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Empire & ‘Civilizing’ Missions, Past & Present
Author(s): Kenneth Pomeranz
Source: Daedalus, Vol. 134, No. 2, On Imperialism (Spring, 2005), pp. 34-45
Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences
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Kenneth Pomeranz
Empire & ‘civilizing missions, past & present
imperialism’ is a frustratingly vague
term, but a useful one – and not only for
outside observers and protesting sub
jects.1 Historically, rulers have often
sought to make their empires visible as
such by following regional – and in re
cent centuries, global – standards for act
ing imperially. Even the past century, in
mark out the last two hundred years for
a different, though complementary, rea
son : as an era in which Western empires,
influenced by the Enlightenment, cast
themselves as agents of progress.
In this essay I will also emphasize the
self-assigned ‘civilizing’ mission of mod
ern empires, but will argue that the two
which empires often shunned that desig hundred-year, Atlantic-centered frame
work is both too narrow and too broad.
nation, is only a partial exception.
Imperialism is also topical. While
On the one hand, civilizing empires have
some compare the contemporary United emerged outside the Enlightenment
States to imperial Rome, more analysts
West; an East/West dichotomy often
proves less useful than one between con
see it as the latest of a series of military
mercantile hegemons that set the rules
tiguous and overseas empires. On the
for their eras’ global political economies.
other hand, since the 1970s the Ameri
Depending on where they locate the
can government’s approach to ‘develop
start of the world economy, some stretch ment’ and ‘nation building’ – the twenti
that series back many centuries, while
eth-century version of ‘civilizing’ – has
broken with basic ideas about how em
most identify only an Anglo-American
succession spanning two centuries of
liberal industrial capitalism. Others
pire could confer benefits on subject
Kenneth Porneranz is Chancellor’s Professor of
American empire different both in word
History at the University of California, Irvine.
He has written extensively on the reciprocal influ
ences of state, society, and economy in late impe
peoples that had evolved over the previ
ous two centuries. This makes today’s
and deed.
In empires, leaders of one society rule
directly or indirectly over at least one
of a global economy. His most recent book is uThe other society, using instruments differ
rial and twentieth-century China, and on the rise
Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Mak
ing of the Modern World Economy” (2000).
? 2005 by the American Academy of Arts
& Sciences
i My thanks to Walter LaFeber, Robert Moel
ler, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, and R. Bin Wong for
exceptionally helpful comments on earlier
drafts of this essay, and to Mark Elliott for clar
ifying specific questions of Qing frontier policy.
34 D dalus Spring 2005
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ent from (though not necessarily more
authoritarian than) those used to rule at
home. For empires, varied kinds of rule
are not just concessions to large spaces
and limited means, but appropriate to
differences among their subject peoples.
Many contemporary states rule less ac
cessible regions very differently from
their capital districts, but this is consid
ered a temporary failing; in theory, na
tions should have one kind of govern
ment and citizen from border to border.
Empires, by contrast, may plan to modi
fy differences among their domains, but
not to extinguish them.
In modern times, one particular differ
ence increasingly overshadowed others :
most empires came to have at their core
one nation conceived to be ‘free’ and
‘modern,’ while other domains were
‘unfree’ and ‘backward.’ This distinctior
became more pronounced in the nine
to citizens were expanded in Britain
Nonetheless, the distinction between
a supposedly civilized core nation and
backward others was not new in 1800.
Indeed, the groups most closely tied to
historic imperial centers often made
their alleged cultural superiority a justi
fication for empire. Some tried hard to
‘civilize’ their subjects. For instance, a
civilizing agenda has been part of Chi
nese imperial statecraft for more than
two thousand years. Insistence on this
civilizing mission waxed and waned
over time, but not on the strength of
rival claims for the allegiance of border
peoples. Recent scholarship emphasizes
how Qing (1644 -1912) expansionism
in the southwest resembled many con
temporaneous expansionisms, and
how Eastern and Western empires self
consciously adopted standard ways of
teenth century than it had been before :
claiming territory and peoples, such as
increasingly standardized ethnographic
ly call the ‘German’ or ‘Spanish’ subject?
