Think Piece

Empire of Abstraction: British Social Anthropology in the “Dependencies”

By Nile A. Davies

It would seem to be no more than a truism that no material can be successfully manipulated until its properties are known, whether it be a chemical compound or a society of human beings; and from that it would appear to follow that the science whose material is human society should be called upon when nothing else than the complete transformation of a society is in question.

Lucy Mair, “Colonial Administration as a Science” (1933)

On March 24th 1945, the British scientific journal Nature breathlessly reported that £120,000,000 of research funds (the equivalent of over 5 billion USD today) would be made available by the passing of the Colonial Development and Welfare Bill: a momentous commitment to the expansion of colonial study “which should be of interest to administrators, scientific men and technologists, and all who are concerned with the welfare and advancement of the British Colonial possessions.” The material conditions of colonial research would significantly determine the scope and energies of empirical labor in the social sciences. Specifically, ideas of colonial welfare drew conspicuously on the authority of experts in Social Anthropology—in its varying professional and institutional forms—to apprehend the flux and metamorphosis of human relations in a new international order.

Such extraordinary expenditures reflected broad desires throughout the previous decade for a science of administration—a means with which to know and understand a field of possibilities in an age of global “interpenetration” in colonized societies which, in their particularity, could not be addressed by “the application of general principles, however humanitarian.”[1] As data pertaining to the “forces and spirit of native institutions” were increasingly called upon for the maintenance of social cohesion, there emerged an imperative for the cultivation of “specially trained investigators [devoted to] comprehensive studies in the light of a sociological knowledge of the life of a community.”

Table of Contents from Lucy Mair, Welfare in the British Colonies (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1944).

The history of colonial welfare recalls the contours of “governmentality,” the term coined by Michel Foucault to describe how power is secured through forms of expertise and intervention, attending to “the welfare of the population, the improvement of its condition, the increase of its wealth, longevity, health, etc.”[2] Drawn into the enterprise of administration, the design and formulation of social and economic research by anthropologists became increasingly associated with the high moral purpose of colonial reform. But, as Joanna Lewis notes, such a remit encompassed an impossibly wide range of aims and instruments for control: “animating civil society against social collapse; devising urban remedies for the incapacitated and the destitute; correcting the deviant” (75). Beset by the threat of rapid social change and indigenous nationalisms, the potential of the worldview offered up by intimate knowledge of the social structure suggested a means by which history itself might be forestalled. Well poised to anticipate the unforeseeable in a world of collapsing regimes, the great enthusiasm for structural functionalism in particular—akin to the field of international relations and its entanglements with empire—derived from its popular image as a tool of divination, seeming to equate the kinds of total social knowledge claimed by its practitioners with a scientifically derived vision of the future.

Formalizing the central importance of social analysis to the task of government, in 1944, the Colonial Social Science Research Council (CSSRC) was formed in order to advise the Secretary of State of the Colonies regarding “schemes of a sociological or anthropological nature.” Among the founding members of the council was Raymond Firth, the esteemed ethnologist of Polynesian society whose thesis (on the “Wealth and Work of the Maori”) had been supervised by Bronislaw Malinowski, pater familias of the discipline as it took form around the life and work of those who attended his seminar at the London School of Economics. But for professional academics striving for dominance amidst the competition of so-called “practical men,” the expansion of new territories for research raised serious questions about the value and legitimacy of knowledge production. As Benoît de L’Estoile has noted, the struggle for “a monopoly of competence on non-western social phenomena” generated new factions in the milieu of colonial expertise between academics and administrators, whose mutual engagements “in the field” marked divergent relationships to the value of colonial study as a means for the production of social theory.[3]

Front matter of Raymond Firth, Human Types (London: Nelson and Sons, 1938). Image by John Krygier via A Series of Series.

