Graduate Forum: Expanding Subjects, Race, and Global Contexts: Tisa Wenger’s Religious Freedom and Developments in the History of Religious Ideas

This is the first in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which will be running this summer. Our goal is to engage with the diversity of ways that graduate students are approaching the History of Ideas across academic sub-fields. After the final commentary, Professor Anthony Grafton will add his thoughts to the conversation.

This first piece is by guest contributor Andrew Klumpp.


Tisa Wenger, Religious Freedom
The Contested History of an American Ideal (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 2017).

Kiram II

Kiram II

Evangelists, statesmen, and academics once dominated many histories of religious ideas, but in Tisa Wenger’s recent Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal (UNC Press, 2017), they are eclipsed. Figures like the Moros Muslim sultan Kiram II, black nationalist Marcus Garvey, archbishop of the Philippine Independent Church Gregorio Aglipay, the founder of the Moorish Science Temple Nobel Drew Ali, and the Native American Shaker prophet John Slocum take center-stage. Spanning the decades from the Spanish-Cuban-Filipino-American War until WWII, this study weaves together diverse communities ranging from Filipino Muslims to Jewish immigrants, the Nation of Islam to practitioners of Native American traditions such as Peyote and the Ghost Dance. Although globetrotting in scope and diverse in its subjects, Religious Freedom’s persistent attention to how interpretations of religious freedom relied on the formative relationship between race, religion, and empire effectively ties the study together.


Tisa Wenger, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 2009).

Much like Wenger’s first book, We Have a Religion (UNC Press, 2009), which investigated the formation and use of the category of religion among Pueblo Indians, Religious Freedom focuses on a fundamental concept, in this case religious freedom, and explores its formation and re-formation by those outside of the halls of power in the United States. In doing so, it offers a fresh perspective on central questions about religious liberty, nation-states, and global empire. It also provides a window into engaging trends in how historians of religion and ideas approach their work and frame their questions.

Forged at the nexus of race, religion, and empire, religious freedom, Wenger argues, was not always universally beneficent. Consequently, when various communities invoked the ideal, winners and losers emerged. She convincingly demonstrates that white American Protestants, in particular, deployed the ideal of religious freedom to assert their supremacy and highlight the deficiencies of others.

Ghost Dance ca. 1900

Native American Ghost Dance, ca. 1900

In order to further these broader arguments, Religious Freedom explores contexts ranging from Muslim settlements in the Philippines to Native American reservations in the Dakotas. For example, perceived racial inferiority meant that Christianity served as a key civilizing force in the Philippines after the U.S. conquest of the islands. Nevertheless, this otherness also kept Filipino Catholic priests under the thumb of a Western bishop. Racial otherness also cast suspicion on Native American religious practices. Missionaries and government officials nursed a longstanding skepticism about Native American religious practices including Peyote, the Ghost Dance, and the Native American Shaker tradition, even when these traditions exhibited some of the trappings of Christianity.

Wenger also deftly reveals how some groups leveraged their religious identities to minimize perceived racial otherness and inferiority. American Jews in both the Reform and Orthodox communities tended to lean into their religious identities and minimize their racial and ethnic distinctiveness. By framing their differences as religious rather than racial or ethnic, Jews, as well as Catholics, wielded the language of religious freedom to secure a spot standing shoulder to shoulder with white American Protestants.

Alice Fletcher 2

Alice Fletcher speaking to Native Americans

Overall, Wenger’s book is remarkably successful. It explores an understudied chapter in the definition and deployment of religious freedom ideology and expands its study to a broad and engaging collection of individuals and communities. Nevertheless, Religious Freedom is, somewhat disappointingly, largely a story of men. Only a handful of women appear throughout the entire text. This is particularly unfortunate because of the tradition of exploring the relationship between gender, race, and civilization, yet this vein of inquiry remains underexplored. Some of this is due to the sources Wenger uses and the prominence of men in the military, government agencies, and religious leadership at the time. Nevertheless, a woman like Alice Fletcher—discussed as an example of the of the interplay between race, gender, and civilization in Louise Michele Newman’s White Women’s Rights (Oxford University Press, 1999)—was active in the Women’s National Indian Association, and women like Fletcher might provide valuable insight about this topic. In this way, Wenger’s work provides an excellent platform for future explorations of the role of women in discourses about religious freedom, race, and empire.

Alice Fletcher 1

Alice Fletcher speaking with Native Americans

Gregorio Aglipay

Archbishop Gregorio Aglipay

Taken on its own, Wenger’s work is excellent scholarship and a valuable contribution to the field, yet it also provides an enlightening lens through which to appreciate some of the trends in the history of ideas, particularly as it relates to those of us who study religious history in the United States. At the most fundamental level, Religious Freedom deftly balances many of the lessons learned from social and cultural history—notably its attention to minority communities and global contexts— while remaining decidedly a history of ideas. Wenger’s study looks beyond politicians, preachers, and government officials, and that significantly reorients her history. Men like William Howard Taft, the governor-general of the Philippines and future president, or W.E.B. Du Bois appear only briefly. The focus remains on the leaders and members of each of the religious communities she explores.

Marcus Garvey.jpg

Marcus Garvey

In doing so, Wenger offers her take on whose ideas contribute to intellectual history. Is the history of ideas primarily about those who wrote books, set policy, and preached sermons, or is it broader than that? Wenger unequivocally answers with the latter definition. To be sure, she does not discount men like Theodore Roosevelt or William James, yet her attention to Jewish immigrants and colonized Filipinos (both Catholic and Muslim), as well as Native Americans and African-American religious movements, tells a more complicated and robust story. Though government agents and prominent religious thinkers engaged with the ideal of religious freedom, this approach to the history of ideas does not privilege their voices. Wenger illumines an expansion in the subjects studied by those of us who work in the history of ideas by intentionally integrating previously overlooked voices.

The centrality of race and racial hierarchies to the history of religion, both in the United States and in a global context, is another significant historiographical theme that Wenger continues to develop. She joins a bevy of excellent scholarship that has emerged at this intersection of religion and race, such as J. Spencer Fluhman’s “A Peculiar People:” Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America, Rebecca Goetz’s The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race, and Max Perry Mueller’s Race and the Making of the Mormon People. The history of religious ideas in the United States cannot be divorced from conversations about race. Wenger joins a growing chorus in making that point. As she argues in her book, race must be considered as a constitutive part of the development of religious ideals, not simply another factor to consider.

The consistent theme of the American empire also looms over this study. It forms a key part of Wenger’s argument and gestures toward another development in the history of religious ideas. Global contexts increasingly appear in the history of U.S. religion and religious ideas, even when focused on an “American ideal,” as Wenger’s title suggests. This study does just that, but it is not alone. For example, Cara Burnidge’s A Peaceful Conquest: Woodrow Wilson, Religion, and the New World Order or David Hollinger’s recent Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America are just two examples of works that touch on similar themes of empire, American religion, and global contexts. Religious Freedom not only emphasizes this growing theme but also furthers the argument that a global lens is necessary for understanding the history of religious ideas in the United States.

Sod House

A Midwestern sod house

The themes that Wenger highlights—diverse voices, race, and global contexts—also resonate in the prairies and farmsteads that populate my own work as a historian of religion in rural America during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In particular, her contention that global forces shaped far-flung communities rings true of the rural communities that I study. Increasingly in my own work, I find the tiny hamlets strewn across the Midwestern plains engaged with global forces and positioned themselves in order to benefit from them. Markets and commodities form the best-known examples of rural America’s place in a global network, yet I find that ideas flowed just as freely as crops, livestock, and other essential goods. For example, when rural communities rejected or embraced religious movements like the Social Gospel or Pentecostalism, they often drew upon their own self-conceptions of how their community fit into regional, national, and international contexts. Relatedly, these same networks allowed relatively homogenous rural communities to take part in discourses about race, revealing yet another central theme of this work that appears in my own. The international network that shaped, exchanged, and refined ideals of religious freedom did not pass over rural America.

Dutch Immigration Advertisement

A Dutch advertisement encouraging immigrants to settle in the rural Midwest

Religious Freedom is engaging, rich, and valuable scholarship on its own, but when placed within the field, it is also an instructive guide to themes that are shaping the scholarship about the history of religious ideas in the United States. It answers the question of whose ideas can become the subject of intellectual history by casting a wider net, in a way that resonates with my own efforts to introduce rural voices into the scholarly conversation. Ultimately, this excellent piece engages readers, integrates compelling new voices, and inspires others to do the same.

Andrew Klumpp is a Ph.D. candidate in American Religious History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. He holds degrees from Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. His research explores how rural Midwestern communities engaged in nineteenth-century debates about religious liberty, racial strife and social reform.

Balloons, Dreams, and the Spectral Arctic after the Franklin Expedition

By Contributing Writer Shane McCorristine. See Shane’s book-length study around this topic, The Spectral Arctic (2018).

For centuries British explorers and their audiences imagined the Arctic as a place of magic and mystery, an otherworldly environment where ships and men could vanish beneath the enchanting rays of the Aurora Borealis. This Arctic imagination went beyond aesthetics: notions of a spectral Arctic inspired people to develop new relations to the region, through practices such as consulting psychics, reporting strange dreams, and engaging with Inuit shamans in the field.


Poster offering a reward for help in finding the lost expedition

At the center of this story is the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition. In 1818 the British Admiralty rebooted the early modern quest to explore and map what is now the Canadian Arctic, in order to discover a maritime shortcut to Asia. After several failed attempts, in 1845 Franklin was headhunted to lead 128 officers and crew into the Arctic ice onboard the restructured bomb vessels HMS Erebus and Terror. In their second winter, the ships became locked in the ice near King William Island and after dozens of deaths (including that of Franklin) in April 1848 the survivors abandoned the ships and launched the first of several doomed attempts to reach the Canadian mainland.