of the seventeenth-century Hapsburgs,
for instance, had not been notably more
enfranchised than many of the other
and cartographic conventions.3
most of those whom we anachronistical
Hapsburg subjects. Even in the eigh
teenth-century British Empire, which
may have come closest among pre-nine
teenth-century empires to having a na
tion at its core, the majority of Britons
were neither economically nor politi
cally more privileged than their North
American cousins, or even perhaps
than the white residents of various oth
er British colonies. The citizen/subject
dichotomy only became sharp when
the thirteen colonies broke away, many
local representative bodies in the rest
of the empire were either emasculated
or abolished,2 and the rights afforded
2 See C A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian : The British
Empire and the World, 1780 -1830 (London :
Longman, 1989), who labels many of the new
ound 1800, the imperial stake in
‘civilization’ got higher – for at least two
reasons. First, Europeans and Americans
(North and South) increasingly accepted
the idea that civilized peoples should
rule themselves. (The Romans had nev
er worried that respecting Greek civiliza
tion conflicted with imposing outside
rule on them. In fact, as far as the Ro
mans were concerned, being too civi
and reorganized colonies of the 1800 -1840
era as “proconsular despotisms.”
3 Laura Hostetler, Qing Colonial Enterprise :
Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern
China (Chicago : University of Chicago Press,
2001) ; James A. Millward, “‘Coming onto the
Map’ : ‘Western Regions’ Geography and Car
tographic Nomenclature in the Making of Chi
nese Empire in Xinjiang,” Late Imperial China
20 (2) (December 2000) : 61 – 98.
D dalus Spring 2005 35
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Empire &
lized – i.e., decadent – could be a disqual by civilization ; increasingly they also
ification for self-rule.) The Atlantic revo saw themselves as civilizers. Decades be
imperialism lutions both promulgated this idea and
fore the Tanzimat reforms of the 1830s,
spawned expansionist states, producing
the Ottomans began working to stan
strange new locutions : Jefferson de
dardize administration and property law,
reform social practices, and rein in mys
tical and enthusiastic forms of Islam in
scribed American westward expansion
as “an empire of liberty,” and Napoleon
insisted that French conquests brought
These locutions paralleled tensions in
their outer provinces. The Romanovs
undertook ‘Russification’ efforts in Po
land and the Ukraine around 1830 and
the m?tropoles, where liberal regimes
acknowledged certain universal rights
but then denied many groups those
in Central Asia thereafter.
rights in practice. It was frequently ar
gued that those whose rights were de
nied lacked reason or self-control or
forts on some frontiers – replacing tribal
chiefs with appointed magistrates, im
were in some other way not fully human.
By the same token, if civilized people
should rule themselves, societies ruled
from afar had to be labeled uncivilized.
Empire was then justified as tutelage
that would eventually make those soci
eties fit either for self-rule or full union
with the m?tropole. Though civilizing
remained a vague, contested goal, most
nineteenth- and twentieth-century em
pires invoked this rationale much more
than their predecessors had.
The second reason why the imperial
The Qing, descended from Manchu
invaders, had long made ‘civilizing’ ef
posing Han Chinese marriage customs,
and promoting Chinese education for
elites ; but they had also criticized exces
sively civilized Han Chinese. This latter
stance became harder to sustain after
spectacular corruption and high living
among elite Manchus were exposed in
1799. After 1800, Han literati became
more interested and involved in frontier
management, emphasizing the superior
ity of Chinese civilization rather than
commonalities among the Qing and
their Central Asian subjects. Many Man
chu officials followed suit, invoking ear
lier Mongol precedents less frequently.4
stake in civilization got higher was that
an alternate model for empire was van
(Implementation of more aggressively
‘civilizing’ policies came slowly, howev
ishing. For centuries, nomadic cavalry
er, due to a series of nineteenth-century
experts had periodically conquered the
invasions, rebellions, and other crises.)
sedentary empires they lived near, but
Thus, nineteenth-century empires that
this pattern was disappearing by 1800.
did not share Enlightenment notions
The Qajars in Persia, the Sauds in west
about progress, tutelage, and self-rule
ern Arabia, and, more briefly, the Mara
also worked to ‘civilize’ their subject
thas and Nadir Shah in India faintly
echoed processes that had put the Mon populations.
gols, Mughals, and others in power, but
4 On Qing disdain for decadent Han Chinese,
record population growth and intensi
see, for instance, Philip Kuhn, Soulstealers : The
fied land use put nomads on the defen
Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 (Cambridge, Mass. :
sive thereafter throughout Eurasia.
