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Dundee, jute and empire
Dundee, jute and empire

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2.2 The Cain and Hopkins thesis

In the early 1990s, the debates about the economic dimension to British imperialism were transformed by the work of two economic historians, P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins. In two massive volumes (British Imperialism. Innovation and Expansion, 1688–1914 and British Imperialism. Crisis and Deconstruction, 1914–1990) they reviewed the entire history of the British empire from the Glorious Revolution to the fall of Mrs Thatcher (Cain and Hopkins, 1993a,b).

You will now read two reviews of their books: one by Martin Lynn, which appeared in the English Historical Review and one by David Cannadine, in Past & Present. Book reviews are an important part of academic journals and indeed of intellectual debate. At one level, they function as an information service: academics turn to reviews to find out about new books. It is therefore important that they include a fair summary of the contents. But a good review should do more than describe: it should also set the book in context (how does it fit with what has previously been written?) and evaluate it (how well does it achieve its aims and the needs of the field?). A ‘review article’, such as that by Cannadine, may be an extended essay that engages with the book’s central arguments. Book reviews can therefore be an effective way to obtain an overview of the main arguments of a book and the questions it raises.

In the following activities, you will read and analyse the reviews by Martin Lynn and David Cannadine. Reading the articles and working on the two activities is likely to take you about 2 hours. You will return to the points given in the specimen answers in a later activity.

Activity 1

Timing: 1 hour 15 minutes

Click on Reading 1 (below), the review by Martin Lynn, ‘Review of British imperialism’, and then Reading 2 (below), sections I and II of ‘The empire strikes back’ by David Cannadine. When you have read them, consider the question: what do they see as the key points in Cain and Hopkins’s argument? Try to pick out a few key issues and build your answer around them.

Click to view Martin Lynn’s review [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Click to view sections I and II of David Cannadine’s article.


  1. Empire is central to British history. Lynn and Cannadine emphasise that Cain and Hopkins are writing about both British and imperial history. Each starts by placing British Imperialism in the context of debates about empire. In describing these debates, explicit links are made between theories about empire and what was happening to the empire at the time. Lynn starts with the decline of the old-style imperial history during the 1950s (the period of decolonisation), and refers to the ‘Area Studies’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which shifted the focus away from Europe to the regions colonised. Cannadine provides rather more detail on the various theories of imperialism, but also notes that the subject went out of fashion in the 1970s. Both reviews place Cain and Hopkins’s work in the context of a renewed interest in the history of empire, an interest in ‘the reintegrating of the metropole into the history of Empire’ (Lynn).
  2. The British empire was more than a territorial empire, it was a global economic system centred on and dominated by Britain. Lynn and Cannadine both highlight that, in discussing empire, Cain and Hopkins are not only talking about the territories that Britain ruled, but also areas of influence, such as Latin America, China and the Ottoman empire. As Lynn puts it ‘[Cain and Hopkins] stress the need … to examine the totality of British influence, formal and informal, around the globe’. In this, therefore, they follow Hobsbawm.
  3. British policy was shaped not by industry, but by ‘gentlemanly capitalism’. Both reviews emphasise the importance Cain and Hopkins attach to the financial sector. During the eighteenth century, ‘a new class of merchants, financiers and businessmen, … established themselves as junior partners to the ruling aristocracy’ (Cannadine). Over time, these mercantile and aristocratic elites became increasingly integrated. The term ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ is used by Cain and Hopkins to denote the alliance between landed interests and the City of London. ‘Gentlemanly capitalists’ shared values and attitudes, and moved in the same social circles. With direct access to Britain’s governing elite, it is their influence that explains the chronology and direction of Britain’s imperial expansion. By contrast, industrialists remained provincial, socially inferior, and politically ineffective. As a result, promoting and safeguarding investments overseas was more important to the government than acquiring raw materials or markets.
  4. We need to rethink the conventional chronology of British empire. Whereas historians used to contrast developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cain and Hopkins stress continuity. More surprisingly, they do not see decline setting in from the 1870s on. Instead, British expansion after 1850 was that of a ‘dynamic and ambitious power’ (quoted by Lynn). Far from being defensive, British expansion at the turn of the century was a sign of strength. Nor did 1914 mark a turning point; Cannadine notes that in the interwar years, and even after 1945, Britain’s ‘gentlemanly capitalists’ were still seeking to use the empire to their advantage.