At the same time, increasing demand and material support for the study of the world-system had allowed a new generation of social and natural scientists to turn their attention towards the field from the metropole. For its part, the Royal Anthropological Institute awarded the Wellcome Medal each year “for the best research essay on the application of anthropological methods to the problems of native peoples, particularly those arising from intercourse between native peoples, or between primitive natives and civilised races.” Lucy Mair, another former student of Malinowski’s (cited at the beginning of this essay) received the award in 1935. This “immaterial” value of the colonies for the prospect of scholarship was shared by Lord Hailey, Chairman of the Colonial Research Committee. As he suggested in the preamble to the mammoth administrative compendium, An African Survey (1938):

A considerable part of the activity of the intellectual world is expended today in the study of social institutions, systems of law, and political developments which can now only be examined in retrospect. But Africa presents itself as a living laboratory in which the reward of study may prove to be not only the satisfaction of an intellectual impulse, but an effective addition of the welfare of the people. (xxiv)

Hailey’s romantic claims about the ends of imperial study proved to be prophetic for the postwar period, and spoke to the experimental approach in which such schemes were elaborated. While the natural sciences held out the promise of material riches to be “exploited” in an empire of neglect, anthropologists similarly stood to profit from their engagements in a social order that was shifting beyond recognition. Beyond the preservative impulse of ethnographic practice in the early 20th century, fixed on salvaging the “primitive” from the threshold of extinction, the contingencies of a collapsing empire presented the opportunity for colonial science to fulfil a gamut of ethical duties as the ideological arm of an administration that governed the flow of capital itself. As Hailey would later note in 1943:

No one can dispute the value of the humanitarian impulse which has in the past so often provided a corrective to practices which might have prejudiced the interests of native peoples. But we can no longer afford to regard policy as mainly an exercise in applied ethics. We now have a definite objective before us—the ideal of colonial self-government—and all our thinking on social and economic problems must be directed to organising the life of colonial communities to fit them for that end. […] It is in the light of this consideration that we must seek to determine the position of the capitalist and the proper function of capital.

What was this “proper function” of capital? In an address at Chatham House in April 1944, Bernard Bourdillon, then Governor of Nigeria, described the affective indifference, the ideological exhaustion of a precarious empire whose deprivation under the doctrine of laissez-faire could only suggest the great deception of the civilizing mandate itself. In the thrall of liberal torpor, the fate of Britain’s so-called “dependencies” had long been characterized by the slow violence of a debilitating austerity, borne out by starvation and disease in insolvent colonies, unable to develop their (often plentiful) resources in the absence of revenues. The receipt of financial assistance by the poorest colonies to balance their ailing budgets reflected the management of the population at its minimum, confined within the vicious cycle of deficiency: “regarded as poor relations, who could not, in all decency, be allowed to starve, but whose first duty was to earn a bare subsistence, and to relieve their reluctant benefactors of what was regarded as a wholly unprofitable obligation.”

O.G.R Williams to J.C Meggitt, “Housing conditions for poorer classes in and around Freetown” (C.S.O. M/54/34, 1939). Photograph by author.

As the tide of decolonization became an inescapable reality, desires for a deliberate strategy towards the improvement of social conditions both at home and abroad sought to recuperate the notion of mutual benefit between colony and metropole. The move to restore the ethical entanglements of a “People’s Empire,” long left out of mind, suggested the refraction of a burgeoning conception of the welfare state in Britain, whose origins in The Beveridge Report—published in 1942—turned towards the cause of “abolishing” society’s major ills: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. In spite of an apparent commitment to universalism—in the establishment of a National Health Service in 1946, and state insurance for unemployment and pensions, for example—the report would garner criticism for privileging the model of the male breadwinner at the expense of working wives, whilst otherwise reflecting a palliative approach to poverty that failed to address its root causes. While ideas of domestic welfare shared many of the rhetorical devices that characterized the project of colonial reform (with improvements in public health, education and living standards chief among them), save for a single glancing reference, the Beveridge Report made no mention of the colonies or their place within this expansive and much-feted vision for postwar society.

On the contrary, the long road to economic solvency and the raising of living standards was understood to lie within colonial societies themselves, however enervated or held in abeyance by preceding policies. British plans for the autonomy of the overseas territories centered on the rhetoric of extraction under the general directive for colonized societies to exploit their own resources—as Bourdillon would note, “including that most important of all natural resources, the capacity of the people themselves.” Increased investment from the metropole would in turn provide for the welfare of colonial subjects in the event of their independence through the generation of something that might be called “human capital”, and by turning towards the earth itself as a repository of untapped value. The appointment of experts in the fields of imperial geology, agronomy and forestry turned the labors of scientific discovery towards a political economy of “growth” for the mitigation of social inequalities on a planetary scale.

