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Showing posts with label Sathnam Sanghera Empireworld. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sathnam Sanghera Empireworld. Show all posts

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Review Sathnam Sanghera Empireworld


This book is based on extensive research converted into very readable prose. It’s packed with detail some or much of which will be unfamiliar to most readers and certainly kept me reading, wanting more.

The author is at pains to distance himself from “Balance Sheet” approaches to study of the British Empire – was it “on balance” a good thing or a bad thing? But at the same time he cannot avoid the problem which faces all history writing, How do you punctuate the past? That often converts into what may look like a simpler question, Who started it? But that is rarely (if ever) capable of a straightforward answer for reasons which are not that difficult to sketch.

Such evidence as we have and from all periods f history at least strongly suggests a number of things:

-          If they have neighbours, then human beings whether living in extended family groupings, clans, tribes or nation states seem to have a great deal of trouble in getting on with those neighbours on a long-term basis. History is less about War and Peace and more about War and Truce.

-          Migration, often large-scale, is a constant in the career of Homo Sapiens. It can be triggered by climate change, by exhaustion of local resources, by ethnic cleansing, by deportations, by a spirit of adventure, by a desire to dominate and enrich, by converting human beings into objects to be traded - and the traders could be connected across continents, African traders passing their goods to British traders and so on.  And so on and so on..... Whatever the cause or the reason, at any one time in history at least some significant number of humans will be on the move. And they will more often than not be moving to places already inhabited by people who will not necessarily welcome their new neighbours and (most?) often don’t.

-         The human capacity for appalling behaviour is considerable and in its worst forms has always been dominated by the violent acts of young males; those acts often sadistic and sexual. The historical record is imperfect but even pre-historic societies have left evidence of cruelty and torture, though without a written record or oral testimony, we obviously cannot have anything like the knowledge we have about later societies. We are in debt to writers like Bartolome de las Casas for our knowledge of at least some of the horrors of early European colonisation. But again another problem of punctation arises – our histories rarely ask about the mental health of those who lived in the distant past. At the same time, we know that living conditions were often precarious, unpleasant, unpredictable, and cruel. And in many places they still are. I would be quite unsurprised to be told that the majority of human beings who have ever lived have had significant mental health problems. To understand all is not to forgive all but it would be partial to leave out of the historical record some attempt to understand the incidence of mental disorders in past societies. The behviour of slave owners or colonial soldiers cannot be separated from how people behaved “at home”, and likewise how the lives of slaves compared to the miserable lives of the poor “back home”. Back home heretics were burnt, disobedient sailors whipped, teenagers hung for petty theft, children raped, and so on and so on, endlessly. It’s true that “at home” there emerged over time some restraints on behaviour both informal and formal. But then restraints emerged in the colonies too, as Sathnam Sanghera documents.

Hegel wrote about the “slaughter bench of history” and from the greatest distance and trying to survey the biggest picture, that is what human history has been. Punctuation is most often the attempt to shift blame on to someone else and that is what makes so much history writing, certainly in the past and even now, “ideological”.