I have asked you to identify a few points from what are already very condensed summaries. Inevitably, we will have formulated points differently, but I hope you identified some of the same issues. Both Lynn and Cannadine emphasise the important contribution that Cain and Hopkins have made to debates about empire. At the same time, there have also been criticisms of their arguments. In the second half of his article, Cannadine discusses some of the most persistent concerns: let us look at these now.

Activity 2

Timing: 0 hours 45 minutes

Click on Reading 3 (below), sections III and IV of Cannadine’s article, and identify his major criticisms.

Click to view sections III and IV of David Cannadine’s article.


In section III Cannadine raises three concerns about their arguments:

(A) How useful is the concept of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’? Cannadine questions the sharp distinction Cain and Hopkins draw between manufacturing and finance. Can one really talk of an ‘industrial sector’ and a ‘financial service sector’ as coherent and distinct groups? Did industry speak with one voice? Is it really possible to categorise businessmen as either ‘industry’ or ‘finance’?

(B) How well does the theory fit the non-English nations in the United Kingdom? Cannadine notes that Cain and Hopkins do not really discuss whether Scotland, Wales or Ireland, or, indeed, the English provinces, fit into this thesis. For, he argues, the empire provided many opportunities for individuals from outside the charmed circle of the ‘gentlemanly capitalists’. Why do we talk of English gentlemen and a British empire, he asks?

(C) Does the theory fit certain periods better than others? Despite the titles of the books, Cannadine feels that the coverage of the eighteenth century is inadequate and is not convinced that their thesis really explains the end of empire. Indeed, he argues that the thesis is too focused on the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

He raises a further point in section IV:

(D) Is the whole theory simply too mono-causal and, perhaps, rather dated? In section IV, Cannadine raises his most sweeping criticism. Historians must simplify to understand, but have Cain and Hopkins been too brutal in forcing so complex a phenomenon as the rise and fall of the British empire into one explanation? Cannadine finishes by suggesting that ‘the Empire was always an imaginative construct, existing as much (or more) in the minds of men and women as it existed on the ground or on the map’. Are the questions that Cain and Hopkins are asking simply old-fashioned?

Many of the points made by Cannadine are ones raised by other reviewers (you may, for instance, have noticed that Lynn also notes that the significance of ‘gentlemanly capitalists’ has been questioned, and this indeed is one part of the thesis that has been hotly contested). Cannadine’s concerns about chronology are also significant. In particular, historians now attach a great deal of importance to the expansion of the British Empire, particularly in India, in the period of the Napoleonic Wars. This, however, was not the imperialism of free trade, but was driven by military power, the desire to increase tax revenues, and mercantilist economic ideas (Bayly, 1989).

Nevertheless, even if many historians have not agreed with all or part of Cain and Hopkins’s theory, few would deny that it has provided an enormous stimulus to debate. Our understanding of broad historical processes is enhanced by such bold theories. At the same time, history is also about the particular. How well do broad theories explain individual cases? Do more in-depth studies confirm, develop or even challenge them?

In the rest of this course, the focus will be on one town, Dundee, and the role played by empire in its economic and social development. Cain and Hopkins argue that empire was about the metropolis as well as the colonies: how well does their theory help us understand Dundee? In working your way through the course, therefore, I would like you to keep in mind what you have read about the Cain and Hopkins thesis and jot down any points that strike you. Does their work provide insights? Are there points that do not fit? At the end of the course, we will consider how this debate has added to our understanding of Dundee and empire.