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),…