Historian Andrew Porter, who died of Parkinson’s disease at 75, put religion back in the analyzes of British imperialism at a time when it was more often centered on secular dynamics.
In his book Religion Versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914 (2004), he emphasized how the growth of the empire was accompanied by an equally important Protestant missionary movement. Porter took both the domestic British context and the theological commitments of the missionaries seriously in describing the interactions of mission and imperialism, never blurring the line between the two.
To consider missionaries as instruments of imperial expansion or agents of cultural imperialism seemed simplistic to him. While acknowledging that the growth of Protestant missions overseas and the expansion of the empire were linked, he demonstrated that missionaries and colonial authorities were often at odds.
In comparison to their Iberian Catholic predecessors, Porter argued that the British Protestant missions had a stronger sense of their independence from the state, although they sometimes sought its support. The British government itself feared that evangelical missions abroad would undermine the empire, for example through the content of missionary education or evangelism in Islamic areas.
By shaping an aspect of empire history hitherto dominated by regional or faith-based case studies, he inspired a generation of young scholars to make their own contributions to a broader conception of the field.
Porter’s work on religion and empire deviated from his earlier research on southern Africa. His first book, The Origins of the South African War (1980), offered a political explanation of the conflict, exploring how Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain mobilized British public opinion to support the cause of the uitlanders – in Boer terms, the foreigners, mostly British, denied political rights in the Boer Republic of the Transvaal.
This interpretation led him to engage in typically robust, but always courteous, exchanges with those who hold different opinions, in this case with those who saw war as the product of economic forces.
In the mid-1990s, he also became a prominent protagonist in debates sparked by Peter Cain and AG Hopkins’ “Gentleman Capitalism” thesis, which identified a link between City financiers and landlord families. landlords as the key influence on imperial politics over several centuries.
Another new goal was the end of the empire, then emerging as a rapidly developing area in imperial history, to which Porter and AJ Stockwell contributed a significant collection of documents exploring British imperial policy and decolonization. (1987).
For Porter, the profession of historian was never a mere scholarship, and he was in various ways involved in the publication of 18 volumes on the British documents on the end of the empire; the Oxford History of the British Empire, notably as editor of volume 3 on The Nineteenth Century (1998); the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, as associate editor; and the monumental Royal Historical Society Bibliography of Imperial, Colonial and Commonwealth History Since 1600 (2002), as editor. He was also co-editor for 11 years of the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History.
Through these efforts, Porter, along with his American colleague Wm Roger Louis, sought, perhaps more than any other of their generation, to give leadership to an area challenged by the rise of area studies and later reinvigorated, but also disrupted. , by the emergence of a ‘new’ imperial history, characterized by a greater focus on culture, discourse and gender, as well as on the ways in which Britain itself was formed through the implication in the empire.
Porter’s skepticism of some of the newer approaches led him to champion the space for studies that exemplify the best of more traditional approaches.
He was nonetheless eager to learn from the work of others, especially during the weekly Imperial History seminars at the Institute for Historical Research. He was also Honorary Secretary of the Royal Historical Society and President of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and was an active member of the History at the Universities Defense Group.
Born in London, Andrew was the son of Peter Porter and his wife, Betty (née Luer). The family moved to Chester, where Peter was cathedral secretary, Andrew sang in the cathedral choir, and Betty was a university administrator. From the choir school, Andrew got a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital School, Horsham, West Sussex, and became a violinist in the National Youth Orchestra.
At St John’s College, Cambridge, he moved from geography to history and directs the various university orchestras. There was a string quartet avid gamer, especially with his wife, Mary Faulkner, music teacher, he married her in 1972 and with whom he had two son, Matthew and Simon.
After completing his doctorate at Cambridge in 1970, he went to the University of Manchester as a lecturer, and then to King’s College London the following year. He became a professor in 1990, and three years later a professor at Rhodes.
A longtime and effective head of the history department, he took early retirement in 2008 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. With Mary, he participated in the vibrant musical life of Clun, in the Shropshire Hills, giving his last violin recital in 2013.
He is survived by Mary, her sons and two grandsons.