Intellectual history

Not Just a Textual Fossil: John Bell’s Travels from St Petersburg (1763)

By Yuval Givon

2022 marked the 300th anniversary of the return of John Bell of Antermony (1691–1780) to Scotland after a four-year journey to China. As a physician of Scottish descent, Bell settled in Saint Petersburg and participated in a number of Russian delegations across Eurasia. Despite his remarkable career, Bell has received little attention in modern Sinology. However, in the eyes of his contemporaries, Bell was a celebrated writer. In 1763 he published a travelogue that became a bestseller, recounting his Eurasian voyages, especially the overland journey to China via Siberia that he had made in his youth as part of a Russian diplomatic embassy from 1719 to 1722, which had been led by the Russian general Lev Vasilievich Izmaylov (1685–1738). Tracing Bell’s account of China and his unique perspective as a British travel writer enables us to rethink the changing attitudes of Europeans towards China during the eighteenth century.

Although its political goals were only partially achieved, the Izmaylov embassy was well received at the court of the Kangxi emperor (1654–1722), which had allowed Bell to record a detailed firsthand account of Beijing and the Qing’s imperial court in his now-lost diaries. While he stayed in the city for some three months, Bell attended several audiences with the emperor and participated in the Chinese New Year celebrations, the imperial hunt, and many other events within the Forbidden City and beyond. After years of work in the service of tsar Peter the Great (1672–1725) and a short business career in Constantinople, Bell returned to his family estate in Milton of Campsie (see Fig. 1), Scotland, where he led a life of leisure and engaged mainly in philanthropic activities and the writing of his book. Bell had never intended to publish his memoirs. The book was born of gentlemen’s conversations during which Bell entertained his friends with engaging stories from his youth, as he recalls:

About four years ago, spending some days at the house of a Right Honorable, and most honored friend, the subject of my travels took up a great part of our conversation; during which, upon his enquiring occasionally, whether I had taken any notes of the places, &c. through which I had passed in my several journies, and, upon my answering in the affirmative, he was pleased to take some pains to engage me to promise that I would collect my notes and observations, and form them into journals, as complete as the time elapsed would admit, and communicate them to the world.

There is an interval of some forty years between Bell’s journey and the publication of his travel narrative, the Travels from St Petersburg in Russia to Diverse Parts of Asia (1763). This raises some questions in terms of factual accuracy, which could explain why the book has received little attention in modern Sinology. Although many of Bell’s descriptions are highly detailed and balanced (and therefore attest to the quality of his original notes), it is also clear that the narrative is influenced by Bell’s sentimental longing for China and the adventures he enjoyed in his youth. In spite of these limitations, I argue that Bell’s narrative is an essential historical source for the study of European writing about China in the eighteenth century.

The time gap between John Bell’s journey as a young man in 1719 and the publication of his travel narrative four decades later in 1763 opens a unique prism that allows us to rethink the change in European (and particularly British) attitudes toward China. Around the middle of the eighteenth century, a shift from admiration to disparagement occurred, which is referred to as the ‘Sinophilia/Sinophobia paradigm’ in modern scholarship. Simply put, Bell recorded his impressions during times of great intellectual appreciation of Chinese civilization, but his book was released into an environment which already became highly skeptical. British travel literature in particular, which eighteenth-century readers saw as both empirical and objective, cast China in the most negative manner, emphasizing the weakness, stasis, and immorality of its inhabitants.

Fig. 1: Historic photograph of Antermony House, Milton of Campsie, Scotland. Courtesy of Sandy Stevenson, Tour Scotland.

The first signs of British skepticism towards China appeared already in the early decades of the eighteenth century. In the Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), whose novels were inspired by his career as a merchant, belittled the Chinese culture and economy by comparing them to Europe. He also dismissed the Great Wall – the eminent symbol of Chinese culture – as “this mighty nothing, called a wall.” His protagonist, Robinson Crusoe, describes the Chinese people as a “contemptible herd or crowd of ignorant, sordid slaves.” Although he never visited China in person, Defoe’s imagination “almost set the tone of the eighteenth-century English criticism of China,” as Qian Zhongshu notes.

Defoe’s negative depictions were reinforced by a growing number of eyewitness accounts of British travelers, who severely criticized China. They contradict the positive impressions that had been conveyed to Europe by Jesuit missionaries during the seventeenth century. Through these travelers’ accounts, the Chinese people were presented not only as less talented than the Europeans, but also as manipulative and deceitful. The editor of Commodore George Anson’s (1697–1762) widely-circulated travel account, A Voyage Round the World (1749), remarked that it was “endless to recount all the artifices, extortions and frauds which were practiced on the Commodore and his people, by this interested race.”

Besides reflecting the experience of individual British travelers, these voices disclose some of the profound transformations in British culture and the emergence of a new national sentiment in the middle of the eighteenth century. The rise of Britain as a global trade empire during the period mirrored its criticism of China’s refusal of commercial cooperation, as research has shown, while Britain’s early industrial growth raised debates about China’s technological inferiority. The shift in British attitudes towards China has therefore more to do with internal changes in British culture than with the objective situation in China. Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins and Robert Markley suggest that “the changing attitudes towards China after 1750 reflect a shift from Restoration and early eighteenth-century cosmopolitanism to Victorian orientalism.” In this new context, the rise of ‘progress’ as a fundamental ideal in the eighteenth century inspired a new view of China as stagnant and unwilling to collaborate with the rest of the world.

However, this new sentiment is all but missing in Bell’s Travels. Compared to the writing of Daniel Defoe and George Anson, Bell’s account is surprisingly positive. He provides a vivid and humane description of China as seen through the eyes of a young British gentleman. His writing displays a keen interest in nature, art, architecture, and technology. He has a personal eye for human encounters both at the imperial court and in everyday Beijing. Some of Bell’s impressions might seem optimistic, but they contrast remarkably with the xenophobic views of China by other British writers. Bell describes the Chinese, for instance, as “a civilized and hospitable people complaisant to strangers, and to one another; very regular in their manners and behaviour, and respectful to their superiors.” After passing through the Great Wall on his way to Beijing, Bell praised it – in contrast to Defoe – as a magnificent cultural achievement, which mirrors the virtues of the people who created it:

I am of opinion, that no nation in the world was able for such an undertaking, except the Chinese. For, though some other kingdom might have furnished a sufficient number of workmen, for such an enterprise, none but the ingenious, sober, and parsimonious Chinese could have preserved order amidst such multitudes, or patiently submitted to the hardships attending such a labour.

It is tempting to dismiss Bell as a textual fossil, who represents outdated concepts that did not reflect the British mainstream attitudes towards China during the later decades of the century. However, Bell’s account is too complex to be labeled a Sinophile text. Like other travelers he is skeptical of certain aspects of Chinese everyday life, such as religious beliefs and irrational explanations of natural phenomena, which he dismisses as superstitious and ludicrous, and, as he claims, “too absurd to be inserted” into his Travels.

Fig. 2: Portrait of the Kangxi emperor in court dress. By an anonymous Qing court painter. Late Kangxi period, color on silk. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yet surprisingly, Bell’s positive account of China became popular among his contemporaries. The book was mentioned and praised by well-known intellectuals, such as the English historian Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), the politician George Thomas Staunton (1781–1859), and even Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). Scottish biographer James Boswell (1740–1795) recalls that in a discussion about Russia and China, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) recommended he read Bell’s Travels. The list of subscribers at the beginning of Bell’s book also includes prominent scholars and writers of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as William Robertson (1721–1793), Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) and Adam Smith (1723–1790), who relied on Bell’s account in his Wealth of Nations (1776).