Harvard University Press, 1990). On the in
Existing empires that had descended
creased assertiveness of Han literati in frontier
from tribal conquerors also became less and foreign policy, see James Polachek, The
Inner Opium War (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard
prone to claim they had virtues that re
sulted from being relatively uncorrupted University Press, 1992).
36 D dalus Spring 2005
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But accepting a civilizing justification,
even rhetorically, created a distinctive
tension in which any empire claiming
complete success would in effect be call
ing for its own dissolution.5 Conse
quite remote from later ambitions to
create new citizenries. As Christopher
Bayly has shown, despite the growing
importance of commercial interests in
early-nineteenth-century Britain, the
quently, modern empires have claimed
empire’s dominant ideas were evangelist
and agrarianist.6 Taking Britain’s con
centrated landholding as a model, agrar
ianism sought to build colonial societies
to be readying ‘natives’ for self-rule,
while simultaneously asserting that the
empires’ continued presence is essen
tial for maintaining this direction. (This
problem has appeared in Iraq, as the U.S.
government has insisted on rapid prog
ress toward Iraqi self-rule – even as it
also insists that a continued American
military presence is essential.)
By 1900, perceived readiness for self
rule involved social, economic, and cul
tural characteristics of whole popula
tions : readiness to be self-disciplined
free laborers, patriotic soldiers, practi
tioners of modern hygiene, etc. These
civilizing projects went well beyond
Macaulay’s famous proposal, in his 1834
“Minute on [Indian] Education,” that
Britain should aim to create a class of
people in the subcontinent who would
share its outlook. In focusing on training
that would also be led by an elite of large
landlords dedicated to improving their
properties and to setting an example for
their neighbors. Meanwhile, evangelist
rhetoric often held that imperial rule
would ‘awaken’ its subjects.
Many, including Macaulay, equated
awakening with rejecting local tradition
to embrace superior Western ideas.
Others – from colonial officials such as
Thomas Munro, who hoped to revive an
ancient “Hindoo constitution,” to intel
lectuals such as F. D. Maurice and James
Legge, who saw anticipations of Chris
tian monotheism in various ancient civi
lizations – regarded imperialism as help
ing people rediscover truths their cul
tures had forgotten but that Europeans
a ‘civilized’ ruling class, Macaulay’s as
had meanwhile enlarged upon. Many
for instance, considered
similationist imperialism was, despite its
Enlightenment origins, not unlike that
of Wanyan Yun Zhu (who wrote in 1833
that finding a few Yunnanese women
China a ‘sleeping giant,’ thus justifying
the Opium War (1839 -1842) as a way to
rouse that country from its slumber.
the glories of Qing expansion) and that
Increasingly, colonial nationalists
picked up this metaphor, which conve
who could write decent Chinese showed
of Chen Hongmou, the eighteenth-cen
tury official who tirelessly promoted
classical education on China’s south
western frontier.
niently implied that the long-sleeping
nation was old enough to be historically
authentic. ‘Awakening,’ as this appropri
ation of the term showed, was an unsta
Whatever their similarities, all these
ble justification for empire ; it could the
projects for creating new gentries were
oretically happen instantaneously, mak
5 The most influential formulation of this is
ing foreign rule suddenly superfluous.
