Think Piece

Simón Bolívar: Theorist of Empire?

By Peter Morgan

“…a large part of the human race is going to perish…unless Great Britain, the liberator of Europe, friend of Asia, and protector of Africa, consents to be the saviour of America. If I still had a shred of hope that America could triumph on her own, no one would have been more eager than I to serve my country, rather than humiliate it by seeking protection from a foreign power.”[1]

Simón Bolívar to the British Foreign Secretary, 1815

Strange as it might seem, Simón Bolívar belongs with Thomas Hakluyt, Edmund Burke, and James Mill as a British imperial thinker. While he led the campaign to expel the Spanish empire during the 1810s and 1820s, ‘El Libertador’ was at the same time imagining a British imperial order to help organise South American independence.

Latin America was (and remains) the part of Britain’s empire least visible to Britain itself. The irony, of course, is the sheer importance of the region to imperial finance, trade, and political economy. It is no surprise Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher made it the main evidence for their theorization of informal empire. And yet, Latin America was not regarded as an imperial political space in the British public sphere. Latin America was concealed by informality rather than a ‘thinning’ of empire from the occupation of property to the occupation of sovereignty – direct to indirect rule – which Fitzmaurice traces in the 19th century. This concealment has also helped keep the region largely out of view to the post-Cold War renaissance of empire scholarship among historians of political thought in the Anglophone academy. Whether due to their own, relatively narrow definition of ‘empire’ or the analytical challenge of grappling with informal empire from an historical perspective, many scholars have passed over it.

The justification of this move by appeal to the absence of informal empire among actors’ categories tends to be both somewhat circular, insofar as informal empire functioned through a measure of public self-denial, and Eurocentric, insofar as recognition of informal empire can be found among past contemporaries if one looks beyond the imperial metropole. Indeed, British imperial power in the Iberian Atlantic was the gargantuan fact of the Spanish American Wars of Independence (c. 1808-24), acknowledged and judged crucial by actors on both sides of the conflict. There was no absence of mind here.

The Battle of Trafalgar (October 1805) gave the Royal Navy control of Spanish imperial communications. Having destroyed the French and Spanish fleets, Britain now ruled the Atlantic. Commerce, military and civilian transportation, news and correspondence could now happen between Spain and its American territories only with British consent. The practical existence of the Spanish empire was, in significant part, a decision for Whitehall. As such, when revolutions began to break out across the region in 1808, and especially from 1810, a great deal of courtship was directed toward the rulers of the British empire by both sides.

One might assume that Spanish Loyalists would have the advantage in this competition for British support. Since 1808, Spain was allied to Britain in its supposedly existential war against France. Moreover, Britain and Spain in this period appear to us as fellow empires, liable to inter-imperial solidarity against Bolívar’s American rebels. A certain tradition of scholarship would injunct here that the Spanish American revolutions were not against Spanish empire at all. They were instead against ‘despotism.’ We must take this claim seriously. In the Spanish American case, there were profound limits to the ‘anti-imperial’ dimension of rebel thought. But the dimension did still exist. Even in the case of ‘despotismo’ – which was one of the most popular evaluations of Spanish rule – the charge was rarely indifferent to empire. Heavily influenced by Montesquieu, the Americans’ concept of despotism was entrenched in a (relatively) ‘anti-imperial’ evaluation of ‘Oriental’ land empires. Indeed, in Bolívar’s 1815 Jamaica Letter he orientalised ‘despotic’ Spanish rule in the Americas by analogy to a then-standard list of ‘Oriental’ powers, especially Persia and the Ottomans.

So, the apparent problem remains: how did American rebels against Spanish empire argue for support from the British empire? As it happens, quite easily. And the way in which they could throws a double light, on the intellectual genealogy of British empire and on historical thought about empire in general.

Bolívar was one of the first Americans to advocate outright independence from Spain (1811, at the latest), and he judged British support as a necessary condition of its achievement.  Moreover, he argued for this support continuously from 1810 onwards, developing a sophisticated vision of the British empire as not only upheld but expanded in the Atlantic world. He was envisaging American independence from Spain as a British imperial project. And this commitment to the British empire was not just a war measure. He continued to use the language of British “protection” (always joined with the advertisement of commercial access) long after the crisis period of the mid-1810s, when the first wave of revolution in Venezuela and New Granada was overcome, and Bolívar penned his desperate appeal to Richard Wellesley quoted in the epigraph. Even a decade later, when American forces had defeated Spain on the mainland, Bolívar was developing his most sophisticated project for the British empire in ‘postcolonial’ Spanish America.

Bolívar’s plan for a ‘Congress of Panama’ envisaged for the new American republics an international “system of guarantees that can serve both in peace and war as shield for our new destiny…a foundation to perpetuate, if possible, the duration of these governments.” It would provide common defence against reconquest by Spain (and its friends in the post-Napoleonic Holy Alliance, Restoration France, and Tsarist Russia), but also compose and regulate a public international law among the members and put down “anarchist factions” (which usually meant either Afro-Latin American political movements or federalist challenges to the sort of centralised republic Bolívar espoused).

This quite formidable Congress of Panama, on an international scale, was not to be a purely American body. In fact, Bolívar was adamant it exclude the United States, Haiti, and the new United Provinces of the Río de la Plata. Whereas Bolívar’s own Colombia (a state which unified modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela until its tripartite dissolution in 1831) would be the dominant South American power, the essential member was to be Great Britain. “England would necessarily have to take responsibility for holding steady the fulcrum of this equilibrium.” Only British involvement would intimidate Spain and the Holy Alliance. Bolívar judged Spanish American unity, however extensive, insufficient for the purpose. But had Britain joined (the Congress project almost immediately collapsed) it would apparently have been invested with considerable new authority to intervene in the new American republics. Bolívar was not insensitive to the discomfort this prospect caused many compatriots. In a letter to his more US-inclined Vice-President of Colombia, Francisco de Paula Santander (1792-1840), he acknowledged the Congress (or “Federation”) of Panama would involve regrettable “compromises” with British interests but insisted British “protection” was essential to Colombia and should not be discarded for a commitment to “indefinite” liberty and independence.

