I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Bearing the Burden

Philip McDonagh

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience, and Britain’s Empire, by Priya Satia, Allen Lane, 384 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0241464120

Time’s Monster is both a wide-ranging study of the British empire and an invitation to political engagement here and now. The foundation of Priya Satia’s argument is her stern indictment of empire, especially in its impact on India. Here she expands on her earlier work in such areas as the role of armaments in the industrial revolution and British aims in the Middle East post-World War One. Satia’s first goal is to establish “the British Empire’s morally bankrupt foundation in racism, violence, extraction, expropriation, and exploitation”.

The obvious risk in this approach is that bringing so much disturbing evidence to attention in such blunt terms will produce emotional reactions – anger among those who identify with the victims and indignation among the custodians of the “official version” of imperial history. Instead of enhancing our resources for dealing with today’s responsibilities, we may end up in defensive positions, in separate “epistemic tribes”. Arguably, a similar dilemma faces Black Lives Matter as it seeks to engage with complacent readings of American history. Time’s Monster is a good fit with the struggle for racial justice in contemporary societies.

What makes Satia’s book so useful is her exploration of the cultural conditions and habitual assumptions that enable self-aggrandisement in the name of “civilisation”. Centrally, she links the craft of historical investigation to the deadening of conscience in politics. In that sense, her work is “meta-historical”. She is concerned with how the discipline of the historian can become a form of “conscience management” through which elites conceal from themselves the full implications of their actions. History as a false moral compass is the “monster” to which the book’s title refers.

Thousands of well-educated people become complicit in imposing large-scale and easily visible suffering on others, while at the same time thinking of themselves as well-intentioned or even as the virtuous agents of a higher way of life and human progress. The ability to get rich – to extract, expropriate and exploit – is taken as confirmation of moral superiority or even divine favour. Systems of apartheid, explicit or implicit, are developed by those who enjoy a sense of their own comfortable goodness. How can all this be? Satia’s thesis is that in Britain’s case at least, historians played a major part in distorting self-awareness: “history makes history”. The development of an overarching story became less a mirror held up to reality than a custom-built moral and political alibi with implications for myriads of individual decisions.

In this perspective, Satia examines the work of a long list of British historians and commentators, including Edward Gibbon, Thomas Macaulay, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, JR Seeley, and Winston Churchill. James Mill’s History of British India (1817) incorporates the idea of a providential role for Britain and became compulsory reading for British officials and in the East India Company’s public school, Haileybury. Carlyle celebrates “great men”:

Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.

Seeley it was who propounded the idea that England “conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind”. No one who studies, for example, William Dalrymple’s history of eighteenth century India can take this notion seriously. The tone of jollity, the persona suggestive of amiable amateurism, the trivialisation of what is not trivial, are all well-known right into our own times. Seeley’s Expansion of England (1883) helps enable what is often described as the period of “High Imperialism” by painting a picture of the inherent disorder of other societies before the British came in. By the late nineteenth century, the British focus is on order and security as much as civilisational progress. For the exponent of empire, India “lay there waiting to be picked up by somebody”. (Today, British commentators supportive of a tougher stance towards Beijing make a similar argument in relation to nineteenth century China – glossing over the coercive imposition that country of the opium trade for reasons of selfish economic advantage.)

I am uneasy that in developing her thesis that “history makes history” Satia bypasses India’s greatest living historian, Romila Thapar. Thapar’s recent study The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History (2014) constitutes a potential point of reference for Satia’s project; yet it is ignored. Thapar has a keen eye for the indigenous origin of some of South Asia’s current difficulties. That the British contributed significantly to communalism is not the whole point. Thapar dedicates her work to the young, “in the hope that it may help them to decide on what is worth preserving in their heritage”. Romila Thapar’s broad perspective is a useful complement to Priya Satia’s more sharply defined objectives.

What, then, is the practical significance of this book? Satia takes her stand on the proposition that those who define themselves as British “cannot be conscious of the meaning of their present actions” until they form a more realistic understanding of how they have acted in the past. Here she looks beyond statues and apologies, commemoration and memorialisation. She goes to the roots of Western culture, taking Britain as a case study and argues that conscience – our ability to reason in the light of all that we ought to know and can know – has been corrupted by false narratives. She invites British people, but also Europeans and Americans, to examine the real story of recent centuries in geographies that include South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean and Ireland. What makes her book especially useful is not so much the anti-colonial standpoint, where many other writers cover similar ground, as her exploration of the particular cultural conditions under which the “British” (an evolving identity) ascribed to themselves a right and even a responsibility to manage the affairs of others. From an examination of the British public narrative from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, we can derive insights that may be helpful to everyone in the future. By contrast, a refusal of dialogue on these issues, of which there increasing signs in England, is a real and present danger to international cooperation.

