Professor Peter James Marshall CBE, FBA
Doctor of Letters
18 July 2008 – Orator: Professor Stephen Howe
Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor,
It is an honour, a pleasure and a privilege to present to you Professor Peter James Marshall, CBE, one of the greatest historians of our time, an inspiration to all who have known him or read his work, an ‘active citizen’ whose record of service to the historical profession and the wider public good has few equals, a good friend to this city and University over many years, and a man of very remarkable personal kindness and generosity.
Peter James Marshall was born in 1933 in Calcutta. His family was British-Indian on both sides. His father and paternal grandfather were Calcutta businessmen. His mother's family were, he says, ‘rather more interesting’. His maternal grandfather was an early forest officer, having been a civilian attached to the Indian Navy. His great-grandfather was an indigo planter, employed with his brother by the great entrepreneur, reformer and philanthropist Dwarkanath Tagore. Peter likes to say that he was born in the Calcutta zoo, which cannot be strictly true since he was, he believes, delivered by Caesarean operation; but his father did indeed then live in the zoo, of which he was administrative secretary.
Peter was removed to Britain as a sickly child aged two with, to his regret, no early recollection of India. He then had what he calls ‘a very characteristic life for that type of family at that time’ in the home counties. This involved boarding school at Wellington College Berkshire, in 1947-1952 and the inevitable two years’ national service. His was as an officer in one of the Kenya battalions of the King's African Rifles from 1953-4. This, the Kenya of the ‘Emergency’ or ‘Mau Mau war’, was a time and place of great violence and suffering; a period of Peter’s life on which he prefers not to dwell.
Peter then attended Wadham College, Oxford (of which he is today an Honorary Fellow) in 1954-7, and continued with postgraduate study there. He does not think that either his Indian birth or his Kenyan experience consciously inclined him towards the study of empire. Rather, ‘I got there via 18th-century British history’. He was as an undergraduate, ‘odd as it may seem’, very impressed by Sir Lewis Namier, and made his way to Dame Lucy Sutherland (of Lady Margaret Hall) with a view to doing a D. Phil thesis on a British political topic. ‘Shrewd lady that she was’, Peter recalls, ‘she said that I would find that boring and urged me to try the impact of either Ireland or India on British politics.’ He chose to look at the famous trial of Warren Hastings. He did so, he claims, ‘more or less at random’ – though we his admirers may choose to doubt that typically self-effacing suggestion. Still more should we discount his latter-day submission that: ‘If you can bring yourself to look at that book, which I do not recommend, you will see that that it is a very British political study.’ The book based on his D. Phil. thesis (awarded in 1962), The Impeachment of Warren Hastings (Oxford University Press, 1965) remains the classic study of its subject, and tells us a very great deal about India and Empire, not just Britain. It is striking that as recently as 2006 a major new work on the subject by a prominent American historical anthropologist, while using Peter’s work throughout as a foil for its self-consciously revisionary findings, is also massively reliant on the fruits of his research. Peter’s own continued engagement with the subject is indicated, among much else, in his fascination with the career of Warren Hastings’ great opponent Edmund Burke; notably in his widely-admired edition of The writings and speeches of Edmund Burke Vol. V (Clarendon Press, 1981).
Meanwhile Peter ‘got my only academic job at the first attempt at King's College London in 1959 and stayed there throughout my working life.’ He was successively Assistant Lecturer, 1959-1962, Lecturer, 1962-1970, Reader, 1970-1978, and Professor, 1978-1980, in the History Department there. He was elected to the Rhodes Professorship of Imperial History in 1980 and held that post until his ‘retirement’ in 1993. ‘Retirement’, however, is a misnomer; indeed, ‘Peter’s Marshall’s retirement’ an oxymoron. The ensuing fifteen years have seen him engaged in a quite astonishing variety of work in academia, in public service, and not least in continued scholarly productivity. I can, here, only sketch the barest outlines, suggest a few of the most obvious peaks, of his achievement.
Peter Marshall’s major works, besides those already mentioned, include: Problems of Empire: Britain and India, 1757-1813 (1968), East Indian Fortunes (1976), The great map of mankind. British perceptions of the world in the age of enlightenment with Glyndwr Williams (1982), Bengal: the British bridgehead (1987), Trade and conquest: studies on the rise of British dominance in India (1993), and The Making and Unmaking of Empires (2007). As will be seen from the very titles, his work has had an ever broader range, encompassing not just Britain and India but the whole of imperial and indeed world history.
The list of Peter’s editorial achievements, with all the work of organisation, planning, inspiration to and inevitable cajoling of others which these imply, is no less striking. These include his editorship of Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 1975-1981 (he remains an active and immensely valued friend of and contributor to the Journal, as I, its new co-Editor, can attest), of The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and of the Eighteenth Century volume of the Oxford History of the British Empire (Oxford University Press, 1998).
As to his service to his profession and to the public, we may note among, again, so much else his membership of the History Working Group, National Curriculum, 1989-1990; and his work as Vice President of the Royal Historical Society, 1987-1991 and its President, 1996-2000. His personal generosity is indicated not only in the warm memories of hundreds of colleagues and former students, but in his endowment of the RHS’s new Marshall Fellowships, a singular and selfless gift to younger scholars. We should not forget what he has done for Bristol, both University and City: as a regular and valued academic visitor and speaker, including recently his much appreciated keynote address to the ‘British World’ conference held here in July 2007; or his immense labours with and on behalf of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Among many and richly deserved honours, Peter was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for services to history, in 2002.
In light of Peter’s lifelong involvement with Indian history and culture, and his family’s historical connection with that of India’s greatest poet, Rabindranath Tagore, it may be appropriate to conclude with Tagore’s words to another English lover of India, W.W. Pearson. They are still more apt, I believe, in view of Peter Marshall’s self-effacing modesty, his kindness, and the love he commands from those who have known him:
Thy nature is to forget thyself;
But we remember thee.
Thou shinest in self-concealment
Revealed by our love.
Thou lendest light from thine own soul
To those that are obscure.
Thou seekest neither love nor fame;
Love discovers thee.
Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Peter James Marshall as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.