Bolívar, then, conceded there was a British imperial dimension to his Panama vision. But to audiences less concerned with Spanish American sovereignty he was far more enthusiastic about this feature. In an 1826 text meant to promote the Congress to a British readership, Bolívar elaborated another, cultural aspect of the scheme. Listed among the advantages of membership for Great Britain was the point that: “The character and customs of the British would become models for Americans to strive for in the future.” In light of the fact Bolívar’s more domestic, constitutional and social thought for the Spanish American republics had long been overtly Anglophilic, this element of ‘civilising mission’ he chose to build into the Congress of Panama should not be taken lightly. Closing the text, Bolívar gave this British imperial vision a measure of genuine formality, writing the project, “could well be the occasion to consolidate the union of the new states with the British Empire.”

How does the historian deal with this mess? Bolívar, the official ‘Liberator’ of South America from Spain, theorising its new international status in terms of formalised subordination to the British empire – a systemic counterpoint to the anticolonial worldmaking recently charted in the 20th century Black Atlantic by Adom Getachew. What does this mean for Bolívar’s ‘anti-imperial’ status as a thinker? Keeping it fully intact is not appropriate, but neither is disposing with it altogether. Bolívar’s thought was at once a conscious rejection and endorsement of empire, in different forms, and neither side washes the other. And this hybridity is not uncommon in the modern archive of thought against empire. Indeed, the case of Bolívar would better prompt us to rethink how we apply ‘anti-imperial’ status per se as a category for describing political thought.

Universalist critiques have been rare (not absent) and mostly postdate 1900 in the history of thought against empire. At least on close reading, relative or particular ones have been the norm. And, as in Bolívar’s case, these narrower forms of anti-imperial thought were often integral to the justification of one form or instance of empire at the same time as they called for the abolition of another. Anti-imperial thinking has thus had an unexpectedly ambivalent historical relationship to empire. And so, when describing a past thinker as ‘anti-imperial’, the historian should always try to identify and qualify in what sense.

Simón Bolívar’s thought was participant in the post-Napoleonic imagination of British empire. It belongs in the long intellectual history of that empire (along with several Spanish American contemporaries), as it pivoted from the Americas to Asia, against Bolívar’s will. This does not require wrenching Bolívar away from other traditions – civic republicanism, ‘creole revolution’, Latin American anti-imperialism. Rare is the thinker who belongs to one alone. But it does require expanding the horizon of British imperial historiography. An unwitting product of that historiography, by setting its catchment area for ideologues as the Anglosphere, has been the occlusion of 19th century Spanish America as an important stage in the intellectual history of modern British imperialism.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all the texts by Bolívar referred to here are available at:

Peter Morgan is a doctoral candidate at University College London working on the intellectual history of the Spanish American Wars of Independence. His broader research interests are the history of political thought about empire and international order since the 18th century.

Featured Image: Map of Gran Colombia, c.1821-1823. Geographic and Historical Atlas of the Republic of Colombia, 1890. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Dispatches from the Archives

Assessing Supernatural Belief in Colonial Mexican Inquisition Records

By Anderson Hagler

To what extent can historians understand spiritual belief among the people of the past? What do references to magic tell us about colonial life? In Mexico, the Inquisition operated from the early sixteenth century until 1820. It viewed vernacular belief and attempts to use magic as existential threats to Christianity and potentially heretical. Inquisitors and their scribes recorded proceedings, documenting every word spoken by accused heretics. Because the threat of torture produced droves of confessions, the truth value assigned to coerced testimony remains problematic for historians. It is safe to conclude that many of those charged with crimes against the faith framed their actions in the best possible light, hiding incriminating pieces of evidence as they could.

In this essay, I suggest that historians should shift their analytical focus away from the personal faith of the declarant to evidence of shared knowledge evincing communal belief in the supernatural. Examining the exertions of the devout in the material world reveals how eighteenth-century Indigenous commoners attempted to restore spiritual equilibrium by using magical rituals to heal the infirm. The testimony analyzed herein illuminates belief in tonalli, the soul or vital force believed responsible for human life. 

Historians of European witchcraft such as Jan Machielsen maintain that belief ranges from cautious acceptance to a perceived matter of fact. The Indigenous peoples of colonial Mexico often linked their terrestrial experiences to cosmological knowledge, transforming belief in the supernatural into a broadly accepted cultural lexicon. Catarina Pizzigoni’s examination of Indigenous wills and testaments in Toluca Valley has shown that Nahua peoples linked the physical structure of their homes to local saints and deities. In Pizzigoni’s account, sincere religious devotion played an important role in Nahua communities and households. Lisa Sousa has analyzed criminal records in Oaxaca to investigate belief in magic and witchcraft. Building on their findings, this essay employs Inquisition records to analyze agrarian folk beliefs, extrapolating complex cosmologies and hierarchies of belief from statements made by Indigenous people to the Inquisition.

On April 20 1721, an eighteen-year-old Indigenous man named Agustín Díaz, alongside a local leader from the pueblo of Ocelocalco named Nicolás Fabián, testified that Agustín’s brother Sebastián had fallen ill after suffering an accident in the mountains. Agustín recounted that Sebastián had fallen while inspecting a beehive. A severe injury to Sebastián’s leg had caused the tonalli to escape from his body. Without tonalli, Sebastián became sick. Later that evening, Sebastián fell from a bench while sleeping, a worrying display of spiritual disequilibrium. Nicolás Fabián explained that the fear generated by severe accidents created disease inside the body.[1]  Extended loss of tonalli would prove fatal, a prospect which frightened the men.

Tonalli hemorrhaged from the body after someone suffered a great fall or became very frightened—occurrences common among children but less routine for adults. The proper response was to pray to restore tonalli and to visit a spiritual practitioner. In Chiapas, according to Nicolás, women practitioners preserved and consulted cures for all manner of illnesses, including loss of tonalli. References to tonalli in Sebastián’s case and others like it reveal the limits of the Catholic Church’s reach in rural Indigenous areas and the extent of local belief in the supernatural.

