Book review: To the Ends of the Earth, Scotland’s Global Diaspora 1750 - 2010

ONE of the most famous Scottish writers on Empire was James Mill, who went on from Montrose Academy and Edinburgh University to enter the employ of the East India Company.

Of his 1818 published history of India, The Dictionary of National Biography says: “Many a critic has complained that Mill’s history is dry and largely devoid of human interest. Riveting narrative was not his forte, nor does he paint memorable, or even interesting portraits of… the larger-than-life characters who figure in the history of British India.” Nearly 200 years later, Mill finds an heir in Tom Devine.

The type also appealed for its half comic and half scary possibilities to Charles Dickens, who in Hard Times took Mill as the model for the character of Mr Gradgrind and put in his mouth staccato statements such as: “In this life we want nothing but Facts, Sir, nothing but Facts!” Devine tends to narrow the desideratum down even more to statistics, in order to give his arguments what form and force they have. For example, the text of his fourth chapter on “The Great Migration” (of Scots overseas) mentions in its 21 pages only 11 actual persons, just five of them Scots, while swamping them in a tsunami of more than 50 different examples of statistics.

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Devine constantly stresses that only “hard evidence” will satisfy him in his quest for truth, in contrast to other writers on the Scottish imperial experience (such as the present reviewer) who have apparently allowed themselves to be satisfied by nothing better than “romanticism”. This is the essence of Devine’s approach to the history of Scotland, which at his entry on the scene in the 1970s still needed rescue from its traditional obsessions with Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the like. One possible answer, the answer accepted by Devine, was to render history as much as possible like sociology, with testable theories and quantifiable evidence. If history lost in human interest, the scientific advance would be worth it. Most historians have since concluded, however, that it is healthier for history to remain part of general culture than to retreat into impenetrable specialism. I have myself in the past criticised Devine on just those grounds, just as he has been vocal against my approach.

We can accept that hard evidence is something we should all be looking for. But is hard evidence only to be found in numbers? Are not other sorts of hard evidence – the detail of individuals’ careers, even the life of their minds as expressed in their writings, not to speak of the mute testimony of works of art – just as valid?

An example: in setting out his stall on Scottish influence in the India of the early 19th century, Devine offers and expounds on 17 different statistics within a couple of pages. Fine, this is useful stuff to know, but what were the consequences in real life of the Scots’ palpable presence in Calcutta or Madras? Devine goes on to say they “applied a whole range of ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment to issues of land tenure, administration and judicial systems.” And then he stops. Can it really be that, having dangled the statistical bait before his readers, he denies them the full flavour of the life lived by those sons of Scotland who fetched up so far from home? Yet that is just what he does.

I do not think my question here is a romantic one. The world is the reality, the statistics only a derivation from it. It is only when we go behind the statistics to the real world that we fully appreciate the historical processes at work. As a matter of fact, for example, the system of land tenure in Bengal modelled by enlightened Scots after the feudal system in Scotland has lasted more than two centuries, controversial indeed but undoubtedly durable: I had a robust discussion about it just the other day with the Indian delegation at the Hume tercentenary conference. It is in such things, rather than in tables of figures, that history lives on and becomes meaningful. It requires, however, not just quantitative but also qualitative judgment.

In his introduction, Devine depicts this book as the third in a series which started with his bestselling The Scottish Nation 1700-2000 and continued (rather less successfully) with Scotland’s Empire 1600-1815. There he tried to ginger up his dry statistical biscuit with a bit more human interest, but his lifeless prose proved incapable of doing justice to the material he sought to exploit. This time he makes no further effort to deal with human beings beyond half a dozen pages on David Livingstone and a couple each for William Jardine and James Matheson, founders of the great oriental trading house. The general focus has therefore narrowed. At fewer than 300 pages of text, this is not a long book. It concentrates especially on the history and processes of emigration, and of movement in the mass rather than at the individual level. That lends itself to Devine’s statistical method, of course, and he extends the theme to cover emigration not only to British territories but also to Europe and the United States, at the same time making frequent comparisons with the Irish.

But while a chapter is devoted to “The Emigrant Experience in the New Lands”, this seldom stretches beyond generalities. There are many emigrant memoirs, and emigrant newspapers existed in Victorian times. From his footnotes Devine seems to have made no great use of them. Nor, as in his previous work, does he show much interest in the 20th century, which merits here only two chapters out of 13.

It would be a fair point to say that the archival research needed to fill in the gaps is often yet to be done, and that this should not stop us proposing from what is already to hand the frameworks within which future results might be judged, always subject to modification by their actual nature. As for the existing state of knowledge, Devine’s relentless exposition of it probably will not need to be revised for some time to come.

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Meanwhile, however, the nature of historical research has been changing, and in ways which may soon render Devine’s colourless approach extinct. In essence it is a relic of the mid-20th century, of the sociological turn which (usually) Marxists sought to give to traditional historiography in places such as the English polytechnics. This spurned the role of the individual in history, favouring instead the movement of the masses which only statistics could capture, as Devine still does, one of the last survivors of the school.

It is new technology that is spelling doom to the sociological school. New technology makes or is making archives and other databases searchable, so that we can perform in a short time scholarly tasks which before would have been impossibly prolonged and tedious. In particular, we can search for individuals, their families, their networks and their communities, and so reconstruct lives in a way never feasible before. This is what Emma Rothschild has done in her book just published, The Inner Life Of Empires. Remarkable also is the fact that it concerns a Scottish family, the Johnstones of Westerhall in Dumfriesshire, and the careers that one generation of a dozen children pursued on three continents in the emergent British empire of the eighteenth century.

Rothschild remarks in her introduction how this opens up the possibility of an entire new genre of microhistory. What will characterise it is richness of representative detail. It will ring truer than the sort of history that Devine has always promoted, not least in this latest book. History will cease trying to be a science, thank goodness, and become once more an art, at its best written with the grace of artists rather than with the sterility of statisticians. v

Tom Devine appears at Scots: A Global People, Edinburgh International Book Festival, today, 8pm. Michael Fry is the author of The Scottish Empire, published by Birlinn, £16.99