Despite its optimism towards China, Bell’s Travels became a bestseller in its time. This tells us something fundamental about its British readership and British views of China in the mid-eighteenth century. It reveals the inadequacy of the modern Sinophilia/Sinophobia dichotomy to represent the wide range of attitudes towards China during that era. Some aspects of Bell’s narrative were appealing to his contemporaries, who despite their skepticism towards China accepted his positive narrative. In conclusion, I will highlight two of these aspects: firstly, the fact that Bell’s Travels represent the first British eyewitness account of Beijing; and secondly, the unique perspective of Bell as a physician of the Russian embassy.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most European accounts of inland China were written by Catholic – primarily Jesuit – missionaries, since they were the only Europeans allowed into the Ming and later the Qing empire. The arrival of diplomatic delegations from Europe inspired a few accounts by authors other than Jesuits, but none of those were written by British eyewitnesses. With the rise of a self-assured and distinctive British national sentiment, Bell’s identity as a British author received new significance for his readers. For many of them, Bell’s national identity made his account more reliable. Indeed various readers used to refer to him as “honest John Bell.”

Throughout the book, Bell’s ‘Britishness’ is expressed in diverse ways that create a sense of familiarity for his readers. His measurements were taken in English miles, for instance, while his fascination with Rhubarb reflected the contemporary British obsession with the plant. His views of governance, religion, and court culture were rooted in British cultural values. When describing the Chinese practice of kowtowing before the emperor (see Fig. 2), Bell noted that “it seemed somewhat strange to a Briton, to see some thousands of people upon their knees, and bowing their heads to the ground, in most humble posture, to a mortal like themselves.”

British descriptions of China certainly existed before Bell’s Travels were published. However, they were usually written by merchants, who had been restricted to China’s coastline regions. The narratives of these writers, whose encounters with Chinese culture were mainly mediated through the framework of trade, differed substantially from Bell’s experiences in Beijing. As the Russian embassy’s physician, Bell’s experience was almost touristic. On the one hand, his position enabled him access to virtually all of the imperial audiences, banquets, and privileges, like the other “gentlemen of the embassy.” On the other hand, unlike most of these gentlemen, Bell did not have any political obligations during his stay in Beijing. This allowed him to spend time in recreational activities and explore the city at his leisure while recording “the details of daily life,” as Jonathan Spence argued (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Plate from the Dutch translation of John Bell’s Travels (1770), depicting an imperial hunt. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Bell’s observations span from politics to technology, food, history, art, music, and family life. As a young man, he was captivated by Chinese women, whom he describes as having “many good qualities besides their beauty.” The carefree position of Bell probably contributed to his ability to observe people humanely, which is evident in all social interactions, from the court to everyday life. What impresses him most about the Kangxi emperor is the “good nature and affability of this ancient monarch, on all occasions.” Bell acknowledges a similar affability in casual meetings with Chinese people of all ranks of society both in the streets and on visits to the homes of “Chinese friends.”

The uniquely personal and gentle perspective of Bell’s Travels attracted audiences in Britain and beyond even in times of skepticism towards China. Its reception thus casts doubt on the Sinophilia/Sinophobia dichotomy in modern scholarship, as it reveals that even what could arguably be called a ‘Sinophile’ text was well-received in eighteenth-century British culture for a series of reasons. One of these reasons was the narrative’s ‘Britishness,’ which probably raised feelings of familiarity, trust, and national pride among its readers. In addition, Bell’s unique perspective as the embassy’s physician created an almost touristic narrative. The text implies a relationship between nationalism and tourism during that period. Bell provided his audience with an account of China as a foreign place as seen through the eyes of a sensitive yet self-assured British gentleman. Accordingly, the fact that the book is missing from modern research has less to do with its reception in the eighteenth century, than with its incompatibility with recent historiography. It would be worth a serious reconsideration by historians.

I would like to warmly thank Philippe Schmid for his valuable comments and suggestions for this piece.

Yuval Givon holds a PhD from Tel Aviv University and is currently a Fulbright postdoctoral associate at the Department of History, Harvard University. Givon is a historian of the early modern period, specializing in Eurasian long-distance exchanges and particularly in the Society of Jesus and the role it played in the establishment of travel and communication networks between Western Europe and China during the seventeenth century.

Edited by Philippe Schmid

Featured image: A folding map of Bell’s route to China (2 v. front. [fold. map] 25 x 20 cm.) in John Bell, Travels from St. Petersburg, in Russia, to diverse parts of Asia (Glasgow: Foulis, 1763). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Intellectual history

Reinhart Koselleck at One Hundred

By Jonathon Catlin

On April 23, 2023, one of the pioneers of German conceptual history, Reinhart Koselleck (1923–2006), would have turned one hundred years old. Born in Görlitz, in Eastern Germany, Koselleck became one of the leading German historians of his generation and a founder of historical studies at the University of Bielefeld, where he taught for most of his career and trained a generation of conceptual historians who continue to carry on his legacy at universities around the world.

Between 1972 and 1997, Koselleck co-edited, together with Werner Conze and Otto Brunner, the eight-volume Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland (Basic Concepts in History: A Historical Dictionary of Political and Social Language in Germany). The irony is that while Koselleck is perhaps best known for his central role as the theoretical force behind this massive undertaking, by the time it was underway, he already began to cast doubt on some of the premises on which it had been initiated. Amidst the heyday of the linguistic turn and deconstruction’s critique of logocentrism, it became increasingly apparent that traditional Begriffsgeschichte, with its top-down focus on elite political expression, inherently obscured other aspects of social reality. Koselleck soon turned his attention to formerly overlooked stockpiles of historical meaning, including visual and material culture, “political iconology,” and “political sensuality” involving the body and the senses, especially as regards memorials, monuments, and the “political cult of the dead.”

The early Koselleck of his dissertation book Critique and Crisis (1959), a work indebted to his mentor Carl Schmitt (Suhrkamp published their correspondence, edited by Jan Eike Dunkhase, in 2019), studied the high political discourse of the philosophes and Jacobins leading up to the French Revolution. He found in their moralization of history and their utopian and ideological prognostication the roots of the violent totalitarian ideologies of his own time, namely Nazism and Stalinism. In his 1960 review of the book in Merkur, Jürgen Habermas was sharply critical of Koselleck’s proximity to the disgraced Nazi legal theorist Schmitt in privileging of the power of the absolute state over critical social rationality; Habermas’s review also previews the thesis of his 1962 habilitation, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, with its argument that the “private views” Koselleck had criticized as inappropriate moralizing about politics are fundamentally “changed in their substance by being mediated into public opinion through the public sphere” (471). Koselleck, for his part, continued to pander to Schmitt, writing to him in 1961 of the “revolutionary awakening of 1933” which “was gambled away” (191). Both of Koselleck’s co-editors on the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe were formerly committed Nazis, and their sometimes apologetic politics are visible in places like Ernst Nolte’s entry on “Fascism.”

Koselleck’s mature work explored more metaphorical and sensual aspects of historical experience, developing such pioneering concepts and theories as “the non-simultaneity of the simultaneous” and modernity as characterized by acceleration and the widening gap between the “space of experience and the “horizon of expectations,” “futures past,” “repetition structures” and “possible histories,” “layers/sediments of time,” and the absurdity or meaninglessness of history. Koselleck died in 2006, but interest in his work has been renewed in recent years by the unveiling of his 30,000-object (largely digitized) photograph archive at Marburg and the opening of his papers and personal library at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach.

As Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman shows in his 2017 article, “Koselleck in America,” Koselleck also enjoyed considerable success in the Anglophone world, taking up guest positions at the University of Chicago (where he rubbed elbows with François Furet and Michael Geyer) and the New School for Social Research. Thanks to the efforts of the New York historian of political thought Melvin Richter, Koselleck’s approach to conceptual history was put into dialogue with the approaches of such luminaries as J. G. A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner. As Richter observes, the editors of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe’s critiques of the old history of ideas and their turn instead to studying concepts as repositories of embedded social experience resonates with Skinner’s claim that “there can be no histories of concepts; there can only be histories of their uses in argument” (quoted in Richter, 135). While Richter observes that “Pocock and Skinner have seldom ventured beyond the late eighteenth century,” the period of the emergence of modernity and the Sattelzeit with which Koselleck’s work began, in a more theoretical register, “the title of Pocock’s collection, Politics, Language, and Time, could have served as the title for the English translation of Reinhart Koselleck’s Vergangene Zukunft [Futures Past]” (125).