But the professional and institutional entanglements of anthropologists to the field inextricably linked them to a social system of subjection that they could not fully claim to disavow. Senior anthropologists in particular appeared to retain a kind of primitivism, neglecting in their studies the administrative issues of growing urban centers for “tribal” or “village studies.” By the end of the 1940s, the earlier promise and possibility of Anthropology’s relationship to the colonial endeavor was increasingly questioned by its most prominent practitioners. At a special public meeting of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1949, Firth spoke alongside the Oxford anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard about the growing tensions and demands of professional practice in a period in which the vast majority of anthropological research was supported by state funds. “After long and shameful neglect by the British people and Government,” he declared, “it is now realised that it is impossible to govern colonial peoples without knowledge of their ways of life.” (179) And yet, Firth and Evans-Pritchard observed the anxieties in certain academic circles of what such a union would mean for the production of knowledge: “lest the colonial tail wag the anthropological dog—lest basic scientific problems be overlooked in favour of those of more pressing practical interest.” (138)

Buildings of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), founded in 1948 as the East African Institute of Social Research. Photograph via MISR.

Even before the conclusion of the Second World War, the experiences of fascism had proved to be a cautionary tale in which both the value and peril of social theory lay in its uses within a broader marketplace of applied science as an instrument of power-knowledge, capable of being wielded by states and their governments. Myopic fears of the “race war” to ensue from the collapse of white settler societies found their reflection in research agendas and the funding of applied studies. With an eye on neighboring Kenya, Audrey Richards—another of Malinowski’s “charmed circle”—became director of Uganda’s East African Institute of Social Research in 1950, a center established at Makerere College for the purpose of accumulating “anthropological and economic data on the peoples and problems of East Africa.”

This was also the scene of a burgeoning inquiry into “race relations.” In 1948, Firth’s student Kenneth Little published Negroes in Britain, a study of urban segregation and the fraught sentiments of “community” in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, infamously portrayed by the Daily Express in 1936: “Half-Caste Girl: she presents a city with one of its big problems.” (49) Its streets would endure in the cultural imagination as a focal point of salacious reporting on the colonies of “coloured juveniles” born in the poor “slums” of seaport towns across the British Isles. Working class migrants in Cardiff’s Loudoun Square were captured in the pages of the left-leaning weekly, Picture Post byits staffphotographer Bert Hardy, whose efforts to represent the human face of residents in the “deeply-depressed quarter” are a complex amalgam of pity and social conscience documentary, recalling the iconic depictions of American poverty by photographers attached to the Farm Security Administration in the era of the New Deal. Meanwhile, the American sociologist St Clair Drake, who with Horace R. Clayton Jr. had co-authored the voluminous study Black Metropolis in 1945, had conducted research in Tiger Bay for his 1954 University of Chicago dissertation and responded directly to some of the claims made in Little’s study. Subjects of empire, he avowed, whether in Britain or its extremities, were united by their fate to be subjects of the survey and the study, misrepresented, slandered or otherwise examined with disciplinary instruments and the logics of reform and government.

Amidst revolutionary struggle and the rise of African nationalist movements, other scholarship emerging from this milieu appeared to display certain deficiencies in vision emanating from the colonial situation—the professional certitude and patronizing racism with which social scientists made and mythologized their objects. In 1955, the geographer Frank Debenham—another senior figure in the CSSRC’s council—published Nyasaland: Land of the Lake as part of The Corona Library, a series of “authoritative and readable” surveys sponsored by the Colonial Office.Writing in his review of Debenham’s book in the Journal of Negro Education, the historian Rayford Logan observed the bewildering disconnect between the well-documented experiences of civil discord under white-minority rule in the territory and the world as it was rendered in print:

[Debenham] seriously states: “We need not call the African lazy, since there is little obligation to work hard, but we must certainly call him lucky” (p. 104). He opposes a rigid policy of restricting freehold land for Europeans. His over-all view blandly disregards the discontent among the Africans in Nyasaland: “If only Nyasaland people are left to themselves and not incited from elsewhere there should be contentment under the new regime very soon, a return in fact to the situation of a few years ago when there was complete amity as a whole between black and white, and there were all the essentials for a real partnership satisfactory to both colours.”

