associations, which allow one to consider it divorced from the turgid reality to which it referred. 1 Empire becomes, one might say, a category of normative and cultural thought, rather than merely a set of practices on the ground. As Conrad’s Marlow famously put it at the end of the 19th century in the Heart of Darkness, the empire was underwritten by an idea. 2 This is of course more obviously the case among writers like J.S. Mill, Karl Marx, and Walter Bagehot who wrote in a theoretical vein and conceived of their thought as pertaining to a broad historical canvas. Nevertheless, to say that in the latter part of the 19th-century modern European empires are underwritten by an idea is not to point to their originality. Indeed it would be more accurate to say that it is precisely in this period that they become self-conscious of themselves as heirs to both an evangelical Christian tradition and an imperial Roman tradition. These were traditions that had conceived of themselves as the proponent of something both pure and general, and in which, therefore, the subsidiary categories of the economic, the social, and even the political, could not serve as fully adequate stand ins for the respublica Christiana or the Roman imperium. Moreover, it is in the second half of the 19th century that the British Empire in particular gets conceived of, and conceives of itself, as the true legatee of the universalism explicit in classical liberalism, and when, as it were, liberalism no longer needs the alibi of a recalcitrant context to hesitate from expressing its pure form. This is what J.E. Cairnes was referring to 97when in 1864 he wrote ‘The British Empire … has reached its natural goal…. Instead of a great political we shall be a great moral unity’ (Cairnes 2005: 58).