In his later years, Koselleck contributed to German public debates about the memory and memorialization of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. He argued that Germans had a moral duty to remember all victims of the regime, including still forgotten groups such as the more than three million Soviet prisoners of war murdered by the Nazis; he thus opposed the “hierarchy of victims” with Jews at the top established by official national memory and the central memorial in Berlin designed by Peter Eisenman. In this work, he drew upon his own “lava” (untransmissible) memories of his time as a Wehrmacht soldier on the Eastern Front who was captured and sent to Auschwitz and the interior of the Soviet Union as a prisoner of war from 1945–46. In 2005, on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, Koselleck reflected that he “built up [his] entire studies through the experience of the war.” However, he also emphasized the individuality of his experience, claiming that “each person has the right to their own memory.” In his case, May 8, 1945 was not a day of “liberation” (as Weizsäcker famously proclaimed in 1985) but rather marked the beginning of his “slavery.” Koselleck did not identify as a liberated “victim” of the regime because he fought to the end; “we Germans were also perpetrators in a very clear sense, whether as concentration camp guards or as soldiers.” After the war, his “re-education” officer was none other than the young British historian Eric Hobsbawm, of whom Koselleck also published a caricature in Vorbilder – Bilder (1983).

Koselleck’s sketch of the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who taught Koselleck at a reeducation center at Göhrde castle in 1947. Published in Vorbilder – Bilder (Bielefeld, 1983). Republished with permission from the Koselleck estate.

Niklas Olsen’s indispensable 2012 intellectual biography of Koselleck centers on the basic thesis on which all of his work rests: the inescapable plurality and plurivocity of historical experience and, therefore, of historical writing, which makes historical memory and historiography sites of perpetual reinterpretation and conflict. This lends Koselleck’s writing admirable humility, longevity, and contemporary resonance.

Over the years, the JHI Blog has published pieces on Koselleck’s work from a variety of angles, ranging from his early work on the notion of crisis, to his late work on war memorials, to his photographs. We are glad to feature these pieces here on Koselleck’s centennial:

Back in the Sattel(zeit) again” by John Raimo, 2015.

Koselleck and the Image” (review of the Bielefeld exhibition) by Jonathon Catlin, 2018.

Reinhart Koselleck on Modernity, Memorials, and the Meaninglessness of History” by Ella Myer, 2019.

Crisisⁿ or, Rebooting Conceptual History for the Twenty-First Century” by Alex Langstaff, 2019.

Begriffsgeschichte’s History: Between Historicization of Concepts and Conceptual Politics” interview with Falko Schmieder by Jonas Knatz, 2019.

Begriffsgeschichte’s Methodological Neighbors and the Scientification of Concepts” part two of Jonas Knatz’s interview with Falko Schmieder, 2019.

To celebrate the anniversary, a conference is planned at the University of Bielefeld on Koselleck’s birthday, April 23, at which a number of new projects will be presented. These include a forthcoming volume, Vom Ding und Unding der Geschichte (Transcript, 2023), edited by Lisa Regazzoni, on Koselleck’s collection of hundreds of figurines (especially of soldiers and horses). There is also a new anniversary blog entitled Komposita, whose name evokes the composite metaphors and meanings Koselleck employed in his studies of historical semantics. Komposita is hosted by the existing blog Theory of History at Work. On January 24, Komposita began publishing entries, in multiple languages, on new and old concepts related to Koselleck’s work or conceptual history, with the aim to build a new lexicon or glossary of conceptual history from a younger and more international generation of scholars. Komposita continues to invite contributions on concepts not yet covered by the blog, which can be classics of Koselleck’s work (crisis, progress, futures past) or entirely novel and non-European concepts whose study his work can inform (see Margrit Pernau’s reflection on jinns). In the spirit of international exchange and to expand this project to an English-speaking audience, the JHI Blog will cross-publish a small number of Komposita entries in the coming weeks and months.

The logo of the Bielefeld-based blog Komposita, featuring an item from Koselleck’s collection of figurines: a toy horse with Koselleck’s face on the rider, a gag gift from his students.

In October 2023, the Bielefeld event will be followed by the conference “Mit Koselleck über Koselleck hinaus: Perspektiven zu einer Begriffsgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts” at Berlin’s Leibniz-Center for Literary and Cultural Studies, home to the ongoing project on an interdisciplinary conceptual history of the twentieth century in Germany. This project’s leaders, Falko Schmieder and Ernst Müller, have together authored two important works on conceptual history. First, the 2016 Begriffsgeschichte und historische Semantik, which historicizes the project of Begriffsgeschichte amongst other related methodologies, from Frankfurt School critical theory, to Foucauldian genealogy, to Hans Blumenberg’s metaphorology, and about which the JHI Blog’s Jonas Knatz conducted a trenchant two-part interview with Schmieder in 2019. Second, in 2020, a new introduction to Begriffsgeschichte. As Schmieder emphasized at the History of Concepts conference in Berlin in the spring of 2022, Begriffsgeschichte for the twentieth century has to look—in a word—a lot more postmodern. Picking up where the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe left off, and coming after the linguistic and global turn, Schmieder and his collaboratorshave more distance between themselves and the twentieth century than Koselleck did, but they nevertheless confront an era in which meaning became increasingly fragmented, mediatized, and democratized, and in which the somewhat bounded national linguistic communities of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe mixed, transformed, and eroded.

A few of Jonathon’s Koselleck books.

No doubt these new commemorations and reinterpretations of Koselleck’s rich and wide-ranging corpus will continue to reinvigorate conceptual history for a younger, more international cohort of scholars no longer beholden to the original aims and methods of Koselleck and his generation. To give just one recent example, Jennifer L. Allen’s history of “utopia” in Germany since the 1980s looks not to high political rhetoric, where this lofty and totalizing concept was indeed predictably faltering amidst the collapse of real existing socialism, but rather to thriving “sustainable” and grassroots notions of utopia that were embedded in everyday social practices and activism. (Koselleck, for his part, claimed that his “basic attitude was skepticism as the minimum condition for reducing utopian excess—including the utopian excess of 1968.”) In our time of unrelenting pandemic, ongoing climate catastrophe, and the end of the end of history following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, terms like “permacrisis” and “polycrisis” have entered critical and political discourse in force. At such moments, Koselleck’s canonical attempts to historicize such fundamental modern concepts as “crisis” and “progress,” “revolution” and “history” may seem particularly timely. In contemporary deployments of modern “semantic stockpiles” such as these, we see, in Anson Rabinbach’s words, that “not only are concepts capable of synthesis, they’re also capable of explosion and they create shockwaves that keep reproducing themselves” (470). But, following Schmieder and Müller’s suggestion, we must also historicize Koselleck himself, thinking with him in order to ultimately think beyond him.

Jonathon Catlin is a Fellow in the Berlin Program at Freie Universität Berlin and a PhD Candidate in History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities at Princeton University, where he is writing a dissertation on the concept of catastrophe in twentieth-century European thought. He has contributed to the JHI Blog since 2016 and served as a contributing editor since 2018. He is also an editor of Komposita, the Koselleck anniversary blog based at the University of Bielefeld. He tweets @planetdenken.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Cover and complete collection of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, by Otto Brunner, Werner Conze and Reinhart Koselleck (eds.). Picture by Mika Federley, published on the website of the University of Helsinki, 2017. Wikimedia.

Intellectual history Think Piece

“Zamanawi-Seletane”: Three Intellectual Responses to Modernity in Ethiopia

By Fasil Merawi 

This piece has the goal of introducing three groups of intellectuals who hold distinct views on Ethiopia’s venture into modernity. If one wants to understand the general spirit of Ethiopian notions of modernity, zamanawi-seletane [modern civilization] emerges as a major concept. Used to characterize the nature of Ethiopian modernity, zamanawi-seletane signifies adopting instrumental rationality in the face of a threat posed by Western colonizers, while simultaneously recognizing the backwardness of one’s nation. It also implies introducing the latest achievements of the Western world in order to uphold the independence of the Ethiopian state. Realizing zamanawi-seletane to this extent requires the introduction of strong institutions, systems of education and forms of administration. In this think piece, I argue that modernity in Ethiopia did not emerge within the moral fabric of the community; however, it was not also animated by the attempt to introduce a direction for a nation’s development from above. 

When Western education was introduced in Ethiopia, the previous focus on church teaching was effectively sidelined. With the arrival of Ethiopian modernity, there was a shift from church education to modern Western education that was inspired by the need to develop an instrumental form of rationality. I follow here Paulos Milkias who characterizes Ethiopian modernity as the emergence of societal rationalization that displaced the power of religion and existing societal beliefs. Being guided by the goals of zamanawi-seletane, Ethiopian intellectuals wondered, in a country that once had a refined ancient civilization, why they were lagging. How can we introduce a conception of Ethiopian modernity that can restore our cultural pride and dignity while also learning from the instrumental achievements of the Western world? Besides the developmental ventures that were carried out by Ethiopian rulers, the question of Ethiopian modernity mainly occupied Ethiopian intellectuals. In the following, I discuss three major groups of thinkers who were involved in shaping the notion of Ethiopian modernity. 

The first group of intellectuals saw their task in explaining the cultural lag found in their nation. They believed that a country which was once known for the Aksumite civilization is currently in a state of backwardness. The believed that one is able to lay the foundations for a process of societal modernization through an appropriation of the instrumental rationality of the western world. The solution they believed in was to simultaneously preserve our cultural values and to learn from the material, scientific, and technological advancements of the West. These intellectuals, including Gebrehiwot Baykedagn (1886-1919), used the cultural lag thesis in order to explain the underdevelopment of Ethiopia. They also suggested that instrumental rationality was a unique contribution of the West to human civilization. Bahru Zewde argues that most attempts by Ethiopian intellectuals to learn from the instrumental rationality of the West tried to adopt the model of “Japanization,” which was a movement spearheaded by few Ethiopian intellectuals in the 1930s. 

Japan was considered the perfect model by intellectuals like Kebede Michael (1916-1998) because it was seen as the only nation that had attained instrumental progress without necessarily embracing Westernization. Nevertheless, Bahru makes the important point that attempts to emulate Japan’s developmental model lacked a sufficient understanding of its particular history and context. Regarding the impact of the works of the intellectuals Bahru admits that it is difficult to determine and that their works were mostly inaccessible to the masses. Still some reformist ideas suggested by intellectuals like Gebrehiwot were introduced within government policies later on. Among the major reformist intellectuals that tried to learn from the instrumental advancements of the West was the doctor, economist, and intellectual Gebrehiwot Baykedagn.

Gebrehiwot’s visions of societal modernization are brought forth in his works አጤምኒልክናኢትዮጵያ (The Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia; 1912) and መንግስትና የህዝብ አስተዳደር (State and Economy of early 20th century Ethiopia; 1924). I argue that two main motives dictate Gebrehiwot’s conception of modernity in The Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia. The first one is the need to learn from the success that colonizing nations attained in introducing modernization. Gebrehiwot believed that independence alone cannot lead into modernity and that one could learn even from the colonized. Secondly, there is the need to realize material development without necessarily abandoning one’s own cultural tradition. To meet the goals of a modern project that is founded on a sense of cultural pride, Gebrehiwot suggests there is a need to introduce a new form of history writing that shows a commitment to one’s cultural values. He further contends that there is a need to establish a modern government in Ethiopia that recognizes societal enlightenment as the foundation of processes of democratization. 

As part of his modernization program, Gebrehiwot generally lists ten radical measures that must be practically implemented. First of all, the wealth of the nation and the ruler’s private property must be separated from one another so as to avoid a possible conflict of interest. Secondly, there must be a parallel relation between the level of income of citizens and the amount of taxation levied on them. Thirdly, a uniform form of currency needs to be implemented. Fourthly, there must be a serious effort to further promote the Amharic national language. Fifthly, there is a need to harmonize existing and modern laws. Sixthly, there is a need to establish a modern army. Seventhly, there is a need to introduce a more functioning economic system. Eighthly, the economy needs to be regulated by law. Ninthly, there must be a strong central government and tenthly, the freedom of religion needs to be realized.

In his second work State and Economy of early 20th century Ethiopia, Gebrehiwot argues that human history is characterized by the dominance of the powerful over the less fortunate. I think that a Eurocentric view manifests itself in three major ways in Gebrehiwot’s approach. First of all, Gebrehiwot’s understanding of human history as a movement from a state of potentiality into actuality uses an analysis of cultural lag and underdevelopment in order to explain Ethiopia’s predicaments. Secondly, again in using the cultural lag thesis, Gebrehiwot seems to assume that there is a universal path to progress and that Ethiopia is lagging behind. Thirdly, Gebrehiwot also implicitly assumes that the West had an exclusive possession of instrumental rationality and that we need to learn from this. I therefore suggest that Gebrehiwot’s analysis is founded on a Eurocentric conception of modernity and that he did not pay enough attention to alternative conceptions of modernity found in the different parts of the world. Having identified the ideas of the first group of intellectuals, now let us move to the second group.

The second group of intellectuals shared the assumption that ancient Ethiopia, which rivaled the achievements of the greatest civilizations of the world, could provide inspiration for a process of cultural revival and renaissance. One of the intellectuals in this group is Asres Yenesew. In his  1958 work ጠቃሚ ምክር (Useful Advice), Asres develops a theory of modernization that is founded on ascribing a unique role to the Ethiopian intellectual. The task of such writers is to resist Western modernization and to provide the intellectual edifice for a cultural renaissance. They should particularly expose the ideological functions of Western education. Asres thinks that the role of a writer is to enlighten the masses. By evoking an analogy between a bee and the writer he argues that just like a bee needs a flower to produce honey, the masses also need the writer in order to realize societal progress. He still cautions that the writers and critics should be careful so as not to propagate Western ideology to the masses in the name of providing knowledge. 

Asres also warns us against equating Ge’ez education, which he saw as a particular form of education, with church education and makes a plea for studying Ethiopian history and texts. He criticized a new generation of Ethiopians for only being interested in studying the modern Western canon and gradually securing a position in the government offices. Asres also criticized his society for entertaining negative attitude towards craftsmanship and at least not being able to attain self-sufficiency. Primarily he thought that Ethiopians need to study our language for it gives us an access to our wisdom and also the hidden medical knowledge that is found in our forests. Asres saw those intellectuals who are educated in the West as the allies of the colonizers. I argue that among Ethiopia’s intellectuals Asres stands out as a unique scholar in developing an explicit criticism of Western modernity. He demonstrated that Western modernity is antithetical to the Ethiopian lived reality and that there is a need to develop a new foundation for social progress that is founded on the revival of the past. 

The third group of intellectuals unites those that tried to attain a unique synthesis between what they perceived as Ethiopian values and Western progress. Modernizers like Eguale Gebreyohannes aimed to develop a new conception of progress that equally accommodates Ethiopian cultural values and Western science and technology. Eguale believed that such a conception of progress should be primarily carried out in the field of education. In his 2003 የከፍተኛ ትምህርት ዘይቤ [Yekefitegna timihirt zeyibe], Eguale argued that if a nation has a system of education that balances different intellectual traditions, then all the problems of our society will be resolved. Using Plato, Eguale argues that knowledge is the foundation of virtue and societal justice. In such an effort to meet the goals of education and enlightenment, Eguale credits Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1974, for making a lasting contribution to modern education. Eguale believed that our program of modernization must allow us to determine the social functions of knowledge. 

The Athenians, Eguale suggests, embodied the principle of an intrinsic interest in knowledge as the foundation of societal progress. Based on a comparison between Western and Ethiopian systems of education, he argues that one problem in our knowledge system is that oral wisdom is not easily transferred from one generation to the other. He saw Ethiopian education as mainly being founded on oral tradition. Furthermore our existing system of education is founded on hostility towards modern Western scientific education. European modernity, according to Eguale, was able to learn from different intellectuals traditions although its primary gaze is oriented towards the controlling of the natural world. Eguale argues that technology is the unique possession of the West. He believed that we need to learn from Western system of education and that the task of the Ethiopian intellectual is to identify the limitations of Western and non-Western, material and immaterial forms of knowledge to then form a creative synthesis. 

Eguale’s approach differs from the modernizing programs brought forth by Ethiopia’s reformist intellectuals like Baykedagn in that what he is trying to attain is not the defense of the nation by the appropriation of Western knowledge. He also differs from the renaissance and revivalist intellectuals in that he does not try to elevate Ethiopia’s cultural past as the source of perfection. Despite such differences, just like most Ethiopian intellectuals, Eguale believed that modernization can be attained by instituting a new system of education. I argue that Eguale was not able to attain a synthesis between Ethiopian and Western conceptions of knowledge since his approach, just like other Ethiopian and third world intellectuals, presupposes that technology and instrumental rationality are unique capacities of the West. 

Rather than ascribing a particular form of orientation to a given culture, Eguale tried to recount for the pragmatic interests that animated different forms of knowledge in various parts of the world. Once there is transcultural contact, there is a need for a creative synthesis. Eguale seems to assume that there is a single trajectory that dictates the developmental paths of different societies of the world. He views the instrumental rationality of science and technology as an exclusive possession of the Western world. I argue that we need to instead explore alternative approaches that assume that there is the simultaneous existence of different paths towards modernity.

Fasil Merawi holds a PhD in philosophy from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. His areas of interest include post-metaphysical thinking, ontological pluralism, and multiple modernities. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor and the Chairperson of the Department of Philosophy, Addis Ababa University. Some of his recent publications include “Reflections on Glock’s Conception of Analytic Philosophy” (2021), “An Analysis of Hountondji’s ‘The Struggle for Meaning, Reflections on Philosophy, Culture and Democracy in Africa’” (2021), and “The Sage and Philosophy in Africa: Revisiting Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli” in Ethics, Epistemology, and Philosophy of Development An Evaluation, edited by Abdul Shakil (2021).

Edited by Isabel Jacobs

Featured Image: Mar Di Aethiopia Vulgo Oceanus Aethiopicus, 1650. Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history

Where is Ethiopia? From the Hebrew Bible to Attempted Italian Colonization

By Adam Simmons

‘Ethiopia’ is an ancient toponym that dates to at least the twelfth century BCE. However, it did not refer to the region of the modern-day country until many centuries later. This think piece will look at how modern Ethiopia came to call itself ʾItyoṗya (ኢትዮጵያ). This development was a process that occurred over three millennia but which only began in Ethiopia about c.1300 and was only finally cemented on the global scene during the reign of Menelik II, 600 years later. Yet, it remains to be commonly found in scholarship that appearances to the toponym ‘Ethiopia’ in sources dating to before the fourteenth century refer to the earlier, particularly Christian, kingdoms which inhabited modern Ethiopia and Eritrea, namely ʾAksum (c.100 BCE-c.900 CE; the rulers of ʾAksum converted to Christianity by the mid-fourth century) and Bǝgwǝna (the kingdom ruled by the so-called Zagwe dynasty, c.900-1270). By taking a less conflated approach to the toponym, a much more nuanced history of north-east Africa can be relayed.  

Map of East Africa with modern-day Sudan and Ethiopia labeled. (Wiki Commons).

The history of the toponym of ‘Ethiopia’ has two distinct discourses: a pre-Christian and a Christian one. The pre-Christian ‘Ethiopia,’ which appears in Greek and Latin texts, is most commonly referred to as a large, yet vague, region, usually north-east Africa, the Sahara, or even the Indian subcontinent. While it could be associated with the kingdom(s) in modern Sudan, this association was made much more explicit, specifically in biblical texts. The third-century BCE Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – the 70-book Septuagint, which makes up the Old Testament – opted to directly translate the Hebrew toponym Kūš into Aithiopia in Greek. ‘Kush’ had long been the toponym for Sudan, both by those resident in Sudan and elsewhere, such as Egypt and Mesopotamia. The kingdom(s) of Sudan (successors Kerma, Napata, and Meroë) then became the kingdom(s) of ‘Ethiopia.’ Importantly, this did not refer to the successor kingdoms of modern Eritrea and Ethiopia, namely Dʿmt and ʾAksum. Sudanese Ethiopia gained prominence in biblical lines such as Psalm 67(68:31) and was reaffirmed in Acts 8:26-39 regarding the baptism of the eunuch of the Sudanese queen of Meroë, known in the Bible as Queen Candace, by the apostle Philip in the first century CE. These lines would later gain great importance in Solomonic Ethiopia. Still, ʾAksum, the Eritrean/Ethiopian kingdom, did not claim an association with either Kush or Ethiopia even after its official Christian conversion in the fourth century. In fact, ʾAksumite sources associate Kush/Ethiopia with its neighbor in Sudan and not itself.

The decline of ʾAksum, seemingly over by sometime in the tenth century, remains obscure. Its successor, the Kingdom of Bǝgwǝna, which was centered on the region of Lasta in the north of modern-day country Ethiopia, also did not claim an association with Ethiopia as far as the current evidence suggests. Meanwhile, in Sudan, the Sudanese kingdoms of Nobadia, Makuria, and Alwa, which had been officially Christian since the mid-sixth century, united as Dotawo around c.1100. Nubian sources are too fragmentary to trace how it associated itself with Kush/Ethiopia, but it is clear that external writers maintained this belief. It was for precisely this reason that the toponym ‘Abyssinia’ appears in European texts from the twelfth century – a misunderstanding of al-Ḥabaša in Arabic as well as other comparative toponyms, such as Ḥabašat (Gǝʿǝz) and Ḥabaš (Hebrew and Syriac) – to clarify it from Ethiopia (Nubia). Still, no evidence points to either Ethiopians or external observers associating the kingdom that would become Ethiopia with ‘Ethiopia’ by the twelfth century.

The Solomonic dynasty’s rise to power in 1270 coincided with a period of turmoil within Nubia, particularly brought by the Mamlūks of Egypt but also likely by inconsistent Nile floods and repeated outbreaks of plague. The Mamlūks had seized power in Egypt in 1250 and reigned until 1517 before themselves being conquered by the Ottomans. Before this period, the ruler of Nubia, the ourou, had long been viewed as the regional protector of north-east African Christians by Eastern Christians, including by those of Ethiopia. However, one of the early claims Solomonic Ethiopian rulers made is to position themselves as the new regional protector of north-east African Christians. This was despite evidence suggesting that Dotawo remained a regional power until the early seventeenth century – though its last known ruler, Joel, only reigned up until the 1480s. Yet, after c.1300 Dotawo could not prevent its position in Christian discourse from being replaced by Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, its new Ethiopian identity was cemented by the translation of the Kəbrä nägäśt into Gǝʿǝz from Arabic during the reign of ʿÄmdä Ṣǝyon (r. 1314-44). This text told the foundation narrative of the Solomonic dynasty and its lineage from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba via their son, Menelik, the first king of Ethiopia (importantly given as ʾItyoṗya in the text as it was following the example of ʿÄmdä Ṣǝyon that subsequent rulers fashioned themselves as rulers of ʾItyoṗya, the first to do so which can be accurately dated). Indeed, the Kəbrä nägäśt was explicit in tying Solomonic descent to the rule of Ethiopia, not least in the line:


“For so is Ethiopia the land of the nǝguś and his descendants forever” (Kəbrä nägäśt, Ch. 92).

It was also during the reign of ʿÄmdä Ṣǝyon that the first period of expansion under its Solomonic nägäśt for the kingdom began, particularly in the north, south, and east, further gaining regional prominence in the process which his successors across the centuries built on. His exploits were also enshrined in the earliest example of a surviving chronicle written about a ruler and their reign in the Gǝʿǝz corpus. This legacy would last for the remainder of the dynasty, as can be seen in the below coat of arms employed by Emperor Menelik II (r. 1889-1913); it embodies all that the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia portrayed itself to be, among other things, the conquering lion of Judah in front of the throne of Solomon and its association with Psalm 67(68):31: ‘Ethiopia will reach out its hands to God’, displaying Ethiopia as among the earliest followers of the Christian God.

Reconstruction of the Imperial Coat of Arms of Menelik II (Wiki Commons).

From the early fourteenth century, Ethiopia was ʾItyoṗya, adopting multiple aspects of Sudanese history into its identity. For example, Ethiopians expressed how their ruler was of Ethiopia, not Abyssinia, and that the biblical Queen Candace had resided at ʾAksum despite historically residing at Meroë in Sudan. The narrative of continuation was being clearly refined in both Ethiopia and particularly to those in Europe, who would come to forget about Nubia in favor of Ethiopia via increased engagement with Ethiopia, notably between 1402 and 1633. This period witnessed embassies and other interactions being exchanged between Ethiopia and various European kingdoms – namely, Portugal, Aragon (in Spain), France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Italian city-states (particularly Venice and Rome) – ultimately resulting in a Portuguese-led Jesuit patriarchate being established in Ethiopia from 1555 until their expulsion in 1633. This came at a similar time as Portuguese and Italian Jesuits travelled across the world to the Americas, China, India, and Japan.    

Following the fourteenth century, Ethiopia and Europe remained united in Ethiopia’s name, though Europeans also continued to refer to the kingdom as ‘Abyssinia.’ However, as ‘Abyssinia’ remained the principal toponym for Ethiopia in Western Europe, al-Ḥabaša, Habeş, Ḥabaš remained in Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew sources, such as on maps, until the nineteenth century. Not everywhere knew Ethiopia as ‘Ethiopia.’ Indeed, even within Ethiopia the language employed designated the toponym used. For example, the seal of Tēwodros II (r. 1855-68) refers to him as ruler of ʾItyoṗya (ኢትዮጵያ) in Gǝʿǝz, but ruler of al-Ḥabaša (الخبسة) in the accompanying Arabic.

Seal of Tēwodros II (Wiki Commons).

It was only after the reign of Emperor Menelik II that we find the introduction of ʾĀthyūbīā, Etiyopya, and ʾEtiyowpiyah in Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew respectively globally. Menelik’s victory over Italy at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 cemented Ethiopia’s regional sovereignty and ability to influence global intellectualism following Italy’s failed attempts to expand its influence beyond Italian Eritrea. Italy’s interest in the region began officially following the government takeover of the port of Assab in 1882, after the Italian shipping company, Rubattino Shipping, purchased it from local rulers. The occupation of Massawa, a key Eritrean port, in 1885 was the precursor which led to the Battle of Adwa between Italy and the Ethiopian Empire the following year. It was not for a further three years, however, until the Treaty of Wuchale was signed between these countries in 1889 that the Italian colony of Eritrea was established. The colony was integrated into Italian East Africa in 1936 before its loss in World War II to Ethiopian and British forces in 1941 ended Italian colonialism in the region. Tracking when exactly the whole world universally adopted the toponym ‘Ethiopia’ for the modern country is difficult to pinpoint. Still it is clear that it only happens following the nineteenth century. Yet, the history of the toponym has a much longer and more varied history than that.

Adam Simmons is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Nottingham Trent University who specialises in the history of Africa, particularly North-East Africa, between the fourth and fifteenth centuries. He is author of Nubia, Ethiopia, and the Crusading World, 1095-1402 (Routledge, 2022).

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: The Church of St. George at Lalibela (Wiki Commons).

Intellectual history

Forum: Intellectual Histories of Ethiopia

By the Primary Editors


What is Ethiopia and where is Ethiopia? At first glance, these questions seem simple enough. However, as our forum “Intellectual Histories of Ethiopia” shows, there have been centuries of complex contestation over the meanings and geographies of Ethiopia. Despite its ancient history and turbulent present, Ethiopia’s contributions to global intellectual histories are still mostly overlooked. Historians of ideas have begun to address the inherent Eurocentrism within the broader field of intellectual history. Recent works have drawn our attention to the extra-European world as a vibrant space of conceptual production. Though much of the work remains to be done, our forum takes a step in that direction by showcasing new research on the history of ideas in and from Ethiopia. We seek to contribute to the ongoing decolonization of the field of intellectual history and thus, opening it up to include non-white and non-male actors as agents in their histories. We hope that this project will instigate new interest in Ethiopia and its diverse and rich traditions of intellectual histories. It is a growing work in progress; if you would like to contribute a piece on Ethiopia (broadly defined) and decolonization, please do get in touch with us here.

Although many sources on Ethiopia are fragmentary, texts in multiple languages play a significant role in all of our pieces. Gə’əz has been the dominant literary language for much of Ethiopia’s long history. As our three opening pieces demonstrate, scholars of Ethiopian history of ideas need to be versed in multiple languages, such as those from Omotic and Cushite families, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, Turkish, Portuguese, and Italian. A daunting prospective for any aspiring scholar, but one that is rewarded by the richness and transcultural interconnectedness of intellectual life in this region.

The geographical range of these languages attests to the breadth of Ethiopia’s intellectual history, and so does the influence of religion. In the area now known as Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, many religions exchanged, jostled and fought. This forum’s pieces show, as some recent books have done, that Ethiopia is a key player in the emergence of monotheistic faith. Christianity, for instance, while regarded as the cornerstone of European civilization with roots in Latin, Greek or Slavonic traditions, has to be resituated as having an influential historical tradition in the Horn of Africa. And as so with language, scholars of Ethiopia encounter multiple religions across its history.

This image is King Solomon and Queen of Sheba as depicted in an illuminated manuscript of Speculum Humanae Salvationis (ca. 1430). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This forum has three forthcoming pieces across this week and next. The first is Adam Simmons‘ piece which excavates the history of the toponym of ‘Ethiopia,’ which has two distinct aspects: a pre-Christian and a Christian one. The former exists in Greek, Latin and the Hebrew Bible and outlines a large, vague region in north east Africa. The latter is rooted in the Solomonic dynasty and their rulership of the region from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Where are the most important Ethiopian philosophical manuscripts in the world? Jonathan Egid tells us the story of how Saint John’s University in rural Minnesota came to be the home of these texts and a titan of Ethiopian scholarship, Getatchew Haile. This piece invites to think about translations of Greek texts in the region, and specifically, Hatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, the topic of Egid’s doctoral research: the ‘jewel of Ethiopian literature’ or a forgery (or both)?

In his think piece, Fasil Merawi presents three contesting responses by Ethiopian intellectuals to modernity. The first group were adherents to Western instrument rationality and thereby argued that Ethiopia was in a backward state. The second group was more nationalist in temperament who found that ancient Ethiopia could rival the greatest civilizations of the world, and the third group were more accommodationist between Western social sciences and Ethiopian cultural distinctiveness.

Featured Image: Diptych with Mary and Her Son Flanked by Archangels, Apostles and a Saint. AXIA ART Ltd., London [date and mode of acquisition unknown]; Robert and Nancy Nooter Collection, Washington, D.C., October 1992, by purchase; Walters Art Museum, 2001, by purchase [Creative Commons]

Intellectual history Interview

The Counterinsurgent Imagination: An Interview with Joseph Mackay

Joseph MacKay is a Fellow/Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. His research focuses on historical international hierarchies, historical international security, and the history of international thought. His first book, The Counterinsurgent Imagination: A New Intellectual History (Cambridge, 2022), draws on his doctoral research. He holds a PhD from the University of Toronto.

Thomas Furse is a primary editor of the JHIBlog. He spoke to Mackay about the intellectual history of counterinsurgency wars.  


TF: You set the outline of the book as “a long-run intellectual history of counter-revolutionary wars” that uses a set of “military manuals as records of idealized practice” to maintain the status quo (pp. 3, 6). To understand these texts, you take your methodological cue from the Cambridge School, specifically from J.G.A. Pocock and David Armitage’s “serial contextualism.” Why did you choose this approach for your set of texts and to argue your case about counter-revolutionary war?

JM: The puzzle motivating the book is that there is a lot if you look at counterinsurgent or counter-revolutionary ideas over the long haul. A really remarkable variety of ideas. That variety narrows out quite a bit after 1945 or so, but that lines up broadly and roughly with a decline in counterinsurgent success rates in practice. So: why the wide variety? And why an eventual convergence of ideas that do not seem to work reliably in practice?

Answering these questions calls for a look at the relatively long run of modern counter-revolutionary war. I wanted to pull out a longer time horizon to consider what we now call counterinsurgency and its antecedents. Many historical accounts of this stuff start in the late nineteenth century, at the height of European colonialism. Work like that ties more recent practices back to overt, formal imperialism. It does that very effectively. I wanted to go further and see how imperial “small wars” talk came about. Doing that required going back to the centuries before the “new imperialism” in Africa and Asia and an in-depth case from before that period. So that is Johann von Ewald, a Hessian officer who served with the British in the American Revolutionary War. What we find there is not just a prior tradition but a fair bit of contestation already happening. Ewald came from a Central and Eastern European “small war” tradition associated with rural and geographically marginal spaces. It was not particularly ideological. But in America, he ran up against actual revolutionaries. His project became tacitly counter-revolutionary in response.

Johann von Ewald (Wiki Commons).

There has been some great work on European small wars that broader period in the last decade or so, for example, by Sibylle Scheipers, Beatrice Heuser, Bruce Buchan, and Benjamin Deruelle. Looking at that period, and focusing on Ewald, allowed me to establish a status quo ante for later imperial warfare practices associated with C. E. Callwell and others. From there, the story moves to better-trod ground and the eventual emergence of a post-1945, especially post-1960 consensus.

I focused on military manuals as a genre because they are the texts that most programmatically survey what counterinsurgents—armed counter-revolutionaries—think of as the right way to do what they do. Of course, there is no straightforward correlation between the manuals and actual practice. But manuals tell us what counterinsurgents think they should do, should be seen to, and think is politically permissible and desirable. They also change in interesting ways over the long haul of the study—becoming more official, technical, and detailed.

Anyhow, to unpack those variations across time seemed to me to require two parallel tasks, methodologically speaking: a long-run historical narrative and a series of deeper dives to look at how specific manuals—instructional texts—came about. The manuals belong historically to political, social, military, and sometimes institutional contexts. So I adopted a broadly contextualist approach, aiming to situate them among other period texts in the genre, as well as those larger sociopolitical situations. Doing that requires showing contextual change over the long run and then a series of specific manuals and their authors in a sequence of historical contexts. I follow David Armitage in calling the latter “serial contextualism”: a set of linked contextualist studies, in sequence, to capture moments in a longer set of overall processes. So that is what the book does. The aim is to explain where each text came from—how a given set of circumstances produced the authors and the books they wrote. From there, we can look at how they shaped practice, or at least official rhetoric, in the period that followed.

TF: In Graham Greene’s 1955 book, The Quiet American, Alden Pyle tells Thomas Fowler that it is “not that easy to be uninvolved,” which is, in a way, one the book and film’s takeaway quotes. It is about the French war in Indochina and foreshadows the US entry into the war, but it is also about the problems of remaining neutral and detached when covering wars. Similarly, in your book, you had to tread a line between understanding your subjects and how they found themselves in situations beyond their control and seeing them as morally questionable. We might sympathize with our subjects sometimes and other times find them repulsive during the process of historical research. How did you research and write your book with this in mind?

JM: As a matter of method, if I am honest, I do not think there are easy or systematic answers here. The record of these events and ideas has some ugly stuff in it. The reader is, I suspect, going to want to both understand and judge, in one balance or another. That presents a problem of how to present and interpret the record. Not knowing how to solve the problem, I tried to manage it. When historical figures in the book engaged in what we might call bad behavior, especially the three solo authors of historical manuals, I made a point of showing them doing that. I tried to trust the reader to judge rather than do that for them. Where there was useful context—incriminating, exculpatory, or otherwise—I tried to provide it. The book should leave the reader with a sense of the lay of the intellectual land and how they might navigate it in the broader historical record.

For example, Charles Edward Callwell is the figure in the book most associated with comparatively extreme violence, including against civilians, as a style of counterinsurgency. He repeatedly endorsed destroying villages, destroying food supplies, and otherwise openly violating the laws of war as he understood them. During the second South African war, he burned Boer farms. In his memoirs, he describes this as a practical matter, with no particular moral qualms at all—even with a sort of mordant humor. I contrast this with a report from a rank-and-file British soldier describing his own horror at a similar event. This way, we know other British troops made moral judgments here. Yet Callwell did not—it does not seem to have occurred to him. I think that is pretty telling.

These things can get harder to weigh at more remote historical distances or when the record is more ambivalent. For example, Johann Ewald, the Hessian mercenary who served with the British in the American Revolutionary War, said racist things about Black and Indigenous people. As someone fighting in a settler war in the Americas, he participated in slavery and settler colonialism. Yet race seems not to have been important to his ideas about irregular war, which were focused on Europe and European peoples. Here I was, concerned mostly to make sense of that apparent contradiction. I tried to make the wider period context of European ideas about race, irregular war, and related matters clear on the page. The reader can—should—still judge him, but my main concern was to make sure they had some reasonably sophisticated tools with which to do so.

All this goes a bit by the wayside in the book’s conclusion, where I admit I allowed myself to editorialize more. Rereading the manuscript as I wrote the conclusion, I found I had pretty strong opinions about where the historical long run leaves us. By this point in the text, I hope I have given the reader the wherewithal to draw conclusions of their own if they want to. They are welcome to disagree with me, but the balance of evidence points in some complicatedly troubling directions.

I might add that Greene’s novel is a favorite of mine. I think it is the only work of fiction I have ever required students to read. These questions of intellectual and political remove seem to me central to it. I wonder sometimes if Greene did not sympathize with Pyle more than he was willing to let on. Fowler, after all, is a kind of ideal unreliable narrator. And at the end, of course, Fowler is as involved as anyone—he gets his hands very dirty, albeit not for ideological reasons. In the line you quote, I wonder if Greene may have been speaking for himself, as a writer, as much as anything. The book has blindspots of its own. I suspect he knew that—and knew he could lose intellectual remove as easily as his characters.

TF: You have a chapter on C. E. Callwell, the “doyen” of Victorian small war theory (p. 152). His work was the Boer War, where he practiced his theory of war. We could think that southern Africa was a ‘bloodlands’ for the German, British, and Portuguese empires, who each fought a series of wars (the Herero and Namaqua wars and genocides, Boer Wars, the First Chimurenga, Anglo-Zulu Wars, Bailundo revolt, and Battle of Mufilo) at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As you show in the text, Callwell had an imperial arrogance about him, and this regional violence (or any at all) barely seemed to feature in his thinking. Did you find that the army officers across your timeline shared ideas about counter-revolutionary wars, or were their intellectual horizons quite narrow?

JM: Callwell was kind of an incurious guy. He liked to talk about learning from practice, but he had pretty strong priors. The British imperial project was absolutely central for him. The other empires do sometimes loom into view in his writing. At some point, he visited French North Africa and reported in his memoirs that “we could not have made a better business of developing and civilizing that part of the world than the French have.” For him, this was high praise. He also made chiefly positive comments about Russian colonialism, particularly in Small Wars, his manual, and elsewhere. He attributed a considerable predilection for violence to them, which he endorsed. But while he knew he was participating in a larger imperial system or set of projects of domination in Africa and Asia, his focus centered on the British experience. His knowledge of the others seems to have been chiefly historical.

That said, this is still the moment small wars become well and truly global. Callwell does get deployed across Afro-Eurasia—India, Afghanistan, and the like. And he had that historical knowledge of British, French, Russian, and other imperial wars globally. He seems to have been vaguer on the Americas, but it is still a pretty wide view.

