As part of Prospect's Books of the Year special, we round up the best offerings in historyby Prospect Team / December 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
It is an enduring myth that Britain has always stood in splendid isolation. In Island Stories (William Collins), David Reynolds emphasises that we have always had foreign entanglements: in 1914, the Indian Army made up a third of Britain’s fighting force. William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy (Bloomsbury), a wonderfully readable history of the East India Company, reminds us that one of the earliest Hindustani words to come into English was “loot.” For all the talk of noble mission, the conquest of India was a commercial venture backed by military might. That might was fully displayed during the crushing of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, after which the EIC was nationalised. As Priyamvada Gopal’s punchy Insurgent Empire (Verso) shows, colonial subjects were never passive. In fact, ideas about liberation formulated in the periphery shaped democratic thinking in the metropolis. Before the British came it was Muslim invaders who changed Indian culture, as relayed in Richard Eaton’s India in the Persianate Age (Allen Lane).
Histories of West Africa often begin with the scramble for slaves and gold. But in Toby Green’s magnificent A Fistful of Shells (Allen Lane), which won the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize, the rich complexity of pre-colonial society is explored. The shells of the title were a form of currency. Many kingdoms were wealthy: one Arab historian who visited Mali reported that the king sat on an ebony throne guarded by Turkish slaves. Though slavery was common, it was not until the huge demand from plantation owners in the Americas that industrial enslavement took off. Manacled humans became a standard unit of currency. Green suggests that the Spanish word for slave, esclavo, was branded on captives in abbreviated form with a line through it—$.
In the fourth century, Saint Gregory insisted that owning slaves was to “set one’s own power above God’s.” But it would take another 1,500 years before abolitionism would sweep through Europe. In Dominion (Little, Brown), Tom Holland argues that the humble origins of Christianity—in his words, “a cult inspired by the execution of an obscure criminal”—provided the moral basis for modern humanitarianism, from human rights to the #MeToo protests, which, like the Puritans once did, “summon men to exercise control over their lusts.”
At the height of the Ottoman Empire, argues Noel Malcolm in Useful Enemies (OUP), European thinkers looked to the superpower as a model for brutally successful statecraft. By 1530, Erasmus went so far as to describe Muslims as “semi-Christians.” Of course, there was still plenty of theological antipathy. During the Enlightenment, critiques of Islam provided a model for free-thinkers to challenge Christian beliefs. (For a more swashbuckling account of Muslim-Christian rivalry, turn to Dan Jones’s Crusaders (Head of Zeus).)
Recalling his time in the Chełmno extermination camp in Poland, one Holocaust survivor said he urged a grieving father to keep going: “Think about future retaliation.” Mary Fulbrook’s Reckonings (OUP), the winner of the 2019 Wolfson History Prize, tracks in painful detail both Nazi crimes and the struggle for post-war justice. Fulbrook writes that the “vast majority of those who were guilty of mass murder and collective violence,” were not held to account. And while there may be memorials in Berlin, in Mielec near Kraków, once home to 2,800 Jews, there is no trace of their massacre except a “rough stone marking the site of the former synagogue.”
Could the Nazis have been stopped earlier? Tim Bouverie in Appeasing Hitler (Bodley Head) says Neville Chamberlain’s arrogance didn’t help. Even after the humiliation of Munich, and the horrors of Kristallnacht, he still fantasised about disarmament talks.
Margaret Thatcher was no appeaser. In Who Dares Wins (Allen Lane), Dominic Sandbrook’s fluent account of Britain between 1979 and 1982—the fifth in his series of national micro-histories starting in the 1950s—the PM defeats the Argentinian junta. As always, Sandbrook is attuned as much to popular culture as high politics—Fawlty Towers and Brideshead Revisited were, in their way, as important as the miners’ strike. Most people’s lives aren’t usually dominated by politics. When they are, the country is likely to be in trouble.