History’s Empire

If history has provided since antiquity as school for statesmen, can we also understand the discipline as a means of absolution for atrocities? Priya Satia makes that case in Time’s Monsters: How History Makes History by describing the historical imagination as central to the unfolding of Britain’s empire. She argues that by the 19th century, history had become an ideal course of study for those aspiring to exercise power, and it framed wider understandings of human experience as a story of unfolding progress. Imperialism promised to accelerate that progress. Satia argues that political rhetoric inspired by history became “an approach to conquest that preemptively insured against ethical doubt” as “millions persuaded themselves that it was, truly, a ‘civilizing mission.’” History, by this reckoning, rated societies as backward or advanced and excused actions deemed to have brought improvements over the long term. Rather than healing all wounds, Satia argues that time’s judgment itself became an excuse for inflicting them.

Time’s Monsters is very much a work of the present moment and its sharp discontents. Satia describes “feverishly” writing the first draft at the Stanford Humanities Center “in a white heat from the fall of 2018 to the spring of 2019.” The final product reads as a searing indictment of ethical failure punctuated by diversions from the main theme and the intricacy of academic prose. It reflects the moral panic seen in commentary over the past four years sharpened by growing anxiety that the Anglophone public would neither hear nor heed intellectuals and academics insistently claiming to be societies’ conscience. Originally intending to write on global networks of anticolonial thought from Thomas Paine to Edward Said, Satia found what she calls “antihistorical thought” central to that theme. She accordingly turned to the way history managed imperial consciences by grounding ethical claims in particular narratives created at different times. Viewing events over time, with an eye to how they either drove progress or reflected developmental stages that set Western and native societies apart, first explained and then excused injustice. History enabled those writing it, in Satia’s framing, to see theirs as the best of all possible worlds regardless of who suffered along the way.

History as an Ethical System

Satia traces different patterns of historical thinking over the course of Britain’s empire from the 18th century though post-1945 moves toward decolonization. History, she writes, became a model for moral reflection during the Enlightenment in the works of thinkers like Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant. Lord Bolingbroke earlier in the 18th century had claimed that “general principles, and rules of life and conduct” might be ascertained by studying history in the same manner as philosophy. Episodes would test the validity of ethics by application and confirm them by universal experience. More prosaically, history offered a measure for evaluating judgments in circumstances different from one’s own. What others did at various times enabled individuals to reach beyond their own immediate experience.

While the details of a change in historical writing lie outside Satia’s present work, the subject’s growing popularity encouraged the trend she describes. Tightly structured narrative history from the Earl of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion, first published in 1702-4, on the previous century’s civil war, through David Hume’s History of England and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire changed older patterns of reading for incident, example, and analogy. Shifts in reader expectations created a new market for historians. Both by weight of numbers and social convention, historical works became an essential part of any library and figured prominently in the leisure reading of men and women. History served political aims by explaining England’s rise while providing a vehicle for philosophical reflections on society and governance.

A curriculum dominated by works from Greek and Roman antiquity shaped how educated Britons understood history. Satia rightly distinguishes “the worldly discipline of history” from poetic myth in texts like Mahabharata and Odyssey. Thucydides explicitly abandoned divine agency in his account of the Peloponnesian Wars and instead judged actions on their consequences. Doing so, Satia argues, made time the moral arbiter. How actions turned out or came to be seen in the long term made the narrative’s end a judgment day that revealed merit or fault. Agency mattered, especially when choices rather than fate or divine whim drove protagonists along their path.

Christian theology made history a linear process as divine providence worked thought time. Events, however seemingly chaotic, had a purpose to be revealed at the last day. Enlightenment thinkers secularized this teleological conception into a theory of progress with human improvement as the ultimate end. History set a standard for ethical judgment by measuring actions against their consequences over time. A deist view of God as the creator who stepped aside to let what he had made operate according to rational laws shaped that outlook. It also assumed, in Joseph Priestly’s words, “nothing will be exhibited from which it may be justly concluded, that vice is eligible on the whole.” Appearances to the contrary deceive because “all evils lead to, and terminate in, a greater good.” Satia warns, however, that viewing history in those terms as progressive improvement, excuses such evils and those who perpetrate them. Instead of providing consistent general principles for right conduct, she argues history fostered a pernicious relativism that avoided ethical accountability.

A Tool for Empire?

The means by which history absolved empire varied as important assumptions changed over time. Conquerors like Robert Clive—who established British dominance in India—sought consciously to make history along with their own fortunes. Like Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizzaro in South America, these empire-builders accepted that it might be centuries before their accomplishments would outweigh their accompanying misdeeds. Satia cites the acquittal of Warren Hastings in 1795 on charges of abusing power in India as a turning point where Edmund Burke’s case against him “deflected focus from ‘the scandal of empire’ itself.” The trial established a principle that British officials would be held accountable for abuses, but only if and when time revealed a true crime. But it might instead vindicate actions through their results.

Satia describes the abolitionist movement as a kind of historical absolution. The virtue of campaigning against the slave trade and then slavery itself secured moral capital for the British Empire against other charges of vice. Abolition showed that imperialism could bring progress and spread liberty. Romanticism during the early 19th century emphasized the latter with liberating others providing a cover story for empire as a vehicle of progress. The Independence of Greece and Latin America fit the narrative with the spread of British power through informal empire “understood as the spread of liberty itself.” Freeing the Greeks from Ottoman rule struck a blow against “oriental despotism” in what looking back to Herodotus resonated as a clash between civilization and barbarism.

