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The World’s Forgotten Influence on Britain?

Michael Talbot, Op-Ed Columnist

January 2012

Before I begin, allow me to introduce myself. I am currently a third-year Ph.D. student in Middle Eastern history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. My current research examines British diplomacy and commerce in the Ottoman Empire during the “long” eighteenth century. The focus of my musings and/or babblings on this space will be as much as possible on British interaction with the world from a non-British perspective. Although I do deal with British history from the sixteenth century, the focus of my research and teaching is on the Middle East, particularly the Ottoman Empire. From studying European interaction with the Islamic world I am accustomed to thinking about a world where Britain, economically, politically, and culturally, was very much a minor and marginal player.

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In this first post, I want to set out why I think it is so important to consider non-British perspectives in Britain’s interactions with Asia and Africa. I will look at the idea that Britain’s place in global history is largely dictated by conceptions of empire and modernity, resulting in skewed perceptions of historical and contemporary Britain. This notion will hopefully not be too much of a shock, but it remains a historiographical problem.

To demonstrate what I mean, I am going to use the example of the venerable History Today (HT), a magazine that last year celebrated its 60th birthday. This is not an attack specifically on the magazine – it publishes fine articles by superb scholars – but a critique of the kind of history some of its articles represent as a corpus. The magazine’s aim is to provide ‘essays by the world’s leading scholars, on all periods, regions and themes of history.’ I must confess that I have never really had that impression myself; it has always struck me as focussing almost entirely on Britain since 1850, with the odd foray into everyone’s favourite, the Tudors. But, I wondered, was that just me?

In order to test out how far the magazine’s content is representative of its broad quest, I decided to undertake a little statistical analysis of articles published in 2002, 2007, and 2011 by chronological and geographical scope. As the percentages were almost identical in each year, I have given the figures below as averages of the three. Although I realise that statistics can be problematic and even unhelpful, I am generally a big fan, and in this case they really are quite enlightening.

Dividing the articles into five groups, the results were conclusive. The least covered was the Early Medieval period (400-1100) period with 3%, and was followed in fourth place by the Ancient World (up to 400 CE) at 5%. In third place came Medieval history (1100-1500) with 8%. This was followed by the Early Modern period (1500-1800) with 17%, and in pole position with a whopping 67% came Modern history (after 1800). Perhaps tellingly, all history before 1500 accounted for a mere 16% of the articles examined. In terms of chronology, there is therefore a distinct imbalance in favour of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and this can be explained by examining the geographical results.

What then of geographical range? Surely with such richness and variety across the globe there would be some diversity? Alas, no.  Australasia accounted for less than 1%. Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia took 1% each, whilst Central and South America held 2%. The histories of South Asia and East Asia made up just 3% each. Ever topical, the Middle East came top of this non-Western share with 6%. Only slightly above that was North America with 6%, and Europe, which focussed almost exclusively on France, Germany, and Italy, accounted for 27%. Therefore, in first place was Britain, comprising 51% of HT‘s content. Britain and Europe therefore dominated the geographical scope.

This little exercise shows a distinct favour in the magazine’s articles towards nineteenth and twentieth century British and European history, with one-third focussing on Britain after 1800. Now, one might say that this is not particularly surprising considering that HT is a British publication, with the contributors being from the UK and the USA. But from another angle the balance seems somewhat absurd for a magazine aiming to focus on all times and places. In population terms, 84% of the history written in HT – that is of Britain, Western Europe, and North America – relates to the history of just 9% of the global population.

Focus on Asia and Africa in HE is almost entirely on the Modern period, as if nothing of interest happened until the Europeans came. Fewer than 4% of HT articles tackled history outside of Britain and Europe before 1800. These generally included safe bets such as Tutankhamen and Cleopatra, Qin China (read Terracotta Army), Japanese Samurais, and of course the Conquistadors, including one article that appeared to blame the Aztecs for the epidemics and genocides that European rule unleashed across the Americas. The Middle East featured with a very clear theme, demonstrated by articles on the ‘alien’ Arab invasions of the Near East, the 7th Century Kharijites billed as ‘Islam’s first terrorists’, the ‘first clash’ of the Crusades, and the ‘turning point’ of the Siege of Malta (boo and hiss to the terrible Turk). This is hardly the all-encompassing scope HT aims to provide, and is perhaps indicative of a lamentably prevalent misapprehension of Britain’s historical global importance.

The point is that much of British place in world history can only be understood when Britain is seen in its true light as a marginal entity prior to the later nineteenth century. When William of Orange boarded Den Briel in 1688, what were the English or Dutch compared to the Ottomans, Mughals, or Qing, those vast, religiously tolerant, and economically dominant empires that supplied all the beautiful, tasty and intoxicating things the British desired. In Sub-Saharan Africa, with its own powerful empires such as the Sokoto, and Asante, the British were confined to a few port settlements from which they participated in the slave trade as eager but minor customers. None of this changed in Britain’s favour until well into the nineteenth century.

Yet it seems that for many historians of Britain, and indeed for the general public who may read popular history publications such as HT, Britain’s interactions with the world, and therefore the history of the rest of the world, begin with Empire. This is truer than ever these days with the dangerous nostalgia spewed forth by the Niall Fergusons of the history world who continue to proclaim that the British Empire was a Good Thing. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because of poor imperial success before the nineteenth century, focus up to that point in British history remains largely domestic. As such, unsatisfactory accounts of the “how” and “why” of imperial expansion continue to be presented, the usual answer being something to do with the French in both cases. Fundamentally, British expansion continues to be associated with the gift to Africa and Asia of British “civilization”, along with the notion of ungrateful natives being slowly dragged kicking and screaming into modernity.

The great American comedian and Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory wrote in From the Back of the Bus (1962): ‘[y]ou gotta say this for the white race – its self-confidence knows no bounds. Who else could go to a small island in the South Pacific, where there’s no poverty, no crime, no unemployment, no war and no worry – and call it a “primitive society”?’ A reductive assessment, but perhaps not too far off the mark.  It is impossible to understand British interaction with Asia and Africa without appreciating that the peoples and societies they encountered generally exceeded them in military strength, cultural sophistication, and economic prosperity, and held different and differing conceptions of essential ideas such as the role of the state and the purpose of commerce. As long as a large part of British historiography only engages with British interaction with Asia and Africa through the prism of an Anglocentric conception of modernity, large swathes of British history writing will continue to be mired, and to mire us all, in the skewed worldview of the late nineteenth century.

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