In hindsight, these problems of perception appear to have become evident—if not exactly solvable—even to those most apparently endowed with the greatest faculties of interpretation and insight into the arcane mechanisms of the social world. Michael Banton, a student of Kenneth Little’s and the first editor of the journal Sociology, recalled his professional errata in the 2005 article “Finding, and Correcting, My Mistakes”. Writing candidly of his earliest forays into colonial research, he described the evolution and decline of structural functionalism, which was “founded upon a view of action as using scarce means to attain given ends but had in my, perhaps faulty, perception become a top-down theory of the social system.” Such reflections suggest the disenchantments of an analytical framework which threatened to occlude as much as it sought to understand, in which whole worlds went unnoticed or misread. More than 50 years after his earliest studies in the “coloured quarter” of London’s East End and Freetown, the capital of British West Africa, Banton still appeared—against all good intentions—stumped: “There were failings that should be accounted blind spots rather than mistakes…. Why was my vision blinkered?”

[1] Mair, Lucy. “Colonial Administration as a Science.” Journal of the Royal African Society 32, no. 129 (1933): 367.

[2] Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991 [1978], p.100.

[3] Pels, Peter. “Global ‘experts’ and ‘African’ Minds: Tanganyika Anthropology as Public and Secret Service, 1925-61.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, no. 4 (2011): 788-810.

Nile A. Davies is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. His dissertation examines the  politics and sentiments of reconstruction and the aftermaths of “disaster” in postwar Sierra Leone.

Featured Image: Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in the 1950s. Photograph by Bert Hardy, via WalesOnline.

Think Piece

Legacies of British Slave Ownership: Thoughts on British Imperial History and Public Memory

by Emily Rutherford

Last week, I was meant to be teaching the women’s suffrage movement to my modern British history discussion section, but my students only wanted to talk about one thing: Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jamaica last week, but was dismissive of calls from prominent Jamaican politicians and public figures that Britain pay reparations to Jamaica and other West Indian nations whose people were the victims of Britain’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave trade. My students were interested in this, I suspect, because they are of a generation of American and international students who care deeply about imperial and postcolonial history, and see a greater understanding of empire (and its sins) as a key reason to study British history. If you count the US (as we should) as a former British colony, nearly everyone enrolled in the lecture course for which I TA has a heritage that is somehow implicated in the history of British empire.

Yet my students were also particularly keen to discuss the subject of slavery and Jamaica because a couple weeks ago, I enthused to them about the most successful piece of academic-history outreach to the public that I have ever seen: the Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project (LBSO), a collaborative research project based at University College London and headed by Catherine Hall, along with Nick Draper, Keith McClelland, and a number of other historians. These days in the UK, research council-funded collaborative research projects are the norm, but they don’t tend to take on the life that LBSO—which has spawned not only an academic volume but also a BBC documentary and countless community- and school-based workshops—has had. I’m writing this post in large part to bring some incredible work to the attention of those who, like my students, aren’t scholars in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history. But I also think the project offers a model for how we can all think about the public-outreach applications of our work, and about its messier political ramifications.

Screenshot of the LBSO website, October 5, 2015.
Screenshot of the LBSO website, October 5, 2015.

LBSO’s signal contribution is its database. In 1833, when Parliament abolished slavery in Britain, thousands of individual slave-owners filed claims of compensation for their lost “property,” and a total of £20 million was paid out to these individuals. In order to process these claims, meticulous records were kept, with individuals’ names, addresses, occupations, and so on—and a value was placed on the body of every freed man, woman, and child as part of the compensation process. Historians always knew that these records were in Britain’s National Archives, but only with present-day advances in technology and the financial and staff resources of a collaborative project has it been possible to turn the records into a publicly-searchable, online database that yields findings astonishing and undeniable in their clarity. Compensation claims reached right across the British Isles. There are claims from lavish country houses (and, of course, from the plantations of Jamaica and Barbados) but also from widows or clergymen in more modest circumstances. A map feature reveals the extent of the geographic range—and allows you to see records of compensation claims from your own town or neighborhood. During a presentation about the project to Columbia University’s British History Seminar last week, Catherine Hall mentioned an exhibition the project leaders had put on at UCL, about the compensation claims that emanated from the university’s own neighborhood: “The Slave Owners of Bloomsbury.” The compensation records also allow historians to trace a complicated flow of money: compensation money bought its recipients land, buildings, fine art.

