Visions of Empire by Krishan Kumar

The sun never sets…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Kumar begins this wide-ranging review of past empires by speculating why interest in empires seems to be growing again. He suggests that firstly, enough time has passed to allow the more recent ones to be assessed more objectively. But secondly, issues such as globalisation and climate change are causing people to question what is the best way to govern – is the nation state really the answer that it seemed to be when the age of empires ground to a halt? Kumar doesn’t directly set out to answer this question. Instead, he looks at five of the most significant recent empires, considering how they were ruled, what were the objectives of the rulers, and what effect being the “load-bearing” part of an empire had on the national spirit of the ruling nations. He also considers the idea that, since most nations are a kind of empire, having won their territory out from an original centre, then perhaps the converse is also true – that empires can seen be seen as a form of nation.

Before he looks at the five recent empires, Kumar starts with a short chapter on Rome, on the grounds that all the later empires were to some degree influenced by its aims and methods of governance. He discusses the importance of citizenship and the use of religion – in Rome’s case, Christianity – to homogenise the different peoples that came under its sway. These are themes he returns to in each of his five chosen empires, showing how they mirrored or differed from Rome in these aspects.

The five main empires covered in the book are the Ottoman, the Habsburg, the Russian (later USSR), the British and the French. In each case he starts with a run through of their development and spread – which territories they colonised. These were the least interesting parts for me, and I felt a real need for more and better maps than the book provides. After that, however, I found each chapter became more interesting as Kumar began to look at the methods of rule each empire put into place, showing how this usually arose out of the way the empire developed. So he draws a distinction between those empires which were basically land empires, such as the Russian, with all territories spreading out contiguously from a centre, and overseas empires like the British.

In each case, he then looks at what the rulers saw as the purpose of their empire. Obviously, for some, a major purpose was to do with generating wealth, but beyond that Kumar looks at, for example, the Spanish mission to protect and spread Catholicism, or the French desire to spread their Enlightenment ideals to the territories they controlled. He takes a rather positive view, suggesting many subject territories felt a considerable loyalty to their empire, citing many examples of where they willingly fought in the wars of the central nations. This is a book about rulers, so there’s not much here about how the ‘ordinary’ people may have felt about empire, but certainly he makes a good case for the benefits that often accrued both to the central nations and the subject territories, in terms of both economic and cultural trade.

In his concluding chapter, Kumar looks at the difficulties the central nations have had in rediscovering their own identities following the collapse of their empires. He also discusses neocolonialism and the empire-like status of the superpowers – America, China, and the EU, which he suggests some see as the Habsburg empire resuscitated. And finally he discusses the growth of supranational bodies which take on some of the aspects of empire – the UN, International Courts, even global NGOs.

British Empire 1886

Overall, I found the book interesting and informative. It is rather academic in style but not enough so to make it inaccessible to the casual reader like myself. What caused me a little more difficulty is Kumar’s assumption of a level of prior knowledge. This isn’t a criticism – the book is clearly aimed at people with an existing interest in empire, or people who are formally studying the subject, and it would be impossible to cover such a wide range if every reference had to be explained in depth for newcomers to the subject. However, the result was that I found the chapters on empires I know something about – Habsburg, Russian and, of course, especially the British – were easier to read and absorb, and I took more away from them. The French Empire (oddly) I know little about and so struggled more as Kumar referred to historical events of which I had no real knowledge. But the worst for me was the section on the Ottoman Empire – my knowledge of that one is almost non-existent and I found the chapter hard work to get through and didn’t feel at the end of it as if I had gained much. I would suggest, therefore, that this certainly isn’t a ‘starter’ book for someone wanting an introductory history to the various empires.

However, for anyone with an existing interest in some or all of the empires discussed, it’s a thought-provoking and interesting read – clearly written, informative, and I found Kumar’s arguments convincing. Despite my struggles at some points, I found it an enjoyable read – one that passes over the simple and now somewhat out-dated wholesale condemnation of empire in favour of a more nuanced look at the various forms and degrees of rule and co-operation between the states and territories that made up these ever-shifting entities.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.

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37 thoughts on “Visions of Empire by Krishan Kumar

  1. This sounds incredibly interesting indeed but perhaps a little too academic for me – I didn’t even know there was a French empire! Bravo to Kumar for taking a pragmatic approach to this subject, it can be very emotive at times and it is always good to get a balanced view for a change. I never, ever say this – but it’s one book I would prefer to tackle through a TV adaptation rather than the effort of reading it! Good luck to Kumar, though, this looks absolutely super.