The disappearance of the expedition, a loss perhaps comparable to the recent MH370 plane disaster, sent shock waves through Victorian Britain, inspiring an outpouring of gothic speculations on the mystery and causing the Admiralty to downsize its subsequent polar expeditions. Early search and rescue attempts by the Admiralty and other polar experts came to nothing, and this created a powerful information vacuum.

Ordinary people in Britain quickly seized the opportunity to speculate wildly, and in 1854 revelations about cannibalism among the starving survivors led to further dark imaginings. Through media such as panorama shows, ghost stories, letters to newspapers, seances, and dreams, people felt they could intervene in the mystery, creating new ways to connect with the Arctic. The Frozen Deep, a play written in 1856 by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, emerged from this confluence of Arctic exploration, popular culture, and supernatural experience. This was a democratisation of the culture of Arctic exploration and a challenge to the long-held authority of the Admiralty over the region.


Chart of a vision experienced by the explorer and mystic William Parker Snow (Skewes, 1890).

A good example of this can be seen in an anonymous letter sent by a “Humble and true dreamer” to Jane Franklin, wife of the explorer, in 1850. In it the correspondent detailed a “remarkable dream” they had of two “Air Bloon’s” in the Arctic, one which was destroyed and another which “stands well” among the inhabitants of the region – a providential sign, the correspondent believed, that Franklin would return to Britain soon on his ship (Polar Archives, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, SPRI, MS 248/335; D). This link between dreaming, ballooning, and the Arctic is worth exploring further because it demonstrates how a spectral Arctic imagination was expanding the relationship between ordinary people and a region that was previously only accessible to Admiralty explorers.

By the time of the Franklin expedition aeronautics had caught the public imagination, appealing to scientists, dare-devils, monarchs, and the massive crowds that paid to attend ballooning spectacles and experiments. The balloon was attractive by virtue of its novelty, danger, and potential, but it also highlighted the links between air, emotions, and mobility. As things which affected, and were profoundly affected by, atmospheres, balloons confused the boundaries between materiality and immateriality, between technology and dreams (McCormack, 2010).

In the context of Arctic exploration, ballooning has mostly been associated with the Swedish expedition led by Salomon August Andrée in 1897. In July of that year Andrée and his two companions left Danskøya, northwest of Spitsbergen, in the hydrogen balloon Svea on a voyage towards the North Pole. Andrée’s expedition vanished without a trace until 1930 when passing sealers discovered the remains of their bodies and final camp on the island of Kvitøya in the Svalbard archipelago.


“Salomon Andrée’s balloon takes off from Danes Island”

Andrée’s balloon expedition became a gathering point for dreams and fantasies as rumors circulated, untethered, around the disappeared object. Indeed, barely two weeks after Andrée’s departure, reports reached Britain of a “Parisian prophetess” who had followed the balloon expedition “in spirit” to the North Pole. There she discovered that it was not made up of “ice and perpetual snow, but of luxuriant grass and umbrageous trees” (The Aberdeen Journal, July 22, 1897).

However, Andrée was not the first to propose using balloons to navigate the Arctic regions that naval and land-based expeditions found so difficult to traverse, nor was his expedition original in taking to the air. In fact it was the disappearance of the Franklin expedition decades earlier that activated aerial fantasies of exploration.

ILN balloon

“Mr. Green’s Signal Balloon, Dispatches, and Parachute for the Arctic Expedition”, Illustrated London News, May 11, 1850.

After finding no sign of Franklin through land and naval expeditions, in the early 1850s officials in the Admiralty began experimenting with aerial means of search and rescue. Rockets and kites launched from ships in the Arctic were not very successful, but the Admiralty placed more hope in a newly designed messenger balloon – an apparatus made of oiled silk and filled with hydrogen. The balloon’s basket contained a slow-match that would, after a launch from a ship, cause a gradual scattering of hundreds of colored pieces of paper and silk on the ice for hundreds of miles, giving lost explorers details of rescue ships in the vicinity. In practice the furthest distance these papers were found from a ship was only 50 miles.

This was a period of “ballooning mania” in Britain and the mystery of the Franklin expedition started to attract aeronauts who vied for attention from the general public and the Admiralty. In October 1849 Lieutenant G.B. Gale wrote to Jane Franklin volunteering to voyage by balloon in search for her husband’s expedition. Gale’s proposal was to ascend from an expedition ship in his balloon where, if he gained a height of two miles, a “panorama of at least 1,200 miles would be placed within observation”. Gale’s idea received a mixed reception in the press. The Era balanced its ribbing of this “‘Columbus of the skies’” with an admission that it could be of great benefit (The Era, October 28, 1849). A rather more scathing riposte came from Punch which, predictably, could not resist lampooning the aeronaut’s unfortunately appropriate surname:

Imagination forms icicles on the tips of our nose as we figure to ourselves the daring GALE ‘blow high, blow low’, with the thermometer 15 degrees below zero, his gas contracted, his balloon congested into a flying iceberg, or like the head of an airy giant with his night-cap on, while the poor frozen out aeronaut surveys his brandy-bottle solidified into a mass of ice à la Cognac, and his cold fowls too cold for his knife to penetrate them. The mere picture throws us into a chilly pickle; and we trust GALE, for his own sake, will not be able to raise the wind for so absurd a purpose (Punch, 1849)

Yet as affectual forces traveled back and forth from the Arctic, balloons actually did allow people to think with the Franklin expedition, in terms of their ability to “balloon back” with news. Around this time it was reported that a woman in a mesmeric trance claimed to have “ascended in a balloon, and proceeded to the North Pole in search of Sir John Franklin”. The woman found Franklin alive and well “and her description of his appearance and that of his companions was given with an inimitable expression of pity” (Carpenter, Quarterly Review, 1853).

As with clairvoyantes, balloons drew the Arctic and Britain into new spatial relationships because they enacted an aerial subjectivity that was untethered by the Franklin disappearance. As a metaphor for a geography of the spectral Arctic, balloons unsettled the “where” of the Arctic, activating techniques and technologies of what McCormack calls “remote sensing”, a geographical practice that is also spectral in that it “is always remote yet always potentially sensed as a felt variation in a field of affective materials” (2010).

Dreams of polar flight did not decline with the passage of time and shift to a different geographic quest. During the preparations for his final North Pole expedition (1908-9), Robert Peary received a flood of “‘crank’” letters from members of the public offering unsolicited advice and counsel, and “flying machines occupied a high place on the list”. One inventor even gamely proposed that Peary play the part of a “‘human cannon ball’”: “He was so intent on getting me shot to the Pole”, Peary wrote, “that he seemed to be utterly careless of what happened to me in the process of landing there or how I should get back” (Peary, 1910).

Yet “crank” letters like this remind us that Arctic exploration could be performed in many ways. Now that the Northwest Passage had become a labyrinth crowded with cumbersome and bumbling search and rescue expeditions, movement through the Arctic was fantasized to be dreamlike and flighty.

From the throbbing silences of the Arctic diverse audiences sensed a multiplicity of voices which meant that Franklin was now circulating uncontrollably through strange dreams, rumors, mesmeric visions, and balloons. Through clairvoyance and mesmeric trances, women were suddenly a major part of these cultural productions of remote sensing, taking on the “Icarus” perspective that characterized so much of masculinist fantasies of actual polar exploration. As someone who was affected and affecting, Franklin went from being a contained explorer outside the world to a body that gathered together the heterogeneous thoughts, dreams, and emotions of unsolicited audiences and new international explorers. In all this, the otherworldly was worldly; dreams had a social history and were not sudden eruptions of the irrational.

Shane McCorristine is a lecturer in Modern British History at Newcastle University where he specializes in the cultural histories of exploration, death, and the supernatural. He graduated from University College Dublin in 2008 and then gained postdoctoral fellowships in Maynooth University, University of Cambridge, and University of Leicester. His website is http://www.shanemccorristine.net and his new book (available in open access) is entitled The Spectral Arctic: A History of Ghosts and Dreams in Polar Exploration (UCL Press, 2018).  

Reappearing Ink

By Sandrine Bergès, Bilkent University. See her full article in this season’s Journal of the History of Ideas: Family, Gender, and Progress: Sophie de Grouchy and Her Exclusion in the Publication of Condorcet’s Sketch of Human Progress.

The late Eileen O’Neill once referred to women’s past contribution to philosophy as ‘disappearing ink’. What she meant was that however much they wrote, no how matter how insightful their analyses or how powerful their arguments, by the nineteenth century women philosophers had all but disappeared from historical accounts of the discipline.

And then slowly, progressively, thanks to historians of philosophy such as O’Neill, the ink reappeared. Volumes were edited about women philosophers, monographs focused on their contributions to a particular topic, and it’s no longer such a surprise to read a journal article about a woman philosopher of the past (more frequently in some journals than in others).

Sometimes what helped women’s reinsertion into the history of philosophy was their close association with famous men. So as interest in Newton grew, Emilie du Chatelet’s works were rediscovered. And Cartesian scholars came to ask themselves why he put such work into his correspondence with the Bohemian princess, Elizabeth. Other times such associations resulted in the woman philosopher being pushed further back into obscurity. This is what happened to Sophie de Grouchy, marquise de Condorcet (1764-1822).

Sophie de Grouchy was an aristocrat who aligned herself with the republican party of the Girondins during the revolution, translating works by Thomas Paine, and writing political pieces of her own and together with her husband, Nicolas de Condorcet. Although most of her writings are lost, she did leave one significant work of philosophy, the Letters on Sympathy. This work was published in 1798, together with Grouchy’s translation of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment. The Letters were a commentary on that work. There is a forthcoming translation by Berges and Schliesser, and a simplified translation is included here.

Grouchy’s education was fairly conventional for her time, class, and sex. She learned Latin, English, and some German by muscling in on her brothers’ private classes. One aspect of her education she recalls as most important were the charity visits she made with her mother and sister: learning how to recognize suffering, helping to relieve it, and generally learning to value the well-being of others. At the age of eighteen she was sent to an exclusive convent finishing school. There she practiced her languages and put them to good use translating works from the English and the Italian – all fashionably political works, such as Arthur Young’s Tour of Ireland and Tasso’s Jerusalem. She also read, discovering Voltaire, Diderot, and especially Rousseau. She lost her religion, but her early training in Christian charity–with her mother showing her how good it felt to relieve others’ trouble–blended together with her new readings and turned her towards social justice.

Through her readings, Grouchy became a republican. She was not yet concerned with the question of how the administration of France – although she later became in favor, like her husband, of representational, rather than direct democracy.  Her focus at that time was with eradicating the psychological distance between the rich and the poor, wanting everyone to be a citizen, not a subject, and no one so rich or powerful that they could become a tyrant. This is reflected in the Letters on Sympathy, where her political discussion is primarily one about the psychological effects of tyranny on the flourishing of the population.

By the time Grouchy met Condorcet, they already had much in common, both being republicans and atheists. They married in 1786 and moved into Condorcet’s apartments in the Hotel des Monnaies, where Condorcet worked as the Inspector General of the Mint, under the economist Turgot. There the couple set up a salon which, thanks to Grouchy’s excellent English, became the house of choice for foreign visitors such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Anarchasis Cloots, and the Swiss Etienne Dumont – speechwriter for Mirabeau and editor/translator for Jeremy Bentham. Cabanis, who later married Sophie’s sister, Charlotte, was a frequent attendant.

At the start of the Revolution, the Condorcets became associated with the Girondins. They frequented the salon of Madame Helvetius, in Auteuil, where republican ideas were being debated, and Brissot’s anti-slavery club (of which Condorcet and Olympe de Gouges were members) was founded. By 1791, Grouchy and Condorcet were among the strongest advocates of the republican movement, working with Thomas Paine, Jean-Pierre Brissot, Etienne Dumont and Achilles Duchatellet, on Le Républicain, a newspaper that would disseminate republican thought in France. Grouchy contributed at least two anonymous pieces to that journal, both offering powerful republican arguments against preserving monarchy, which drew on the moral psychology she develops in her Letters on Sympathybut until recently, little effort had been made to attribute them.

In 1793, the Girondins fell out of favor and Condorcet had to go into hiding. He stayed in Paris while Sophie moved to the suburb of Auteuil with her daughter, travelling to the Capital on foot twice a week to visit her husband and to paint portraits in a studio she had rented on the rue St Honoré.

While in hiding, Condorcet started to write an apology (Justification) which was meant to explain and justify his role in the revolution and show that he had been wronged by his persecutors, the Jacobins. Grouchy, sensing that this work would be of little value philosophically or personally, urged him to give it up, and instead to turn back to a work of encyclopedic nature that he had begun several decades before: a history of the progress of human nature. This work, divided into ten periods, was to discuss human evolution with a special emphasis on perfectionism, and a running argument on how this was affected by freedom and tyranny, science, religion, philosophy, and technology (in particular the printing press). Grouchy worked with Condorcet, encouraging him, bringing him notes and readings (he had taken very little with him when he went into hiding). Although we do not have any hard evidence that they wrote together, it seems likely that some of the passages in particular are hers, and that others are the product of a collaboration between husband and wife. We do not have a final manuscript that corresponds to the first edition by Grouchy, which suggests that she added some paragraphs herself. Several of the differences concern women and the place of the family in human progress. Perhaps these were ideas she and Condorcet had discussed and that she knew he wanted included. Perhaps these were points she had suggested to him in their discussions.

In March 1794, Condorcet ran away from his hiding place in order to avoid getting his hostess arrested. He died a few days later in a village prison, but was not identified until several months after his death, such that his wife remained ignorant of his whereabouts. When several months later his remains were identified, the Convention commissioned three thousand copies of his new book, Esquisse d’un Tableau des Progrès de l’Esprit Humain from Pierre Daunou. Sophie de Grouchy prepared the edition and it was published in 1795. This edition was reprinted and revised at least twice by Grouchy (alone and with collaborators in 1802 and 1822), and it was translated into English the year it was first published.

In 1847, the Académicien François Arago, noted that the 1795 edition contained passages which were absent from Condorcet’s final manuscript. He produced a new edition with extensive revisions, which, he said, was closer to the original manuscript which he’d obtained from Grouchy and Condorcet’s daughter, Eliza O’Connor, and which he thought more accurate because in Condorcet’s hand. Arago’s edition is now regarded as authoritative. Not only was Grouchy’s name deleted from the work – where it did belong, perhaps as co-author and at the very least editor – but with it the emphasis she had placed on the role of women and the family in human development.

The problem with invisible ink, is that in order to make it appear by dousing it with lemon juice, you need to know that it’s there. But the ways in which women’s contributions have been erased make it very difficult to know where to look. Had Arago not deleted it, Grouchy’s name might not have become famous immediately – we would still have needed to investigate in order to recover her anonymous writings for Le Républicain, and even her Letters on Sympathy, but her name on Condorcet’s Sketch would have at least alerted us that there was a woman philosopher whose works might need recovering.

Sandrine Berges (www.sandrineberges.com) obtained her Ph.D. in  Leeds in 2000 and is Associate Professor in Philosophy at Bilkent University in Ankara. 

She works on the history of moral and political philosophy, with an emphasis on women’s writings. She is currently writing about three women of the French Revolution: Olympe de Gouges, Manon Roland and Sophie de Grouchy. She blogs about it here.

She is the co-founder of the Turkish-European Network for  the Study of Women Philosophers and of SWIP-TR.

Summer Reading: Part III


Leonardo Da Vinci, taccuino forster III, 1490 ca.

Here is the third installment of some of the books that the Blog’s editors have lined up for summer. From art history to critical theory, from fiction to poetry, we’ve got you covered if you’re looking for something to pick up during the academic off season.


Aside from my research-related and departmental work, my summer list is a bit wide-ranging, owing to the fact that it’s also basically a stack of books that have been set aside for when I had the time. Either way, I’m very excited about all of them. I’d love to hear your thoughts if and when you get to one of the books below!

The Drama of Social Life, Jeffrey Alexander: I studied under Alexander while I was at Yale and his theoretical approach has had a profound impact on my thinking, so I’ve been excited to get around to reading his latest for a while now. In it, he combines elements from dramaturgy and social theory to explore the central role “cultural pragmatics” plays in the political possibilities of social life. Gary Fine, a professor at Northwestern, said the book is one that “demand(s) to be read and discussed”.

Finding Mecca in America, Mucahit Bilici: What does Islam look like in the United States? Bilici draws from Simmel and Heidegger and develops a novel approach examining the gradual process by which American Muslims have navigated the journey from social periphery to citizenship. I’ve been meaning to get to this book for too long and have heard nothing but wonderful things from a wide variety of people.

Islam Translated, Ronit Ricci: Another book that’s haunted my shelf for longer than I’d like, Islam Translated explores the translation of the Book of One Thousand Questions into various Southeast Asian languages as a means of investigating the connections between Muslims in different contexts. It is, by all accounts, beautifully written, novel, and insightful. And given my area of study, probably critical.

The Ticket that Exploded, William S. Burroughs: I’ve never actually ready Burroughs’ prose before, but this book in particular has quite the reputation. The first of three novels that he wrote using the cut-up technique, it’s evidently mind-bending, dark, and enthralling. Personally, I’ve found that my brain works best when it sits with genius in fields far from my own. And that is certainly an apt description of Burroughs.


My recommendations come from the vantage point of the southern hemisphere, where we’re heading into the winter break and thus academic conference season. Consequently my reading time will be snatched in broken fragments from ‘plane flights and train journeys. It is fitting then that my list begins with Zone, a 2015 collection of some of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetry and a book that can be read all at once or dipped into for a page here or there. Each poem is printed first in French and followed by an English version translated by Ron Padgett. Padgett is himself an accomplished poet and his talents as a wordsmith shine through in these translations. The result is a beautiful collection that showcases the richness and potentiality of both languages.

Earlier in the year I picked up a copy of Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. As the title suggests, the book brings together hundreds of interviews conducted by Alexievich with Russian women about their experiences during the War. The result is a compelling and immersive history of the Second World War and a testament to how that war shaped the lives of the Russian women who survived it. It certainly gave me a great deal to contemplate as I embark upon a new research project that entails working with oral histories. Alexievich is definitely a master of the genre. She is probably best known for her sensitive rendering of the human cost of the Chernobyl catastrophe, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, through the eyewitness accounts of hundreds of survivors. If you enjoyed that, I guarantee The Unwomanly Face of War will also appeal. If you haven’t read Voices, then you should add that to your summer reading list too!

And finally, I cannot wait to read Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”. The book is the story of Cudjo Lewis, born Oluale Kossola, one of the last slaves brought to America. Kossola was brought across the Atlantic to Alabama from Dahomey (present day Benin) on the Clotilda in 1860, half a century after the slave trade was officially abolished. Hurston, studying to be an anthropologist, conducted a series of interviews with him in the late 1920s. By then, Kossola was the last living survivor of the middle passage crossing. The conversations between Hurston and Kossola are at the heart of Barracoon which Hurston wrote in the early 1930s. She took great pains to relate the cadence and form of Kossola’s storytelling in the book, capturing the African Creole of his speech patterns. This choice is, in part, why Barracoon has just been published for the first time. Publishers declined to take on her manuscript unless she ‘anglicized’ Kossola’s speech. Hurston defiantly refused. As a result, the manuscript languished in the archives for decades, read only by select historians who came across it in a private collection at Howard University.





Reading (with) Wollstonecraft

By Fiore Sireci. See the full companion article, “‘Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity’: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Literary Criticism in the Analytical Review and A Vindication of the Rights of Womanin this season’s Journal of the History of Ideas.

How did Mary Wollstonecraft, the “mother of modern feminism,” spend her days in the year leading up to the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)? Her reading audience had little clue about the private Wollstonecraft until she died just 5 ½ years later. At that point, her widower William Godwin pulled back the curtain on a life that Wollstonecraft had carefully kept from view while she built up an impressive public image. They were transfixed (and mostly scandalized) by the complexity, drama, and heartbreak of her story, but much of that drama and heartbreak happened after the publication of Rights of Woman. Nevertheless, Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) set up a pattern that continued for nearly two centuries: a focus on her emotional journey rather than on her work life.[1] I’d like to ask the question anew and look at the Wollstonecraft of 1791, the Wollstonecraft who had a professional life as a well-established literary commentator, and see if this opens new perspectives on her most famous work.[2]

During her lifetime–before she was known as the reckless Wollstonecraft who had a child out of wedlock (1794), or the desperate Wollstonecraft who twice attempted suicide (1795), and even the political Wollstonecraft who wrote two Vindications–she was already well-respected as an anthologist, educator, translator, and as a very active reviewer of books, for which she was paid well. Due to the irreplaceable spade work of Ralph Wardle, and scholars such as Janet Todd, we now have a good idea of which of the many anonymous and semi-anonymous reviews in the liberal Analytical Review can be attributed to Wollstonecraft. By the time she wrote Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft had penned well over 200 of these, and by her death at age 38, over 350.


Wollstonecraft’s reviews are not merely a distant accompaniment to her ideas in Rights of Woman, or as some have suggested, a rehearsal of the “tart” language in her most famous book. Her professional practice helped shape Rights of Woman in both style and substance. Her primary argument, and innovation, is that gender is shaped by culture, but that argument is primarily activated by critiques of well-known texts, and those critiques are in turn the fruit of a long period of intellectual gestation as a literary commentator and theorist.[3] One of the most prevalent approaches was one that has frequently been used on Wollstonecraft herself, that is, to see the text as symptom, but she and her contemporaries did not do this blindly. They also undertook comparative analyses of passages within and between texts, looking for threads of sympathy, intellectual and otherwise. Wollstonecraft built on this practice and in Rights of Woman she presented evidence, in the form of “illustrations,” to demonstrate that text was a powerful factor in the social construction of gender.

Eighteenth-century literary critics also mastered the rhetorical art of casting themselves as characters with powerful feelings, and it was through these carefully crafted public selves that they hoped to sweep their readers along to agree with their points of view on anything from politics to how raise children. This was the heyday of emotionally embodied literary criticism. In non-fiction there was Addison’s easy coffee-club manner in the Spectator (early 1711-1714), Samuel Johnson’s cantankerous wisdom in his Rambler essays (1750-1752), and Clara Reeves’ wise literary woman in The Progress of Romance (1785). In fiction, we can consider Charlotte Lenox’ Female Quixote (1752) as well as the youthful Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (completed 1803). The reader-as-character was ubiquitous because reading itself was an issue of great concern and anxiety in an age when, as Jürgen Habermas has shown, the “literary public sphere” was where political change originated. Mary Wollstonecraft fully participated in this literary culture, presenting critical and profoundly thoughtful selves in both fictional and non-fictional genres (sorry for the somewhat anachronistic categories). In other words, the virtual Wollstonecraft was constructed over a number of years and in many different genres. She is: the brassy and empathic governess in Original Stories (1788, illustrated by William Blake), the judicious editor of readings for young women in The Female Reader (1789, contested attribution), and the righteous female republican in A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), but her most frequent appearance was as the sharp-witted, discerning, and often merciless book reviewer in Joseph Johnson’s monthly publication, the Analytical Review.

The demonstrative reader-writers of Wollstonecraft’s time sometimes resisted texts and other cultural forces, and sometimes dramatically gave in. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the anti-revolutionary and increasingly conservative MP Edmund Burke recalls being moved to tears at seeing the young, graceful, royal figure of Marie Antoinette, so light, so ethereal her feet barely touched this corrupt “orb” of our earth. In her response, Wollstonecraft immediately recognized this fawning sentimental gesture as a familiar and potent literary move. But knowing that Burke was also an active reviewer (and founder of the Annual Register), as well as the youthful author of a treatise on the very topic of susceptibility to aesthetic stimuli, On the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Wollstonecraft’s analysis of Burke traces the deep philosophical roots of his position, and in doing so her political argument is activated through cultural and literary criticism.[4]

Wollstonecraft’s extensive focus on books in her second Vindication was an extension of her approach in her first Vindication. Again, chronology illuminates. Rights of Men was completed in late 1790 and the second edition was published in early 1791. In the last section, Wollstonecraft promises a continuation and expansion of her literary approach:

And now I find it almost impossible candidly to refute your sophisms, without quoting your own words, and putting the numerous contradictions I observed in opposition to each other.

Rights of Woman was begun within weeks of this statement, if not earlier, and the first in depth critique in the book, which Susan Wolfson has dubbed “the genesis of feminist literary criticism,” features extensive quoting of John Milton and juxtaposition of passages from Paradise Lost. She does the same with Rousseau and many other writers throughout the book. Could it be, though, that Wollstonecraft had been pondering her great Vindication even before 1791, her thoughts on books nursed over the course of her experiences as a governess in Ireland, a founder of a girls’ school in the Dissenters’ community of Newington Green, and her job reading reams and reams of print since 1789?

In any event, between February and November of 1791, when it seems Rights of Woman was completed, Wollstonecraft had written another four or five dozen reviews. Some of these reviews picked up and extended the concerns of her growing literary critical practice, especially when she takes a good hard look at Rousseau’s Confessions, where she’s harder on her fellow critics than on Rousseau himself: “[T]hough we must allow that he had many faults which called for the forbearance of his friends, still what have his defects of temper to do with his writings?” This was written in December of 1791 when Rights of Woman was being typeset, a crucial fact when we juxtapose this statement with Wollstonecraft’s dismantling of Rousseau and other influential male writers in her treatise, sometimes accompanied by breathtaking ad hominem.

Speculations on the emotional state of an author are found throughout Rights of Woman. However, Wollstonecraft also takes a step back and questions the interpretive theory itself, as in this statement from Chapter 5: “But peace to his manes! I war not with his ashes, but his opinions,” and this is followed by another extraordinary implication: “I war only with the sensibility that led him to degrade woman by making her the slave of love.” In other words, she characterizes Jean-Jacques as himself subject to cultural and psychological pressures. The great man as vulnerable weather vane of culture appears again here: “Rousseau’s observations, it is proper to remark, were made in a country where the art of pleasing was refined only to extract grossness of vice,” in Chapter 5. Milton is also subject to a psychological reading. In Chapter 2, Wollstonecraft’s juxtaposition of allegedly contradictory passages from Paradise Lost is meant to reveal the emotional instability that can beset even the most respected writers. Wollstonecraft explains that, “into similar inconsistencies are great men often led by their senses.” Wollstonecraft places the most influential writers in the role that young women had been placed in for over a century, as hapless and indiscriminate readers sponging up cultural influences.

wollstonecraft advert

Wollstonecraft signals that a series of “fresh illustrations” structure the text

Rights of Woman presents an anti-canon of texts which had conspired over generations and across different societies to construct the feminine “character,” making the book a forensic treasure trove of gender normative evidence, annotated by an expert editor (and she had perhaps edited two anthologies by this time). In short, if we see A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a continuation of her practice as a literary, political, and cultural commentator, then a new book comes into view, a book in which each text under consideration links to others, across genres and literary generations, as Wollstonecraft excavates a self-generating ideology of gender, or as she puts it so well: “The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed.” The title of Chapter 2 is so perfect that she saw no need to give Chapter 3 a new title, calling it, “The Same Subject Continued.” In fact, these two chapters contain, by my quick count, at least 53 allusions, references, and quotations of influential texts, but not “influential” in the elitist sense. The primary criterion for inclusion is not how “great” a work is but how much of an effect it has had upon notions of femininity. In the midst of dismantling the work of an allegedly lascivious and condescending writer of conduct manuals, Wollstonecraft drops this hammer:

As these volumes are so frequently put into the hands of young people, I have taken more notice of them than, strictly speaking, they deserve; but as they have contributed to vitiate the taste, and enervate the understanding of many of my fellow-creatures, I could not pass them silently over.

