Understanding the perspectives of other people is not something the United States and its citizens do terribly well. We have a tremendously self-important sense of how we as a people and a culture are shaped by our own history, even if our sense of what that history is might be a few degrees removed from reality.
We expect the world to know and to appreciate this history, as well as our “exceptional” nature, which in U.S. parlance means “superior” rather than unique. But when it comes to analysing the motives of others, we fall short. We fall back on jingoistic formulas—“They hate us for our freedoms!”—or on comforting cultural reductionism.
So it’s perhaps understandable that in the age of our nearly forgotten wars in Afghanistan and Iraq one of the most popular works of history was Niall Ferguson’s Empire, which offered simplistic and unsubstantiated narratives about the good that the British Empire supposedly brought to the people they colonised, and about the example that the British set for the United States, which Ferguson hoped would take its place as a superpower unafraid of ruling the world with a mailed fist.
The problems with Ferguson’s rose-tinted view of Empire, one shared by the neoconservatives, are legion. But two stand out. One is the shocking violence that accompanied not only colonial conquests, but the subsequent “pacificiation” campaigns to put down resistance, and the raw brutality with which the British and other imperial powers met nationalists in later decades.
The second is that in his crude balance table of what the British “gave” to the people whose societies they conquered, economies they plundered, and cultures they subdued, there are no voices to be heard from the tens of millions of people who the British ruled.
Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: the Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia (New York: Picador, 2012) is a wonderful antidote to Ferguson’s ahistorical propaganda, with its silent million and refusal to contemplate the British Empire’s record.
Mishra looks at what was common in the experience of Empire amongst Asian states which had highly-developed senses of their own historical roles, cultural prestige, and place in the world. Mishra tells this story through key characters, scholars and revolutionaries whose likely-unfamiliar names mask sympathetic stories and a series of encounters across Asia whereby those experiencing the short end of the imperial stick debated how to respond to European and American terrorism and occasionally sought to present a united front, something never realised thanks to different historical trajectories and different state models.
There is the Ottomans’ ecumenical empire, with its sophisticated administrative structures designed to absorb and accommodate an incredible range of ethnicities, languages, and traditions, something no other European power sought to emulate.
And then there was the Japanese state, which in a debate that echoes in parts of Asia and Africa today, decided that to counter the west it needed not only rapid development driven by an authoritarian state shorn of representative niceties, but also an empire of its own.
There was also the erstwhile superpower, China, which in a conceit that might sound familiar to Americans today, thought itself the centre of the world, a “Middle Kingdom” contemptuous of the notion that it could learn anything from the world’s other peoples. The insularity was not just technological and cultural. It was historical, inasmuch as the Chinese government, like its American counterpart today, proved incapable of understanding the motives and reacting to the blandishments of the depraved thugs who came pushing opium at the point of a gun.
When China rejected the advances of British merchants, the British Empire brought its navy and troops from India to bear, unleashing terror on cities near the sea and rivers, burning the Summer Palace, and humiliating the country’s leadership, imposing a financially crippling indemnity and a series of devastating legal and commercial requirements which undermined the ability of the state to defend the interests of its people.
Mishra’s characters are cosmopolitans. In their quest to revive their respective civilisations they travelled. Their journeys took them around an Islamic world which rivalled the “West” as an idea in search of a fixed geography. Their travels took them to Japan, seat of an expanding Asian Empire which defeated the Russian navy in 1905 and offered hope to people across the Asian landmass. And they found themselves in the lands of their oppressors, from which they drew lessons about the sources of the West’s power as well as the extent of the violence and depravity associated with the construction of wildly unstable and unequal societies.
Mishra’s narrative allows us to understand the moral and intellectual feebleness of modern-day imperialists’ conception of Empire, but it also allows us to see the perspective of revolutionaries, thinkers, writers, freedom-fighters, and would-be nation-builders who were the victims of Western expansion, enrichment, and duplicity. If we would like to understand why people look askance at us and question our motives today, it would be helpful to understand how not long ago we gave them very good reason to do so.
Mishra’s writing is beautiful, his characters tragic, and his story one which badly needs to be heard today thanks not only for its contribution to an historical record and his resuscitation of some extraordinary figures, but for what it offers to an impoverished discourse today in which the West lacks the language and understanding to engage with rising powers and societies which will increasingly not settle for contemptuous dismissal. Just as Commodore Perry’s gunships disrupted Japan’s sense of place 160 years ago, there are economic and political developments afoot today which demand that analysis be accompanied by empathy and understanding, part of which should be of an historical character. Mishra makes a fine contribution in his demand that the experiences of Asia and the perspective of Asians during the era of colonialism and internationalism be taken seriously.