Of Heroes, Empire and Brexit

sebe-empire-colonialism

Dr Berny Sèbe, a Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies in the Department of Modern Languages, will be in France next week to deliver two papers based on his research. 

On Monday 8 November at 11.30 am UK time, Dr Sèbe will be presenting at the University of Toulouse Jean-Jaurès a paper entitled From the Man on the Spot to the Man on the Front Cover: Nationalism, Colonial Expansion and Popular Culture in Britain and France since the New Imperialism.

Drawing on several of his publications, including his book Heroic Imperialists in Africa: The Making of British and French Colonial Heroes (1870-1939) and the collection Decolonising Imperial Heroes: Cultural Legacies of the British and French Empire which he co-edited, Dr Sèbe will be exploring the ways in which colonial conquerors, administrators or missionaries were turned into heroic figures at the time of the ‘New Imperialism’, in the late nineteenth century. The paper will also explore how these heroic reputations evolved over time, considering their demise at the time of decolonisation, their rebirth in some African countries in the early 2000s, and the recent downfall of some of them against the backdrop of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement. In so doing, Dr Sèbe will be exploring the many mediated lives of British and French colonial heroes, as well their increasingly controversial nature as the world moved away from colonialism and questioned more critically the principles and values on which imperialism had been resting for centuries.

On Tuesday 9 November at 5.00 pm UK time, Dr Sèbe will be in Montpellier, at the Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier III, where he will be presenting his research paper ‘Showcasing Empire’ Past & Present Or A Brief History of Popular Imperialism, from Britannia to Brexit, based on his recently published eponymous article. 

In this paper, Dr Sèbe will ask whether a genealogy can be established between Britannia (Thomas Arne composed Rule Britannia in 1740) and Brexit? Whilst the concept of Empire 2.0 has often been used to engage with the range of reasons put forward by Brexiteers to support the principle of a breakaway from the EU, commentators have often neglected the long-term ramifications of the feelings that may have played a role in the choice of 52% of the British population in the summer of 2016. Yet, Dr Sèbe argues, a longue durée approach reveals compelling continuities over several centuries. Historiographical developments since the 1980s have pointed towards the persisting influence of the imperial experience on the DNA of British culture and politics. This was reflected in a range of cultural manifestations reaching large constituencies of the population of the British Isles—what John MacKenzie has termed ‘Popular Imperialism’.

Dr Sèbe’s paper explores the hypothesis that this deeply rooted attachment to the Empire has been running consistently (although at varying degrees) at least since the eighteenth century, and has found a new lease of life among supporters of the Brexit process, who have celebrated often implicitly the strength of the imperial legacy as a suitable alternative to the EU project. Engagin with three centuries of British cultural history, Dr Sèbe offers here a provocative insight into the long-term dynamics that have made the unthinkable possible: that one of the leading proponents of post-war European cooperation and free trade, would decide one day to turn its back to the ideals it had actively promoted—for instance, as a founding member of the Council of Europe. 

Both events will be broadcast live via Zoom, and can be followed using the following links: