Book Review: Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain

Porter’s book is in many ways an eye-opener.   It was a surprise to discover that Britain’s empire was not a topic of national discussion until the latter portion of the imperial period.   If porter’s thesis is correct and the people of Britain were by and large ignorant of the empire and willfully so as he makes clear in his introduction then that makes a hash out of most of the post-colonialist arguments he is criticizing.[1] It is Porter’s position that Britain was not “steeped” in imperialism even for the segment of society from which most imperial administrators were drawn until comparatively late in the imperial period itself.The Absent-Minded Imperialists has much to tell us about the way in the British Empire was perceived in Britain itself during the imperial period.   Porter makes an excellent argument that while the empire materially affected the lives of many Englishmen through such things as raw materials, some culinary habits, and trade; these things did not necessarily mean that the average Englishman was consciously aware of the extent of Britain’s empire on a day to day basis.   He also demonstrates why this could be so.   Once he really delves into the ways in which the British Empire affected the British home culture he proves his point quite well.

It is actually fascinating that the British could have controlled such a large and diverse empire and the vast majority of British home subjects were aware of it peripherally if at all.   But Porter’s explanation for how this could be so says a lot about British society.   His thesis that the Empire just did not personally impact the day to day life of the average Briton makes eminent sense when it is considered that the average Briton in the nineteenth century was either a farm worker or factory employee who worked long hours for low pay.   They more than likely were more interested in what was for dinner than the conditions in India or how much money the aristocracy and upper middle classes stood to make from controlling colonial commerce.

What Porter teaches us is that despite outward appearances the truth is often not self-evident even in the case of something as patently large and all embracing as the British Empire appeared to be.   Despite its size and demonstrable economic impact it was not just possible but likely that the empire would have little to no effect on the culture of the home country.

[1] Porter, Bernard. The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Preface

[2] Price, Richard. “Is Bernard Porter’s Absent-Minded Imperialists useful for the study of Empire and British national culture?” American Military University . November 19, 2006. (accessed November 4, 2009).

[3] Porter, pp. xxii-xxiii