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March 2012: Geographies of Empire: European Empires and Colonies c. 1880–1960

Reviewed by:  Michael Roche, Massey University

Robin Butlin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 692 pp. £70 (hardback).

Historical geographer Robin Butlin, in the course of a distinguished career, has written and edited a number of books dealing with the nature and development of historical geography, the historical geography of Europe and historical geographies of imperialism. In Geographies of Empire he writes for an audience of geography undergraduates and students in other disciplines with an interest in imperialism and colonisation, and hopes to add something to the historiography of empire, though his readership might also usefully extend to include a more general one, particularly for the last two-thirds of the book.

Butlin concentrates on the period from the high imperialism of the 1880s through to independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Although he suggests his coverage is selective and even eclectic, the fourteen chapters and 600 pages of text provide an empirically rich account of imperial trajectories and colonial expansion.  Importantly the scope is wider than the British Empire and includes sustained discussion about French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Dutch imperial designs and colonial aspirations. Eschewing a comparative approach that chronologically organises different European imperial narratives in successive chapters, Butlin opts for a thematic approach organised around geographical themes and interpretations. He is sensitive to concerns about Eurocentrism going hand in hand with the writing on empire, acknowledges his own position as an author based at the core of the old British Empire while drawing on some work that destabilises such certainties about it as an all seeing vantage point.

Butlin, while writing in an accessible manner, keeps some of his social science theory visible rather than submerging it underneath a narrative. Thus in the first chapter he clearly anchors his initial discussion around Canadian geographer Cole Harris’ work on the ‘simplification of Europe overseas’, on US geographer Donald Meinig’s five volume The Shaping of America, and on US Marxist geographer Jim Blaut’s Colonizer’s Model of the World and then in sequence introduces a number of more recent understandings of imperialism concluding with post colonialism, gender analysis and indigenous knowledge. Here the lecture course origin of the book is most obvious.

The chronology of empire is not discussed in isolation from its geography, but is linked to the spaces that empires occupied and population is not restricted to a one-dimensional discussion of migration, but the global flows of people that accompanied imperialism and colonialism are kept to the fore. Territory is not just rendered as a stage on which historical forces are played out. The subsequent chapter on ‘patterns and shadows on the land’ tackles some mainstream historical geography concerns about resources and land use. The following cluster of chapters, five to nine, on exploration and sources of geographical knowledge, on mapping, the civilising mission and environmental histories are in some ways the most rewarding. In passing Butlin also reveals some of the ways in which geography as a body of knowledge was part of imperial endeavour. These five chapters touch on themes where Butlin has extensive first-hand knowledge. They can also be read as standalone pieces and they offer a reworking of some of the taken for granted positions about heroic exploration and mapmaking and how these were implicated in larger imperial projects. Chapters 10 to 12, for completeness, cover the important topics of transport and communication, towns and cities, and the economic geographies of empire. This leads on to a penultimate chapter where Butlin examines the ending of empire before providing a concise conclusion.

My reading of Butlin is made from a particular corner of the former British Empire, which perhaps sensitises me to smaller scale episodes of imperial endeavour and to land where the agents of empire were not sojourners but arrived and eventually outnumbered indigenous peoples and where ‘postcolonial’ has a particular complex resonance. In this respect Butlin deftly apportions his text between, for instance, larger narratives of imperial expansion in the continents of Africa and smaller vignettes of the Salvation Army in India. As a fellow historical geographer, I doubtless have sympathy with Butlin’s intent and approach, but even allowing for this, I would suggest four strengths to the volume. First, it puts some theoretical material up front at the beginning of the book. Readers will be able to appreciate the position from which he writes. Second, the coverage while not encyclopaedic, which in any case would have swamped what the book seeks to do, is nevertheless wide and spans the gambit of major European imperial powers. It is not just a dressed up account of the British Empire. Third, the chapters are written in an admirably accessible fashion and finally, the array of Butlin’s own photographs reproduced as illustrations for the book, points to his having journeyed to some of the places about which he writes, which perhaps explains his ‘feel’ for some of the things he is writing about.

At the same time I would identify two weaknesses in the text. Butlin himself alludes to a degree of eclecticism in what he has included by way of content and example, but any book is a selection so this is hardly a fatal problem. A multi-authored collection can, potentially at least, overcome some of the difficulties by assembling a collection of experts, but the resulting volumes can lack the cohesiveness that Butlin as a single author brings to this book. The other weakness is very much a double edged sword; Butlin writes in an even handed fashion. He does not advance a grand narrative, but at the same time such an approach can and does justifiably attract criticism. Butlin, in contrast, has captured the essence of a body of geographical writing about imperialism and colonisation and regards empire and colonisation in an authoritative and lucid manner. He succeeds, I think, in distilling a body of disparate geographical writing on empire and making it intelligible to historians. The book is one that can be fruitfully read from cover to cover or successfully dipped into.


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