All posts by Christopher Szabla

The Great Divergence and the Marketplace of Ideas: Joel Mokyr’s “Culture of Growth”

The Economist has recently published a review of Joel Mokyr‘s new book, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy – a new contribution to the debate over “the great divergence” between the European and Asian economies, and how Europe’s wealth and power began to overshadow India’s and China’s by the nineteenth century. Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, focuses on the role of ideas in bolstering European productivity in the early modern period – a consequence of the opening up of its marketplace of ideas from one regulated by religious dogma to one that fostered innovation. Why did such a free market take hold in Europe, rather than Asia? Geography, Mokyr claims, played a role: the continent’s fragmentation into a number of states allowed thinkers to sell their ideas elsewhere when their home countries made them feel unwelcome.

The magazine gently criticizes Mokyr for omitting the historiographical context for his arguments; his is not, it argues, “for someone looking for a general introduction to the great divergence,” and makes no attempt to strengthen its argument by taking on competing theories – such as, presumably, Kenneth Pomeranz’s seminal Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000), which focused not on the role of ideas, but material factors (for example, the ease of extracting coal, and the development of colonial trade) to answer the question of why an industrial economy rose first in Britain rather than China. “Those familiar with the historiography will have their own grumbles,” the review acknowledges, but finds its own greatest frustration in how “untestable” Mokyr’s vague contentions about the “greatness” of European intellectual figures’ contribution to the world of ideas is – how exactly these figures set the stage for economic superiority.

Connected Anticolonialisms: The Sultanate of Mysore and the American Revolution

Surprisingly little research focuses on how the mid to late eighteenth century rise of the British East India Company’s empire in India coincided with the disintegration of British control over what became the United States. The few exceptions, moreover – most notably P.J. Marshall’s Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America c.1750-1783 – also tend to focus on connecting those episodes through a British lens.

Blake Smith adds a new angle to the examination of these simultaneous developments by connecting them through relatively novel perspectives: that of the French Empire, which supported both the American and Indian states that resisted British colonial encroachment during the period, as well as that of the relationship between two polities fighting off metropolitan power: the American colonies and the Indian Sultanate of Mysore. In a recent article for Aeon, the Northwestern University and EHESS (Paris) PhD candidate, whose work focuses on the French East India Company, describes both the American colonists and the Mysorean resistance as “members of a global coalition funded by the French government, which saw both uprisings as a chance to humble Britain” in the wake of French defeat in the Seven Years’ War.

This was not lost on the Americans, Smith writes. They had cheered the growth of British power in India and the goods it brought to their ports, but lamented that the empire prevented them from trading there of their own accord – the Boston Tea Party was, in part, a protest not just against the high prices the East India Company’s monopoly brought with it, but Americans’ inability to launch their own competition. Naturally, they became immersed in the idea of independent American and Indian states alike – and lionized Mysore’s leaders, Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan – until the south Indian state’s ultimate defeat by Britain was sealed. French support for global, anticolonial resistance had plunged it into debt, and funding for Mysore decreased dramatically, despite attempts to revive the relationship on both sides. Tipu Sultan’s state fell in 1799, and soon after the new United States became too immersed in its own colonization of the North American interior to thrill to anticolonial activities elsewhere.

CFP: Indigenous Exploration Panel at the Society for the History of Discoveries Meeting

A panel will be held during the Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries, held in Milwaukee on September 22-23, 2017, on Indigenous Discovery and Exploration History. The aim of the panel is to highlight processes or acts of exploration and discovery – or travel more broadly – by non-European actors:

This thematic panel seeks to deepen scholarship on non-European, non-Western accounts of discovery and exploration while focusing on how Indigenous peoples discovered and explored other parts of the globe. Indigenous peoples across the world undertook voyages of discovery and exploration that sometimes resulted in settlement and the intermingling of different peoples and cultures. Contributions to this panel will critically examine the process, experience, and outcomes of voyages undertaken by Indigenous peoples before, during, and after the European era of ‘discovery’, from circumpolar travel by peoples such as the Innu, and the arduous travels of the Inca to Europe during the Spanish colonial era, to the Indigenous inhabitants of Africa and their migration to Australia.

Proposals for 20-minute presentations concerning any indigenous people and relating to any geographic context and period should be under 250 words and sent to Dr. Lauren Beck at by February 3, 2017. Papers accepted for this panel will subsequently be developed into article-length, peer-reviewed manuscripts and form a thematic issue of Terrae Incognitae devoted to indigenous perspectives on discovery and exploration.