Anyone can type their own surname into the database. I just did, and nine individuals came up, with claims ranging from twenty pounds for one enslaved person to many thousands of pounds for 892. Without more work, I couldn’t tell you if they were my ancestors—plenty of Rutherfords aren’t related to me—but seeing my name at all is still startling. The LBSO database has featured on the popular genealogy TV program Who Do You Think You Are?, with many celebrities confronting their own ancestors’ profit from the slave trade. And—here we come to the point—arguments for reparations for Jamaica have made appeals on these kinds of personal grounds. In the database is General Sir James Duff, a first cousin six times removed of David Cameron’s, and campaigners have laid stress on this fact: it means, they argue, that he is personally implicated in one of the British Empire’s ugliest legacies.

I’m not a fan of Cameron or his party myself, but I don’t think that’s fair—and it’s not the lesson that LBSO teaches. Cameron’s particular branch of his family acquired their wealth after abolition, but more to the point, I suspect that anyone with white European ancestry would be hard-pressed to find a first cousin six times removed who wasn’t implicated in racism and imperialism in some way. As Hall explained to the Columbia seminar last week, the LBSO project doesn’t seek to lay the blame for the slave trade, and how it has been forgotten as a part of British history, at any particular individual’s door. What it shows is precisely the opposite: that quite a lot of people of white British ancestry can find their surnames in the database, and anyone can find compensation records from their own town or city, if not their very street. LBSO uses an unusually clear, empirical record drawn from a public archive to show that slavery is part of Britain’s national story.

In the state schools in California and Massachusetts that I attended, I was taught American history three times: in fifth grade, eighth grade, and eleventh grade. Each time, we began at the “beginning,” with the first European settlements in the Americas, and saw how far we could get. In eighth grade we got bogged down in the Civil War, but in eleventh grade, with the AP US History exam to sit, we made it as far as Vietnam. US public history education tells a rose-tinted, whiggish, not always accurate story about the long history of race relations, but it tells a story. It can’t just pass over, for instance, the Civil War and Reconstruction; the three-fifths compromise and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. But in Britain, secondary history education is taught in thematic units without an overarching narrative or a sense of a national history: an approach with some benefits, to be sure, but it makes it easy to avoid the bad bits. Tie this to (as Hall pointed out in her presentation) a long history, dating back to 1833, of valorizing Britain’s role in abolition while forgetting its role in slavery, and you have all the elements you need for a widespread case of collective amnesia. Often, this amnesia is downright disturbing—as anyone who has watched the Last Night of the Proms, while having a sneaking suspicion that none of the spectators madly waving Union Jacks and singing “Rule Britannia” have any notion that Britain once forcibly ruled half the globe, will recognize.

LBSO is about undoing that amnesia: its historians are writing prominent individuals’ slave ownership back into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where it rarely appears; campaigning for more accurate accounts of the funds that purchased paintings in the National Gallery; working with local genealogists and historians to document the history of slavery in their own families and communities (you can read about some of these efforts on their great blog). In the process, they’ve been very careful not to tell a story that casts blame, but rather one that raises awareness. In its marshalling of facts and letting the facts speak for themselves, LBSO can’t easily be co-opted by one political perspective or another—except inasmuch as it very clearly shows anyone liable to pontificate about the golden thread of liberty running through British history from the time of Magna Carta that it was, after all, Britain who brought slavery to North America. It shows us, I think, that work which is really going to make a difference in how the national story is understood can do so as much through careful empiricism as through ideology. When I go to British history conferences, I hear countless orations about the left-wing political stakes of historians’ work. But that database—and seeing your own surname in it—speaks volumes that no speech ever can. No wonder my students are amazed by it, as am I: it’s history at its best, and it clearly demonstrates why public outreach, communication, and teaching have to be conceived of as a central part of historians’ job.

Think Piece

Why Are All the Costume Dramas Edwardian?, or, History and Popular Memory

by Emily Rutherford

When the World War I-era miniseries Parade’s End, based on the novels of Ford Madox Ford, was being broadcast on the BBC, a British friend asked me, “Why are all the costume dramas Edwardian?” It’s true: the narrative of Edwardian innocence lost in the trenches of France and the slow disintegration of the Empire has captivated audiences for decades, from Upstairs, Downstairs in the 1970s, to ITV’s 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, to Merchant Ivory’s 1980s and ’90s films of E.M. Forster novels, to today’s hits. The film of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, released in the UK last month, has proved surprisingly popular, enough to secure a US release later this year. The main UK television networks currently feature lavish shows set in an Edwardian department store and (albeit stepping slightly later, to the interwar period) the end of British rule in India. It’s not as if the rest of the English-speaking world is immune to this form of historical romance: just look at the success that Downton Abbey has had in the US and Canada.

