'The present is not and cannot be made new'
Scholar reveals vista of global history through window of British past
By Karin Dienst
Princeton NJ -- As a Briton teaching British history at an American university, Linda Colley is presenting an unfamiliar subject to most of her students. It is an ideal situation for Colley, who is interested in the big picture -- making cross-disciplinary connections in a global context and conveying her ideas to a broad audience.
Teaching in the United States is helping her to do just that, and is providing students at Princeton with a deeper understanding of Great Britain as well as many other areas of the world.
The Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History, Colley is an authority on British history since 1700. She is the author of "Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850," published in 2003 by Pantheon Books, which uses narratives written by Britons captured in North Africa, India and North America to investigate the complex dynamic between invader and invaded. Her other major work that solidified her reputation as a leading historian is "Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837," which was published by Yale University Press in 1992 and won the Wolfson Prize for History in 1993. She is also the author of "Namier" and "In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party 1714-1760."
"Linda Colley is one of the top historians of modern Britain," said Robert Tignor, the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton and chair of the history department. "Her interest in the British empire fits well with the interests of a lot of members of Princeton's history department and makes Princeton one of the top places for studying the history of modern Asia and Africa where Britain had such a large impact."
Colley joined the Princeton faculty last fall from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she had a five-year Senior Leverhulme Research Professorship in History that enabled her to research and write "Captives." She went to LSE after 16 years at Yale University, where she started as an assistant professor in 1982 and became the Richard M. Colgate Professor of History in 1992. At Yale, she also served as the academic director of the Lewis Walpole Library.
Colley earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and a B.A. from Bristol University. From 1979 to 1982 she was a lecturer and a fellow at Christ's College, Cambridge, earning the honor of being the first woman in that role.
During her time at Cambridge, Colley met and later married David Cannadine, a prominent economic and social historian of Britain and the official biographer of Andrew Mellon. In 1982, after 10 years at Cambridge, Colley made the move to the United States. Cannadine followed six years later to Columbia University, but the couple is now back to transatlantic commuting: Cannadine is the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History at London University. This academic year, he is spending extended periods of time at Princeton as a visiting fellow with the Council of the Humanities.
Teaching a 'foreign' subject
"Once I got to Yale I had to teach myself how to present British history as a foreign subject," said Colley. "I had to make it accessible and also rigorous, interesting and demanding."
Colley brings this teaching expertise to Princeton, enriching a curriculum that for the past five years has offered intermittent instruction in modern British history. Her historical time span follows that of Professor Peter Lake, who teaches 16th- and 17th-century British history.
In the fall, Colley taught the course "Britain 1688-1815: From Revolution to Global Pre-eminence" to her first cohort of Princeton undergraduates. This spring, she is teaching a graduate-level course that covers British history from 1700 to 1914.
"So much of British history in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries is global history and is wonderfully hectic and controversial," said Colley. "You can't really do the American Revolution without doing 18th-century Britain, because that's the other side of the story. You can't do the Middle East or India or large parts of Africa without looking at British imperialism. And a major phase of the Industrial Revolution occurred in Britain, which means its past is vital to the history of economics and economic thought."
Her experience in Colley's class has encouraged freshman Meghan McCormick to consider majoring in history. "I was lucky enough to have Professor Colley as my preceptor, and she really taught me how to approach the reading of primary texts," she said. "Also, all the British history I've learned in the past has been taught by Americans. Professor Colley definitely brings a new perspective to this period of history."
History major Katherine Linder also took Colley's first class at Princeton, crediting her sense of humor and stimulating questions for engaging all students, from freshmen to seniors like herself.
Colley draws on visual and literary sources to flesh out the past for her students and readers. While in London on the Leverhulme fellowship, she took the opportunity to deepen her cultural knowledge by serving on the boards of the National Art Gallery and the British Library. She is also on the editorial board of the London Review of Books and regularly writes for the British press, especially The Guardian.
Popular culture is also fair game for Colley -- last fall she encouraged her students to see the film "Master and Commander," starring Russell Crowe, and then write a more accurate account of British naval history.
Capturing untold stories
At an early age, Colley felt the pull of the past. When she was 5, she went with her mother to the Roman ruins in Chester, England, where she was born. Since then her curiosity about history, nurtured by good teachers, has continued to grow.
"I find it very difficult to understand how people could not find history interesting," she said. "Since history is about human beings, but human beings who just happen to be dead, how could it not be interesting?"
In pursuit of untold stories while researching "Captives," Colley donned the proverbial "stout pair of boots" necessary for historical study, according to historian and social critic R.H. Tawney, and traversed some of the terrain of the far-flung British empire. Since the sea was crucial to this empire, Colley was eager to gain a sense of it as she traveled around the Mediterranean and to North Africa and India.
"Unless you go to the sites of these historical events, it's difficult to appreciate how vulnerable some imperial invaders were," said Colley. "One tends to assume they possessed overwhelming force and technology, but when one examines the extent of the terrain, the flux of climates, the difficult coastlines and the power of the sea, it becomes easier to understand why so many Britons engaged in global enterprise got captured or killed."
"Captives" chronicles the lives of ordinary Britons -- minor traders, soldiers, seamen, miscellaneous women and children -- the sort of people who frequently lost out and who have often been omitted from histories of British imperialism. "When the empire existed and was thought to be a good thing, such people were often viewed as too undignified to acknowledge," said Colley. "And once the empire disappeared, they were also omitted by nationalist historians who tended to present invading Britons as a monolithic group. So I wanted to compli- cate who the British were -- to expose the differences and divisions amongst them -- and to look at the empire in a more variegated and less teleological way."
Out of the past, the future
In 1999, based on the success of her book "Britons," Colley was asked by Prime Minister Tony Blair to give a lecture on what she thought would happen to British national identity in the new millennium. She spoke to a diverse audience at his official residence, 10 Downing St.
"It was quite a challenge because instead of writing about the past I had to address the future," said Colley. "My whole point in 'Britons' was to show that many of the factors that had helped the British forge a national identity had ceased to apply in the present." Colley spoke about the need for new thinking in a Britain that had lost much of its power, was ethnically and religiously diverse, and that had to come to terms with the European Union and the United States.
"I have no idea what Tony Blair thought of my ideas," she said, "but at least he made time to listen to them."
Colley is a firm believer in looking to the past to understand the present and to prepare for the future. "Current affairs confirm my belief that it is vital to give people a better understanding of the past," she said. "The present is not and cannot be made new."
Citing what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, Colley said that she finds it "deeply interesting and deeply alarming to hear politicians and pundits talking without any real understanding of events in the past that continue to have repercussions now." For example, she explained that while historically it has been "relatively easy" to invade the region known as Afghanistan, "what has been hard and what is hard now is hanging around there and enabling useful change."
And while the sun has set on Britain's empire, Colley suggests that the days of empire may be far from over. "Just because colonization has stopped, does not mean that empire has ceased as a phenomenon," she said. "For most of recorded history there have been multicultural empires of varying kinds. It is not clear that the 21st century will necessarily be different."