Why the Victorians were colour blind. In the 19th century, race mattered far less than social distinction: a West African tribal chief was unquestionably superior to an East End costermonger. By Kenan Malik

Ornamentalism: how the British saw their empire

David Cannadine <em>Allen Lane, 264pp, £16.99</em>

In October 1865, a local rebellion by peasantry in Jamaica was ferociously suppressed by the island's governor, Edward John Eyre. His actions generated considerable debate in Britain. Those defending his viciousness did so on the grounds not that Jamaicans were black, but that they were no different from English workers. "The negro," observed Edwin Hood, "is in Jamaica as the costermonger is in Whitechapel; he is very likely often nearly a savage with the mind of a child." The liberal Saturday Review suggested that "the negro . . . often does cruel and barbarous things, but then so do our draymen and hackney-coachmen and grooms and farm servants, through want of either thought or power of thinking".

The concept of race today is so intertwined with the idea of colour that it is often difficult to comprehend the Victorian notion of racial difference. For Victorians, race was a description not so much of colour differences as of social distinctions. The English lower classes were to 19th-century eyes as racially different as were Africans or Asians. A report in the Saturday Review about working-class life observed: "The Bethnal Green poor are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact." The Review suggested that class distinctions and separations were fixed, and would "last from the cradle to the grave", preventing any form of association or companionship.

A separation of classes was important because each had to keep to his allotted place on the social ladder. "The English poor man or child," the article concluded, "is always expected to remember the condition in which God has placed him, exactly as the negro is expected to remember the skin that God has given him. The relation in both instances is that of perpetual superior to perpetual inferior, of chief to dependant, and no amount of kindness or goodness is suffered to alter this relation."

Much recent academic debate has denied the peculiar character of 19th-century thinking about race. Ignoring both the Victorian views of the working class and their perception of commonalities between European and non-European societies, many scholars insist that the main division for Victorians was between "the West" and "the Rest". Influenced by Edward Said's seminal work Orientalism, it has become axiomatic that "race" has always referred to differences of colour, and that Europeans have always tended to view non-Europeans as the "Other" - different, exotic, inferior. According to Stuart Hall, for instance, Europe has defined itself since the Renaissance through the "discourse of the Other", which "represents what are in fact very differentiated (the different European cultures) as homogenous (the West)" and "asserts that these different cultures are united by one thing: the fact that they are all different from the Rest".

In Ornamentalism, David Cannadine provides a welcome challenge to this academic orthodoxy through rethinking British perceptions of its empire. The title of the book is a parody of Said's work. Cannadine loses no time in demolishing Said's vision of British imperialism. "We need to recognise that there were other ways of seeing the empire than in the oversimplified categories of black and white with which we are so preoccupied. It is time we reoriented orientalism."

The British empire, Cannadine argues, "was not exclusively (or even preponderantly) concerned with the creation of 'otherness' on the presumption that the imperial periphery was different from, and inferior to, the imperial metropolis". Rather, "it was at least as much (perhaps more?) concerned with what has been recently called the 'construction of affinities' on the presumption that society on the periphery was the same as, or even on occasions superior to, society in the metropolis". Viewed in this way, the empire was "about the familiar and the domestic, as well as the different and the exotic". Indeed, Cannadine suggests, "it was in large part about the domestication of the exotic - the rendering and reordering of the foreign in parallel, analogous, equivalent, resemblant terms".

The question of what the empire looked like to those who ran it has been relatively ignored by historians, whether critical or admiring of the empire. And what it looked like was, in certain ways, not that different to what Britain looked like. Politicians and administrators envisaged the social structure of their empire, Cannadine writes, "by analogy to what they knew of as 'home' . . . or (even, and increasingly) in nostalgia for it". The British were motivated by considerations of class as much as of colour.

The vision of a single, interconnected, hierarchical world led to a complex, even contradictory, view of the empire and its subjects. On the one hand, that Britain (and a handful of other largely white nations) now ruled the globe appeared to confirm a sense of inherent superiority. As Lord Rosebery put it: "What is empire but the predominance of race?" On the other hand, a hierarchical view of the world, paradoxically, helped undercut such racial perceptions. Because the British elite viewed the social structure of their colonies as similar to that of Britain, so their colonies, and their inhabitants, appeared less exotic or different than has often been supposed. Hierarchy, as Cannadine puts it, "homogenised the world".