In Soconusco, devotees first tried to restore tonalli by lighting a candle and praying to Mary, Mother of God. Agustín treated Sebastían by incensing the room and keeping him tightly wrapped. After three or four days with little result, Agustín returned to the mountains, desperate to increase the efficacy of these rituals. He located the exact spot where Sebastián’s accident took place. At the spot, Agustín put some of Sebastián’s clothes inside a jar and sealed it. He called Sebastián’s name several times. Once home, Agustín collected some dirt and a moth. He ground them together and gave the product to Sebastián to eat. Afterwards, Agustín incensed the room, causing Sebastián to sweat profusely. Sebastián recovered, validating medical knowledge and perpetuating belief in tonalli and the metaphysical system of which it was a part.

In these eyes of Catholic clergy, these ceremonies were an offense to God and the saints. God became angry when Natives incorporated Catholic prayers and relics into non-orthodox rituals. But the Indigenous peoples of Soconusco felt that they had employed these cures successfully for too long to abandon them. Petrona González, the mother of the leader Nicolás Fabián, had once used a similar cure to restore her tonalli. According to testimony, Indigenous commoners testified that they practiced these rituals because of the love they felt for ailing family and friends, not out of malice toward God or the Church. The physical lengths to which Agustín resorted to heal his brother demonstrate how desperation could produce recourse to popular belief. The rituals conducted to heal Sebastián reveal a complex cosmology and catalogue of ceremonies preserved by Indigenous elders. Although we cannot know whether Agustín believed that the vernacular ceremony was certain to heal Sebastián, we can conclude that Agustín did not believe that the ceremony could harm his brother.

From Agustín’s labor we can extrapolate the extent of his belief in tonalli. The testimony states that Agustín incensed the room and wrapped his brother “anxiously” (con ansias) for “three or four days” before returning to the mountains where Sebastián suffered the accident next to the beehive.[2] Journeying to the mountains with Sebastián’s clothes, calling out his name, returning home, collecting earth nearby, and grinding dirt with a moth were time-consuming activities which could have been spent on basic functions. The energy exerted by Agustín implies sincere belief in the tonalli ritual. The ways in which he and other witneses refer to the ritual imply that the existence and function of tonalli was considered to be common knowledge in his community. The spiritual-medical advice of Indigenous elders reinforced Agustín’s belief in the supernatural, while successful enactment of their knowledge was considered to be proof of their authority.

Because villages like Ocelocalco exercised significant local autonomy throughout the colonial era, non-orthodox beliefs persisted. Historians can read between the lines in order to understand the hierarchy of values and beliefs of Indigenous witnesses and defendants, taking vernacular knowledge as much as possible on its own terms. This is made difficult by the fact that such testimonies are mediated by Catholic officials, and furthermore by the fact that indigenous testimony is often filtered through what Indigenous declarants imagined to be Catholic orthodoxy. Nonetheless, trying to understand the beliefs and cosmologies behind the behavior of the actors in the trial can help us understand the motivations which led Indigenous commoners to behave contrary to orthodoxy, despite the palpable danger of doing so. Foregrounding behavior and emotive testimony in this way can help us understand Indigenous belief in eighteenth-century Mexico.

[1] AHDC, Folder 2463, exp. 1, Soconusco III A1, Episcopal, Gobierno, 1721, fol. 8v.

[2] The emotive testimony may plausibly be taken at face value as there is no reason to suspect that Agustín had quarreled with Sebastián. AHDC, Folder 2463, exp. 1, Soconusco III A1, Episcopal, Gobierno, 1721, fol. 8r.

Anderson Hagler is a PhD candidate at Duke University. His scholarship examines how subaltern vassals negotiated state-led attempts to impose orthodoxy. His most recent project analyzes how magic and deviant sexuality intersected with one another, shaping notions of race and class during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in New Spain.

Featured Image: An auto da fe in the town of San Bartolomé Otzolotepec, 1716. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Think Piece

From Rio to Tokyo: Towards a Global Intellectual History of Empires

By Egas Moniz Bandeira and Caio Henrique Dias Duarte

In 1907, diplomats from all over the world gathered in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in The Hague, for the Second Hague Peace Conference. Among the first truly global diplomatic conferences, the event became a stage for an unusual transcultural encounter. The Brazilian delegate, Ruy Barbosa (1849–1923), a fierce defender of the principle of sovereign equality of nations, was the main protagonist in opposing a proposal by the US and the European powers to create an international arbitral tribunal with themselves as permanent arbiters. In his closing speech, he deplored that Europe only recognized the US in its political horizon, ignoring Latin America and Asia. Japan’s military victory in 1905, however, had secured the latter a place amongst the Great Powers, and Barbosa stressed that Brazil wished to accomplish the same by diplomatic means before it felt compelled to enter into the arms race itself. The Chinese ambassador, Lu Zhengxiang (1871–1949), subsequently wrote an euphoric report back home in which he adapted Barbosa’s speech to fit his country’s situation.  In view of the importance of military power in international relations, he urged his government to “amass military prowess” and to carry out constitutional reforms (in the broadest sense) in order to “shut up all countries.”[1] Whereas Ruy Barbosa saw the military path for ascension as a last resort that he hoped to avoid through diplomacy, Lu took his speech as an exhortation of a bellicose stance, which China should pursue as well.

Such encounters are still barely accounted for in the current Eurocentric epistemologies of Empire. As Robert Marks points out, Eurocentrism sees “Europe as being the only active shaper of world history, its ‘fountainhead’ if you will. Europe acts; the rest of the world responds. Europe has ‘agency’; the rest of the world is passive. Europe makes history; the rest of the world has none until it is brought into contact with Europe. Europe is the center; the rest of the world is its periphery. Europeans alone are capable of initiating change or modernization; the rest of the world is not.”  Since the end of the twentieth century, historians have called for the provincialization of Europe to counter this premise. In spite of their divergences, numerous historiographical approaches—ranging from comparative and transnational history, world history, big history, and global history to postcolonial studies and the history of globalization—agree in their objective of coming to terms with the connectivities of the past by moving beyond Europe.

