We all know the rhyme – wall, fall, King’s men etc. What fewer people realise is that another interpretation suggests Humpty represents the Empire and its fragmentation. Imperial historians, for example, argue over whether HD can/will/should be put back together and, at this time of decentralisation and threatened referendum, it seems apt to look at this in a little more detail.
In the 1980s, historian David Fieldhouse’s inaugural lecture at Cambridge was titled ‘Can Humpty Dumpty be Put Together Again?’ In his paper, he discussed the fact that as Britain was losing its Empire, there was perhaps no further need for the study of Imperial History. He argued that to view history this way was increasingly anachronistic and yet, thirty years on, Britain seems to be moving ever closer to an Imperial revival – a rose-tinted view of how powerful Britain was and a hope that it can be so again. Fieldhouse was in favour of revitalising the study of Empire but the question arises in this global age as to whether Humpty Dumpty should be put together again.
At the rise of Imperialism in the Early Modern period (I’m only stating this as for different Empires it happened at different times) many nations spread out their sticky fingers and began to taste how sweet their new colonies could be. Imperial History has traditionally taken the view of the colonisers and not the colonised which, as one can imagine, leaves a very one-sided argument.
Yes, Britain was strong despite its small size but I would suggest that it is now a time of internationality and not imperialism. Britain is no longer in a position to jostle with the superpowers for trade. I believe that the UK needs to be linked with Europe to remain competitive. However, those in Government seem to believe that Britain still has the capability to function alone, on its own terms, without assistance from its closest neighbours. Surely it is time to let the old stereotypes and illusions of imperial grandeur rest?
I would argue that Fieldhouse’s argument was right in that Imperial History is outdated but disagree with his desire to resuscitate it. The time, I believe, for small and limited vision is past. The fact that the spread of empire affected so many in a plethora of ways would open the door for debates and studies on the early roots of globalisation – and this has begun in some areas of academia. The study, not just of Imperial but of National and Atlantic histories, all limit their scope thus neglecting all the differing branches that affected and affect peoples and places in history. In this way, Humpty’s resurrection should represent the combining of multiple histories and disciplines to provide a more thorough and inclusive look at the past.
Perhaps the King’s men were fortuitous that they could not put Humpty back together again after all.