Empires ancient and modern are large, hierarchical organizations, structurally founded on deep inequalities of risk and reward. The British Empire in Asia was no exception. At the front lines of imperial power were, all too often, common men (and some women) who were tricked, cozened, misled, coerced, and whipped into serving as the cannon-fodder of Empire. The temptation to desert was often present and the thought of mutiny cannot have been absent. These plebeian men were ‘kept in line’ men of status who served as commercial agents and military officers. But even among them, kickbacks and commissions were omnipresent and could grow into serious leakages of revenue or foment major acts of treason. Furthermore the wholesale desertion of a dynasty by its elite subjects was not unknown. In Britain in both 1660 and 1688, the political establishment and key army units deserted their established government to side with an invader sponsored by a foreign power. We could multiply such examples.
Transoceanic empires built by corporations like the British and Dutch East India Companies faced even greater problems because they lacked the sacred aura that surrounded kings and helped maintain nominal loyalties. It took nearly half a year for an inquiry or command to reach a functionary in Asia and it took many more months before a report or an excuse would come back. The military, commercial, or political situation could change dramatically in the interim. Many readers will be aware, for example, that the British and Americans continued to fight for six weeks in 1815 after the peace treaty was signed between the two powers. One of these peace-time battles cemented Andrew Jackson’s reputation and propelled him to the presidency. Asia was much further away and across more dangerous waters. Continue reading “Did the British Empire depend on separating parents and children?”→
This collective book is about the role of Indian thinkers as actors who preserved pre-Columbian knowledge within the new social order and recreated it to enforce or contest Spanish imperial rule. The book editors integrated several essays of top historians that explain how indigenous intellectuals in the colonial Andes and Mexico were important for the success of both the Spanish authorities and Indian elites in reaching political power and legitimacy.
Together, the book’s articles offers a comparative perspective of colonial Mexico and Peru focusing on the indigenous scholars’ lives, productions, and epistemological networks. This comparative analysis shows that knowledge production was more culturally and linguistically diverse in Mexico than in the Andes. On the one hand, Spanish prevailed on the Quechua as the principal written medium. This meant the indigenous people of the Andes had to learn a new foreign language to achieve social mobility and the Spanish government could centralize more rapidly its political power in the Andean region. On the other hand, in colonial Peru, Spanish rule gradually marginalized the Inca quipu system –records expressed with numerical terms while in colonial Mexico the Mesoamerican pictographic writing tradition –codex with images and words that recorded all kind of information– rapidly adapted the Castilian alphabet scripture. This exemplifies how the Spaniards were reluctant to utilize the numerical system of the Inca people while they accepted the continuity of the Mesoamerican tradition of communicating whole ideas by combining images and words. In her contribution, Gabriela Ramos suggests that the former centralized power of the Inca empire limited knowledge to very few hands, while in Mexico the fragmented structure of the Aztec empire allowed a linguistic diversity that survived Spanish colonization. Ramos explains how the indigenous language, Quechua, became the lingua franca in colonial Cusco and Lima. The standardization of one language allowed the Spaniards to exert control more effectively, but also allowed natives to use the legal culture to their own benefit. Continue reading “Indigenous Intellectuals: Knowledge, Power, and Colonial Culture in Mexico and the Andes”→
For generations, race studies scholars—historians and literary critics alike—believed that race and its pernicious spawn racism were modern-day phenomena only. This is because race was originally defined in biological terms, and believed to be determined by skin color, physiognomy, and genetic inheritance. The more astute, however, came to realize race could also be a matter of cultural classification, as Ann Stoler’s study of the colonial Dutch East Indies makes plain:
Race could never be a matter of physiology alone. Cultural competency in Dutch customs, a sense of ‘belonging’ in a Dutch cultural milieu…disaffiliation with things Javanese…domestic arrangements, parenting styles, and moral environment…were crucial to defining…who was to be considered European.*
Yet even after we recognized that people could be racialized through cultural and social criteria—that race could be a social construction—the European Middle Ages was still seen as outside the history of race (I speak only of the European Middle Ages because I’m a euromedievalist—it’s up to others to discuss race in Islamic, Jewish, Asian, African, and American premodernities).
This meant that the atrocities of the medieval period—roughly 500-1500 CE—such as the periodic extermination of Jews in Europe, the demand that they mark their bodies and the bodies of their children with a large visible badge, the herding of Jews into specific towns in England, and the vilification of Jews for putatively possessing a fetid stench, a male menses, subhuman and bestial characteristics, and a congenital need to ingest the blood of Christian children whom they tortured and crucified to death — all these and more were considered to be just premodern “prejudice” and not acts of racism. Continue reading “Did Race and Racism Exist in the Middle Ages?”→
Whether commentators assert that the United States is resurgent or in decline, it is evident that the dominant mood today is one of considerable uncertainty about the standing and role of the “indispensable nation” in the world. The triumphalism of the 1990s has long faded; geopolitical strategy, lacking coherence and purpose, is in a state of flux. Not Even Past, or perhaps Not Ever Past, because the continuously unfolding present prompts a re-examination of approaches to history that fail to respond to the needs of the moment, as inevitably they all do.
