Published in The Toynbee Prize Foundation, June 2021.
In February 2021, the British government announced the appointment of a “free-speech champion” for higher education, a new role aimed to guarantee the right of people to express their views on campus without fearing censorship or other sanctions. In an increasingly tense atmosphere of culture war, this move was taken as a sign of the government’s turn against ‘woke’ calls for re-evaluation of British heritage, the Black Lives Matter movement, and critical assessment of Britain’s imprial past. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Oliver Dowden, the culture minister, thought it was necessary to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.
As I was reading Priya Satia’s magisterial Time’s Monster, I could not but wonder how Dowden would have reacted to it. Satia’s well-argued book seeks to show how the study of history generated the moral and political scaffoldings that held up the British Empire. Historians provided the imperial enterprise with conceptions of “progress” and “civilization” that served to justify the conquest and domination of vast overseas territories and peoples. While Satia concedes that historians did not always have direct impact on politicians, she shows their long-lasting influence on British society, where contemporary scholars like Nigel Biggar and Niall Ferguson can still depict the British Empire as a vehicle of global positive change. The mere legitimacy of this position in Britain’s public debate today confirms the relevance and importance of Satia’s argument about the political and ethical implications of Britain’s understanding of its past.
For Satia, a professor of international history at Stanford University, since the eighteenth century British historians have developed a conception of a linear and progressive time that served to consolidate imperial rule in Africa, the Middle East, India and the Caribbean and to justify Britain’s brutality and violence. In an ambitious narrative that starts with the Enlightenment and ends with Brexit, Satia weaves together the ideas of a vast range of thinkers, mostly white British male, into a persuasive argument about the capacity of history-writing to shape collective conscience. In this sense, ideas about history create the mental landscapes that define and delimit human behaviour.
The main target of the book is the idea of progress, intended as a teleological temporal move towards a better future. Historians played a decisive role in describing time as linear, and, by consequence, in setting a universal standard of progress that all societies should be measured by. Satia’s strength is in showcasing the intellectual evolution of this idea in the hands of British historians over the past three hundred years. She draws on the writings of Macaulay and Seeley, Burke and Mill, outlining the modes of thinking that justified imperialism as an expression of Britain’s world-historical mission for progress. These historians’ role in creating and transforming Britain’s imperial consciousness has already been scrutinized by Jeanne Morefield, Duncan Bell and Stefan Collini, among others. Here, Satia situates them in a long durée narrative that effectively demonstrates the persistence of their ideas over time. As she shows in chapter 5, even their anticolonial opponents ended up accepting the same categories of progress and development that emerged from the imperialist historical narrative they sought to reject.
Time’s Monster is a useful read in today’s political climate, where historical narratives serve as weapons of exclusion and revolution. History has always been an educational tool at the hands of the state, but now, when the historical curriculum and heritage industry face constant challenging by those who see themselves excluded or silenced, the re-evaluation of the historians’ role in the public sphere seems more timely than ever. Intentionally or now, historians hold a significant power in forging society’s identity by recounting its past. Yet, as Satia argues in conclusion, history-writing is an ongoing process. While some see ‘re-writing history’ as a national offence, Satia reminds the readers that the quest for historical truth is never-ending. Looking forward, Satia invites her readers to question the imperial, linear and oppressive conception of history and to develop alternative, less linear and more complex histories.
The book’s rich and erudite narrative generates many reflections, but here I would like to focus on two wider questions that arise from it. From the perspective of international history, I wonder if this is a story about Britain, or about empires more generally. Did Britain develop a unique perception of its past that generated an urge for empire in a distinct way from other European empires, such as the French, Portuguese, German or Italian? Or, in alternative, is the temporal linearity of the historical narrative of progress an inherent aspect of all imperial ideologies? Non-British empires, including fascist Italy, were also motivated by visions of historical lineage, continuity and duty, relying on a mythologised Roman Empire, famously thought the notion of ‘Romanità’. The imagined conception of the Orient also did work to justify colonial invasion and rule. Should we therefore see Britain’s case as distinct, or is historical consciousness at the root of all modern empires?
This leads me to the second question. As a historian, Satia’s book seemed to me as a call for action. On the whole, historians come out of her narrative as powerful ideologues. Intentionally or not, they seem to hold the power to shape political ideas and transform the world (sometimes for the worse). While she acknowledges that historians do not always succeed in ‘speaking truth to power’ because politicians don’t like their advice or because they ignore it, she still seems to argue that they set the conceptual foundation for political action. Looking at the future, I would be interested to know more about the kinds of non-linear, non-oppressive histories that she envisages to reform the imperial mindset and offer new perspectives on Britain’s role in the world. Historians have already published damning accounts of Britain’s imperial past, many of which appear in the book’s notes, but do not seem to settle the debates on the Empire’s moral and political worth. Would a new conception of history succeed in transforming the historical perception of empire, where so many other critical histories have, apparently, failed?