Troubling the Empire: An Interview with Antoinette Burton

Prof. Antoinette Burton, Catherine C. and Bruce A. Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies, UIUC

The British Empire, in its various guises, remains a rich historiographical field. Over the course of the past forty years, imperial history has undergone a series of changes stemming from the cultural turn, postmodernism, and postcolonial studies. A central element of this has been to break away from the male-dominated approaches to the ‘Official Mind’, and incorporating gender, race, and class into our understanding of Empire. Professor Antoinette Burton of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been at the forefront of this change, as part of a wider group of scholars breaking down the insular boundaries of the field. Prof. Burton is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth-century Britain and its empire, with a specialty in colonial India and an ongoing interest in Australasia and Africa. She has written on topics ranging from feminism and colonialism to the relationship of empire to the nation and the world.

Throughout her career, Antoinette Burton has drawn our attention to the place of women in imperial movements in Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture 1865-1915 (UNC Press, 1994), the experiences of non-white subjects moving across the empire in At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (University of California Press, 1998), and the perpetual weakness of the empire itself in The Trouble with Empire: Challenges to Modern British Imperialism (Oxford UP, 2015). These works, as well as her extensive list of further publications, have allowed us to understand the metropole and empire as co-constitutive, with bodies and ideas crossing imperial boundaries and breaking down previously held assumptions of insularity. Revealing the voices of marginalized groups has also stimulated a wide array of research into localized perceptions of empire.

In this interview, Burton discusses the origins of her interest in gender and the British Empire, and her transition to broader questions of British imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We also spoke about the pitfalls of studying the Empire in the current era of revisionism and imperial nostalgia, and how we as historians can combat the challenges raised by the amnesia surrounding colonial actions. Finally, we talked about how both collaborative projects and the field of World History can enrich our understanding of the British Empire, as well as the benefits of these approaches to early career researchers.

James Parker

Servants’ Pasts (Berlin, 11-13 April 2018)

For readers working on the history of domestic work and service in South Asia, see this call for papers for the second international conference organized under the ERC-funded project ‘Domestic Servants in Colonial South Asia’, to be held in Berlin from 11-13 April, 2018: This conference will explore the various regional histories of domestic work and…

“South-South: Intellectual History across Middle East and South Asia, 1857- 1948” (Workshop, Columbia University, October 20-21, 2016)

For those readers interested in either transnational history, the history of the Middle East and South Asia, or Islamic history, two graduate students at Columbia University and Rice University, Roy Bar-Sadeh and Esmat Elhalaby, have organized what looks to be a terrific workshop taking place at the former institution this October. According to a recent…

From Swadeshi to GDP: Discussing India’s Paths to Development With Corinna Unger

India, or so the geopolitical soothsayers tell us these days, is on the rise. Soon to be the world’s most populous country, since liberalization in the early 1990s, the South Asian giant has seen rates of economic growth that approach China’s. And while regional frozen conflicts like Kashmir, internal guerilla movements, and the decades-long rivalry with nuclear Pakistan do not leave New Delhi with a no-problems neighborhood, India has mostly managed to avoid troubling its neighbors too much. With an aggressively re-assured nationalist Prime Minister in Narendra Modi and with aspirations of, someday, becoming a upper-income country, seeming less far fetched than in a long time, India appears to have escaped the centuries-long reputation of being a place of hunger and famine.

For those days are not far removed. As scholars have shown, not only was the late British period marked by deadly combinations of market forces and climatic event that devastated Indian farmers; as late as 1943, the Bengal Famine wiped out three million people in eastern India. After independence from the British in 1947, independent India’s leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru made it a point to turn the agrarian nation into an industrial country, turning to outside powers like the United States, the Soviet Union, West Germany, and others, to build turnkey steel plants. At the same time, as we have seen in early Toynbee Prize Foundation interviews, agriculture and the transformation of Indian communities formed a crucial arena of developmental politicking, too. India had global significance, too, for not only was it seen as a crucial “swing player” in a Cold War world seen as threatened by a massive Communist Bloc; more than that, the sheer size and scale of the place made it a gigantic laboratory for various models of economic development often first pioneered in the Global North.

Corinna Unger’s “Entwicklungspfade in Indien. Eine internationale Geschichte, 1947-1980”, the focus of this installment of the Global History Forum.  Pictured on the cover of the book is a road-building project in the Punjab in 1958.

Still, as Cold War diplomatic archives have opened their doors only recently–and as historians have also only relatively recently recognized the quest for socioeconomic development as a legitimate object of study–our knowledge of how undeveloped nations became “developed,” or “developed” themselves remains clouded. Until, that is, a book like Corinna Unger’s Entwicklungspfade in Indien. Eine internationale Geschichte (Developmental Paths in India: An International History) appears. In her book, published this year with the Wallstein Verlag, Unger, a Professor of History at the Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, explores India’s engagement of foreign expertise (especially that of the United States and West Germany) from 1947 to 1980.

More than diving further chronologically into the history of development than many works, Unger’s work sets itself apart from much of the historiography by showing how many macro-narratives of development, like the Green Revolution or the perception of urban slums as spaces of rural-to-urban economic transition, emerged during the years after the romance of steel plants and hydroelectric dams lost its luster. Based on exhaustive research across multiple continents, Unger’s work sheds a light into the international history of development–and into the biography of an Indian state and economy that now looks, less nervously in the past but still not without anxiety, towards “growth,” “modernization,” and “development” as key markers of the nation’s progress. We had the chance recently to sit down with Professor Unger to discuss some of the themes in her recent work–and how she came to it in the first place.…

Sir Christopher Bayly (1945-2015)

The Toynbee Prize Foundation mourns the recent and unexpected passing of Professor Sir Christopher Bayly, the leading historian of India and the British Empire and a pioneer in the field of global history. As a recent obituary by Richard Drayton explains, Bayly made prodigious contributions to the field of South Asian history, and his The Birth of…

Globalizing Time, Globalizing Capital: A Conversation with Vanessa Ogle

It’s a familiar routine for scholars of global history. Having squeezed in a visit to an archive during a spring break or stretch of summer vacation, you get off the airplane in a foreign land, stretch your legs, and feel, in spite of the local caffeine injection, tired. You set your watch, several hours ahead if coming from the United States and several hours back if coming to Europe and try to make the best of the first day on foreign soil.

Soon, however, jet lag sets in. You either fall asleep in your dinner or wake up hours before the local bakers do. Exhausted, you read tips on how to beat the exhaustion, where you learn that the body needs an equivalent number of days to time zones crossed to beat off the exhaustion. The scholar coming from California to Moscow, for example, has eleven days of misery to endure before he or she is fully up to date with local time. You remain grateful for the chance to pursue your research, but, counting the time zones, groan at the routine.

It’s a familiar routine for many, indeed, but not as old as one might think. Until the late 19th century, as University of Pennsylvania professor and global historian Vanessa Ogle shows in her work, efforts towards a global standardization of time ranged from negligible to chaotic. The standardization of time that we have today, and the divisions that we use–Central European Time from Madrid to Montenegro, Greenwich Mean Time, and scientifically controlled Coordinated Universal Time to keep time zones themselves punctual–are all relatively recent inventions.

Unpacking this story, and seeing how contentious the seemingly most universal thing in the world–time–could be are great themes for global history. That’s why the Global History Forum was excited to sit down to interview Ogle, who is close to publishing her findings on the history of time standardization and well underway on a second project on the global history of “archipelago capitalism.” Speaking over coffee, we discussed her journey to global history, her first project, and her current work.