Much has to be done, however, for this goal of showing a truly global circulation of ideas, from their theoretical construction in debates to its political and institutional applications, to actually be achieved. In March 2021, Oxford University Press published its two-volume Oxford World History of Empire, a massive handbook edited by Peter Fibiger Bang, Christopher Bayly, and Walter Scheidel. An ambitious enterprise, the Oxford World History of Empire enlisted contributors of the highest caliber to create a non-Eurocentric world history and show that “against the backdrop of world history, European colonial powers emerge unexpectedly as an especially unstable form of imperialism.” This followed an earlier volume by Routledge under the moniker History of Western Empires, which also brought refreshing approaches to the circulation of ideas. Despite the many relevant contributions in these and other handbooks, however, we should be paying attention to what is missing rather than what is present. Non-European Empires are often overlooked in such analyses; they are seen as either receptacles of a vertical transit of ideas or not seen at all. The Routledge volume, for example, still lacks a counterpart on Eastern or even African and Native American Empires, and in Oxford’s World History of Empire, the absence of case studies on the Empire of Brazil or the Empire of Japan, for example, raises questions about how much of the world is actually covered in this “non-Eurocentric world history.” 

For a truly in-depth analysis of how knowledge was and is built, a shift in perspective is necessary: rather than adopting the view of the central lighthouse that sheds light onto whatever it sees as it revolves, we ought to be looking into what happens in the shadows. Recent efforts such as that of Antonio Manuel Hespanha, who sought to understand how local networks of power in the Portuguese Empire consolidated its rule overseas, are noteworthy in this regard. With a historiographical focus on how such epistemologies emerged through the interaction between shadow locations, we may discover important actors and developments that evade the momentaneous glimpse of the center.


In Brazil’s case, we can detect intense interaction and knowledge-building in the shadows of colonial and imperial times. During the colonial period, the same borders that were debated in the palaces of Europe were to be constantly redrafted through intense disputes between local actors who took into consideration cultural factors deemed of little importance in the official diplomatic negotiations. Similarly, the Empire crafted its own tradition of equality of rights and of legal treatment between nations—isonomy as a principle of International Law—in its border disputes after the disruption caused by the Paraguay War (1864-1870). As the separate peace treaties signed with Paraguay shows, Brazil disagreed with its former allies on how to treat the defeated nation: while Argentina intended to annex a fair share of Paraguayan territory, Brazil defended the country’s territorial integrity. In the following years, surrounded by intense political disputes in the republics born out of Spanish America, the Empire and the Republic which succeeded it sought arbitration rather than war to solve the recurring border disputes. Whether their contestants were Great Powers such as the United Kingdom or smaller nations, such as Peru, Brazilian diplomacy drew from the cartographical knowledge amassed by the Portuguese diplomatic tradition, favoring the exclusivity of legal means to solve those disputes. This very same idea was brought to the Hague in 1907 by Ruy Barbosa and, from there, to China by Lu Zhengxiang.

Pedro II, whose reign spanned almost the entire duration of the Brazilian Empire, was a frequent traveler and an avid scholar. His participation in the 1876 Congress of Orientalists during a trip to Saint Petersburg is a testimony to the fact that such networks existed. Just as his Empire’s diplomats—most of them legal scholars—worked on crafting legal strategies to defend its interests, so did Russia: in its wars against non-European states and nations such as the Ottoman Empire, the Romanov Tsars combined a consolidation of war customs with the organization of international conferences to codify international law. Saint Petersburg (1868), Brussels (1874), and even the First Hague Convention (1899) were convened at the initiative of the Romanovs. Sadly, the interaction between the two Empires is still under-researched, although connections abound. The only substantial production is on the subject of the scientific expedition (1824-1829) by Baron Langsdorff during the reign of Pedro I in Brazil.

Congress of the Orientalists in the University of St. Petersburg. 20 of August 1876. Pedro II is on the right, in a separate chair. Drawing by E. Damuller.

While Latin America was trying to assert its presence in the international community through the “peaceful door,” as Ruy Barbosa put it, Japan entered it by way of the “war door” when it militarily defeated Russia in 1904/05. In the Oxford History of Empire handbook, Japanese history is only addressed in one chapter, where it is combined with the German experience in a context of “great power competition and the world wars.” Much beyond this comparison with its ally in the Second World War, though, Japan would merit a central place in any exploration of nineteenth- and twentieth century Empire that aspires to be “global.”

In 1905, Japan’s victory in what has been termed “World War Zero” not only sent political shockwaves throughout the world but also established Japan as an alternative model of imperial modernization on equal footing with the Euro-American imperial powers. While the Japanese state was pursuing aggressive policies of colonial and imperial expansion, such as the annexation of Korea under Resident-General Terauchi Masatake, the country’s vertiginous rise did not fail to exert considerable attraction to intellectuals struggling with their own countries’ existential crises, such as reformist thinker Liang Qichao in the Qing Empire and even the foreign minister of the Ethiopian Empire.

Indeed, Japan came to inform political reforms far beyond its close vicinity. In Lu Zhengxiang’s ailing Qing Empire, the Meiji reform served as the main, although not exclusive, blueprint for the constitutional reforms undertaken from 1906 onward. Beyond East Asia, the Japanese model was widely discussed in Siam and the Ottoman Empire, among others. The pinnacle of Japan’s trajectory as a global model of alternative modernization was reached in the early 1930s, when Ethiopian intellectuals and politicians identified the imitation of Japan as the secret to becoming a strong and powerful nation. In late 1931, a diplomatic delegation led by foreign minister Həruy Wäldä-Selasse embarked on a journey to Japan, where the party visited factories, offices, farms, zoos, theatres, railways, shrines, museums, and military training schools. Upon their return, Wäldä-Selasse published a book titled Mahdärä Bərhan Hägär Japan (The Place of Light: The Country of Japan). The Ethiopian Constitution, promulgated the same year, drew heavily from Japan’s 1889 constitution, thus becoming a legal testament to imperial encounters beyond the Euro-Atlantic circuit.

Visit of a delegation led by the Ethiopian foreign minister Həruy Wäldä-Selasse to Japan, 1931. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Rather than just offering an erudite exploration of the intellectual connections of such Empires, these seemingly unusual events can point us in a new direction of studies and discussions and cause us to revisit concepts while trying to understand how such Empires and their populations, institutions, and traditions interacted.