There can be no glossing over the gravity of Satia’s charges against the British empire: genocidal encounters with indigenous peoples, the slave trade, the dubious aftermath of the slave trade, the use of terror as a military tactic, and the ever-present factor of unearned profit. Satia describes the “deliberate destruction of India’s productive capacity” in the eighteenth century, quoting a recent article estimating Britain’s current “indebtedness” to India at roughly $45 trillion. Underpinning this pattern of injustice is “systematic racism”. Britain’s determination to maintain a dominant position globally, based on a sense of destiny, is identified as a prime cause of World War I. Following Hannah Arendt and others, Satia argues that the ideology of empire (of course, not just the British empire) helped create the cultural conditions for the Holocaust.

Satia’s research could be used as a jumping-off point for examining the broader context of British policy during the Irish struggle for Home Rule and independence. Perhaps the most illuminating of the many issues of the period treated by her is the conference of experts held in Cairo in March 1921 – a fateful time in Ireland – in the presence of the colonial secretary, Winston Churchill. An important outcome of this conference was the creation of a new regime in Iraq. What Satia terms the “veiled colonial state” in Iraq would rely on the Royal Air Force through a strategy that was termed “air control”. The RAF – anticipating twenty-first century strategies involving drones – would “police Iraq from the air, coordinating information from agents on the ground to bomb villages and tribes”. Casualty counts were not made. “Terror,” according to Satia, “was the admitted principle of the scheme.” She quotes a 1924 report by Arthur Harris (of World War II fame):

The Arab and Kurd … now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village … can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.

The chief of the air staff, during the establishment of air control, assured parliament in 1930, “the natives of a lot of these tribes love fighting for fighting’s sake … They have no objection to being killed.” In 1932, the inhumanity of “air control” was discussed at the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In the same year, Iraq joined the League of Nations as a nominally independent country. The British High Commissioner in Iraq wrote to London that “the term ‘civilian population’ has a very different meaning in Iraq from what it has in Europe”.

In principle, the international environment fostered by the League of Nations was favourable to the emancipation of Ireland in accordance with international law as it developed in the twentieth century. In practice, our British interlocutors of that period were pursuing more than one agenda.

Satia’s profile of Winston Churchill is inseparable from her overall assessment of British political values. She accuses Churchill of being in the grip of “a late-Victorian historical sensibility grounded in evolutionism”:

In 1910, as home secretary, he proposed that one hundred thousand “degenerate” Britons be forcibly sterilized and others put in labor camps to save the British “race” from decline. His rant in the 1930s on the subject of Palestine makes clear the influence of evolutionary historical notions on his unapologetic readiness to wage violence for empire out of a sense that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph.” Accordingly, he explained, “I do not admit … that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

To draw the full benefit from Satia’s long argument, we need to see beyond the compelling accumulation of detail to the basic structure of her case. Her thesis, if I have understood it right, is that three main strands of thinking came together in the creation of a defective vision of society that in one form or another is still alive and still undermines the quality of public discourse in “Western” societies.

First, exponents of the European Enlightenment, using the progress of science as their model, come to believe that progress – a favourable pattern of development – is somehow embedded within the material of human history. On this view, trial and error, episodes of darkness and failure, such as the slave-trade or the corruption of the East India Company, do not reverse the overall trend towards an increasingly rational order in human affairs.

Second, the emerging culture of unaccountable power involves, paradoxically, a concept of agency. The dynamic that is supposedly already under way – a “manifest destiny” taking concrete shape – nevertheless needs the dedicated service of special people. The supporters of conquest attribute to great nations and great men the role of protagonists – or as recent British prime ministers have said, a “pivotal role” – in supporting the progress of humanity. Satia compares eighteenth century rationalisations of the social upheaval caused by trade and finance to parallel rationalisations of the arms industry and war. The East India Company ignores widespread famine in India in order to pay dividends to English shareholders. Firearms make war more “decisive”; their effect is thought to be “civilising”. Brutal decisions that look past a long and shadowy parade of victims are seen as building blocks in the edifice of progress. This pattern is impersonal in that it stands above – or is imagined as standing above – the choices of any one person. The “great man” lives a contradiction: he exercises arbitrary power in his own or his country’s self-interest and pleads at the same time his powerlessness in the face of something bigger than himself. The suppression of natural shame becomes a virtue.

The third element in what I refer to as a defective vision of society is the read-across from the pretension to rule others to “the eschatological structure of religious belief”. Many British actors involved in the savage acts of revenge that followed the Indian rebellion of 1857 were infused – or confused – by what Satia terms “an intense evangelical ethos”. Satia’s thinking on the role of religion is potentially of major contemporary significance. Some weaknesses and strengths in her account will be further examined in a moment.