In any case, once that global turn kicks in, it more or less sticks. Irregular warfare between, and at the margins of, the two world wars was, of course, pretty globally distributed. The attempts to preserve the European empires against revolutions that followed were as well. The British were trying to suppress revolutions in Kenya and Malaya at roughly the same time, if not reliably, in the same ways. The resulting instructional texts, their authors, and their biographies tend to reflect that scope. Someone like Frank Kitson turned up in Malaya, Kenya, Oman, Cyprus, and eventually Northern Ireland. And those are roughly the “lessons” that American counterinsurgents try to pick up circa 2005.

David Galula (WikiCommons)

TF: The book really comes into its own with the chapter on David Galula and the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). His life makes a good story. He was a Jewish Tunisian raised in Casablanca who then got an elite French officer education at École spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr in 1939. He then evaded the Vichy government and the Nazis and, after the war, went to China to learn Mandarin and Maoist revolutionary tactics. His main deployment was, of course, Algeria, where he fought the FLN that were pursuing Algerian independence. The systematic torture of suspected terrorists, the Milk Bar Bombing, the French Foreign Legion, the film Battle of Algiers, two failed French military coups in 1958 and 1961, the end of the Fourth Republic, and of course, Franz Fanton’s The Wretched of the Earth made the war infamous. It seems an messy uncontrollable counterinsurgency war. You argue Galula adopted a “spare and modernist model of counterinsurgency” (p. 160), which you akin to a bureaucratic sociological approach to counterinsurgency operations (as opposed to psychological). After the war, Galula went to Harvard and wrote the Pacification in Algeria, 1956–1958 paper that later became influential in US military circles. So, how can we think of Galula as a theorist of empire?

JM: Empire was incredibly central to Galula’s political experience in all sorts of ways. It is odd then that, in a sense, he had very little to say about it theoretically. It was as much a thing he did and had done to him as something he had any general conception of—at least that he put to paper. He was certainly a carrier of colonial ideas. He seemed to be a true believer in French colonialism as an ameliorative project. Of course, it is also all over his personal experience from his colonial education before Saint-Cyr onward. The high school (lycée) he attended in Casablanca was named for Hubert Lyautey. So we might say his pathway to his eventual French nationalism was distinctively influenced by the empire. He thought and spoke in ways that took the French empire as given. We see this in his attitudes toward Islam, ways of speaking about colonial “development,” and the like. His basic project was to roll back insurgency, which he understood in Maoist terms, and re-establish colonial control. Victory for Galula was a victory not just over insurgency but also “maintained by and with the population.” He hoped to regain, if not their beliefs, then at least their reliable acquiescence—that was the world he wanted back.

In terms of how he saw himself, perhaps the first thing to know is that he was a kind of nationalist or patriot. When his biographer asked his widow about his politics, the first thing she said was, “He loved France.” That bears out. At some point in the mid-sixties, he declined a job with an American firm because he would have had to give up his French citizenship to get the required security clearance. He was serious about it, though he had acquired it somewhat tenuously.

Perhaps because of all this, his ideas about empire do not always easily disentangle from his general status quo conservatism and his anti-communism. He also likely played his colonialist views a bit close to his chest—his Anglophone readers were chiefly Americans who, rightly or wrongly, did not think of themselves as engaged in colonial warfare. He could be defensive about this stuff. He says in his RAND report, describing something in Algeria, that “I sound no doubt terribly colonialist, but it’s a fact.” Recall Fowler letting the mask slip a little and saying to his American counterpart, “We are the old colonial peoples, Pyle, but we’ve learnt a bit of reality.” This was Galula’s situation—he aimed to make a case for his own methods without quite saying out loud that he was an imperialist.

In terms of his background, I think there is a pattern of sorts here, with more than a few counterinsurgents coming from a grab bag of near- or semi-peripheral backgrounds. Callwell was born to Irish parents in London. Ewald came up through military service in a small (and highly militarized) German state to serve the British and eventually join the Danish nobility. Even David Petraeus is the son of an immigrant—though he grew up a few miles from West Point—and had an Australian in his circle. Beyond the cases in this book, midcentury counterinsurgents like Napolean Valeriano and Abdul Haris Nasution were explicitly figures from former colonies who learned in uniform to put down rebellions, sometimes across multiple settings. So there is a pattern here of people who were, variously, not or not quite from the core, who experienced upward mobility. For many of these authors, at least, imperial militaries were pathways to improved social class or status. And the networks they moved on, like many imperial networks, were profoundly transboundary or transnational. It is remarkably common across the modern period. While the networks are not all explicitly imperial, they tend to have that pattern of qualities.

TF: The last manual you examine is the 2006 US Army and Marine Corps field manual (FM 2-34), which is the most sophisticated text in the book and the one used in the Iraq War. It is, you argue, replete with neoliberal managerial speak and has a US securocrat feel, as opposed to the writing of a ‘genius’ individual. You explore the group that wrote and edited the manual—David Petraeus, John Nagl, Montgomery McFate, Conrad Crane, David Kilcullen, and others such as Don Snider and Richard Swain. You call them “internal nonconformists” (p. 203). They had a curious mix of backgrounds, McFate grew up in the poverty of ‘hippie’ communes in California, Kilcullen’s parents were left-wing academics, and Petraeus seemed to have a middle-class start in life. How did you draw out these identities and power structures in their work? How do you think future intellectual historians can think about the meaning of authorship when the text is collaborative and semi-anonymous?

JM: It is an interesting question. The other manuals, although not traditional intellectual history fare, are at least single-author documents. So we do not have to piece their authorship together. In this case, we only know who wrote what from reports after the fact. The authors partially promoted the text through a standard narrative of how it was produced. That narrative foregrounds the rush, the pressure, and the collaborative environment. Ironically, it also made several of them public figures. But in the end, we know one or two specific people drafted each chapter, many of them not well known, then fed through a revision and editorial process—one that, by the end, was pretty deeply embedded in military bureaucracy.

Some authors’ personal recollections of the process are pretty extensive. Conrad Crane’s memoir of it is forensic. It is a remarkable record. The less publicly visible authors, like Snider and Swain, have not spoken much about the process, at any length, that I am aware of (and I have not spoken to them). So there is a sort of closed-book quality to some of this.

I would bet these are methodological challenges intellectual history will continue to face variations on. As researchers turn to explain more recent genres of text, we are going to find that knotty questions of authorship, editorship, institutional setting, and so on are hard to avoid. I am thinking, for example, of what Jennifer Schuessler, Asheesh Kapur Siddique, and others have called “paperwork studies,” wherein lots of less canonical forms or genres of text turn out to have meanings, and thus histories, of their own. Those meanings and histories will often belong to institutional settings and styles of collaboration.

For me, at least, I tend toward two ways to think methodologically here. One is to do our best to reconstruct the micro-level processes. Who said what, when, in what context, and so on. So you build up the historical analysis of the individuals and how they dealt with one another. The other is to take institutional authorship seriously. The institutions will have norms, cultures, processes, authority structures, and so on, through which this stuff gets produced. In practice, the two kinds of processes will also interact a fair bit.

In making sense of FM 3-24, I tried to do a bit of both. I hope the reader will see two things. On the one hand, there is how the Army and the Marines went about causing the manual to be produced within a set of broad genre specifications and managing or constraining how the writing process went and what the manual could say. Conversely, we see how the individuals involved work within those constraints. Sometimes we see institutions contending with one another, too—which may constrain individuals and may open up opportunities for them. It all gets more, well, political. In this case, several authors—Petraeus, Nagl, among them—were students of organizational politics and learning. They brought, or likely thought they brought, prior understandings of how all that infighting would work. So a lot is going on here. In the end, capturing the cacophony is probably part of the job, and at times it may be the best we can do. I hope that is part of what the book does.

Tom Furse is a primary editor at the JHI Blog and a PhD student at City, the University of London. He researches the connections between strategic thought, the social sciences, management theory and political economy.

Featured Image: A pro-independence front de libération nationale protest in Algeria. Creative Commons.