One field that has greatly benefited from this approach is the study of the history of slavery. Recent research has focused on the interaction between slaveholding elites, but also on how slave communities interacted among themselves through the Atlantic networks, consolidating identities, with researchers trying to understand the practices of resistance and, later, of abolitionist ideas and political action.

If we are to look at communities of practice and epistemic communities that work and interact in the shadows of our traditional gaze, we bring a series of challenges to standardized assumptions about Empire, such as that of essentialized identities frequently present in historical narratives. When defining the scope of historical analysis, such challenges are not a matter of discarding legal categories, political institutions or even cultural manifestations because of their geographical origin, but rather of trying to draw an enlarged map of the debates that constructed knowledge and dictated practices—thinking in networks rather than in categories.

[1] Lu Zhengxiang 陸徵祥, Juzou Baohehui qianhou shizai qingxing deng zhepian qing daidi you 具奏保和會前後實在情形等摺片請代遞由 [Memorial about the actual circumstances before and after the Peace Conference, &c.; with a request to retransmit], Guangxu 34/01/16 [February 17, 1908], file no. 02-21-004-01-003, Archives of the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica, Taipei, [11].

Egas Moniz Bandeira holds a Ph.D. from the University of Tohoku (Japan) and is currently a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory in Frankfurt (Germany). His main research interest is global intellectual history with a focus on its refractions in modern East Asia. He is co-editor of the volume Planting Parliaments in Eurasia, 1850–1950: Concepts, Practices, and Mythologies (Routledge 2021).

Caio Henrique Dias Duarte is an MA student at the University of São Paulo (Brazil). He is coordinator of Amigos do Itamaraty, a cultural preservation initiative of the Diplomatic Museum and Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil. His research focus is on Russian and Brazilian foreign policies and legal and diplomatic practices during the 19th century.

Featured Image: A drawing of Recife, a relevant coastal town, that accompanied a description of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s Imperial capital, in a Meiji-era geography textbook. Shihan gakkō 師範學校. Bankoku chishi ryaku 萬國地誌略 [Sketch of world geography], 3 vols. (Tokyo: Monbushō, 1874), 3:29. Picture taken by the authors.

Think Piece

From Æthelflæd to Ælfthryth: The Idea of Queenship in Tenth-Century England

By Matthew Firth

There is an anachronistic element to looking for “queens” in early medieval Europe, and perhaps particularly so in the West Saxon kingdom of the ninth and tenth centuries. Precisely what makes a queen a queen varies between places and over time. As Janet Nelson identifies, in contrast to male categories of power in early medieval Europe “it is much harder to identify anything that could be called queenship” (p. 39). Historians have, nonetheless, adopted certain sub-categories of queenship based around a royal woman’s means of accessing authority that have broad application. As summarized by Theresa Earenfight, these are queen-regnant, queen-regent, queen-consort, queen-mother or dowager-queen (p. 6). Only one of these constitutes authority in its own right, the queen regnant. Queens-regnant, however, are not a feature of the political landscape of tenth-century England. Queenly agency was rather defined and delimited by each woman’s relationship with the king, the starting point of which was usually as queen-consort.

West Saxon queens rarely enjoyed ceremonial investiture of power nor recognized claim to formal title. The marriage of the Carolingian Princess Judith to the West Saxon King Æthelwulf (839–58) in 856 was cast as an extraordinary event by various medieval commentators because, at the ceremony at the royal palace at Verberie in Francia, she did not merely marry the reigning king of Wessex but was also consecrated as his queen. The Frankish cleric, Prudentius of Troyes, declared that, for Æthelwulf, this was “something not customary before then to him or his people” (p. 83). In recounting the event, Asser, the biographer of Alfred the Great (871–99), adds further detail, stating that “the West Saxons did not allow the queen to sit beside the king, nor indeed did they allow her to be called ‘queen’, but rather ‘king’s wife’” (p. 71). Asser perceives this to be a “perverse and detestable custom”, founded on the exemplar of the early tenth-century queen-consort Eadburh who was purported to have abused her queenly authority and ultimately to have poisoned her husband the king. Whatever truth may lie behind Asser’s tale, his observations of West Saxon attitudes to queenship seem to have a certain veracity. After Judith’s consecration, which in itself was informed by her status as a scion of the West Frankish royal family, no English queen is known to have again been anointed as such until over a century later in 973.

The matter of West Saxon attitudes toward queenship as an ‘office’ is particularly pertinent to the idea of queenship in England more widely in the tenth century. Alfred’s reign in the late ninth century marked a turning point in the fortunes of Wessex and the West Saxon royal family. The Viking incursions of the ninth century saw the decline and failure of most of England’s other kingdoms and royal families. Following Alfred’s successful defense of Wessex, he began a process of expanding West Saxon hegemony, while his descendants would go on the become the sole rulers of a reconstituted English kingdom. And the political milieu of the tenth century would bring several powerful women to the fore, whose authority would seemingly bely any exhortation against the dangers of female power. Yet it also remains that despite any personal agency, such women are only rarely named as queen.

The most famous of these powerful tenth-century women is, perhaps, Æthelflæd of Mercia. The conclusion that queenly authority derived from proximity to kingship here remains unavoidable, despite Æthelflæd’s remarkable personal agency. She was the daughter of King Alfred, sister to his successor King Edward the Elder (899–924), and wife to Ealdorman Æthelred, the proxy king in Mercia. Æthelred’s own authority was exercised under the overlordship of the West Saxon kings. Æthelflæd’s was an extraordinary position. Alongside her connections to West Saxon royalty, she was an heir of the Mercian royal house by matrilineal descent. For Æthelred, his marriage to Æthelflæd in the 880s did not then just cement a Mercian-West Saxon alliance, but brought additional legitimacy to his rule. This in turn granted Æthelflæd a remarkable degree of authority to the extent that, following Æthelred’s death in 911, she continued as sole ruler of Mercia until her own death in 918, albeit in partnership with her brother. Critically, however, Æthelflæd is largely ignored in West Saxon histories, while the Mercian evidence never calls her queen, but Myrcna hlæfdige or domina Merciorum[Lady of the Mercians]. This would, seemingly, be a legacy of the West Saxon reservation of bestowing queenship. As Pauline Stafford identifies, Welsh and Irish sources show little reservation in identifying Æthelflæd as queen.

