JANUARY 26, 2021
AMERICAN AND BRITISH OFFICIALS recently sparred over which country had better regulatory systems in place to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, sparking concerns about “vaccine nationalism” and the pernicious impact it may have on global health. Most news coverage of the incident perpetuates the image, so rife in the contemporary American imagination, that an unbridgeable expanse literally and figuratively separates the geographic, political, legal, and cultural identities of the two historically linked powers.
After all, one is but an island, while the other spans the shores of an entire continent; one is a constitutional monarchy, and the other is a presidential democracy that fought the former for its independence. Anglophobia in the wake of the Revolutionary War also persists in some corners of the American public, notwithstanding the enthusiasm with which many members of that same public binge on Netflix’s The Crown and religiously follow the lives of British royals. Largely forgotten today, however, is that era of history when there occurred not only a “Great Rapprochement” between the two nations but also debates about the possibility of reuniting the “Republic and the Empire” on the basis of a shared Anglo-Saxon racial destiny. British historian Duncan Bell’s remarkable book Dreamworlds of Race brings that history to light with both scholarly rigor and narrative flair.
Bell’s book, his third in a line of monographs on the British Empire, was a welcome find for me as a scholar of Anglo-American inter-imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My own work is profoundly shaped by my life trajectory as a first-generation immigrant to the United States from Pakistan, a postcolonial nation-state where the memory of British colonialism and the Partition haunts even to this day. My proficiency in the English language, a dubious gift of British suzerainty in the Indian subcontinent, allowed me a more seamless assimilation into this other Anglophone country of my adoption.
The differences between white Americans and Britons were not at first apparent to me; they were merely what Sigmund Freud would call the narcissism of minor differences. They were both angrez, in the Urdu parlance: English. And I expected that I would signify to white Americans the same way I would have to white British: a postcolonial subject whose competence in the English language shouldn’t be a surprise because of the vicissitudes of history. But I didn’t.
I soon came to realize that one of the reasons that I, as a South Asian English speaker, did not make sense to many Americans was not only because the United States persistently denies its own imperial history (as Daniel Immerwahr has so powerfully shown in his recent critically acclaimed book, How to Hide an Empire), but also because the reigning model of the nation-state in historiography has meant that the United States has been imagined as a largely isolationist, insular entity in the years before the Great War: if Britain has been a literal island in the popular imaginary, the United States has been a metaphorical one, absolutely divorced from the imperial machinations of other nations and from the construction of a global Anglo-Saxon supremacist solidarity at the turn of the century.
Bell’s Dreamworlds of Race is a much-needed corrective on all these fronts: it shows how in the years between 1880 and the Great War, the United States, the British Empire, and its colonies such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, were engaged in a project of “racial utopianism” which sought to consolidate a global Anglo-Saxon identity. This was a two-pronged project: it involved calls for an imperial federation between Britain and its settler colonies on the one hand, and dreams of full-fledged Anglo-American political reunion on the other. These two arms of the project often conflicted, with pundits supporting one over the other, but they both indexed one goal: the ascendancy of white “English-speaking peoples” across the world, or more succinctly, the creation of an “Anglotopia.”
Bell tells the story of this Anglotopian project through the lives and work of four transatlantic figures: steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, journalist W. T. Stead, mining industrialist and arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, and science fiction writer H. G. Wells. Bell dedicates the first half of the book to relating how each of these influential figures dreamed his own version of Anglo-America, while the second half examines some of the key themes running through Anglo-American discourse: the use of science fiction to imagine alternative Angloworlds, proposals for “isopolitan” citizenship between British and the United States, and the establishment of global peace and stability through Anglo-imperialism. The conclusion gestures toward Afro-modernism at the turn of the century and contemporary neo-Victorian “steampunk” narratives, both of which have sought to subvert the hegemonic narratives of fin-de-siècle Anglotopia.
Bell’s account of the quartet — Carnegie, Stead, Rhodes, and Wells — is laudable for its nuance. These figures’ visions for Anglo-American reunion were driven by different political commitments and viewpoints:
Although Wells’s argument implied the unification of the whole Angloworld, he wrote almost exclusively about Britain and the United States, rarely mentioning the settler colonies. Stead promulgated both imperial federation and Anglo-American union, but from the 1890s onward the latter was his clear priority. Rhodes’s vision encompassed the United States and the British Empire, while Carnegie favored the dissolution of the empire, focusing his attention on securing the union of Britain and the United States.