British imperialists loathed Indians and Africans no more or less than they loathed the great majority of Englishmen. They were far more willing to work with maharajahs, kings and chiefs of whatever colour than with white settlers, whom they generally considered to be uneducated trash. Just as Jamaican peasants and East End costermongers were viewed as equally inferior, so Indian princes and West African tribal chiefs were often understood as the social equivalent of English gentlemen. Indeed, British rulers were often amused at the inability of lower-class white settlers to comprehend that aristocratic breeding cut across differences of colour. Lady Gordon, the wife of Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, the governor of Fiji from 1875 to 1880, thought the native high-ranking Fijians "such an undoubted aristocracy". She wrote: "Their manners are so perfectly easy and well bred . . . Nurse can't understand it at all, she looks down on them as an inferior race. I don't like to tell her that these ladies are my equals, which she is not!"

The development of democratic ideals in the early decades of the 20th century transformed elite perceptions of race and empire, often in contradictory ways. The gradual admission of the working class into the system of political democracy at home modified the language of racial inferiority. The belief that the lower orders were inferior did not disappear, but it became less public and increasingly confined to private diaries and dinner-table talk. The public language of race was refocused exclusively on black and white, the West and the Rest, helping to establish the "colour line" in its modern form.

At the same time, there developed among sections of the elite a more romantic attachment to empire as the last repository of the kinds of traditional hierarchy that were disappearing at home. For many within the ruling class, Cannadine observes, society overseas was "actually better" than that at home - "purer, more stable, more paternal, less corrupted". But the yearning for freedom and democracy existed as strongly, if not more so, in the colonies as it did in Britain. The growing nationalist movements challenged the rule of both the British imperialists and the local aristocratic leaders with whom the imperialists had found such a natural affinity. The British preoccupation with "traditional" India "encouraged them to ignore, or wish away, or disregard, the alternative India that was coming into being: urban, educated, modernising middle-class, nationalist". How ironic, Nehru once observed, that the representatives of the dynamic, progressive west should ally themselves with the most conservative and oppressive elements of the backward east.

The importance of Ornamentalism lies not just in making us rethink the past; it helps us to re-evaluate the present. The fractious debates about race and identity that have taken place in recent weeks reveal the difficulties of thinking about race in the post-imperial world. Cannadine writes provocatively that "hierarchical empires and societies, where inequality was the norm", were in a certain sense "less racist than egalitarian societies, where there was (and is?) no alternative vision of the social order from that of collective, antagonistic and often racial identities". The British empire, he suggests, predicated as it was "on individual inequality, had ways of dealing with race that contemporary societies, dedicated to collective equality, do not".

There may seem to be something wilfully perverse about the idea that 19th-century Britain, or its empire, was "less racist" than the contemporary nation. Nevertheless, there is an element of truth to Cannadine's argument. Thinkers and administrators in the 19th century combined an acceptance of natural inequality with a belief in the "universality" of the world - the conviction that they lived in "one vast interconnected world", as Cannadine puts it. Today, in the post-Holocaust era, we have by and large rejected ideas of natural inequality - but also ideas of universality. In the "West and the Rest" tradition, universalism is itself regarded as a product of racism, a means by which the West has silenced the voices of the Rest. The consequence has been not the embrace of equality, but the reframing of inequality as "difference". We have managed to combine a formal belief in equality with the practical creation of a more fractious, fragmented, identity-driven world.

Against this background, the moral of Cannadine's story is not so much that an empire built on individual inequality "had ways of dealing with race that contemporary societies, dedicated to collective equality, do not". It is rather that an age that enjoyed a bullish belief in the "sameness" of the world possessed certain resources to cope with problems of difference that we no longer do, even though race and inequality were much more central aspects of the Victorian world-view. If we want to bury Victorian ideas of inequality, then we must repossess a belief in universality.

Kenan Malik's Man, Beast and Zombie is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20)

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, John Prescott: sinking fast