Image 1: Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians © British Library Board, Cotton MS Claudius B VI, f.14 r.

There is, however, no evidence that Æthelflæd was anointed as a queen or given formal title. Indeed, while formal marriage can be assumed between Æthelred and Æthelflæd, there is no clear evidence for such ceremony either. And in a society where queens were rarely anointed, the status that came from being the legitimate wife of a king could be foundational to queenship. As Stafford argues, marriage raised women to queenly authority in the absence of consecration (pp. 127–9). At a fundamental level, what would now be identified as queenship was, in tenth-century England, predicated on marriage to the king. As a result, the distinction between a king’s wife and a king’s concubine was politically charged.

Many of England’s tenth-century kings have been characterized as serial monogamists, most notable among these being Edward the Elder and Edgar the Peaceful (959–75) who both had three consorts. In such cases, the blurred line between concubine and wife may have been intentional. A lack of formal marriage allowed the setting aside of one concubine in favor of a more politically attractive union relatively simpler. If there was no evidence of marriage, no public declaration of intent, no exchange of lands, then how simple for a king to set aside consort as a bed companion alone with no marital legitimacy. This was, no doubt, the approach taken by both Edward and Edgar to their unions with their first wives; it is no coincidence that it was most often a king’s first consort, a match made before he ascended the throne, who was identified as a concubine.

The difference in status could have political and ideological ramifications for a consort’s children and her legacy, especially where a queen-consort survived her husband, thus transitioning into roles as queen-mother or dowager-queen. In these cases, her continued authority rested on an ability to demonstrate the legitimacy of her union with the king. This was especially important where more than one consort had a son with the king. Whatever agency consorts were able to establish for themselves within male-dominated political spheres, the primary expectation of queens-consort was to produce heirs, legitimatesons. Thus, proving the legitimacy of a marriage could also serve to establish the primacy of a son as heir. For this reason, some of England’s most powerful tenth-century queens reached the apex of their authority as queen-mother. This is certainly the case for Edward and Edgar’s thirds consorts, respectively named Eadgifu and Ælfthryth.

There is no evidence of Eadgifu being crowned queen-consort (though David Pratt makes as case for it). She was also likely quite young at the time of Edward’s death and thus their sons would only have been children. Her stepson Æthelstan succeeded to the crowns of Wessex and Mercia in 924, and Eadgifu disappears from the historical record. However, she returns to power with her sons Edmund and Eadred. While she never claims the title queen, at least in contemporary records, she clearly takes up a position of power and regularly witnesses charters in a prominent position, subscribing as mater regis [mother of the king] over fifty times. Eadgifu’s fortunes vary during the reigns of her grandsons, but she does live long enough to witness a charter alongside Ælfthryth in 966. Here Eadgifu witnesses as aua regis [grandmother of the king], while Ælfthryth witnesses before her as legitima prefati regis coniuncx [legitimate wife of the aforementioned king]. This witnessing demarcates a new phase of queenship in England, one that has developed over the preceding century more slowly than this brief article has been able to outline and to which Eadgifu was integral. What is important here is that Ælfthryth’s clear delineation as legitimate wife, made very shortly after the birth of their first son, is an unambiguous declaration by Edgar of his third consort’s pre-eminence and the primacy of their son as heir.

Ælfthryth’s queenship was legitimated as no queen-consort’s had been since Judith’s coronation. She was a regular witness to Edgar’s charters, attesting as regina[queen] around twenty times, the first West Saxon consort to do so. She was a known intermediary with the king, at times receiving gifts for performing in that role. She was a landholder – the queen’s dower having increasingly become a traditional prerogative through the tenth century. She was codified in Regularis concordia as patron and protector of the kingdom’s female religious houses. Finally, she was formally crowned queen in 973 alongside her husband during the pageantry of his second coronation in Bath. Ælfthryth’s tenure as queen was remarkable for the shift toward institutional office that codification of duties and consecration implied – the latter an exemplar for her successors with coronation becoming the norm in the eleventh century.

Yet while this is an important moment in the evolution of early English queenship, it does exist on a continuum with earlier ideas around female power and queenly legitimacy. Edgar’s various methods of legitimising Ælfthryth and her children could not insulate her from dynastic unrest connected with the legitimacy the children of his earlier consorts could also call upon. Upon Edgar’s death in 975, factions formed around his surviving sons, with that backing Ælfthryth’s stepson Edward (975–78) attaining control of the throne. I have addressed the bloody end to Edward “the Martyr’s” reign and its impact on Ælfthryth’s legacy elsewhere. In the immediate term, however, upon Edward’s death in 978 Ælfthryth’s young son Æthelred II (978–1014/16) came to the throne, his mother by his side. Like Eadgifu before her, Ælfthryth took up a prominent role in her son’s court, witnessing as mater regis no fewer than sixteen times. But more than this, as Levi Roach identifies, Ælfthryth appears to have seized regency powers along with her closest allies in the early years of Æthelred’s reign (pp. 85–6). Thus, a century on from Asser’s cautions around the dangers of queenly power, a consecrated queen stood at the head of English government as mother and regent.

Ælfthryth’s regency is a good place to leave this overview of West Saxon ideas and ideals of queenship in from the late-ninth to late-tenth centuries. The agency of English queens had shifted dramatically from the time when Asser declared king’s wives could not claim that title, to Ælfthryth’s explicit use of the title regina and claiming of regency authority in the name of her young son. Nonetheless, there remains a certain truth to Asser’s assessment of West Saxon queenship even as it developed the trappings of institutional office as the tenth century progressed. Tenth-century English queenship remained fundamentally connected to a woman’s relationship to the king. To borrow Stafford’s words in closing, “queenship is thus no more or less than the crown on the head of wife and mother, at most the formalization of their roles.”