    • Haha – I didn’t know about the French one either, though once I started reading I realised of course there was – French Guiana and so on. But it was kinda pathetic in comparison to OUR empire, of course… 😉 I’m glad to see empires getting a slightly better rap – like nearly everything else in history they had their good points as well as their bad. But I was glad with this one when I got to the empires I knew at least a little bit about… so much easier!

      • That’s hardly an empire! 😉 But it does sound like a good book. There seems to be a leaning towards rewriting history these days, because people don’t like to acknowledge some of the bad stuff that happened, but it’s important we continue to discuss it or the world will make the same mistakes! Besides, I was thinking of starting a cake empire… 😉

  2. The Ottoman Empire is a process that started from the year 1071 onwards after the ancestral entrance of the Turks. The foundation of the Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299. Then the Turks spread to three continents after the conquest of Istanbul Mehmet the Conqueror. They ruled the three continents. Asia, Europe and Africa in a very effective way. They respect people’s religious freedoms. However, people in Europe first wanted to expedite the Ottoman Empire by organizing expeditions to Anatolia through the Crusades. On top of this, the Ottoman Empire had collapsed after decline.
    Later, the Ottomans who surrendered to the British re-emerged from their ashes and re-established under the leadership of M. Kemal ATATURK and took the foundations of the Republic of Turkey. Today Turkey is a democratic state of law. It is ranked 16th in the world ecology. We Turks are known for their closeness to people. We are warm people, we value people who are guests.
    What a happy türküm diyene – Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
    Good morning Fiction Fan 🙂 🐞

  3. This does sound fascinating, FictionFan. The various empires have certainly left their marks on the world, and if we’re going to understand that world, we need to understand how empires worked. This reminds me – just a bit – of Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, in which the author looks at three different revolutions, and discusses some of the patterns that lead to that sort of uprising. So interesting to look at it with that broader view, I think.

    • Yes, I’m glad more balanced work is being done on empires now – I find them fascinating, and have long been convinced that they had good points as well as the obvious bad ones. I’m intrigued whether Brexit will lead Britain back to the Commonwealth – despite all the bad things about the British Empire, it’s amazing that so many diverse nations are still voluntary members of that club. The Anatomy of Revolution looks very interesting – must try to fit that in to my reading while I’m in revolutionary mode… 😀

    • I don’t know that one, but looking at the blurb it sounds interesting – must see if I can fit it in sometime! I do think this one is excellent, but was glad I knew something about at least some of the empires beforehand or I think I’d have found it a really hard read.

  4. What an interesting way to describe the ruling power – the load-bearing nation. That is much more positive than would usually be the case these days. I would expect something more like the parasitic nation.

    • Yes, I thought that was an interesting term to use too, especially since I’ve long thought that empires in general probably had their good points as well as their bad. One of the points he makes is that these ‘load-bearing’ nations had to give up a lot of their own identity and many are still struggling as a result – an intriguing argument…

  5. Um, probably not for me, but I admire you for trekking through it! I find “reading time” has become more and more scarce, so I generally prefer a lighter book. But hey, at least you didn’t read it and jump over every itty-bitty noise, right?!

    • Ha! Truthfully, I’m so fed up with most modern fiction that I’m actually enjoying the factual stuff more at the moment. But there’s no doubt they can be hard work – keeps the brain active, or so I keep telling myself… 😉

  6. Hmmm this is the very definition of a book that is not for me-and there aren’t many of those! I liked your balanced review of it though, and good on ya for taking on a book from a university press-that is always daunting 🙂

    • I lvoe the University Presses – actually, that’s the real bonus of blogging for me, getting access to all these lovely but pricey hardback history and politics books! Princeton definitely think I’m more academic than I am though – some of the stuff they offer me would require a PhD… sometimes in nuclear physics!! 😉

    • I only really re-started reading history a few years ago after decades of not, and I find I thoroughly enjoy it – it’s true that it helps you to understand the world today if we have some idea of what happened before… 😀

  7. What a fascinating, if slightly academic, look at empires and your review made me realise how little I’d considered the other empires. I like that it gives an alternative view of some of the positive aspects, contrary to popular opinion.

    • I’ve become intrigued by empires over the last few years, after so many years of just accepting they were A Bad Thing! I’m definitely of the opinion now that in fact there was a lot of good stuff about them too – like most things, neither all good nor all bad. This one is interesting but hard work in places…

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