Indeed, the idea of distinct stages in social development formed by Scottish Enlightenment thinking reinforced the gap between civilized and barbarous. Paternalistic governance brought progress that compensated for, or at least mitigated, the original crime of imperial conquest. Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s description of English history as a story of progress moral and material captured an influential mentality that left India and Arabia far behind. Macaulay’s aim in his “Minute on Indian Education” was to bring a native elite up to British levels. John Stuart Mill, whose father wrote a history of the East India Company, justified despotic government as necessary with backward societies as long as their improvement remained its aim. Resistance like Indian Rebellion of 1857 seemed in that light to be defiance against progress rather than justly asserting political and cultural autonomy

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolutionary competition hardened categories by framing history as a struggle where only the fittest survived. Defeated societies and fallen empires deserved their fate. Success provided its own justification. If cultural differences were permanent and ineradicable, promising redemption became less necessary or likely. The shift coincided with the later Victorian celebration of empire and conscience became accountable to different views of historical agency and obligation. Keeping peace among fractious populations otherwise prone to conflict justified British rule in India. Results shown by history validated the order empire imposed, if by a different measure than moral and material progress.

Deconstruction seems Satia’s primary aim in treating history as an uncovering process that reveals the morally precarious foundation of established institutions. Besides stripping away “the decent drapery of life,” as Burke called ideas “furnished from the wardrobe of moral imagination” to clothe naked human nature, she tears down understanding built from reasoned engagement with evidence.

Interestingly, Satia points out another kind of historical perspective from the late Victorian era into the 20th century. Discontent with the results of progress in Britain—notably industry, urbanization, and mass society—fostered a nostalgic view of history which emphasized an idealized past. It also encouraged fascination with the very different cultures of India and the Middle East. Orientalism provided an escape with empire a means to recover lost civilizations. A very different environment, especially in the Middle East, freed Britons from European constraints and valorized intuition. Two world wars gave ample scope for their ambitions which shaped interventions that continued into the late 20th century.

Critics of Empire

Redemption of a kind came when British critics of empire, often influenced by their own experience and contacts with native intellectual elites, reframed history. Instead of validating the powerful and their record, it provided the means for a critique from below. Satia highlights Edward John Thompson, a British army chaplain and missionary disillusioned by encountering empire, as a precursor to the later trend in writing “history from below” his son E. P. Thompson would popularize. The elder Thompson saw history as a means to tell the truth about empire rather than glamorize or exclude it. A series of works reframed the subject from the perspective of the colonized, pointing out violence and often celebrating resistance.

E.P. Thompson, as Satia notes, “channeled his own Byronic ambitions domestically” with scathing criticism of the British class system and state institutions that reinforced it. Works like his famous Making of the English Working Class (1963) bore witness against past wrongs and viewed progress skeptically with an eye to costs along with outcomes. It fit a larger trend where historians became critics of government rather than its apologists. Thompson himself still fell short to Satia because he echoed a “Little England” vision insufficiently critical of empire. Indeed, the working class for and to whom he spoke had a preference for custom and the private worlds of family and neighborhood that cut against moral fervor. They also tended to be patriotic and less than keen on deconstructing their country’s story.

Deconstruction seems Satia’s primary aim in treating history as an uncovering process that reveals the morally precarious foundation of established institutions. Besides stripping away “the decent drapery of life,” as Burke called ideas “furnished from the wardrobe of moral imagination” to clothe naked human nature, she tears down understanding built from reasoned engagement with evidence. All must go as a vital step in reconstructing society on new moral lines that remain unexplained. It is a revolutionary project grounded in anger that brooks no questions, let alone contradiction. Burke would recognize the spirit behind it as the same quest for dominion—albeit in a far smaller sphere of academic life—that he believed drove Hastings’ abuses in India. His Reflections on the Revolution in France, it might be noted, responded largely to the tone of intellectual life and public debate that preceded the violence he anticipated from it.

Satia’s outrage that “instead of dwelling on his nation’s sins, Macaulay determined to celebrate its progress” strikes a characteristic note in Time’s’ Monster. Ironically, her book flips the Orientalist script Edward Said wrote to present Britain through a clichéd prism of colonialist exploitation. The British today, having benefited from empire, must be called to account for social evils lingering from the past. Satia wants a reckoning guided by voices like hers which have made the historical profession a site of protest, but nowhere does she invoke an objective moral standard by which to judge. Her call to judgment, like so much at the present moment, is a fundamentally religious pursuit that makes anger an expression of righteous faith. Despite invoking a tradition of critical inquiry as a positive legacy from the Enlightenment, Time’s Monster takes a remarkable uncritical approach that fails to convince readers who do not already share its prejudices.

Sadly, the book missed an opening to consider history’s relationship to Britain’s empire and imperial governance. Exploring the wide range of historical work published from the early 18th century to see how historians with different perspectives, including political commitments, presented empire to their readers might reveal influences that later faded from view. Older studies like John Kenyon’s The History Men provide an introduction to that literature and electronic resources like Eighteenth Century Collections Online, along with bibliographies and biographical guides, make it possible to recover now neglected works that drew readers in their own day. But that would require engaging the past on its own terms rather than imposing on evidence a template drawn from the present. It also involves tracing how influences affect the way people think and what they do through a complex skein of motives and context. That approach, however, follows the kind of history Satia rejects—even if the wider public and many among the educated prefer it.