This as good a moment as any to consider how we got “from there to here” by stepping back from the present and taking a long view of the evolution of U.S. international relations. The first reaction to this prospect might be to say that it has already been done – many times. Fortunately (or not), the evidence suggests otherwise. The subject has been studied in an episodic fashion that has been largely devoid of continuity between 1783 and 1914, and becomes systematic and substantial only after 1941.
There are several ways of approaching this task. The one I have chosen places the United States in an evolving Western imperial system from the time of colonial rule to the present. To set this purpose in motion, I have identified three phases of globalisation and given empires a starring role in the process. The argument holds that the transition from one phase to another generated the three crises that form the turning points the book identifies. Each crisis was driven by a dialectic, whereby successful expansion generated forces that overthrew or transformed one phase and created its successor.
To experts on the history of U.S. foreign policy, the Dulles brothers’ service during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency marks an important watershed in the evolution of American interventionism. In the context of brewing conflict with the Soviet Union, Eisenhower’s administration aimed to protect developing countries of the “Third World” from being converted to Communism. However, as recovery efforts following World War II mobilized international diplomatic efforts to broker world peace, U.S. officials were reluctant to deploy troops abroad. John Foster Dulles was Eisenhower’s secretary of state during this time. His brother, Allen Dulles, served as director of the recently founded Central Intelligence Agency. Together, the Dulles brothers used this agency to eliminate perceived communist threats in the Third World through covert operations, establishing a powerful precedent for “regime change” as foreign policy strategy.
What fewer scholars and policy enthusiasts know is that the Dulles brothers were products of an elite political family with a strong internationalist tradition. John Foster Dulles’ personal papers, stored at his alma mater Princeton University, exhibit how the eldest brother’s upbringing and family network, consisting of diplomats, missionaries, and international lawyers, influenced his developing world view. This is particularly the case with his maternal grandfather, John W. Foster, a prominent patriarchal presence during Dulles’ childhood. Ideological continuity between Foster and his oldest grandson is evident in their comparable career paths, their methods of preparing subsequent male generations, and their published texts and speeches which analyze the role of U.S. foreign policy in international affairs.
At the end of 1960, near Cienfuegos, Cuba, on the Soledad estate of a U.S.-owned sugar company, the American Director and Cuban staff of Harvard’s Atkins Institution began packing up their scientific equipment. The Cuban Revolution had caught up with them. Director Ian Duncan Clement, his wife, Vivian, and lab technician Esperanza Vega worked quickly to put the station’s herbarium, library, and lab “in stand-by condition.” The station’s horticulturalist, Felipe Gonzalez, and his assistants pruned the trees in the station’s arboretum, preparing them “to withstand a period of neglect.”
The Atkins Institution had operated as an important field research station for visiting botanists and zoologists since shortly after the 1898 Spanish American War. It had survived difficult times in the past––hurricanes, economic depression, and the Revolution of 1933. Despite the escalation of Fidel Castro’s insurgency, Harvard held its Biology field course there as usual in the summer of 1958. The station remained unscathed even as the front lines of the revolution passed over its grounds later that year. Only when the Soledad estate was nationalized and diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba disintegrated were the Clements and staff members Vega and Gonzalez forced to leave. They expected to return soon. Continue reading “Enclaves of Science, Outposts of Empire”→
One of the earliest films to be shot and then screened throughout India were scenes from the Delhi Durbar between 29th December 1902 and 10th January 1903. The Imperial Durbar, created to celebrate the accession of Edward VII as Emperor of India following the death of Victoria, was the most expensive and elaborate act of British Imperial pageantry that had ever been attempted. Nathaniel Curzon, as Viceroy of India, oversaw the construction of a tent city housing 150,000 guests north of Delhi proper and what occurred in Delhi was to be replicated (on a smaller scale) in towns and cities across India.
The purpose of the Durbar was to contrast British modernity with Indian tradition. Europeans at the Durbar were instructed to dress in contemporary styles even when celebrating an older British Imperial past (as with veterans of the ‘Mutiny’). Indians, however, were to wear Oriental (perceptibly Oriental) costumes as motifs of their Otherness. This construction of an exaggerated sense of Imperial difference, and through it Imperial order and Imperial continuity, was significant. It was a statement of the permanence of Empire, of Britain’s Empire being at the vanguard of modernity even as the Empire itself was increasingly anxious about nascent nationalist movements and rocked by perpetual Imperial crises.
It’s unlikely that Stephen Frears watched these films from 1902 or 1903 upon finalising the screenplay and then shooting Victoria & Abdul. They have only recently been digitized and archived by the British Film Institute. But his recent movie, filmed when most visions of the past are obscured by the myopia of the present, is an unconscious reproduction of films produced and shown when Empire was an idée fixe in the British mind. Abdul Karim, one of several Indians at Victoria’s court during her long reign, is a cypher throughout the film who has no emotion or sentiment or stirring rhetoric except when genuflecting before his Empress – kissing her feet upon their first meeting, stoically holding her hand upon her death, sitting as a sentinel by her statue in Agra into his dotage. Continue reading “Victoria & Abdul: Simulacra & Simulation”→