Oh Those Awful Postcolonial Historians


New York Review of Books (requires an e-subscription) has a review on a book by historiarian Maya Jasnoff, Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850 by David Gilmour. I suppose one the advantages of blogging is that you can comment on a review of a book you haven’t read, so I am going to avail myself of this opportunity. Gilmour complains:

Many historians who call themselves postcolonial” have taken it for granted that colonial rule was always evil and colonialist motives always bad.

From this complaint he goes on to describe Jasnoff arguement as being:

Empires tend to be inclusive, especially as they expand; their borders are porous, above all the cultural ones…

In service of refuting a fundamental” postcolonial belief that people cannot cross borders: they are either the colonialists or the colonized, the oppressors or the victims.” The evidence that Jasnoff presents is an account of Europeans who collected Indian Art and went native,” specifically in Lucknow. I am not an academic, so I think I can freely say, What crap.” So a bunch of Europeans crossed boundaries and got themselves a couple of Indian wives and Persian names, could the same be said of Indians who might have gone to England? Even a simple reading of Kipling’s Kim makes it clear that Kim, insofar as his whiteness goes, can cross boundaries at will, but the same privilege is not accorded to Hurree Babu, who is a believer in the Imperial project, despite being a somewhat comical but courageous figure, whose greatest ambition is to be a member of the Royal Geographic Society. Or to take a current example, when I had to go to the UK for our research trip, I had to exhibit every little bit of my life to the authorities to assure them that I was going to be free of disease and financially solvent, and thus worthy of entering ye olde England. What is more, when I came back, they asked our friend who wrote me a letter of invitation whether I had actually visited her as planned. What sort of visa did they have when they appeared on India’s shore I’d like to know. Apparently crossing boundaries, including political ones is a different story for different people.

The review ends with:

Historians who are interested in the people who make history are usually better writers than those who prefer theories. And Jasnoff is certainly a fine writer. She delights in scenes form the past; she knows how to describe the sights and smells of an eighteenth century bazaar as well as the personalities of her art collectors. She can visualize and imagine history, as well as study it in the archives and the seminar room, and this makes her book a particularly valuable account of the realities of empire.

The man may as well use the e” word. If I wanted smells from my history books, especially a particular kind of smell, I’d read M.M. Kaye, not history. And God forbid anybody actually thinking about what they are studying, it would just make them too theoretical.” Like those, oh so awful, Postcolonial theorists who are destroying the fabric of good scholarship with their pig headed interventions. Gilmour and Jasnoff both insist that they are not suffering from Imperial nostalgia. I am not so sure that its not the case (The same issue of NYRB has a very favorable review of Niall Ferguson’s new book, which seems to be about how bad it is when Empires crumble, because lots of people get killed. Never mind the fact that lots of people get killed over a long period of time when an Empire is being built and maintained.)

In all fairness though, Jasnoff’s book could be interesting, including the second half that describes how the Anglo-French rivalries played out in the subcontinent and the role of the invasion of Egypt in 19th century history. So I hope if anybody reads the book they’ll write something about it. I’d be curious to know more. Even if from the review it looks like there is a willful ignorance of the complexity of what postcolonial scholars have written, or maybe they are just mad that Europeans are not at the center of every inquiry.