‘Development,’ by contrast, implied a
need for continuing guidance. It fit an
Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper, “Be
tween Metropole and Colony : Rethinking a
Research Agenda,” in Cooper and Stoler, eds.,
Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bour
geois World (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1997), 1-56.
understanding that whole societies had
to be transformed, and it had more ob
6 Bayly, Imperial Meridian, 133 -163.
D dalus Spring 2005 37
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Empire &
jective, measurable correlatives. Devel
opment could also serve metropolitan
imperialism economic interests, making an empire
mental effort – but this was hardly sim
ple. Herders, shifting cultivators, and
forest peoples – many of whose tradi
a valuable market for the m?tropole’s
tional practices were construed as crimi
rather than just a source of raw ma
nal trespassing under that system – suf
fered greatly; so did tenants who lost
Amidst increasingly restive ‘nationali
ties’ and growing metropolitan queasi
customary guarantees against eviction
and access to common lands. Liberaliza
tion could also undermine local elite col
ness about the ethics and feasibility of
relying on force, pomp, and often impro
laborators central to cost-saving indirect
rule (those, for instance, with rights to
vised ‘tradition’ to sustain European
rule, a mission stressing economic de
velopment provided a seemingly defen
bor), or white settlers for whom coer
manufactures and financial services
sible basis for a colonial social contract.
A fundamentally socioeconomic notion
of empire’s purpose also suited metro
politan professionals seeking opportuni
ties abroad as well as the desires of some
of the colonized. The commitment of
many colonial nationalists to develop
mentalism is among modern imperial
ism’s most important legacies. It is strik
ing how many twentieth-century argu
ments about North-South relations
came to assume that good regimes create
sustained per capita economic growth a relatively novel and narrow measure of
human well-being.
Meanwhile, non- or semi-European
states that wanted to be recognized as
great powers, including old empires like
the Ottoman and new ones like Japan,
also assimilated many Western notions
of what constituted appropriate imperial
behavior. The resulting fusions of West
ern and indigenous notions reoriented
these states’ policies toward their Miao,
Palestinian, Kazakh, Taiwanese, and
other ‘backward’ subjects – and thereby
gave attempts to recast empire as a de
velopmental effort a truly global scope.
IVJLany late-nineteenth-century colo
nial regimes believed that creating and
enforcing a more liberal property rights
system constituted a sufficient develop
collect tribute goods or use unpaid la
cion kept labor cheap amidst still plenti
ful land. For these and other reasons, co
lonial powers rarely implemented full
fledged liberalization. (In fact, the late
Ottoman and Qing Empires, which were
cautious but persistent about extending
the sway of markets, were probably
more successful in this respect than
some European empires.)
The part of laissez-faire most firmly
upheld in many empires was stinginess
on the part of the state. The most notori
ous example was the near-total absence
of relief during India’s massive late
nineteenth-century famines. Growing
trade may have raised aggregate income
and lifted some boats ; but more general
ly, the combination of minimal famine
relief, incentives to export crops, new
property rights that sometimes placed
emergency ‘wasteland’ food sources off
limits, and new migration patterns that
spread epidemics, made the late nine
teenth century a particularly deadly era
for much of the developing world – and
guaranteed resistance to a narrowly lib
eral developmentalism.7
Efforts to increase raw materials ex
ports often created enclaves, built and
maintained in ways that kept costs low
7 See Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts
(London : Verso, 2001), for a harrowing account
of the Indian episode and similar ones during
the same period.
38 D dalus Spring 2005
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m?tropoles themselves, faith in govern Empire &
ment planning, rising liberal/Left politi missions,
and some plantations continued into the cal coalitions, and interest in colonies as past&
1940s in French Africa; such unpaid ‘ap social laboratories were all factors. But
prenticeships’ were justified by the argu
if a civilizing mission were to include
ment that the ‘natives’ were not yet self
building infrastructure, educating peo
disciplined enough to be motivated by
ple, promoting public health, channeling
investment, and buffering social disloca
The Dutch Cultivation System, in
tions, its costs would rise considerably.
which Javanese export crops were ex
Moreover, by claiming as a mission’s
aim the need to transform the entire
tracted as tribute with help from local
elites, was officially abolished in 1870,
population, even in such intimate as
but coerced labor continued in Java well
pects …
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