This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

A prince and attendants visiting a noble yogini at an Ashram. Murshidabad sub-style, c1765. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the first women of philosophy to how to think about empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

First Women of Philosophy

Dag Herbjørnsrud

‘I rise to challenge you, Yajnavalkya, with two questions, much as a fierce warrior … stringing his unstrung bow and taking two deadly arrows in his hand, would rise to challenge an enemy. Give me answers to them!’ With these daring words, Gargi Vachaknavi, a Vedic female sage, launched into philosophical debate with Yajnavalkya, the semi-legendary philosopher king and the greatest sage of his day. She repeatedly confronts him with existential questions about the fundamental ontology of the world: what is it that holds the Universe together? Yajnavalkya eventually proclaims it to be ‘the imperishable [and] on this very imperishable, Gargi, space is woven back and forth’. Vachaknavi is satisfied, and she declares to the other Brahmins: ‘You should consider yourself lucky if you escape from this man by merely paying him your respects. None of you will ever defeat him in a philosophical debate.’

The story of Vachaknavi’s debate is from chapter three of the oldest of the Upanishads, the Bṛihadaraṇyaka, a diverse and complex Sanskrit text on metaphysics and ethics from about 700 BCE. Vachaknavi is one of the many ‘hidden figures’ of women in the history of philosophy in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America – what is often called the Global South. Philosophers today increasingly recognise the contributions that female philosophers have made to the history of European philosophy, such as Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway in the 17th century. (Indeed, the new Oxford University Press series Oxford New Histories of Philosophy might revolutionise how we look upon the history of philosophy.) But beyond Europe, female philosophers in general continue to get short shrift, and their contributions go largely unrecognised. [continue reading]

Tinker, tailor, Marxist academic… how Le Carré annoyed Eric Hobsbawm

Vanessa Thorpe

Their names stand high among the roll call of British men of letters of the modern age: both revered authors with an international following, but publishing in very different corners of the literary world. One, John le Carré, is the creator of a succession of brilliant spy thrillers, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Little Drummer Girl, the other, the late Eric Hobsbawm, was a leading exponent of leftwing historical thought, a man who was also the subject of state surveillance for many years.

Now the first biography of Hobsbawm, A Life in History, due out early next month, is to reveal an unlikely correspondence between the two men that centred on the name of a character in one Le Carré novel. In the 1986 book A Perfect Spy, later made into a BBC television series, Le Carré makes reference to a character called “Hobsbawn” who was under the control of the British security services. The real man, Professor Hobsbawm, was not pleased. [continue reading]

Storm in Irkutsk

Yuexin Rachel Lin
Shots Across the Amur

As the November Revolution continued its gradual eastward sweep, it carried in its wake hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants who worked and traded in Russian territory. We have already seen how the Chinese diaspora reacted in Vladivostok, where the presence of Allied troops and the community’s own strength allowed it a greater degree of assertiveness. Vladivostok, however, was unique. In other Russian cities, the community was often less well established or protected by diplomatic officials, and hence less insulated from disorder.

Another centre of Chinese migration, Irkutsk, was an early locus of resistance to Red rule. Clashes between government and revolutionary forces took place even before the disbanding of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. It was also a stronghold of moderate socialists, who were more sympathetic to Chinese migrants than their tsarist predecessors had been. The following report from incoming consul Wei Bo illustrated the opportunities missed with the outbreak of revolution. [continue reading]

If You See Something, Say Something: Imperial Origins of White Women’s Modern Racial Profiling

Dionna Richardson
Nursing Clio

In 2018, confrontations between white women and people of color in the United States have become viral news bytes emblematic of widespread systemic racial profiling. Journalists, attorneys, civil rights activists, and armchair social media commentators point to the cases involving BBQ BeckyPermit Patty, and Golfcart Gail as examples of deep-seated beliefs in white female entitlement and an obligation to watch and report on activities of non-white neighbors. The phenomenon, however, is nothing new. In fact, we can trace its origins back to imperial European conceptualizations of race and Victorian-era gendered ideology.

European empires did not invent surveillance. But the empowerment of an entire group to watch over another based upon social constructions of race was an innovation of colonial-era Europeans obsessed with taxonomic-based control over colonized populations. Eighteenth-century Linnean categorizations of living organisms defined by physical characteristics alongside nineteenth-century Darwinian arguments regarding natural selection underscored the construction of hegemonic assumptions of race. [continue reading]

How To Think About Empire

Arundhati Roy and Avni Sejpal
Boston Review

In her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017), Arundhati Roy asks, “What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?” This relationship between the imagination and the stuff of real life—violence, injustice, power—is central to Roy’s writing, dating back to her Booker Prize–winning debut novel The God of Small Things (1997). For the twenty years between the release of her first and second novels, the Indian writer has dismayed many—those who preferred that she stick to storytelling and those who were comfortable with the turn of global politics around 9/11—by voicing her political dissent loudly and publicly.

Her critical essays, many published in major Indian newspapers, take on nuclear weapons, big dams, corporate globalization, India’s caste system, the rise of Hindu nationalism, the many faces of empire, and the U.S. war machine. They have garnered both acclaim and anger. In India Roy has often been vilified by the media, and accused of sedi- tion, for her views on the Indian state, the corruption of the country’s courts, and India’s brutal counterinsurgency in Kashmir. She has, on one occasion, even been sent to prison for committing “contempt of court.” In spite of this, Roy remains outspoken. In this interview, she reflects on the relationship between the aesthetic and the political in her work, how to think about power, and what it means to live and write in imperial times. [continue reading]