Any representative jury of humanity will find Satia’s account of empire very largely true and is also likely to agree with her that the imperial narrative retains a regrettable potency. Who can doubt that the Iraq war of 2003, stemming from the plainly illegal bombing of Baghdad in 1998, was grounded in part (as Satia argues) on an essentially Victorian understanding of Britain’s entitlement to intervene in other countries? Who can doubt her judgment that Brexit can be attributed in part to cultural patterns that survive from the pre-World War One period?

Irish readers of a broadly nationalist outlook are likely, at a first reading, to absorb Satia’s thesis about empire without pushing back much. Roger Casement is one of the heroes of her story. She speculates that Casement’s father, a witness to atrocities in Afghanistan in the 1840s, may have influenced his son. Time’s Monster compares and contrasts a number of British-sponsored partitions, notably in Ireland, India, and Palestine. She links these experiments in governance to the historian Reginald Coupland’s vision of how the British empire might evolve. These experiments have not, on the evidence available, borne good fruit. Nevertheless, Coupland seems to have had peaceful intentions in promoting his idea that the Empire or Commonwealth could become an umbrella structure accommodating, in a holding pattern, territories of various different designs.

Here we cannot avoid another, limited criticism of Time’s Monster. Satia underestimates the degree to which Coupland, AE Zimmern and other thinkers of the inter-war period genuinely aspired to transform British thinking and promote a convergence between imperial history and emerging concepts of international order. Their starting position for political deliberation was non-ideal, even opaque – as it is for all of us. They addressed colonialism – whether or not as a “legacy issue” – at the same time as they were dealing with the power of the Soviet Union and in due course the rise of national socialism in Germany.

An alternative, and in my opinion more accurate, reading of Thucydides might have inspired a more forgiving account of the last phase of empire. Satia notes that Coupland presented a copy of Thucydides to Churchill in the course of World War I. She does not make clear that the Greek historian was often invoked in the decades before and after that war not in support of a “linear view of history” or “the deferring of ethical judgment” but precisely on the other side of the argument, to challenge the assumptions of empire and to encourage the transition towards a different view of international relations.

Thucydides was familiar with the Hippocratic writings. He writes political case studies describing the “cultural conditions” (to borrow a phrase of Satia’s) under which societies break down. He identifies the contradiction between democracy and the domination of other societies. He traces the disintegration of the powerful and intellectually ground-breaking Athenian empire and along the way identifies a naval arms race as the long-term cause of catastrophe. Thucydides can even be said – I borrow language from Satia once again – to memorialise the “lost cause” of Periclean democracy. Arguably, his vision of the historian’s duty is consonant with Satia’s – to write a useful work, capable of informing practical decisions in the future. It is the historians of Rome, or readings of Roman historians by their British and German imitators, that fed European imperialism. Satia has nothing to say about Roman historiography. Instead, like so many of the neoliberal academics who pushed an aggressive American foreign policy post-Cold War, she appears to underestimate the great historian of the Peloponnesian War.

Priya Satia’s big book, whatever its weaknesses here or there, adds up to a “sign of contradiction” for all of us, not only to those of British identity. In India and Pakistan, in Europe and the US, we are all lured by the temptations of amnesia. We risk, all of us, embracing economic, political, or religious templates that, in the words of The Great Gatsby, are “plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions”.

Priya Satia, like Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement, suggests that broadly the same “liberal” and “progressive” patterns of thought that gave us the great European empires have created today’s ecological crisis. We are bound to ask, with Satia, whether climate change requires us to re-examine the place of values in the public sphere and readmit into our discourse the ancient question of what makes for the good life. Instead of facing this challenge, contemporary societies, in a manner analogous to that of nineteenth century empires, may be tempted to take shelter behind an inadequate reading of the historical moment. We may seek to create a scale of political values to suit our own short-term interests. In this connection, Satia offers a challenging read-across from imperial narratives to the teleological assumptions underlying certain visions of the global economy since the end of World War II. If the impersonal economic forces that rule our lives are to be made accountable to legitimate public authority, the phenomena must be named, and we must understand them in all their interlinkages.

Satia’s insights demand, in fact, that we write history differently. In the first instance, this means reading history from “below”, as seen through the eyes of the vulnerable. Throughout her book, Satia pays ample tribute to poets, activists, and historians who have looked from below at the dominant orthodoxies of their time and sustained a republic of letters across political frontiers. The “lost causes” of past generations have much to tell us today. In this respect, Satia, despite a sympathetic interest in religion, misses an important resource. She fails to see that the four Christian gospels are exactly what she is looking for – history “written from below” within a great empire, the only documents of their kind to emerge in the ancient world up to that moment.

