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How did the world of nation-states come about? What happened to the world of empires that preceded it? How did the transition take place and how inevitable was it? These may seem (and indeed are) old questions.
In The Ethnographic State: France and the Invention of Moroccan Islam, Edmund Burke does the important work of historicizing colonial-era research on Morocco and Moroccans.
For many of us, the ongoing carnage in Syria is a self-evident humanitarian crisis. We do not need to be convinced that the children drowning at sea, the women and men, young and old, begging for entry into any country that will accept them are worthy of our help.
In his 2013 book, The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters, Anthony Pagden devoted a chapter to the European ‘discovery’ of ‘man in nature’, partly through their study of the individual men whom French and British explorers brought back from their voyages to the South Pacific.
In 1775, Samuel Johnson had already identified the central paradox of United States history. He notoriously challenged British readers to explain why ‘we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes’. Generations of historians have tried to answer that question. How could a movement espousing belief in liberty include so many slaveholders?
Bangladesh today is the only nation-state in the Indian subcontinent with levels of ethnic homogeneity similar to Western or Central Europe.
Slavery defined the Atlantic world. African forced labour produced the primary materials that drove European mercantile economies. The plantation complex lay at the core of societies from Brazil and the West Indies to the American mainland and West Africa.
Tamson Pietsch is a lecturer in Imperial and Colonial History at Brunel University, London. Her own academic pathway from Australia to Oxford mirrors that of her predecessors who feature in this study of the ‘Empire of Scholars’. We need to know more, she argues, about who made knowledge in the Empire and the social and intellectual context which informed that knowledge.
The most forceful initial impression that emerges from this collection is the diversity of topics covered. The work focuses on the patterns of British imperialism, liberalism and modernity in the 19th century, exploring the degree to which liberalism was distinctive and the specific ways in which it was coercive.
Duncan Bell’s book comes with an intriguing picture on its front cover: Gustave Doré’s famous 1860 depiction of a New Zealander perched on a broken arch of London Bridge sketching the ruins of St Paul’s and its environs. The image, derived from an essay by Thomas Babington Macaulay, captures much of the Victorian premonition and anxiety about empire.