What I’ve been reading (January 2021)

Priya Satia: Time’s Monster – History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire: I’ve been living in London for almost a year now, and despite exposure to British culture throughout my whole live I don’t really get the UK. From my experience as an immigrant to and eventual citizen of the US I know that it takes years immersed in a foreign country until a deeper understanding of national character and contradictions and traumas starts to set in. Sure, we can all stereotype Americans as gun nuts, but what conditions shaped that nuttery? Unhelpfully, few natives are able to assume the disinterested perspective required to investigate such questions. Fish can’t tell you much about water.

Maybe it takes Priya Satia, an American-Indian historian, to fill in some of my gaps when it comes to British imperialism in particular. In Time’s Monster she examines British empire through those actors who saw themselves as keepers of history – historians mainly, but also administrators, poets, philosophers and the like. Picking up on the other keyword from the book’s title, a major theme is how they put forward different theories of history and progress over time to placate a national conscience in the face of the inherent ethical challenges of empire: conquest, subjugation, racism and so on.

I’ll come out and say that this was probably not the best choice for me. A history of the discipline of history itself necessarily adds a level of indirection that hurts accessibility. The writing is knotty at times, straining to bridge the chasm between conventions of academia and popular non-fiction. The density of argument and information on each page made it hard for me to absorb the material. Nevertheless, the book is dotted with jolting bits of analysis, such as this couplet:

The harsh reality of conquest, slavery, and industrialism was accompanied, indeed significantly driven by, the search for imaginative relief from the dehumanization they caused: the addictive magic of tobacco, opium, coffee, cocoa, sugar, and tea. In addition to the jinn, angels, goddesses, and shape-shifting creatures that remain with us culturally, binding us to earlier eras, the modern era produced new chimera: mythical concepts like nation, progress, and race.

I’m interested in British imperialism because I’ve been sensing that the UK is still harboring nostalgia and something like pride for its lost empire, perhaps uniquely so in Europe. I don’t get the impression there is a reckoning with even its recent world-historical fallout, like Partition in 1947 (the division of the Indian colony into an independent India and Pakistan – at least hundreds of thousands killed in the process). How come? Satia turns towards this question in the last chapter:

Still, the idea that [British imperialism] opened the floodgates of modernity and progress for all, despite some understandable growing pains and a few scandals here and there, remains seductive. And that is because without this idea, we would lose our sense of history itself. The stakes for remaining invested in some positive notion of empire are high.

I feel there may be more prosaic reasons as well, having to do with geography. The soil of the isle of Great Britain only ever saw the fruit of empire, never the violent labor. It’s so much easier to divorce history from reality here and now when history happened on the other side of the globe. Even more so since, as Satia points out, the UK doesn’t have a single museum dedicated to empire.

In 2019, a few months before I was to take the oath to become a US citizen, I took a field trip to Washington DC (where I’d never been) as part of a quest to better understand this new identity I was going to adopt. Right there in the center of power and memory, on the National Mall, sits the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

(It’s not America if an oversize pick-up isn’t ruining your shot)

The museum is a curatorial marvel that celebrates achievements of black culture in overground galleries and memorializes the atrocities of slavery in harrowing subterranean ones. To be absolutely clear, the US has a long way to go towards fixing racial injustice, towards accepting even the self-evident Black Lives Matter, but at least there is a loud discourse about the role of slavery and racism running through the media, politics and institutions. In contrast, the British appear mute about empire.

Further up the Mall in DC I also visited the National Museum of the American Indian. It’s an odd place, far less popular and far less vibrantly curated than its fresh black cousin. In a way, it reflects native peoples’ marginal status in the country today. With enough time, it turns out, bloody history fades from present consciousness even if it soaked this soil right here.

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