We can look at Chapters 2 through 5 as a unit, one in which Wollstonecraft methodically works through a huge range of genres, generations, and authors. Chapter 5 itself is essentially a mini-anthology of five reviews, each covering a representative book or genre, and is the last chapter in the book to feature a rich interplay of texts. Chapter 6 is the proper and organic endpoint to the literary critical portion of the book, as it supplies a philosophical and physiological argument for the effect of texts upon impressionable minds. Again the title of the chapter says it so well: “The Effect which an Early Association of Ideas Has upon the Character,” apparently drawing on Joseph Hartley’s proto-psychological theories of how the mind is held in thrall by random ideas that group together and roam the mind in “posses” (which in turn come from a midcentury debate over John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding). In Chapter 6 in particular and in Rights of Woman in general, this analysis expands into a proto-feminist theory: “Everything that they see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind,” and to pin part of the blame on books, she specifies that, “the books professedly written for their instruction, which make the first impression on their minds, all inculcate the same opinions.”

Wollstonecraft expands the view of the vulnerable recipients of gendered education to include male figures such as the great writers themselves, Milton, Rousseau, and “most of the male writers who have followed his steps.” Notions of gender identity don’t just turn young women’s heads, but also act upon authors, even quite established and otherwise judicious ones. That is why she saves her most biting epithets in Rights of Woman for writers, not readers, which constitutes a break from most of the reviews up to 1791. In conclusion, Rights of Woman is a brilliantly orchestrated set of literary commentaries. Who but a practicing educator, critic, and journalist could construct such a comprehensive anthology of texts which build an image of women’s “character” and back it up with pointed analysis of the authors she engages with? Who but a hardworking woman who spent her days earning a living by writing about books?


[1] To get an overview of the state of the art, it is worth a look at the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, volume 4, but for women’s literary criticism of the long eighteenth century there is the gem, Women Critics, 1660-1820 (1995).

[2] One of the best treatments of the literary nature of Wollstonecraft’s first Vindication is still the brilliant and useful book by Virginia Sapiro, A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft (1992).

[3] A very notable exception was Emma Clough’s A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman from 1898 (the work of one of the first female doctoral students in the United States).

[4] I am very much indebted to Virginia Sapiro, Mitzi Myers, Caroline Franklin, Mary Waters, Susan Wolfson,Daniel O’Neill, many others who have brought Wollstonecraft’s work as a professional reviewer further into the light.


Fiore Sireci (PhD Edinburgh) is on the faculty of Hunter College (CUNY) and The New School for Public Engagement, where he teaches interdisciplinary courses in literature, philosophy, and social history. Professor Sireci is a former Fulbright scholar in literature pedagogy. He has recently presented at the American Academy in Rome, publishes regularly on Mary Wollstonecraft, and is completing his second book, After Italy, a memoir and local history.

Summer Reading: Part II



Oil on Canvas, Lombard School, c.1700.

Here is the second installment of some of the books that the Blog’s editors have lined up for summer. From art history to critical theory, from fiction to poetry, we’ve got you covered if you’re looking for something to pick up during the academic off season. Look out next weekend for the third & final installment!


It seems that every other book I pick up about the contemporary political scene, especially those like Melinda Cooper’s Family Values attempting to develop a conceptual framework for the intersection of neoliberalism and social conservatism, draws in a fundamental way on Wendy Brown’s States of Injury. The book is now more than twenty years old and I should have read it long ago, so a goal for the summer is to sit down with it and also Brown’s more recent work.  

Another scholarly monument I hope to move out of the “ought already to have read” category is Istvan Hont’s Jealousy of Trade. For different reasons, this is a summer of doing Enlightenment reading for me, and Hont fits into this. I am particularly interested again for contemporary reasons in getting to think a bit differently about nation-states and their historical functions and reasons.

I’ve started the summer returning to George Eliot. Middlemarch is perhaps the first (capital L) Literary novel I picked up on my own as a teenager and was really swept up by. Now I am part way through Adam Bede, and am reading this novel—featuring Methodists and skilled craftsmen—with much more E.P. Thompson in the back of my head than I had as a younger person. It is delightful, although the human sympathy with which Eliot approaches so many of her characters takes on a different hue when, after all, it is not given to all of the characters.



I finished (and passed!) my qualifying exams three weeks ago. On the shelf above my desk is a skyscraper of paperbacks looking down at me as a Cheshire Cat would beckoning me to give into temptation, and now I surrender.  My reading list for the summer, thus, draws from this tower of books as I try to explore the themes of memory, experience, violence and the criminal underworld for my own dissertation.

In Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory (2015) the narrator reveals how writing and recollection interact and produce non-linear snapshots as her own life as it is held in the balance of the Zimbabwean legal system. The narrator, playfully named Memory, is an albino woman in the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare. She is convicted of the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, a wealthy white professor. As she waits for the results of her appeal Memory is asked to write her own story from the townships to the suburbs of Harare. Gappah’s book intersects with Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory (1951) who also tried to capture, like his butterflies in a net, remembrances of a life not yet completed.

I return to D.M. Thomas’s White Hotel (1981) that I had read years ago for a history course. I recall the horror that my fellow students viscerally experienced, not due to the violence in the book, but the erotic sexual fantasies of the main character, Anna G. The book is divided into three parts beginning in 1919. Anna G. presents herself to Freud as suffering from hysteria. Ultimately his analysis of her judges Anna G. as an unreliable narrator of her own past. He is unable to see that she is actually envisioning her own future, the Holocaust. Thomas presents a blistering analysis of the 20th century as he weaves scientific case history and fantasy to locate the individual within the contingency of historical fate. These themes resonate in Juliane Okot Bitek’s 100 Days (2016). This book of poetry brings the reader through the towns and villages in Rwanda, as the world looked on helpless and in shock, as a televised genocide took place.

Journalist Martin Dillon explores the “Troubles” (1960s-1990s) in Northern Ireland in The Dirty War (1990).  The author describes the ideology and the methods of the British security forces to infiltrate, destabilize and destroy the Provo’s (Provisional Irish Republican Army). The reality of imprisonment, torture, blackmail are also imprinted on Abdelilah Hamdouchi novel echoing the underworld of Dillon’s in Whitefly. A crime novel about drug dealers, traffickers and smugglers in Morocco offers an insight into police culture in a post-colonial space. My desire to understand the everydayness of violence brings me to Anne Nivat’s treatment of the Russian war with Chechnya in Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya (2009). In 1999 she travelled illegally into the war zone by disguising herself as a Chechen woman. For six months she moved amongst the protagonists and some antagonists to listen to their experiences. Her ethnographic-style of journalism records the confusion, loss and disruption for Chechens as they became foreigners within their own homeland.

Fouad Laroui The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2016) takes up the task of the realities of what it means to be foreign as he follows his main character Dassoukine from Morocco to Belgium.  Joseph Cassara’s debut novel  The House of Impossible Beauties (2018) narrates the drag ball scene in 1980s New York during the emergence of HIV/AIDS. Cassara’s novel is about queer life and the ways in which the protagonists deal with their own family history and the pressures to conform to heteronormative ideals of masculinity and femininity. Another debut novel I discovered of late is Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare (2010). The blurb describes it as a “delicious and devastating” black comedy of political manners in the Zimbabwe. The book follows Vimbai, the best hairdresser in Mrs. Khumalo’s salon. When the slick Dumisani shows up one day for work with his impressive skills with the scissors Vimbai becomes uncomfortably competitive. The tension between these two characters reflects the rapidly changing social and economic structures of Zimbabwe in the 21st century.

Reading these types of novels always brings me back to the historian’s craft, especially in dealing with how we map and interrogate contemporary climate change and history. Rob Nixon’s  Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2013) and Jasbir K. Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (2017) are path breaking books that aim to disrupt categories of disability, violence and liberal state.  As I am never-endingly drawn to all things “sciency” I wait with great anticipation for Rob McCleary’s Too Fat To Go To The Moon” (or, “Gay Sasquatch Saved My Life”) scheduled for publication in 2019. In lieu of this book, I will read his short story Nixon in Space. I will pair this with Minsoo Kang’s Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (2011) in tracing how the automaton has captured the Western imagination. Kang uses this trope as a lens into the human/machine and nature/culture binaries. In mapping the origin of these ideas and how they penetrate into cultural, artistic and intellectual spheres Kang’s synthetic work will bring the reader on quite the intellectual adventure, from ancient Greece to mechanistic philosophy and nineteenth century fantastic literature.

Last, Nick Hopwood’s Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud (2015) and Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History  Heist of the Century (2018). Hopwood maps the story of the infamous drawings of embryos by the Darwinist Ernst Haeckel. The drawings show humans and other vertebrates as begin identical in embryo-form but eventually diverge toward their diverse adult forms. Upon its publication in 1868, Haeckel’s colleague alleged fraud and Hopwood examines how this charge has been repeated numerous times ever since. Johnson, however, tracks a more unusual “fetish” of sorts.  In 2009, twenty-year old American flautist Edwin Rist broke into the Tring Museum, a suburban outpost of the the British Museum of Natural History. Once inside, Rist removed hundreds of rare bird skins from their shelves into his suitcase, and sold them to interested buyers. Many of these desiccated birds were tagged 150 years earlier by the naturalist, and close colleague of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace. Johnson immerses himself into this fascinating illegal trade to understand the characters that risk their lives for these feathered trophies.  