Did Decolonization Foster Human Rights? A Review of Steven Jensen

H-Soz-u-Kult has just posted a review (in German) of Steven Jensen‘s new book, The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values by Annette Weinke of the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena. Jensen’s book seeks to intervene in debates about the origins of modern human rights by placing them neither in the 1940s, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, nor in the 1970s, when Samuel Moyn’s influential Last Utopia asserted they took off, but in the 1960s, with the onset of decolonization. As such, he attributes agency for human rights’ creation to newly independent states and their leaders.

Weinke finds Jensen’s attempts to resurrect the contributions of postcolonial actors welcome, but his thesis overstated. Its primary shortcoming, she notes, is Jensen’s willingness to accept these actors’ attempts at the creation of human rights norms, rather than their actual fulfillment, as evidence for those norms’ acceptance and power; his “legalistic” frame, she writes, leads Jensen to miss the “ever-widening gaps between claims and reality.” Jensen also misses the intention behind postcolonial actors’ adoption of human rights, she writes; rather than upholding a truly universal standard, Weinke continues, their contributions also imposed “new hierarchies” onto human rights, effectively singling out Israel. And in drawing stark dichotomies between human rights-friendly states and their opponents, she observes, Jensen is forced to acknowledge that the United States and Western Europe played a larger role in the adoption of human rights norms than his overarching thesis might suggest.

In all, Weinke’s review appears to vindicate Moyn’s approach – and, perhaps, his periodization with it – suggesting that, until political movements began advocating for the actual enforcement of human rights norms, they were more symbolic than effective. Like the framers of the Universal Declaration, postcolonial actors may have helped create some of the texts and norms later movements advocated fulfilling – a point on which Jensen appears to have made his most important contribution – but those actors did not necessarily succeed, in the 1960s or by themselves, in molding those instruments fully into tools for practice.

CfP: Law and Colonial Violence Workshop at Queen Mary University London

Queen Mary University London, Cambridge University, and the European University Institute have jointly issued a call for proposals for a workshop on the subject of “Law and Colonial Violence” worldwide, to be held at Queen Mary University London on February 14, 2017. The call provides the following description:

Now more than ever, the relationship between colonial violence and law stands at the centre of public and scholarly attention. While some have sought to position law as a ‘limiting factor’ in restraining the violence of imperial rule, there is plenty of empirical evidence illustrating the degree to which jurists and the law itself have been deeply implicated in the creation and maintenance of empire, including its utility of violence. Growing academic interest in the connections between these two perspectives has been made evident by important new fields of inquiry. These include legal, social scientific, and historiographical debates on colonial violence in the ‘long’ nineteenth century, as well as more recent discussions regarding international criminal law since the end of the Cold War, turns to ‘history’, ‘critical theory’, the ‘global’, or ‘postcolonial’ in legal and intellectual history, the laws of war in the post-9/11 epoch, and arguments regarding the ‘breakthroughs’ of human rights in the 1970s and 1990s – or, perhaps, (much) earlier.

In light of recent attempts to engage in interdisciplinary study of new discourses and methodological approaches, this international workshop co-organized by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), the European University Institute (EUI), and the University of Cambridge seeks to examine the genealogy of this complex and frequently contested intersection of law in its broadest sense, imperial violence, and the growing force of internationalism from a truly global perspective by calling for papers that address these questions and themes.

This workshop will seek to bring together both graduate students and more advanced scholars working with a variety of historical, legal, intellectual, and theoretical methods to explore the relationship between law and imperial violence from roughly the 1800s up to the 1970s, when decolonization was reaching its end phase and the Additional Protocols were being signed. We particularly invite scholars working on those laws regulating policing and violence in an imperial context, such as emergency penal, or martial laws, the laws of war, and human rights.

Potential topics range from, but are not limited to, the implementation of colonial emergency laws at a local, regional or national level; law as a justifier or facilitator of violence; law as an instrument for limiting or ending colonial violence; the laws of war and human rights in colonial and postcolonial contexts; a conceptual or theoretical history of law, civilization, race, and colonial violence; indigenous resistance and the law; historical comparisons across time, geographical locations (metropole/periphery), and empires; the influence of empire on the drafting of new laws or declarations regulating warfare and imperial policing; and the problem of clashing or overlapping legal regimes in imperial contexts (e.g. emergency laws vs. human rights).

The workshop is organized by Jacob Ramsay Smith (Queen Mary), Joseph McQuade (Cambridge), and Boyd van Dijk (European University Institute/King’s College), and will last for one day. It will feature a number of panels and a keynote lecture by Professor Dirk Moses, of the University of Sydney. Abstracts 350 words long should be submitted to and are due December 17, 2016.