The story of Carnegie, the only American among the four, is especially illuminating. Born in Scotland, he migrated to the United States when he was 12, going on to become one of the wealthiest men of his time. His dreams for Anglo-American reunion are vividly emblematized in the flag he flew over his Scottish castle, “with the Union Jack embossed on one side and the Stars and Stripes on the other, a symbolic representation of both his dual identity and his dream of an Anglo future.” Carnegie wanted to be seen as more than a capitalist — as a visionary and thinker in his own right. In such essays as The Reunion of Britain and America (1893), he argued for the political unification of his native and adopted countries on the basis of a shared race: “[T]he American remains three-fourths purely British.” But for this dream to come to fruition, Britain would have to relinquish its massive colonial empire. Many of his contemporaries disagreed with this last stipulation. For instance, the Scottish geographer Arthur Silva White recognized that “the welfare of the United States was bound to the British Empire, because American economic dynamism was dependent on the Royal Navy’s command of the sea.”
Cecil Rhodes would agree with White. Bell’s account of the infamous imperialist is refreshing for engaging his heretofore unacknowledged admiration for American institutions, especially its constitution. There is a lot more to the celebrated Rhodes scholarship for American graduates at Oxford: it is not only a vestige of Rhodes’s dream of kinship between “elite members of his beloved Anglo-Saxon race,” but also of how he saw the American system as a model for British imperial federation. In the wake of his death in 1902, his longtime friend and confidant W. T. Stead interpreted his political vision in The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes. He argued that while Rhodes had initially been in favor of subsuming the United States within the British Empire, Stead had convinced him that the reverse could also be a possibility, so long as the reunion of the English-speaking peoples was assured. This suggests that British imperialists had recognized the United States as an emerging world power in whose leadership lay the future of the Anglo-Saxon race.
“Race” in Bell’s book is not a self-evident or essentialist phenomenon. Perhaps the most important contribution of Dreamworlds of Race is its conceptualization of the Anglo-Saxon race as a “biocultural assemblage, a hybrid compound of ‘cultural’ and ‘biological’ claims about human evolutionary history, individual and collective character, comportment, mental capacity, and physiognomy,” all adumbrated by whiteness.
Two features of the cultural side of this assemblage, other than a shared language, were central to the creation of Anglotopia: law and technology. Bell demonstrates that the common law, Britain and the United States’s shared inheritance, also helped bolster claims for reunion; as he shows in the sixth chapter through Albert Venn Dicey’s writings, calls for a reciprocal, “isopolitan” citizenship for white Britons and Americans were one way to bring about a form of reunion. On the other hand, technologies such as the telegraph constituted a kind of “nervous system” of the global Anglo-Saxon body, engendering what Bell calls a “cyborg vision of racial order.”
The explosion of speculative writings, such as the ones penned by H. G. Wells, pushed the idea of a technologically mediated racial order further. While we today associate Wells most with his science fiction, it was his nonfiction treatise Anticipations (1901) that really took England by storm. In Bell’s helpful gloss of this significant but now-ignored document, Wells’s vision of a high-tech “New Republic” emerges. Advances in transport and communication had transformed space and time beyond recognition, thereby prefiguring for Wells a new geopolitical order in which the United States and the British Empire would together reign supreme. The New Republic would be established by a cadre of technocratic “efficients” who would function as “a largely uncoordinated secret society […] to bring about the next phase in human history.” The United States figured most significantly in this New Republic because of its hyper-efficient industry, and Americans like Carnegie were, for Wells, shoo-in “efficients.”
Wells’s cyborgian vision came to life in the many science fictions penned in that era, both by him and by lesser-known writers. Bell focuses on the latter, arguing that the genre underwent a significant shift between the 1880s and the end of the century; while initially many novels depicted the British Empire and the United States as antagonists, at the turn of the century the dominant narrative was “one in which they are often united in the attempt to govern the globe.” It is very likely that a fin-de-siècle science fiction narrative of a global pandemic would have depicted the Empire and the Republic as allies rather than engaged in petty squabbles evincing vaccine nationalism. Though Bell does not discuss it, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) would be a case in point, where the American Quincey Morris is on the team to defend Britain against the racialized epidemic that Count Dracula represents.
The internet age has augured a new incarnation of the cyborg vision of race. Scholars have shown that white supremacists and the “alt-right” have been able to construct a global identity through internet technologies, and that incidents of white supremacist violence in far-flung Anglophone settler nations such as New Zealand must be seen as symptoms of a global white ressentiment. Writers have also averred that the almost simultaneous emergence of Trump and Brexit must be seen as coming on the heels of a global history of white supremacy in the Anglosphere. Dreamworlds of Race provides the necessary background to these contemporary problems and much more.
Reconsidering the course of the United States and Britain’s “special relationship” over the past few decades in light of Bell’s history, it is no wonder that 1980s market worship arrived as it did across the Atlantic through the twin figures of Reagan and Thatcher, or that the current imbroglio in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the unenviable legacy of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Reunion of the Empire and the Republic never materialized, but the logic of Anglo-Saxon supremacy that undergirded that ambitious dream is a gift that keeps on giving.
Bassam Sidiki is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Michigan.