Time’s Monster presents a second, even more fundamental challenge to how we imagine history, a challenge rooted in the nature of time itself. Following other writers with a South Asian background, Satia frames the “meta-historical” issue – that is, the shaping role of the historical imagination – partly in terms of a religious or philosophical contrast. It has been customary since the early centuries of the common era to contrast history based on a supposedly linear narrative (“salvation history”), with a “cyclical” view of history attributed in later Roman times to pagan authors and in British India to Hindus. Satia offers a similar contrast: on the one hand, a “teleological” understanding of history (progress, the “end of history”), rooted in secular thinking; on the other hand, what in Satia’s view constitutes a genuinely religious understanding of history, as represented by anti-colonial South Asian thinkers in the Islamic and Gandhian traditions.

For thinkers like Gandhi, the quality of relationships and connections here and now, and “truth-action”, satyagraha, should provide our ethical compass. It is a matter of fact that we make our political choices with incomplete information. Similarly, it is a matter of fact that we can never predict with certainty the impact of our choices on the future. Short-term factors, long-term factors and the “human factor” interact in complex ways in which feedback loops play a part. That we cannot identify a single, privileged level of causation is especially the case in relation to epochal phenomena such as pandemics or environmental upheavals. As we look to the future, even a detailed account of physical and anthropological factors leaves open a number of different scenarios. The common criterion of evaluation that we apply from one situation to another cannot be reduced to some kind of ethical App or to a formula as simple as the consolidation of our own power through a political construct.

Religion, as Satia rightly insists, is an intrinsic part of the debate about values. Arguably, it remains a strong source of motivation in societies as different as India and the United States, under conditions in which religious learning, “scriptural reasoning”, interreligious dialogue, and the dialogue of public authorities with religion have been undervalued over a long period.  The relationship between religion and politics is not, of course, the primary theme of Time’s Monster. Nevertheless, important questions are raised that merit further exploration.

I see scope for a continuing dialogue with Priya Satia’s thinking in a number of other areas. First, I doubt that we should allow the distinction between the “linear” and the “cyclical”, between the pursuit of progress and an “intrinsic” criterion of action, to morph into a profound and troubling dichotomy. Prudent judgment in the present includes taking a position on the longer-term trajectory of events. It may be well be that in some situations the time is not right to push things to a conclusion or to seek to reverse the dominant narrative. For Gandhi, patience and gradualism were aspects of non-violent action. The methodologies suggested by, respectively, the “Western” conception of innovation and Gandhian satyagraha need to be brought into a constructive dialogue.

Second, it follows from this that in most situations we can bring about good and help our neighbours to face the future even within a defective overall political framework. This is the defence that Tacitus offers on behalf of his father-in-law Agricola, who served the emperor Domitian. To some extent, is it not the predicament of politicians and public servants throughout history?

Finally, it is worth considering further how the seeds of positive change may be present even in unhappy political circumstances, such as the cultural matrix out of which the European empires emerged. A striking and original aspect of Time’s Monster is the space that Priya Satia affords to Urdu and Persian poetry, especially the poetry of the defeated. We in Ireland are well placed to pick up this conversation. Seamus Heaney speaks in his Nobel lecture of “the poetic truth of the situation” in Northern Ireland. To see the “poetic truth” of any situation is to see three things at once: a surface reality (“what looks the stronger”), the contradictions under the surface, and the possible direction of change. Therefore, to articulate the “poetic truth” of a situation in a work of art disturbs received meaning and opens a door to change. Minds open to such an option for change would, in Yeats’s phrase quoted by Heaney, “hold in a single thought reality and justice”. As soon as the aptitude for “poetic truth” gets a foothold in a political culture, events turn on more than power politics; the application of what Shelley termed the “calculating faculty” is restrained. In this perspective, our task in the twenty-first century is to think like poets, finding seeds of renewal and change in every tradition, not excluding the “public service” and “universalising” instincts of the British empire. Priya Satia’s investigation of empire and its underlying culture is altogether relevant to the tasks of the future.


Philip McDonagh is co-author of the recently published work On the Significance of Religion for Global Diplomacy (Routledge 2021). He is adjunct professor in the Faculty of Humanities at Dublin City University and director of the Centre for Religion, Human Values, and International Relations. As a serving Irish diplomat, he was head of mission in India, Russia, the Holy See and elsewhere. He has published poetry and works for the theatre, including The Song the Oriole Sang (Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2010) and Gondla, or the Salvation of the Wolves (Arlen House, 2016 – an adaptation of Nikolay Gumilev’s verse drama).




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