What’s a tour of period dramas doing on a serious blog like this one? I want to suggest, speculatively and inexpertly, that the Edwardian era (the reign of King Edward VII, 1901-1910, and usually lumping in the years leading up to the First World War) has an outsize place in popular understandings of the British national story, in part because of how Edwardian and interwar writers themselves defined a particular sense of their national culture. We’re bequeathed that story now through lavish television adaptations of Waugh and Forster, Brittain and Flora Thompson, and I think it’s done a lot to obscure a more nuanced understanding of continuity and change in an English/British national history.

I was set on this train of thought by reading academic histories of the early modern British Empire—what’s often called the “first” British Empire, in contrast to the “second” that takes shape after the Napoleonic Wars. The latter is characterized, the usual story goes, by a strong metropolitan government that enacted powerful political authority over colonies across the world, by a strong culture of imperial pageantry, by an economic policy of free trade, and by a cultural experience of empire that touched the lives of everyone in the British Isles as well as those native populations whom the Empire subjugated. This, understandably, is what we think of when we think “British Empire”: after all, we’re not so temporally distant from it. People our parents’ or grandparents’ age celebrated Empire Day across the globe. Historians of the “first” British empire, therefore, have often had to clarify and explain how the ideology and the practice of imperial politics, economics, and lived social experience worked in a time before the nation-state (and indeed before Britain) and before capitalism. To what extent was the British Empire a system of political governance, and to what extent was it a trading network? What were the power relations between British settlers and native populations, and between settlers and the metropole? Does it make sense to conceive of the whole empire as a single entity? How were imperial politics and economics affected by the great political upheavals in seventeenth-century England? As I read this scholarship I’m struck by its need to overcome the sense that “the British Empire” wasn’t always already the concept Benjamin Disraeli invented when, in 1877, he got Parliament to pass a bill declaring Queen Victoria Empress of India.

Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) and his biography of Queen Victoria (1921) gave us the Victorian age we remember today: war, duty, muscular Christianity, sexual repression, stiff upper lips, all rendered colorfully with the irreverent tone of a child rebelling against his parents. Indeed, as psychoanalysis came to be a powerful backdrop to the explorations of the Bloomsbury set to which Strachey belonged, other writers such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster helped to solidify that sense of a generational break. “On or about December 1910, human character changed,” wrote Woolf in her 1924 essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.” The old social conventions no longer applied; the generation that grew up amid the Great War had to ascertain new ways of relating to each other. Downton Abbey, actually, dramatizes vividly this perception of a generational divide, showing it being worked out among groups other than one too-clever set of young London literati. I’m not convinced, though: my own research suggests that the concerns of affect, sociability, and interiority that preoccupied writers like Woolf and Forster had their origins in discussions about democratization, urbanization, educational reform, and, yes, sexuality that interested many upper-middle-class, educated people of their parents’ generation, too. Here, again, the psychological interest of the loss-of-innocence story that attracted literary writers since the Great War itself may be a distraction from what the evidence shows.

In order to engage with an audience wider than field-specific specialists, historians must constantly interact with received popular narratives and oral traditions about the past, narratives which as they’re repeated can seem to acquire a shinier veneer of truth than anything that appears between the covers of books published by Oxford or Cambridge University Press. If there’s a gulf between the truth that drives television ratings and the truth that gets a scholar tenure, it comes to matter: witness politicians’ attempts to redefine school history curricula on both sides of the pond, most recently an attempt in the Oklahoma state legislature to ban the revised Advanced Placement US History curriculum from state schools because, essentially, its themes and questions, crafted by professional historians, don’t conform to the rather different received popular narrative those legislators have internalized. Why are all the costume dramas Edwardian? Because they sell a dramatically seductive narrative and evoke a time when Britain still had significant world political power. But when, for instance, these narratives shape how politicians observe the centenary of the First World War and perceptions of foreign conflict going forward, the work they do to comfort and to entertain assumes serious importance.

