"Time's Monster" by Priya Satia Review – Living in the PastHistorians in the News
tags: historiography, colonialism, books, reviews
In his celebrated “Letter from Birmingham jail”, written in 1963 while in prison for having taken part in a banned march against segregation, Martin Luther King Jr describes receiving a letter from a “white brother in Texas” who had told him that “all Christians know that the coloured people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry”. “Such an attitude”, King wrote, “stems from a tragic misconception of time”, from “the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills”.
I was reminded of that line as I read Priya Satia’s Time’s Monster. For it’s the same “irrational notion” about “the flow of time” against which Satia, professor of international history at Stanford University, argues.
Time’s Monster is a book about history and empire. Not a straightforward history, but an account of how the discipline of history has itself enabled the process of colonisation, “making it ethically thinkable”.
Satia’s story begins with the Enlightenment, when the traditional idea of time as cyclical unwound into a linear vision of history, which came to be seen as “something that moves irresistibly forward”. History became something that humans made but also that made humans. Humans and history were both seen as possessing agency. This allowed “history to exercise the power of moral judgment”. Morality was defined in terms of the progress brought about by the unfolding of history. History revealed the institutions and the peoples that had “become obsolete”. Obsolescence, novelist Amitav Ghosh has observed, is “modernity’s equivalent of perdition and hellfire”. The “most potent words of damnation” in the modern world, Ghosh has noted, “is the malediction of being on the ‘wrong side of history’”.
The Enlightenment’s obsession with progress, combined with an unshakable attachment to moral universalism, Satia suggests, helped “normalise the violence of imperial conquest”. Colonialism came to be seen as morally just, a means of bringing progress to non-European peoples, freeing them from their own barbarism.
Liberal imperialism was inherently contradictory, both demanding and denying freedoms and liberties. So John Stuart Mill, in his classic book On Liberty, could argue that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement”. Those who had not sufficiently progressed along the path of history should not be treated like fully “civilised” peoples. “The historian’s craft”, Satia suggests, “proved essential to smoothing over” such contradictions, allowing the sheer brutality of the British empire to be glossed over as the “collateral damage” of necessary progress.