Matthew Firth is a PhD Candidate in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Flinders University, South Australia. His published works have appeared in The Court Historian, Royal Studies Journal and International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, among other venues, and focus on England’s pre-Conquest kings and queens and their legacies. He has a particular interest in how royal reputation was transmitted, adapted, and memorialised in the histories of later medieval writers. Matthew is currently writing a book for the Routledge Lives of Royal Women series, entitled Early English Queenship, 850–1000: Potestas Reginae. Matthew is also assistant editor for the Brepols series, East Central Europe.

Featured Image: King Alfred the Great, King Edward the Elder, Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians © British Library Board, Royal MS 14 B VI


Announcing the JHI’s 2020 Morris D. Forkosch Book Prize Winner

Every year, the Journal of the History of Ideas awards the Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history. 

The winner of the JHI ‘s 2020 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history is Hannah Marcus, for Forbidden Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and Censorship in Early Modern Italy (University of Chicago Press).

The judging committee writes:

A work of deep erudition and methodological breadth, Hannah Marcus’s Forbidden Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and Censorship in Early Modern Italy is the winner of the 2020 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history. 

In this elegant monograph, Marcus expertly guides us past the bright line of book burning and banned authors to explore the complex landscape of medical learning in early modern Italy under conditions of ecclesiastical censorship. Deftly navigating the indexes of prohibited books issued from Rome by Paul IV (1559) and Clement VIII (1596); Paul V’s theologian, Giovanni Maria Guanzelli (1607); and Alexander VII (1664), Marcus tells a story of institutional ambition complicated by varying forms of resistance, engagement, and negotiation within Counter-Reformation Italy. 

The “paradoxes of censorship” Marcus brings to light in her study are telling and legion. Lists of forbidden books did double duty as author advertisements and guides for library acquisitions. Compilations of offensive passages to be expurgated from books and removed from intellectual circulation inverted the humanist commonplace book in which readers copied out notable passages for reuse. Learning to read like ecclesiastical censors, physicians monitored their own writing and contributed to crowd-sourced expurgations, yet also strategically and successfully sought permission to read prohibited titles. On Marcus’s account, processes of prohibition, both explicit and tacit, created in turn a discursive space in which Catholic physicians articulated why they wanted to read banned books, as well as a set of material practices—slicing out authors’ names, overwriting offensive text, covering expurgated passages with slips of paper—that signal their reading of what was supposed not to be read.

Hannah Marcus is assistant professor of the history of science at Harvard University.  Her research focuses on the scientific culture of early modern Europe between 1400 and 1700.

The JHI Blog extends its deepest congratulations to Professor Marcus and looks forward to reading more of her work.

Think Piece

That Sea Is History: Water Metaphors in Modern European Historiography

By Lucian Staiano-Daniels

I spent over twenty-four months in the Saxon State Archives in Dresden during my doctorate, researching soldiers’ lives in central Europe during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). I sifted less-read sources, like transcripts of military trials, for information about these men’s social interactions with one another. The first weeks were not very fruitful. One of the books I was reading then referenced a volume of legal documents from a single regiment in its footnotes. This volume had been compiled in 1625, and was the oldest unified military legal collection I had seen so far. The author did not know whether more books like it existed. When I typed the regiment’s name into the records, not one volume came up, but three: it was part of a manuscript series, broken up possibly since its acquisition. The other two books had been misfiled. These three rare and unusual manuscripts detailed every legal ruling this regiment’s authorities took during its lifespan.  Finding these missing books was a mystical experience, and I fell into the archives like a sea.


Comparing history or time to water is common in the Western canon, expressing uncertainty about historical truth and human beliefs, but also unexpected enlightenment. As Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote (AD 161-180), “There is a kind of river in events and time is a violent stream; as soon as each thing is seen, it has been carried away and something else is being carried past and that will be carried away” (4:43, 27). Time changes objects, it carries off, it wears away. Time is a river because of its speed and its power; it relativizes the value humans place on perishable things: “Flows and changes constantly renew the universe,” he said, “as the unceasing movement of time makes boundless eternity for ever young. In this river, where it is impossible to stand, which of these things that are rushing past him could anyone place value on?” (6:15, 42).

Things that have passed no longer exist. They are not available to us. Marcus Aurelius returned to this metaphor: “hardly anything stands still, even what is near to us; and there is the yawning infinity of the past and the future into which everything vanishes” (Meditations, 5:23, 36). The river makes all things impermanent, and this is their youth, because they are renewed.

For the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who predated Marcus Zurelius by more than five hundred years, change itself was the river. Time was not a container for events which were fundamentally separate from it: “Into the same rivers we step and do not step; we both are and are not. ” German philosopher GWF Hegel invoked a similar metaphor in the early nineteenth century to describe his view of time: “Time is not, as it were, a receptacle in which everything is placed as in a flowing stream, which sweeps it away and engulfs it. Time is only this abstraction of destruction. It is because things are finite that they are in time; it is not because they are in time that they perish.” (35-36)

In Western historical writing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which emerged in the midst of profound sociopolitical changes, this metaphor was often intended to express a feeling of destabilization: if all things perish and cannot be prized, the same goes for veridical truth. The influential Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt began The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by stating: “In the wide ocean upon which we venture, the possible ways and directions are many; and the same studies which have served for this work might easily, in other hands, not only receive a wholly different treatment and application, but lead also to essentially different conclusions.” (19) For Burckhardt, history was the record of what one age finds interesting in another; since it was the art of evaluating, it could not make apodictically true statements. For each new voyage the sea is trackless.

The nineteenth century presented a dynamic universe as opposed to the contained, ordered κόσμος in which both Marcus Aurelius and Heraclitus believed. The mutability of contemporary life haunted Burkhardt, and the violent upheavals of the 1860s and 1870s convinced him there were parallels between past events and his own time. “We want to know on which swell of this great storm we are driven” (§131, 302), he said. But “we should like to know this wave upon which we float in the sea, however we are this wave itself” (§114 (I), 269). Historians could not contemplate the sea without realizing they were inextricably enmeshed in it.

