On imperialisms

On imperialisms

Regular readers of the WWW Friday blog will be aware that over the weeks and months there have been a number of mentions of Roman letters, both those by soldiers stationed in Vindolanda in northern Britain, and also those by the Roman politician and writer Cicero; and in the case of the former, this has given rise to a journal article exploring the idea of ‘an empire of letters’ (click here for detail). This gives a clue as to the reason for my interest. There are interesting, uncomfortable and thought-provoking parallels to be drawn in making some comparisons between Rome and Britain in their imperial manifestations.

The letters produced by a large number (ever-expanding as new digs turn up more letters) of denizens of the Vindolanda fort over the long period of its military occupation were indeed the product of occupation, with military invasion followed by military warfare followed by military occupation. While the Romans, or rather their military, might have ‘done many things for us’, roads and baths being often mentioned, they also brought destruction, devastation, death, domination and dominion. There is no sign that the ‘little Britons’ welcomed the Romans, even longer-term, and more the signs of a cheek by jowl largely segregated sense of the Romans in their forts and towns, and the Britons in their countryside homesteads and hill forts, rather than integration over the generations. And of course this is how things seem from exploring the traces that remain on the Roman military side, for the many disparate groups and communities referred to as the Britons were a non-writing people before Roman occupation, and did not leave many written traces after it either. The ‘band of brothers’ and the ‘empire of letters’ aspects come across clearly in the Vindolanda letters, they are those of a military caste with strong bonds engaging in epistolary practices that supported military activities, including those of conquest as well as rule and governance. But of course, things also changed over time and this was not a fixity and anyway there were variations according to the area and the people involved as well. ‘Empire’ as a term suggests something homogenous and fixed; imperialism conveys the sense of a process over time. One small example here is that there were in fact Roman groups living in Britain well before the Roman Conquest so much associated with Julius Caesar and then Claudius, as traders and merchants but also as advisors to ruling elites among diverse communities that composed the British population; and many Romans remain living in Britain ‘after the Romans left’ in the fourth century CE.

These points give rise to thoughts about the early European presence in southern Africa and then, as the nineteenth century unfolded, the British, German, Portuguese, imperial presences and governance. Europeans were initially present in multiple capacities as a minority, on sufferance or as traders and merchants and advisors and so on in relation to African sovereign states. Later this changed and with weight of numbers came occupation in a different sense, one which saw the instituting of rule, which brought with it other things such as destruction and dominion. The traces that remain here too are overwhelmingly those of the imperial presence on the one hand, the colonial presence on the other, so that the activities and challenges and resistances of those original fully independent inhabitants can only be faintly sensed beneath their surfaces, at back of this letter and that, one diary entry and another, wills and laws, charters and maps. And again, the term ‘Empire’ implies too much, or rather too little. It wasn’t homogenous, it wasn’t fixed at any point, it changed over time, there were always challenges, not everyone on both sides behaved uniformly badly or well, and anyway there were more than two sides. Some people sought association, others settled into an enforced segregated way of life, others thought long-term and resistance. And what is it that comes across in the letters and related papers of the European presence? Some aspects are unnervingly like the Vindolanda letters in the sense they convey of a very small world in which the people concerned relate largely to each other rather than the multitude ‘outside’, while others are very different. And the detail of this is what the Whites Writing Whiteness project is concerned with exploring.

Last updated:  15 April 2021