John Sainsbury: In the Afterglow, a Balanced View of Empire

Roundup: Talking About History

John Sainsbury is a professor of history at Brock University.

A hundred years ago, the British Empire reached its zenith. At least it did in pomp and circumstance, even as its foundations were beginning to crumble. The defining event was the Great Durbar in Delhi, when, on Dec. 12, 1911, King George V was crowned Emperor of India.

It was a brilliantly choreographed ceremony, designed to give visible expression to the British conception of India as an enduring hierarchy of loyal subjects. As magnificently dressed maharajas, nawabs and other notables paid homage to their Emperor King, the emergent force of Indian nationalism – and India’s dire economic problems – could be temporarily disregarded.

[Is] empire ... now a taboo subject? No. ... Enlightening conversation about empire has shifted from what empire means in terms of ideology to the more neutral ground of what it means in terms of communal and personal experience.

...[F]or balanced views of empire, it’s to India we need to go. India’s comfortable assimilation of its colonial heritage is a remarkable story. An eloquent statement is the condition of Coronation Park, where the Durbar was held a hundred years ago. It has been neither destroyed nor maintained. Instead, its monuments to British rule are simply being left to crumble. Shelley’s poetic reverie on the monstrous, ruined statue of a long-forgotten emperor comes irresistibly to mind: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”.

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