The mid-twentieth-century philosopher Karl Löwith argued in 1959 that the philosophy of linear history that had emerged in the West was fundamentally theological and had reached a crisis point by the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The “last religion” to which Burckhardt could cling was the idea of historical continuity (24-25), but for the German liberal Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch, historical study showed the relativity of all values: all ideas were historically and culturally conditioned and subject to change, including Christian dogma. Löwith claimed that without the ἔσχατον the flux of time would devour its own creations (18), but Troeltsch feared the flux was all there was. As he wrote in 1913:

Everywhere the dams that attempted to halt change through eternal, changeless truths are breaking. Eleatic, Platonic, Kantian ideas of the eternal a priori sought in vain to limit the flood and have themselves been drawn into it, becoming mere aspirations and approximations to the Absolute. All rationally necessary ideas of state and society have been swept into the vortex; there is no unchangeable code of conscience any more…The mood today is certainly no longer a victorious confidence in progress: it has become rather horror in the face of the alienating and relativizing boundlessness of the fragile conditions of existence.

Ernst Troeltsch, “Die Dogmatik der Religionsgeschichtlichen Schule,” 104-105

The fluidity of constant becoming was unnerving. If historical objects were context-dependent, this river in flood could sweep away normative systems. Value that was absolute belonged not to history, but to faith.

Historical research is a bitter sea. It requires you to give your all and displace yourself, and it may not reward you. Burkhardt compared the act of knowingly doing history to going to sea in a boat he did not trust: “As soon as we become aware of our position, we find ourselves on a more or less rickety ship, driven on one of a million great waves” (§114 (IV), 278-279).

But the sea did not only carry away. While the surface was violent, the deeper layers moved slowly. This was the metaphor of the great twentieth-century historian Fernand Braudel. A historian of a real and existent sea, the Mediterranean, Braudel also conceived of history as a sea with several layers. In The Mediterranean World, he asserted that the deepest layer, “whose passage is almost imperceptible,” was “that of man in his relationship to his environment, a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles.” The second, “on a different layer from the first,” had “slow but perceptible rhythms”; this was “social history, the history of groups and groupings.” Part of The Mediterranean World investigated how “these swelling currents” affected Mediterranean life in general. The third layer, finally, was at the surface of the sea: “history not on the level of man, but of individual men…the history of events: surface disturbances, crests of foam that the waves of history carry on their strong backs.” At the time of Philip II as in Braudel’s time, this world was characterized by “brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations”; at the time of Philip II as Braudel’s it was blind, “unconscious of the deeper realities of history, of the running waters on which our frail barks are tossed like cockleshells.”

According to Braudel, there was a surface and a depth to the sea of history. The violent change that abashed Burckhardt and Troeltsch was at the surface; deeper levels were slower. History was no longer what historians floated on top of, it was what they looked down or up through.

The sea hid something beneath, and preserved it; putting something under itself, the sea sublated it. As poet Derek Walcott observed, 

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?

Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,

in that grey vault. The sea. The sea

has locked them up. The sea is History.

Derek Walcott, “The Sea is History,” 1979

The bottom of the sea contained experiences without commemoration from hegemonic society, which had been forcibly denied to the descendants of the enslaved. The commemoration was the voice of the poet: what is at the bottom of the sea must be actively retrieved.

This change in the image of the sea was a literal change. The Mediterranean World was published in 1949 and Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom, in which “The Sea is History” appeared, in 1979: by the mid-twentieth century, humans could dive down into the sea and look around for hours. But the idea that history showed the relativity of all supposedly objective verities was also no longer as challenging as it had been in the nineteenth century. Now historians question the idea of truth in historical evidence itself. Within this context, research based on the empirical analysis of large quantities of statistical data drawn from unpublished sources—“finding something at the bottom of the sea”—is not simply given as the way things are done; it requires a deliberate commitment to this approach as opposed to any other. Like Heraclitus’s river, the historian steps into it, breaking the surface. Inextricably part of these movements, he or she can also observe them. Change within time may throw our values into question, eliciting strong emotions, but at the level of nearly timeless statistics, both emotions and values are irrelevant. Although historical deconstruction is not an approach I share, you could argue that practicing history with statistics is one way to emotionally control the threat posed by the sea’s devouring power. Change is destabilizing, but what happened can also be analyzed dispassionately. The bottom of the sea is cold.


Discussing mystical experience implicitly raises the possibility that “only a god can save” history as practice, that the only remaining ground of historical truth must be something transcendent: the deluge on one hand and a god on the other. Waters have often been associated with monsters rather than gods, impedimentia rather than insight. The sea is the uncanny, that which we cannot reckon. The sea signifies otherness from the other. The sea on which we embark is the sea of what we cannot control; the world bobs on it like a scrap of wood. This causes earthquakes, said Thales (30-31). But divine power also burns inside that water. In Shaivite mythology the force that will consume the earth at doomsday, or Shiva himself, is a mare on fire within the sea. In Christian mythology, Christ’s immersion in the Jordan initiated his mission: nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest: neither any thing hid, that shall not be knowen, and come abroad. We need not ground historical ontology on the transcendent in order to think.

My intent is more modest; my memory is of a modest act. I received the manuscripts I found as insight, and this experience has shaped my approach to archival methodology ever since. I gather and strain data, I piece together scraps of information, and I am open to stumbling over something for which I did not look. And when I go to the archives I begin work floating on the surface of the sea; sheet-crumpled lead. I tip into the water. Blue darker than black; breathe out and sink. Liquid saturates my flesh, and I do not breathe in again. On the sea floor it is almost impossible to move. Inch by inch I creep after infinitesimal tesserae of gold, burning at the bottom of the sea.

The author would like to thank Craig Callender, Evan Kuehn, and Herman Paul.

Lucian Staiano-Daniels received a BA from St. John’s College (Annapolis/Santa Fe), an MA from NYU, and a PhD from UCLA in 2018. He was most recently a Dan David Postdoctoral Fellow at Tel Aviv University. He is finishing a book on the daily lives and social interactions of ordinary soldiers in seventeenth-century central Europe, which focuses on a German regiment stationed near Spanish Milan. He has written on social history, the history of violence, and intellectual history. In Foreign Policy, he also writes on current events and matters of interest.

Featured Image: Deep sea sample. Courtesy of the Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.