Considering the myriad nineteenth-century works of literature that might be refashioned for our day, I wasn’t eagerly awaiting a new rendition of Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859). In its day, though, from its first performance at the famous Winter Garden Theatre in New York, the melodrama was a hit. Unsurprisingly, it conformed neatly to the confines of that genre, and more specifically the trope of the tragic mixed-race female protagonist–often a quadroon, of one-fourth black ancestry, or in this case one-eighth. Despite its considerable popularity during those years, it is not well-known. It certainly is more so now. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ ingenious and compelling reinterpretation of Boucicault’s original premiered at the Soho Rep in spring 2014. It has since made the rounds among US and UK theaters, including Berkeley Repertory Theater, where I saw it (and then had UC Berkeley students of mine watch) this past summer. There’s too much in the play to laud or that has been lauded. The play enthralls, and I think its strongest accomplishment is to both mock the melodrama it is based on while compellingly using that genre to meditate on racial relations in the US today. The audience is made uncomfortable, scripted as participants in a slave auction and, more subtly, prompted to laugh at a variety of minstrel antics and dialect echoing the very blackface minstrelsy that delighted audiences in the antebellum US. I would recommend reading and viewing side-by-side, beginning with Boucicault’s play and looking out for Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon: it plays in Chautauqua later this month, Fort Worth late summer, and right now in London at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre (I’m sure there it’s running elsewhere too, or will be soon).

Network Guys

By Contributing Editor Brendan Mackie

Just what makes humanity special? On a range of merely physical indicators, the human animal is downright average. Our metabolic rate is roughly what it is for other animals our size. We’re decent sprinters, but not particularly strong. Darwin said that the difference between the human and . And although we’re clearly smart, who knows how smart we would find a sperm whale to be, if we could only speak whale?

One indicator does set humanity apart.While every other mammal gets roughly a billion heartbeats over their natural lifetime, a modern human gets more than two and a half billion beats. Why?

A pair of recently released books looks to answer the question by looking at the geometry of human social life. In Scale (Penguin Random House, 2018), Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist and long-time head of the Santa Fe Institute, explores what happens when things get big and small. It turns out that things from animals to trees to cities scale in very similar ways because of the special geometric properties of fractal networks. The secret to our extra billion beats lies in the scaling properties of modern life. Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower (Penguin, 2018) argues that the big creative moments of your World History survey class like the Industrial Revolution can be explained by the shape of historical social networks. Two stand out: the network, and the hierarchy. Both books present easy to understand, compelling stories about what make humans—particularly modern humans—different. Both books agree that this difference resides in the geometry of human connection.

Scale makes one big point. As a number of things (animals, trees, cities, companies) get bigger, they get bigger in similar ways. Bigger animals, for instance, have lower metabolic rates because each individual cell needs to work less; this means a slower heartbeat, and a longer life span. For every four orders of magnitude an animal grows, its metabolic rate only grows three orders of magnitude. This is true for the 27 orders of magnitude of life on earth, from bacteria to whales. There are similar scaling patterns for scores of indicators, from the width of tree trunks to the size of the aorta.

The reason for these roughly similar scaling relationships in so many different domains is that we are dealing with same kind of shape: space-saving self-similar fractal networks. A : a coastline, a tree, a lung, an org chart, a paisley pattern. Fractals have a special property that they seem to grow the more you zoom in on them. You know this intuitively. Imagine measuring the coastline of California from one of those big elementary school atlases. Then imagine measuring the same coastline on foot with a ruler, walking patiently along every cliff, every inlet, and every tide pool. The second measure would be far longer than the first, because you’d be picking up on the coastline’s fractal dimension—the little zigs and zags that are only appreciable when you get really close to them. This means fractals behave as if they have an extra dimension. Take the little fractal bags of air called alveoli that fill up our lungs. If you unfurled them, their surface area could cover a tennis court, although they only take up five liters of space in your chest. This extremely fast scaling is why fractals appear so much in nature—they are incredibly efficient at filling up valuable space, and so are continually selected for.

fractal britain

From the Fractal Foundation’s course on the Fractal Dimension

But this does not account for our extra billion heartbeats. To do so, West pushes us to see humanity as something more than just the sum of our biological processes. Look at just how much energy we use in a day. Our bodies use only slightly more energy than a 90 Watt lightbulb. But accounting for our extra-bodily energy use (the fertilizer used to grow our crops, the gasoline used to drive our cars, the electricity we use to run our computers) we use more like 11,000 watts a day—the equivalent of a small group of elephants. We have an extra billion heart beats because we are effectively much larger and greedier animals than our physical size would suggest. Here’s West summing it up: “Our effective metabolic rate is now one hundred times greater than what it was when we were truly biological animals, and this has had huge consequences for our recent life history. We take longer to mature, we have fewer offspring, and we live longer, all in qualitative agreement with having an effectively larger metabolic rate arising from socioeconomic activity.” We should consider the modern human not an animal, but as an animal at the center of a massive networks of buildings, machines, roads, businesses, and institutions. These are why we have the extra billion heart beats.

That massive networks of buildings, machines, roads and institutions go by another name—the city—and it is in West’s discussion of the modern city that he comes closest to explaining the history of human divergence. It will be no surprise that there are robust scaling relationships tourban phenomena as well. We can appreciate this in a pair of logarithmic graphs. As a city gets an order of magnitude bigger,its infrastructure (the length of its roads and power lines, the number of its gas stations) increases by 0.85 of an order of magnitude;while its ‘socioeconomic effects’ (income, flu and crime rates, patents filed, number of restaurants) increase by 1.15 orders of magnitude. This might not seem like a big difference, but it compounds exponentially. Bigger cities become cheaper and cheaper to provision per person, and similarly they become increasingly creative, wild, interesting, varied, and profitable. It is not liberal institutions, or the special genius of a particular culture, or democracy that have led to the prosperity of the modern world. It’s the metropolis.

predictable cities

From A Unified Theory of Urban Living by Luis Bettencourt. Note the scale is logarithmic.

Has this always been the case? Will it continue? As for the future, West is softly apocalyptic. Exponential growth—that is, a phenomenon in which the rate of growth is itself growing—must always reach a limit. The past two-hundred years have been an outlier, because new innovations have effectively reset the growth curve before this limit has been reached. When steam engine spluttered out, along came steel. Big data might soon reach its peak, but within a year or two we’ll have AI. But as the growth curve gets ever steeper, the extra time bought by each subsequent innovation is a little bit less, so the new innovation must come ever quicker—until we can buy no more time at all.

growth and innovaion

A schematic of the increasing pace of innovation, from Growth, Innovation, Scaling and the Pace of Life In Cities, by Bettencourt, et. al.

The implications that these scaling patterns have for our understanding of the past is another matter. It is an unanswered question whether the same relationships existed for cities before the modern era (there is some indication that they do). Yet I suspect that before the prevalence of cheap energy from fossil fuels, big cities were simply too dirty, too complicated, and too messy to sustain major growth. Historians could do interesting work seeing how the scaling relationships in human societies have changed over time.

West, a physicist, looks for elegant, parsimonious answers to big questions. But he only gets this perspective by stripping away particularities until all that’s left is a piece of data that can be pinned on a graph. There is little room for the individual in West’s story—even the scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and kings that are the usual protagonists of doorstopper history books. There can be little confrontation with inequality in West’s story, because studying inequality means wrestling with difference, and difference here is stripped away in favor of the big picture. Why do some people grow rich and others stay poor? Why do some societies decline, while others come to a kind of supremacy? Does exponentially growing prosperity simply make a small group of people obscenely rich? Is this all good? Or is it bad? In the end, West can show us the pattern, but he cannot tell us the meaning of the pattern, because we’ve zoomed so far out the human has foreshortened to almost nothing.

One way of capturing the dynamics of scale while keeping attention on the human is to look at networks. It is the properties of fractal networks after all that give modern cities their peculiar scaling properties. Niall Ferguson attempts such a history in his recent book The Square and the Tower. Ferguson is a self-professed ‘network guy’; a man of dinner parties, conferences, and wide-ranging influence. (Ferguson even appears in West’s acknowledgements.) Ferguson, like West, sees humanity as a species defined by its participation in networks—he even suggests that humanity might be renamed homo dictyous, or Network Man. And like West, Ferguson proffers a parsimonious explanation for the modern world, in which modernity is driven by the special properties of social networks. Ferguson’s idea is that history is driven by the For most of human history, hierarchies reigned. But during certain periods, networks successfully challenged hierarchies, leading to amazing ages of human potential

square and tower

The Square and the Tower of the title, from Siena, from Wikipedia

Two moments stand out. The first happened in Western Europe between the Commercial and Industrial Revolutions. Unconstrained by a strong despotic state, European men formed networks with relative freedom. Networks of sailors benefiting from the competitive patronage of Mediterranean princes traded information about trade routes and sea winds, allowing them to ride the waves of the Atlantic and exploit the Americas. The printing press allowed the creation of networks of print that spread the message of Martin Luther (but came too late to spread the equally revolutionary words of Jan Hus), unintentionally upending restrictive religious orthodoxies. Networks of scientists and tinkerers were allowed to build up knowledge of the solar system and steam engines without worrying about the hierarchy of the Inquisition restricting their inquiries. Networks of malcontents and revolutionaries egged each other on to mount the American and then the French Revolutions. But in history there must be a fall for every rise: in the 19th century hierarchies reestablished themselves—here comes Napoleon on his world historical horse, an Emperor to rip the networks of the Sans Culottes to shreds. In the aftermath of Waterloo, European nations created an unequal hierarchical world order. Big businesses expanded with top-heavy org charts. More war! 1914! 1945! Networks only rose again this past generation, prompting computers, the internet, Twitter, and the usual list of salutary or not so salutary developments. (Al Qaeda, though it means “The Base,” is a network.)