Think Piece

Intellectual “Entanglements” and the Status of Modern British History

by Emily Rutherford

In my post about the History Manifesto last week, I wrote that one of the things I want to explore on this blog is the “crisis” in which the national history of modern Britain has found itself in the last fifteen or so years. As the historical discipline has become increasingly global in its outlook, British history rightly no longer enjoys the disproportionate emphasis it once had in North American departments. Now that it is no longer professionally viable for graduate students to focus in this one national field, and thanks also particularly to the theoretical interventions of subaltern studies and new methods in imperial history, it is much rarer to find a North American historian who will take the risk of specializing in British (rather than imperial, comparative European, or Atlantic World) history. (Given its status as the national history, the field is not in anything near the same level of decline in the UK.) Furthermore, it is harder to justify the relevance of studies which focus on actors who had little awareness of themselves as imperial subjects, whose lives were lived largely within Britain and shaped by distinctively British cultural and social factors. I write about people who, while they often corresponded with Europeans, Americans, Indians, and others, lived their professional lives in the Oxbridge-London triangle, rarely spoke other living languages (Latin and Greek were another matter), and only left the UK very occasionally for a lecture tour in America or a holiday in the Alps. It’s all a bit… parochial.

Still, I’d like to say a little about a new, very global, even anti-British-history, book that unexpectedly offers some opportunities for historians concerned with telling stories about intellectual cultures distinct to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain. Kris Manjapra’s Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals across Empire, published by Harvard last year, undertakes an exciting experiment in deciding deliberately to leave Britain out of a story of encounters between German and Indian intellectuals in the period roughly 1880-1930. Indeed, argues Manjapra, Indian and German intellectual relationships in a variety of fields, from experimental science through philology and psychoanalysis to visual art, were formed in explicit opposition to a perception of British hegemony around the globe (9). He traces significant and surprising connections among both left- and right-wing ideas, which eventually had major consequences for European and world politics. German Orientalist scholarship produced in collaboration with British imperial agents was adopted by the Nazi ideology of Aryanism; an anti-imperialist discourse in which German and Indian Marxists participated had unintended consequences in fascist theories of Lebensraum. But before the rise of the Nazi Party, German “post-Enlightenment” thought and Indian collaborations carried the possibility of a third way for imagining the global order, between Western European liberalism and Soviet communism—potential that was eventually firmly eclipsed by the the Cold War’s binary division of the world and the rise of a “Third World” discourse to which India was consigned (276, 290). Manjapra deftly maps these rapidly-shifting political stakes through the first decades of the twentieth century, in the process making a good case for intellectual history’s ability to demonstrate how the unintended consequences of ideas can bear a causal relationship to world-historical events.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid how Britain as a national category and British actors who helped to broker connections between Indians and Germans haunt Manjapra’s account. There were two particular examples that grabbed my attention. First, the famous German philologist and Sanskritist Friedrich Max Müller took on Indian students and played a pivotal role in founding an academic school of German Orientalism whose fate in Germany and India Manjapra traces throughout the book. But Max Müller did his work in England, in Oxford, surrounded by English as well as German and Indian students and colleagues, in a rich intellectual and cultural context that bore a closer and more complicated relation to British imperialist, anti-imperialist, and simply-apathetic-to-imperialism thought than Manjapra seems to want to let on. Second, in a smaller episode, Manjapra describes Freud’s correspondence with the Indian psychoanalyst Girindrasekhar Bose, who along with other Indian psychoanalysts infused Freud’s ideas with classical Indian philosophy, creating a new form of psychoanalysis with a particular nationalist valence. But Bose did not know German: he and Freud corresponded in English, using not Freud’s own jargon but the English translations James Strachey had created, such as “id” and “ego,” and in the process telling the historian a great deal about what a British or English intellectual context might have to do with this Indo-German encounter.

In the story of Freud and Bose, Manjapra says that English functions merely as a “trade language” (225), but there is much more than this to be said about the role of a distinctively British intellectual context and actors who operated in relation to it. Manjapra and other historians have redrawn maps of geopolitics and intellectual encounters that destabilize uncritical assumptions of Britain’s centrality and relevance, but there’s no reason that British historians should not regard this as an invitation to reformulate and strengthen claims for the relevance of the British context to understanding transnational episodes in intellectual history such as the late-nineteenth-century development of philology or psychoanalysis. In the process, my suspicion is that it will become clearer how British historians’ rich understandings of the cultural milieux in which such ideas were developed can aid in understanding their movement across borders; what forms of intellectual and cultural exchange were practiced between British and German writers and academics (an under-examined topic in this period); and perhaps also what relationship there is between imperial might and less hierarchical forms of international intellectual relationships like those Age of Entanglement seeks to describe.