International History and Politics
12 April 2021

Histories of History

A conversation between Priya Satia and Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou on Priya Satia’s Time’s Monster

Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History in the Department of History of the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. A leading international historian, she specialises in modern British and British empire history, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. She is the author, notably, of Spies in Arabia – The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East, which won the 2009 American Historical Association Herbert Baxter Adams Book Prize, the 2009 American Historical Association Pacific Coast Branch Book Award and the 2010 Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies Book Prize; and Empire of Guns – The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, which won the 2019 Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies Book Prize, the Wadsworth Prize in Business History and the American Historical Association’s Jerry Bentley Prize in World History. 

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is Professor of International History and Politics and Chair of the Department of International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and author, notably, of A Theory of ISIS – Political Violence and the Transformation of the Global Order (2018). He discusses with Professor Satia her latest book, Time’s Monster – How History Makes History in which she investigates the role of historians in political debate.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Your new book Time’s Monster – How History Makes History (also available with a different subtitle in another edition, History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire) tells two crucial stories. One is about historians, or history itself more generally; the other is about empire. Both sets of questions are presented in ways that invite important new vistas. Though related (you term it “the twinned story of the history of empire and the history of history”), they are also arguably distinct. It seems to me that the first aspect is about the intellectual pedigree of history itself, and the other – which you examine in the context of the British empire, but applies to colonialism generally – is about the relationship between history, policy-making and imperialism. Would you agree?

Priya Satia: In my mind, these are deeply entangled stories. In examining the intellectual pedigree of history in the context of the British empire, I wanted to show how history shaped imperial policy-making from the eighteenth century, and vice-versa. History acquired its modern pedigree as Europeans dealt with the scandals of empire, and that pedigree enabled them to overcome those scandals and pursue empire unapologetically. Knowing this past puts us in a better position to reflect on our expectations for history’s relationship to policy-making today: can a redeemed mode of historical thinking inform policy-making in a more anticolonial direction today? What would that look like? Can we expect postcolonial states to be receptive of such advice offered from within the corridors of power? Or are historians more effective as truth-tellers against such governments?

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: It is striking to see that, for all the evidence regarding the imperial use of history, there remains in some quarters a rather disingenuous resistance to admit such documentary evidence. Orientalist complicity, for instance, is not a matter of ‘view of the mind’ but of actual techniques of both in situ controlling narratives and, more problematically, subsequent whitewashing by too many historians. Unless this first ‘diagnostic’ step is taken, intellectual progress is limited. You write that “We know about historicism’s complicity in the rise of modern imperialism, how it defined progress through the rhetorical exclusion of “others” from that narrative… What we haven’t understood, however, is how historicism did this, not only on the level of…the civilising mission…but, practically-speaking, in the realm of imperial decision-making—the ethical implications of this epistemic outlook”. Why such resistance, and how do we turn your welcomed maturation proposition into a programme of scholarly action?

Priya Satia: The resistance is a measure of continued commitment to the narratives that justified empire—profoundly revealing and incriminating. It makes plain the urgency of continuing to reckon head-on with those narratives. We have diligently called out orientalism since Edward Said helped us perceive it, although such critiques have not been powerful enough to disable invocation of orientalist defences of further destructive Western intervention in Southwest Asia. There is always more work to do; the narratives we are trying to extirpate are old and deeply entrenched in global culture. It is an ongoing struggle. It may be helped, however, by clearer understanding of the way temporalizing of judgment (in the manner historicism permitted) allowed (and allows) those with power to tolerate the obvious violence of racism and orientalism.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Is today’s historian different from the earlier one? What is changing if anything? Is the incorporation of more international and diverse historians in the fold of a traditionally conservative and Eurocentric discipline a consequential moment?

Priya Satia: Yes, I think for the most part today’s historians are less interested in ‘great men’ and triumphalist narratives of progress, at least in the academy. As the discipline becomes more inclusive, it has begun to tell more inclusive stories. We are learning more about how women shaped history, how people of colour shaped history, including intellectual history. We are learning more about the transnational nature of history, the importance of networks and ocean regions. We are learning more about the way our archives have been constructed to serve certain narratives and to invent new methods for writing history.

The ethos behind this work is redemptive – recovering lost voices and forfeited futures – which has its own value in helping us understand our present, but also helps us imagine alternative futures going forward in the shadow of climate change. Writing history this way, as the work of ordinary people, is intensely empowering; it helps us recognise our own agency as historical actors in our own time. 

Still, there are those who feel frustrated by a sense of futility in recounting or witnessing liberatory struggles that have not or do not succeed – a mark of the lingering influence of the expectation that history must be a narrative of progress and that historians’ job is to judge struggles by their results. Continued attachment to such notions among avowed Leftists fuels defeatism, stymieing recognition of the value of struggles in and of themselves, which, history shows us, are not the route to freedom but are freedom. 

More troublingly, a handful of influential popular historians remain defiantly committed to the idea that history is the work of ‘great men enabling progress’ – and the audience for this style of history remains large, including powerful elites seeking to fulfil that very vision of history-making. The idea that history is about progress heading towards a certain identifiable set of “development” goals is also deeply embedded in the social sciences, especially economics and political science, influencing public conversation and politics through those disciplines, too. And so the struggle to reorient or reinvent the historical imagination is itself ongoing.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: In many ways, history is today a battlefield. The important work being done by many scholars round the world in allowing for unlearning a type of historical learning that was not so much history as it was socialisation in patterns of power (as you remind the reader of Victorian historian J.R. Seeley’s famous words that “history is the school of statesmanship”) is difficult because that original history is entrenched and presents itself as a canon. In that regard, you write that “certain intellectual resources, especially, a certain kind of historical sensibility, allowed and continue to allow many people to avoid perceiving their ethical inconsistent actions in the modern period”.  This public memory dimension is fundamental, isn’t it?

Priya Satia: Yes, it’s fundamental. We might recover instead other intellectual and cultural resources that support us in being ethically accountable in the present. The questions about reparations, apologies, memorials, statues and restitution that we are debating today have been summoned by the long refusal to reckon with the past. They remind us how much the colonial past is, hauntingly, with us, in the form of continued inequalities and imperial policy-making and climate crisis. They also testify to the importance and power of the task of truth-telling against governments that stifle such conversations. These conversations about the past allow us create new history in the present.

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