The simplicity of West’s story is grounded in precise mathematical definitions, but Ferguson’s simplicity rests on concepts that never really get firmly pinned down. It’s unclear, frankly, just what Ferguson means by network and hierarchy. Ferguson gives no end of examples: hierarchies are horizontal, while networks are vertical; hierarchies give people power, networks influence; hierarchies are kings and CEOs, networks influencers and creatives; hierarchies are bureaucratic organizations, networks loose alliances. Hierarchies are the Mughal Court, the Pentagon, the Aztecs, and the office of the Presidency. Networks are the East India Company, spy rings, the Royal Society, the conquistadors, and the friends of Henry Kissinger. In a central chapter, Ferguson proposes a formal definition from network analysis that a hierarchy is a special kind of self-similar network in which connections are monopolized by particular nodes. But this formal definition is rarely if ever mobilized to actually define whether a given organization is a network or a hierarchy. Instead if it looks like a network, then it’s a network. If it looks like a hierarchy, then it’s a hierarchy. Oddly enough for a book in which network analysis is meant to uncover new patterns in history, we hardly ever look into the geometry of the historical networks themselves. Instead we get a long string of anecdotes.

Network Models - Random network, Scale-free network, Hierarchical network

What is clear is that a previously-obscured historical actor is now uncertainly stepping to the forefront of the human drama—the network—and history has to grapple with it. But what are we to do? How can we tell historical stories using these new tools but still pay attention to individuals and difference? We are left with a series of itching inconclusive questions: How are we all connected? How can we reach beyond the dull confusion of our small lives to somehow understand the universe itself? And not to forget that there are people in those dots, love and enmity in those lines connecting them?

Summer Reading: Part I

Book of Hours

Book of Hours, 1480-1490, Victoria & Albert Museum. Photo Courtesy of Britain Loves Wikipedia.

Here is the first installment of some of the books that the Blog’s editors have lined up for summer. From art history to critical theory, from fiction to poetry, we’ve got you covered if you’re looking for something to pick up during the academic off season. Look out next weekend for the second installment!


I got hit by a car this year. After surgery, after a month of Netflix and couch, after I had weaned myself off the pain pills, I slowly began to piece myself together again. I picked up an old favorite, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book I’ve returned to again and again throughout my life. The book follows a fin de siècle everyman, Hans Castorp, as he spends seven years of his early adulthood in a TB sanatorium. The book is filled with characters who are allegories standing for this-or-that Big Thing: militarism, liberalism, extremism, nihilism, sex, death, bodily pleasure. The book ends with Castorp disappearing into the mass of young men in the trenches of the First World War. Castorp may or may not have been sick; but Europe certainly was.

I’ve come to appreciate different things about The Magic Mountain with every reading. My first I treated the book like a puzzle, proud of myself for each allegory I managed to identify. Later, I came to appreciate the book as a narration of the First World War. This latest reading, my body still bruised, my bone still knitting back together, still bound to the Barcalounger in my living room, I came to appreciate the Magic Mountain as a novel about sickness. Virginia Woolf wondered in On Being Ill why “illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” Illness is uncomfortable. It is boring. Not much happens when you’re ill. So sickness is dealt with in fiction usually invisibly: the bones heal in the spaces between chapters. We get better, slowly. Yet in The Magic Mountain, sickness was ruminated on, lingered over, discussed, understood as its own form of experience. This comforted me. How differently time passed on that Barcalounger! Months which would have otherwise been filled with activity, instead passed by like minutes. And here I read Hans Castorp feeling the same way. Laying on his chair during the rest cure, letting his mind wander, thinking about the peculiar way time passed while he was ill, wondering whether the stuff inside him was healthy or invisibly diseased, wondering about what it all meant to be sick.



Besides research-related adventures and a foolhardy scheme to read the entirety of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, my reading list this summer is drawn from the books that have lain in my house unread for far too long. Here are three of those hitherto-neglected titles:


Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (1995). Described by its author as “a novel of sorts,” The Blue Flower retells the early life of the poet and philosopher Novalis, his puzzling engagement to twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn, and the beginnings of what would become German Romanticism. This was the last work of Penelope Fitzgerald, whose subtle wit and profound insight into the peculiarities of human relationships remain criminally under-appreciated.


Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004). My blurb was going to say, “Dueling magicians in the Napoleonic Wars—need I say more?” But then I discovered a fact that will prove an even greater enticement to readers of JHIBlog: footnotes! Clarke has constructed a baroque edifice of fictitious scholarship upon which her story rests—and, truly, what self-respecting library could be without John Segundus’s A Complete Description of Dr. Pale’s fairy-servants, their Names, Histories, Characters and the Services they performed for Him (Thomas Burnham: Northampton, 1799)?


Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819). Sir Walter Scott’s iconic historical romance, to which we owe the familiar tale of the doughty Richard the Lionheart, the dastardly King John, and the honest thief, Robin Hood. On a personal note, the “Dedicatory Epistle” to Ivanhoe is addressed to a (spiritual) ancestor of mine, the Reverend Dr. Jonas Dryasdust, FAS.




Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room — this is the book to tuck into your carry-on bag. You’ll speed through it so you can get to the ending, but once you get there, you’ll want to read the whole book all over again. You won’t even notice that your flight is delayed, or your luggage still hasn’t arrived on the carousel. I’m not going to tell you what the book is about (you can cheat and read the reviews if you want). When you get to the end, and find yourself meditating on questions of fate and agency, not sure if you’re looking into darkness or light, remember to thank me for this recommendation.


Lucie Brock-Broido, A Hunter, The Master Letters, Trouble in Mind, Stay IllusionI am re-reading Brock-Broido’s oeuvre this summer. Brock-Broido passed away this past March. She was only 61. Her language followed the diction and syntax of another time–but what was that time? Was it the deep past, or some future yet to come? Brock-Broido’s poetry was always beautiful, in a way that flirted with the decorative. Her best work veered away from mere beauty, aching towards something like the sublime.


Kelly Jones, South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s — Jones tells a “hidden history of blackness” of 20th-century California. African Americans, as well as members of the Latinx and Asian Pacific Islander communities, have traditionally been excluded from the story of modernism in California. Jones tells the history of the African American art community “south of Pico” in Los Angeles, embedding well-known artists such as Bettye Saar and Noah Purifoy within the complicated historical contexts of both Los Angeles and California in the second half of the 20th century. This book changed how I think of modern and contemporary American art. It will change how you think, too.

Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in International History: A Conference Report

By guest contributor Emma Kluge

On April 12-13, scholars from across the world gathered together at the University of Sydney for Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in International History: New Geographic and Scalar Perspectives. This workshop and conference was birthed out of a collaboration between the Trafficking Past project led by Julia Laite (Birkbeck, University of London) and Philippa Hetherington (University College London) and the Laureate Research Program in International History led by Glenda Sluga (University of Sydney). The Trafficking Past project aims to interrogate ‘trafficking’ in history on global, national and local scales within the context of migration, labour and gender, and to bring a critical historical perspective to present-day political debates over trafficking and migration. The Laureate Research Programme in International History brings together a team of specialist researchers to ask innovative questions about how humans have imagined the international as a realm of politics and society in the past. The purpose of this co-organised event was to gather together research from and on the Asia-Pacific region and examine how different geographic and scalar perspectives can contribute to historicising ‘trafficking’. If you want to see how things played out in real-time catch up on the proceedings through following the #traffickingpast hashtag on twitter and see photos of the conference.

The proceedings kicked off with a Sydney Ideas public event on Wednesday 11 April entitled ‘Beyond Trafficking and Modern Slavery’ chaired by Philippa Hetherington and featuring talks from Jennifer Burns, director of Anti-Slavery Australia and professor at UTS, and Sverre Molland, anthropologist at Australian National University. The event drew a large crowd of students, academics and members of the public. It brought a historic and legal perspective to current development of Australian Modern Slavery legislation and challenged citizens and activists alike to consider the history of approaches to combating trafficking and reconsider how they mobilize the language of trafficking within the political sphere.

The following day a more intimate group of scholars gathered together for the workshop. The speakers were arranged into panels, each with a generous amount of time for discussion and debate in order to draw out connections and interrogate ‘trafficking’ in its different contexts and iterations.

Julia Laite and Philippa Hetherington set the frame for the workshop and then the conference kicked off with the first panel which explored how local and global scales can be used to study trafficking in the nineteenth century.  April Haynes (University of Wisconsin) spoke on intelligence officers, employment agencies, and narratives of trafficking in early nineteenth century America. Her paper focused on the politics of intimate labour in a local context. This paper was followed by Rae Frances (Australian National University) who took up an international frame to examine sex trafficking through the prism of empire. This panel inspired discussions on the usefulness of different geographical frames in thinking through the policing and responses to trafficking. What specificities become visible at the local level and what patterns emerge on the global scale?

This was followed by a panel that focused on trafficking in Asia Pacific. Sophie Loy-Wilson (University of Sydney) examined the Australian discourse of illicit migration and its use to discredit Chinese workers in Australia and how this contributed to restrictive migration schemes and harsh legal practises in the nineteenth century. Then Sandy Chang (University of Texas) took us to British Malaya with her examination of the brothel economy from 1900s-1930s. She complicated ideas of trafficking through examining the lives of Chinese women involved in the sex trade. These papers generated a discussion of the politics of different forms of labour and its intersection with race and gender.

On Friday morning Clare Corbould (Deakin University) took centre stage to discuss the Pacific Afterlives of slavery through the writing of Mark Twain. Corbould highlighted the need to connect studies of the Pacific indentured labour trade in the nineteenth century with the broader historiography of slavery and specifically American studies scholarship of the legacies of the eighteenth-century slave trade. How do we define the term slavery? At what point does trafficking and coerced labour become slavery? How do our conceptions of these term impact on the histories we write?

