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March 2007: A. G. Hopkins

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British and, moreover, imperial history?

AH: This is a long story. It goes back to when I became interested in history (through historical novels) and how this interest then became directed into serious study, as an undergraduate at London University, of the Tudors and Stuarts. (In those distant days, the syllabus for a BA in history enabled you to study British and continental European history, and even some American history, but not the history of the rest of the world.) And the Tudors and Stuarts attracted me because of my abiding interest in the history of capitalism. The connection to imperial history was made through the export of capitalism, which took me first to Africa and then to a consideration of the role of colonialism in developing or underdeveloping the Third World, as it was then called, in general. By the mid-1970s Area Studies, which scarcely existed when I began, were well developed, and imperial history was out of favor. Pursuing a contra-cyclical policy (as I have tried to do), I moved further into the study of empire. Always buy stocks at the bottom of the market, never at the top!

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

AH: I have been fortunate in having helping hands at all stages of my career and to have worked under, and with, some distinguished historians. If I had to pick one it would be the late, memorable S. T. Bindoff, a man for whom the word ‘gravitas’ might have been invented. But, though he was imposing in size and forbidding in manner, he was also extraordinarily kind
and gave time to undergraduates. (In those days, the title ‘professor’ in Britain was reserved for one person, who was also head of the department, very busy and often necessarily removed from anything more than passing contact with undergraduates). It was Bindoff who engaged me with the world of the Tudors and who showed me what true scholarship was.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

AH: I would probably have become a civil servant, in which case I would have become either a knight, much deserved of course, or a whistle-blower. Given the politicization of the civil service in Britain during the last decade, the latter is more probable. Knights are never whistle-blowers.

4. What project are you currently working on?

AH: I am currently completing an article, which – typically at the moment of composition – I think is original and brilliant, called ‘Rethinking Decolonization’. My larger project, to which this article contributes, is a comparison (or rather, I should say, a contrast) between British and American ‘empires’. A sketch of part of the US side of the story has just appeared in the Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History (March 2007).

5. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

AH: You have to remember that I have a fatal tendency to become involved with large, impossible projects that take many years, so my ‘achievements’ fall far short of my youthful ambitions. Finishing any one is itself fulfilling because you have avoided failure. So, I would say that my book on the Economic History of West Africa, which took nearly 10 years, was as fulfilling, in its way, as my work with Peter Cain on British Imperialism, which took nearly 15 years!

6. Where do you see the field of British imperial history moving towards in the next few years?

AH: As the jazz trumpeter, Humphrey Littleton, famously said, when asked a similar question: ‘man, if I knew where jazz was going, I would be there already!’ Predictions are difficult and usually wrong. Still, my guess is that imperial history will continue to expand and will become an important constituent of an even larger field of study: the history of globalization. If I were young today and pursuing a contra-cyclical policy, I would avoid ‘representations and the postmodernist agenda generally, and look at areas that appear to be so silent and immobile as to be dead, such as constitutional history, which has not been in the mainstream since the days of Mansergh and Miller in the 1950s! However, I doubt that this will happen because enterprising students cannot always be sure that their professors will recognize the changing nature of novelty. We, too, can be caught, as the Marxists used to say, in an ‘outdated problematic.

7. Your recent research has centered on testing overarching theories in a historical context (i.e. gentlemanly capitalism, globalization, global history). Is this a technique you think more historians should adopt? What, in your estimation, are the benefits of this technique versus the microhistorical approach?

AH: Chairman Mao got it right (for once) when he said: ‘let many flowers bloom.’ The fascination of history lies partly in the diverse ways in which it can be written. What is important is not technique but illumination. Micro-studies and Big History can both be illuminating – if they are done well. Some historians are drawn by personality and training to the former; others take more readily to the latter. This is the distinction Darwin drew between ‘splitters’ and ‘lumpers’. It is also possible to combine the two or to adopt them sequentially. I am best known as a ‘lumper’ but I would like to take this opportunity to make it clear that I have also produced work of the greatest obscurity. Indeed, I have just finished what, for me, was a wonderfully satisfying biography of an African merchant in Lagos that plumbs depths of detail that few other ‘splitters’ can hope to reach.

8. If you had the opportunity to advise any Prime Minister or President in history who would it be and what would you tell them?

AH: No contest: I would have called President Bush after 9/11 and advised him to stay cool, not to lash out, as instinct and public opinion demanded, and to take the unique opportunity provided by having, momentarily, the sympathy of the world to call for international co-operation in dealing, not just with the immediate issue of ‘terrorism’, but with the larger challenges (of which terrorism is a part) generated by our new globalized world. Had he listened to me, he would not now be worried about his legacy.

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