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Linking California and Imperial Britain

Posted on 10 September 2018

York historian will examine the complex relationship between the British Empire and the American Pacific Coast.


San Diego county, California; a record of settlement, organization, progress and achievement (1913)

Dr Amanda Behm, a Lecturer in the Department of History, has won a British Academy Small Research Grant for her project ‘Albion Pacific: California and the contested frontiers of Imperial Britain’. This project reframes existing models of British imperial history by actively querying the nineteenth-century divergence between authoritarian and settler-democratic forms of empire. It takes mid-Victorian excitement over the annexation and consolidation of American California as a window onto the changing structural and moral calculations of a generation wracked by global turbulence, asking in the first instance: why did the American annexation of California appear to influential British writers, politicians, and strategists as the unveiling of, or even the gateway to, Britain’s own global destiny from c.1850 onward?

Reconstructing patterns of exchange, collaboration, and competition between Britain, its colonies, and the American Pacific in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Amanda will use this grant to consult archives in New York, New Haven, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Her research will track British imperial campaigners working with Californian settlement reformers and entrepreneurs, Californian scouts and resource experts in Southern Africa and Australia, and celebrity scribes who enshrined the myth of a post-frontier Anglo-Saxon golden age.

Finally, it will examine mutually referent legal and civic regimes excluding persons of Asian origin. The evolving book-length project will scrutinize these multiple visions and their geopolitical implications, showing not least of all how discriminatory practices in California linked with those across the British Empire to fuel wider anticolonialism and revisionist challenges to international order.