The second panel for the day was on Law, Regulation and Global Governance. Both papers asked how legal definitions or official discourse might obscure forms of trafficking. Jean Allain (Monash University) took up a legal frame to examine the meanings of trafficking law as articulated at the 1904 International conference for the Repression of the White Slave Traffic. Julia Martinez (University of Wollongong) challenged us to think through our maps of trafficking – literal and scholarly – and think through which regions have been excluded through exploring the case study of trafficking in the Philippines under the US administration. Martinez highlighted the need to study the trafficking of women within the context of migration in order to recognize more complex or less visible forms of forced labour.

This was followed by a panel on Trafficking and Technology.  Leslie Barnes (Australian National University) spoke on Nicholas Kristof and the reshaping of humanitarian impulse. She gave a critical literary analysis of Kristof’s twitter feed surrounding a Cambodian brothel raid in 2011 and what it tells us about modern conceptions of trafficking and public responses to it. Next Julia Laite and Philippa Hetherington shared the Trafficking Past project’s challenges in developing an online database on trafficking. They reflected on the potentials and pitfalls of collaboration and education in the online world and the role of historians in engaging with modern debates about human trafficking and forced migration. How might we use the digital space to historicize trafficking? How can scholars fruitfully intervene in debates around trafficking and modern slavery discourse?

This discussion coalesced into the closing session where panelists reflected on the concept of trafficking and larger themes raised by the conference. Fiona Paisley (Griffith University) asked participants to consider different ways of framing studies of trafficking, such as transnationalism and cosmopolitanism, to think about trafficking across different scales and networks. Glenda Sluga highlighted the link between trafficking and studies of capitalism. What happens when we add businesses and corporations to our map of trafficking? Laite urged us to consider what it would look like to radically contextualise the lives of those involved in trafficking. How might we use the lives of individuals to draw out organic connections across empire? Finally, Hetherington reflected on importance of critically examining narratives of trafficking and not falling into the trap of sexual exceptionalism through oversimplification. In drawing together these themes, Laite and Hetherington urged scholars to continue to grapple with diverse scalar and geographical perspectives and use this network as a way to collaborate and contextualise their studies.*

As part of the continuing work of the Trafficking Past project Julia Laite and Philippa Hetherington will be editing special issue of Journal of Women’s History on Migration, Sex, and Intimate Labour’ which will continue to draw out the themes of the workshop. You can find out more about the Trafficking Past project on their website (Link: https://traffickingpast.uk/) and stay up to date with their twitter (link: @traffickingpast). You can follow along with the International History Laureate on their website (http://rp-www.arts.usyd.edu.au/research/inventing-the-international/index.shtml) and twitter @IntHist. The conference program can be found here: http://sydney.edu.au/arts/research/inventing-the-international/news-events/events.shtml?id=10131

Emma Kluge is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney. Emma is a historian of human rights, decolonization and the Pacific. She is currently working on her PhD thesis ‘Histories of West Papuan resistance and resilience’, examining the development of the West Papuan independence movement in the 1960s-70s. She is an avid #twitterstorian and PhD-blogger; you can follow her on twitter @EmmaKluge1 and read about her research adventures and misadventures at www.emmakluge.com.

What did Europeans contribute to the caste system in India?

By Contributing Writer Sumit Guha, University of Texas at Austin

Closed, normatively endogamous communities have a long history in Southern Asia. Over the past millennium, they have been labeled with the Sanskrit ‘jati’, Arabic ‘qaum’, Persian ‘zat’ and others. But we have long known that there is no equivalent word for “caste” in any Indian or Asian language.  It came as a loan-word but is today firmly embedded in Indian public and policy discourse. We also know that the first users of the term (as ‘casta’) were Iberians – Portuguese and Spanish, first in the Iberian peninsula and then in Asia and the Americas. But how the term was used– descriptively, administratively, and sociologically—is less known. The connection of Asia and the Americas has not been made.


Two Iberian Empires initiated and, for more than a century, controlled all the trans-Oceanic ventures of modern Europeans. These were the Spanish in the Americas and the Portuguese in Asia. Several Iberian kingdoms had begun a campaign of religious persecution against Jews in the 1300s. Many converted under duress. But to the dismay of many ‘old Christian’ churchmen in cushy sinecures, the educated and affluent among the Jewish converts then began to rise in Church and royal service. Furthermore, converts’ prominence among tax-collectors naturally made them unpopular with poorer Christians. The interests of clerics and plebeians thus coalesced first in pogroms and then in justifying their hostility via a doctrine of ‘purity of blood’ – the idea that only ‘old Christians’ were worthy of favor in Spanish and Portuguese society. Protagonists of the new idea had to contend against long-established Church doctrine of all humans are redeemable through Christ. Quite remarkably, they nonetheless succeeded in prioritizing biological descent above spiritual redemption. It followed that ‘New Christians’, ‘conversos’ etc., especially those belonging to the “casta de judios”, should be carefully watched and vigilantly excluded from offices of status. (The above is drawn largely from Albert Sicroff, Le Controverse de Statuts de Pureté de Sang 1960.) This grew into a settled prejudice that intensified into the nineteenth century. ‘Casta’ before 1500 had tended to refer to type or breed of plant or animal: but it now came to mean a species of human marked by descent. It was thus verging on the emerging concept of race. Even today a standard dictionary illustrates its meaning with the phrase “eso me viene de casta” rendered as “it’s in my blood”.

It is not surprising that when the Iberians came to Asia and the Americas, they promptly began classifying people by descent.  Even at the time, Indians did not marry outside a specific set of families, or ‘caste’ defined as a ‘marriage-pool’. Iberians however promptly decided that this was motivated by a drive to preserve the purity of their “blood”. This was pointed out by the American anthropologist Morton Klass.  At the same time, the Spanish and Portuguese also began creating a ‘sistema de castas’, a caste system in the Spanish Americas.


Ignacio María Barreda, Depiction of the Casta System in Mexico

Spain and Portugal were united under one monarchy from 1580 to 1640. More importantly, they were also bound by the powerful racial ideology well embedded in the Iberian Catholic Church. The Portuguese introduced later-coming Europeans to the Indian subcontinent and Indians to a new kind of Westerner. Many Portuguese loanwords entered the languages of Asia. One of these was ‘casta’, anglicized to ‘cast’ or ‘caste’. But while this etymology is well-known, most discourse has assumed that the loan-word was applied to a pre-existing and very old indigenous social institution, an institution that has remained unchanged until the present. In the twentieth century, with the mounting cultural power of the USA, proponents of this view have increasingly assimilated ‘caste’ to the Western idea of ‘race’. They have also assumed it to be confined to the Hindu segment of the Indian population.

This has been a powerful and persistent trope, even though many specialists, such as the veteran sociologist Joseph Elder, have listed seven errors in the popular Western understanding of caste. One of these was that ‘Castes are uniquely Hindu’. He wrote that in India, ‘castes exist among Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Muslims.’ Frequently the rules about marrying within one’s caste and avoiding interactions with other castes are as strict among Christians, Jains, etc. as they are among Hindus. Elder also puts his finger on a key element of its durability. This was that the British colonial regime – the most influential of South Asian empires— deployed it in its legal and political system.

The American anthropologist Morton Klass also attempted a historical account of the origin of caste as a concept and a practice. He pointed out that the Portuguese and Spanish were themselves just evolving a system of ethnic and social stratification by biological ancestry; it was for this reason that they immediately assumed that Indian jāti endogamous groups were aimed at maintaining ‘purity of blood’.  The early response was, however, not to attack caste but to reduce most features of it to a concern of civil society, external to the faith (adiaphora). Converts of different castes were thus permitted separate churches. According to the famous Jesuit missionary Nobili, this was an established practice by 1615. Indeed, Nobili approvingly quoted a Brahman convert who had responded to the criticism that Nobili’s color was evidence to his being a despicable ‘prangui’ (barbaric Westerner).

You reproach the saniassi [ascetic, meaning Nobili] with being a vile Prangui and cite his color as proof. …by that argument I prove that you are a paria [a Dalit caste-name]. You are black, parias are black so you are therefore a paria. What! Can you not conceive that in another country where all men, brahmans and  parias alike are white, there will be among the whites the same distinction of castes, the same distinction between nobles and commoners? Everyone applauded this reply, which was as substantive as it was spirited.

This use of ‘casta’ to mean any kind of descent group entered other European languages. The Dutch, for example, were by 1640 describing the wives of some sailors as of “Portuguese casta”. It also traveled into English.

Early colonial governments recognized the administrative value of caste as a means to organize “civil society”. The Dutch conquered Sri Lanka from the Portuguese and enforced a strict caste system there. Different tax and labor dues were extracted from each caste in order to sustain Dutch colonial enterprise. To check evasion of the service requirement attached the land, subjects could not mortgage or sell their lands without leave, and the customs and distinctions of caste were rigorously enforced by Dutch penal regulations. This continued under the early British rule in Sri Lanka.  Similarly, in Bombay island, the first British colony in India, the early administration decided that the  “severall nations at pres[ent] inhabiting or hereafter to inhabit on the Island of Bombay be reduced or modelled into so many orders or tribes & that each nation may have a Cheif (sic) or Consull of the same nation appointed over them by the Gover[nor] and Councell”.  As late as 1900, the British government in India passed the Land Alienation Act, a major agrarian law regulating property transfers among two specified sets of “Tribes and Castes” described as ‘agriculturist’ and ‘non-agriculturist’. Both sets included Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. A more complete exposition of the long history of state, caste and ethnicity is to be found in my book, whose European and Indian editions are linked below.

(European) Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present

(Indian) Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present


Sumit Guha is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin