Article June 1, 2021

Roundtable Panel—Priya Satia's Time’s Monster: How History Makes History

The Toynbee Prize Foundation Presents
A Roundtable Panel Discussion on:
Priya Satia, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History (Harvard University Press, 2020)


We sail’d wherever ships could sail; We founded many a mighty state; Pray God our greatness may not fail Through craven fear of being great.

—Hands All Round, Alfred Tennyson

“There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange and on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer”.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad


In 1993, Edward Said wrote in Culture and Imperialism on the connection between European imperial projects on the one hand and the “aesthetic objects” produced in European metropoles on the other. The collective social identities of imperial nation states, he claimed, were fostered through participation in cultural practices such as spectating images of exotic lands, animals and peoples displayed in special exhibitions and the consumption of cultural artifacts such as the imperialist novel. His larger argument was that modern empires relied not just on the physical conquest of land and installation of bureaucratic apparatus but also on discourses which legitimized and normalized that acquisition. Since then, scholars have cast a critical eye on intellectual production and shown how the ideas defending and celebrating imperialism were advanced and upheld by poets and artists, anthropologists and philosophers. In her new book, Times Monster: How History Makes History, Priya Satia discusses the pivotal role of the discipline of History and its practioners in the British Empire’s legitimating enterprise. British historians, she argues, provided the language that not only defended imperial expansion but proclaimed it as a moral and ethical force in the world. The debris of those ideas continue to impact and shape our politics today – long after the formal end of colonial rule. However, though history could be a handmaiden to empire, Satia shows that historical thinking could also be used to question, subvert and ultimately delegitimize imperial claims. What results through her discussion is a rich intellectual history that spans over three hundred years of imperial history, taking the reader from the imperatives of the Enlightenment to the politics of decolonization and its aftermath. This spring we invited four scholars of varying expertise and interests to discuss this work. In what follows, each of them reflects on the book’s arguments and propositions, closed by a response from Professor Satia. We thank the participants for their time and engagement and hope that readers find the discussion thought-provoking.

—Zaib un Nisa Aziz, Yale University


Participant Bios

Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History Professor of History at Stanford University. Professor Satia’s first book Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008) won the 2009 AHA-Herbert Baxter Adams Book Prize, the 2009 AHA-Pacific Coast Branch Book Award, and the 2010 Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies Book Prize. Her second book, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution (Penguin Press/Duckworth, 2018) won the 2019 Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies Book Prize, the Wadsworth Prize in Business History, and the AHA's Jerry Bentley Prize in world history.

Anurag Sinha is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He studies modern political thought, with interests in empire and colonization, the history of political economy, postcolonial and comparative political theory, and the politics and history of modern South Asia. His current research focuses on the intellectual legacies of eighteenth-century British state-building in India.

Taylor Sherman is Associate Professor at the Department of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her books include Muslim Belonging in Secular India: Negotiating Citizenship in Postcolonial Hyderabad (Cambridge, 2015), State violence and punishment in India, 1919-1956 (London: Routledge, December 2009) and her work has appeared in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Past & Present, Modern Asian Studies among others.

Or Rosenboim is a Lecturer and the Director of the Centre for Modern History at the department of International Politics at City, University of London. She holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Cambridge and was Junior Research Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and Teaching Associate at the Centre for Gender Studies, University of Cambridge. Her book, The Emergence of globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950 (Princeton University Press, 2017) the Guicciardini Prize for the Best Book in Historical International Relations (2018).

Disha Karnad Jani is a fifth year Ph.D student, working on modern European and global/international history. Before coming to Princeton, she received her B.A. with Honours in History and Political Economy at McGill University. She is interested in histories of inter/nationalism, (anti-)imperialism, and political thinking in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly as concerns attempts to elaborate new political forms and subjects, and is writing her dissertation on the intellectual history of international anti-imperialism in the early twentieth century.


Reviewers' Comments


Anurag Sinha Political Science, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Reading Priya Satia’s rousing new book, one gets the feeling that Reinhold Niebuhr had it absolutely right when he observed in Moral Man and Immoral Society that modern life was marked by “the hypocrisy of governments as well as the self-deception of individuals.” British imperial expansion in Asia and Africa and the writing of history were forever bedfellows, Satia argues. The co-constitution of empire and history is discerned in the specific historical sensibility that permitted empire-builders to avoid reckoning with the ethical inconsistency of their actions. History became a mechanism of “conscience management,” making deeply conscientious Britons “complicit in inhumanity.”

How did this complicity unfold? The Enlightenment understanding of history as linear, irreversible, and progressive transformed the discipline into a system of ethical accountability, while intention, rather than consequence, emerged as “the arbiter of eighteenth-century conscience.” Ethical action in everyday life now entailed the pursuit of peace, commerce and prosperity, a world government, even. If a war could be fought to end all wars, if an act of violence could usher in moral progress, why should we resist? And if at first we didn’t succeed, shouldn’t we try, try again?

This new notion of time created the monster of empire, which could be pursued with the promise of moral and material improvement for the colonized. Empire was an ideal testing ground for actions in the name of progress, the ends purportedly justifying the means. That we don’t hold the perpetrators of such actions accountable, Satia says, is a result of how history writing and imperial decision-making were intertwined. Historians enabled imperial expansion by producing narratives about empire’s good intentions and moral obligations. Empire, in turn, produced the raw materials for writing history. Whiggish progress to Victorian guilt, great-man history to social Darwinism, and oriental mysticism to imperial federation, history continuously provided empire with a “script” to prolong its lifespan. To truly decolonize the discipline, it’s these scripts that we must tear up.

Satia is no stranger to disrupting historical scripts. Time’s Monster builds on her earlier pathbreaking scholarship. Most notably, Spies in Arabia, tracing the origins of air control as a technology of covert British imperialism in the Middle East; and Empire of Guns, where the flintlock musket joins the spinning jenny as a primary driver of Britain’s industrial economy. Past protagonists appear here as contrasting historical actors. Samuel Galton, the eighteenth-century gunmaker, is constrained by the forces of history into arming Britain’s war machine. T. E. Lawrence, the twentieth-century British agent, is driven by an acute sense of historical agency to commit violence during the Great War. Their actions are circumscribed by the historical imagination, which in either case enables empire.

But the dreamers of the day in this story are the writers of history. A staggering roster of historians falls under Satia’s scrutiny and very few emerge unscathed. Smith, Kant, Priestley, Gibbon, Burke, Paine, Wilberforce, Byron, the Mills, Macaulay, Carlyle, Maine, Spencer, Hobson, Churchill, Marxists (though not Marx or Engels) and nationalists, among many others, are shown to have contributed to the historical imagination’s management of conscience with respect to empire. Even those expressly critical of imperial belligerence, like John Kaye, enabled the perpetuation of empire. Kaye excoriated the official British account of the First Anglo-Afghan campaign, emphasizing the salience of truth-telling in history writing. Yet his telling of the 1857 rebellion in India is one of an imperial confidence-trap: the good intentions of English manners betrayed by an uprising that could only be quelled by the English martial spirit. The management of conscience demanded by empire gradually necessitated the management of history. One is reminded again of Niebuhr, who, in The Irony of American History, spoke of America’s misguided “dreams of managing history.”

One of many remarkable contributions of Satia’s book is the new perspective her vantage point can yield. For instance, from Boyd Hilton’s The Age of Atonement and his volume in The New Oxford History of England, we have long known about the evangelical influence on British social and economic thought. Eric Stokes’s classic, The English Utilitarians and India, underscores the influence of evangelicalism, Romanticism, and utilitarianism in the administration of British India. While there is no discussion of either Hilton or Stokes in the book, Satia’s analysis reveals how themes of guilt and penance were pivotal not merely to social and imperial policy but also, and as importantly, to the expansion of empire. Similarly, we know from Jeanne Morefield’s Empires without Imperialism that the politics of deflection is a principal feature of empires in decline. Reading Satia, it becomes clear that, in fact, such a politics has always been a part of imperial narratives enabled by historians.

The last three decades has seen an explosion in the scholarship on the justificatory languages of European imperialism. Many of these works are histories of international law or histories of liberalism and its entanglements with empire. Time’s Monster is written in a different register. Thinking about conscience management not merely as hypocrisy but also as historical sensibility, Satia is able to locate empire’s source of autonomous reproduction. This account is different from Partha Chatterjee’s The Black Hole of Empire, in which imperial mythmaking surrounding a singular event sustains repeated justifications of colonial rule. Satia is also able to put together thinkers who are ordinarily at loggerheads. Through her lens, we can now read Burke alongside Paine, Mill alongside Carlyle, as equal participants in enabling empire.

But this begs the following question. Is the difference between Burke and Paine, for example, really that of a change in key? Or does empire, like capital, display its own inimitable logic? Empire as a conceptual category was not static between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. In the eighteenth century, it drew equivocal reactions of confidence and caution from thinkers like Burke and Smith. It’s true Burke said a “sacred veil” ought to be drawn over the origins of governments. Smith maintained that the East India Company’s territories in India remained the “undoubted right” of the “the state and people of Great Britain.” But they were, equally, critics of the spirit of conquest and the spirit of domination that they identified in the Company’s advances. They were among the first to imagine, with horror, the nature of alien rule, but could they have foreseen the brutal guise imperialism assumed in the nineteenth century? If we are willing not to confuse the long-term consequences of empire with the possibilities of critique available to thinkers like Smith and Burke, was it at all possible in the eighteenth century to object to imperialism “on principle”?

In India, during the interwar years, anticolonial thinkers were able to wrest a poetic and cyclical vision of history from the throes of empty, homogeneous time. In the thought of Iqbal, Gandhi, Faiz, and Manto, among others, Satia finds a Frankenstein flip, where the monster turns out to be more human than we imagined. History contained within itself the substance of empire’s subversion. The colonial anticolonial self, sometimes in vain, sought to untether itself from the future effects of present actions. A sense of the future was one the building blocks of humanism and Enlightenment modernity; undoing empire required severing the chain of worldly time. Yet in a cruel twist of fate, like Ghalib’s melancholy or Zafar’s broken heart from an earlier era, the split self of Partition— Manto’s Bishan Singh—was left with an unfulfillable longing that only empire could satisfy.

What, then, to do with empire? Whether we like it or not, like the oceans of the world, it’s there. Time’s Monster, however, is not a book of prescriptions; rather, it opens a window to how new global histories may be written. For Satia, the road to renewal lies in recovering, like the interwar South Asian anticolonialists, different notions of time. This may not necessarily be as difficult as it sounds. We routinely live through cyclical processes—day and night, spring to winter, sowing and reaping, booms and busts—but we still set our store by the distant horizons of time. Cyclical time, Satia thinks, might help us make sense of the profoundly ambivalent modernity we inhabit and “approach [our] subjects with a sense of common humanity without presuming a common cultural and ethical outlook.” Burke’s refusal to condone “geographical morality,” too, was tied to his conviction that a common humanity bound us all in the great chain of being. Past and future were forever connected in a social contract “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” To hold true to that vision, Burke demanded a thorough commitment to what he called the “moral imagination.” Could that also be a resource to decouple history from empire?


Taylor Sherman, London School of Economics

Priya Satia’s book Time’s Monster sits at the intersection of two trends. The first is a public debate in Britain about whether Empire was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and what this ought to mean for Britain today. Though dating to the origins of empire itself, the latest rounds of this public debate might be said to have been fired by Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, a Channel 4 television series that began airing in January 2003 as Britain and the US were amassing troops and misinformation on the eve of their attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. A book with the same title followed in 2004, and Ferguson’s name was made arguing in favour of empire and Britain’s participation in the war as he declared himself ‘a fully paid-up member of the neo-imperialist gang’.[1] He followed up with Civilisation: the West and the Rest (2011), a BBC series and a book of the same title. This was an even more provocative account about how ‘the West’ possessed ‘killer apps’ which gave it superiority over ‘the Rest’ and had made the world a better place. Ferguson’s later book and tv series arrived virtually at the same time as a similar combo from the even more high-profile, even more combative journalist Jeremy Paxman, again with a series on the BBC, called simply, Empire. Given that the catastrophes of the Iraq war were morphing into the nightmare of Islamic State, it was an awkward time, to put it mildly, to be making the case for the benevolence of British interventionism. This context, and the public attention given to the white British men who have made the case that Empire had been a ‘good’ thing attracted many more writers and a public duel commenced. Luckily, the titles tell us most of what we need to know about the arguments of these gentlemen. Pankaj Mishra, Ferguson’s arch nemesis, at least in the pages of the London Review of Books,[2] published a rebuttal to the neo-imperialist arguments in From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia in 2012, and followed with the more trenchant collection of essays, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, the West and the Afterlives of Empire in 2020. Shahi Tharoor, former Member of India’s Lok Sabha, published Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India in 2017. Akala’s Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (2019), and Kehinde Andrews’ The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World (2021) are just a few of the more prominent books to make the case against empire while focusing on the after-effects in Britain itself.

As professional historians, this is not the kind of question which normally sparks our interest. The training most of us receive deters us from moralising (so openly, at least) about the past, and it usually conditions us not to frame our arguments in such simplistic terms. But, as Satia notes in the opening pages of her book, the public debate is not esoteric. Ferguson’s interpretation of Britain’s imperial past informed his advocacy for the Iraq War. The duelling interpretations of empire came to the fore of public debate just as Prime Minister David Cameron promised, in January 2013, to hold a vote on whether Britain ought to remain in the European Union.[3] Those who made the case for and against leaving the European Union during the referendum campaign in 2016, including prominent historians, did so by referring to Britain’s imperial past.[4] There is a sense that the future of the country might just depend upon who wins this debate about the past.

The second trend is an academic one. One of the most exciting lines of enquiry in imperial history over the past two decades has been the study of the connection between the British empire and Liberal thought. Beginning with Uday Singh Mehta’s Liberalism and Empire: a Study in Nineteenth-century British Liberal Thought (1999). This sub-field has included, among others, Jennifer Pitts, Robert Travers, Chris Bayly, Duncan Bell and Andrew Sartori, many of whom Satia cites. Their starting point is that imperialism, because it was based not on the consent of the ruled, but on violence, because it was founded upon ideas of racial hierarchy, because it was exploitative, was obviously repugnant. Liberalism, by contrast, is associated with a commitment to individual liberty, democratic representation and protection for minorities, and yet in the heyday of the British Empire, liberals were its most prominent proponents. Historians have sought to understand what Mehta calls the ‘irony of the liberal defence of the empire’ (p.4). The debates between these scholars are intricate and highly enriching – about as far from the public debate as possible.

Satia’s nimbly composed text unites these two conversations. She begins, as all historians of empire with a rigorous scholarly training do, from the premise that empire was ‘exploitative and repressive’ (p.3). She focuses on the moments where the crimes of empire seemed to have pricked the public consciousness back in Britain, and she asks, how did imperialists understand these moments? How did they justify carrying on when confronted by the obvious moral wrongs before them? While much of the ‘empire was good’ vs ‘empire was bad’ debate is determined by one side’s focus on intentions and the other’s focus on outcomes, Satia steps deftly between them by examining how people who thought deeply about what it meant to live an ethical life (including many of the Liberals at the heart of the academic trend) ended up justifying morally reprehensible actions in the empire (acts which often make up the battleground in the popular trend).

Her argument is that they did so by relying on a particular historical sensibility. This was premised on the idea that the arc of human history was bent inexorably towards progress. As such, when confronted with an issue that appeared morally wrong, a gentleman could suspend judgment, set aside ethical concerns, and wait in the expectation that his acts – however dubious in his present – would be seen as part of the path of progress in future. Although connected to ideas of progress most prominently associated with Liberalism, Satia shows that this theory of history was shared far more widely. Beginning in the eighteenth century and moving in six chapters to the twentieth century, the book, while not centred on India, returns to empire in South Asia time and again, even as it traces events across several continents. Satia deploys a large and eclectic source base, including quite a bit of Urdu and Punjabi poetry, which whenever it appeared, provided a welcome oasis of beauty among the ugly case studies of wrong-doing explored throughout the chapters. 

As this is a roundtable and Priya will be able to respond to these comments, I’d like to end by posing a question or a series of them, the answers to which might help future scholars build on this vivid and complex book. What made the conception of history that is at the heart of the book slippery is that it could be used to justify actions that were diametrically opposed. In India it underpinned the Liberalism of the Age of Reform and the culturalism of the period after the Revolt of 1857. In Jamaica it was used to propel the abolition of slavery and the cynicism that emerged after the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. If it was so flexible, what were the limits of this particular historical sensibility?

A second, and related, set of questions revolves around the extent to which this particular conception of history developed alongside competing ones, and can be distinguished from them as drivers of, guides to, or justifications for imperial action. Throughout the book there are hints and sometimes longer descriptions of alternative historical imaginations developed by imperial agents. For example, in Chapter 4, the description of Lawrence and the British Orientalists in Arabia in the early 20th century refers to Henri Bergson and the occult, and the argument is made that these men, in ‘shaking off the historical ethical idiom…evolved new understandings of their own agency’ (p.158). And yet, at least in my reading, this alternative ‘mystical’ and ‘romantic’ historical sensibility did not guide action in narrower, more coherent or more humane directions compared to the one strongly associated with liberalism, at least not for the British in the Middle East. If the central argument of the book is that the first conception of historical time and agency enabled empire, what of the second? If they both did, then are we left with the possibility that the British empire was underpinned by nothing so coherent as a theory of history of any kind?

Satia’s important book sheds new light on many of the most infamous features of the British Empire. Partly because the research provokes so many questions, this rich and thought-provoking text is sure to inspire further scholarship in this fruitful field. 


Or Rosenboim, City, University of London

In February 2021, the British government announced the appointment of a “free-speech champion” for higher education, a new role aimed to guarantee the right of people to express their views on campus without fearing censorship or other sanctions. In an increasingly tense atmosphere of culture war, this move was taken as a sign of the government’s turn against ‘woke’ calls for re-evaluation of British heritage, the Black Lives Matter movement, and critical assessment of Britain’s imperial past. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Oliver Dowden, the culture minister, thought it was necessary to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

As I was reading Priya Satia’s magisterial Time’s Monster, I could not but wonder how Dowden would have reacted to it. Satia’s well-argued book seeks to show how the study of history generated the moral and political scaffoldings that held up the British Empire. Historians provided the imperial enterprise with conceptions of “progress” and “civilization” that served to justify the conquest and domination of vast overseas territories and peoples. While Satia concedes that historians did not always have direct impact on politicians, she shows their long-lasting influence on British society, where contemporary scholars like Nigel Biggar and Niall Ferguson can still depict the British Empire as a vehicle of global positive change. The mere legitimacy of this position in Britain’s public debate today confirms the relevance and importance of Satia’s argument about the political and ethical implications of Britain’s understanding of its past.

For Satia, a professor of international history at Stanford University, since the eighteenth-century British historians have developed a conception of a linear and progressive time that served to consolidate imperial rule in Africa, the Middle East, India and the Caribbean and to justify Britain’s brutality and violence. In an ambitious narrative that starts with the Enlightenment and ends with Brexit, Satia weaves together the ideas of a vast range of thinkers, mostly white British male, into a persuasive argument about the capacity of history-writing to shape collective conscience. In this sense, ideas about history create the mental landscapes that define and delimit human behaviour.

The main target of the book is the idea of progress, intended as a teleological temporal move towards a better future. Historians played a decisive role in describing time as linear, and, by consequence, in setting a universal standard of progress that all societies should be measured by. Satia’s strength is in showcasing the intellectual evolution of this idea in the hands of British historians over the past three hundred years. She draws on the writings of Macaulay and Seeley, Burke and Mill, outlining the modes of thinking that justified imperialism as an expression of Britain’s world-historical mission for progress. These historians’ role in creating and transforming Britain’s imperial consciousness has already been scrutinized by Jeanne Morefield, Duncan Bell and Stefan Collini, among others. Here, Satia situates them in a long durée narrative that effectively demonstrates the persistence of their ideas over time. As she shows in chapter 5, even their anticolonial opponents ended up accepting the same categories of progress and development that emerged from the imperialist historical narrative they sought to reject.

Time’s Monster is a useful read in today’s political climate, where historical narratives serve as weapons of exclusion and revolution. History has always been an educational tool at the hands of the state, but now, when the historical curriculum and heritage industry face constant challenging by those who see themselves excluded or silenced, the re-evaluation of the historians’ role in the public sphere seems more timely than ever. Historians hold a significant power in forging society’s identity by recounting its past. Yet, as Satia argues in conclusion, history-writing is an ongoing process. While some see ‘re-writing history’ as a national offence, Satia reminds the readers that the quest for historical truth is never-ending. Looking forward, Satia invites her readers to question the imperial, linear and oppressive conception of history and to develop alternative, less linear and more complex histories.

The book’s rich and erudite narrative generates many reflections, but here I would like to focus on two wider questions that arise from it. From the perspective of international history, I wonder if this is a story about Britain, or about empires more generally. Did Britain develop a unique perception of its past that generated an urge for empire in a distinct way from other European empires, such as the French, Portuguese, German or Italian? Or, in alternative, is the temporal linearity of the historical narrative of progress an inherent aspect of all imperial ideologies? Non-British empires, including fascist Italy, were also motivated by visions of historical lineage, continuity and duty, relying on a mythologised Roman Empire, famously thought the notion of ‘Romanità’. The imagined conception of the Orient also did work to justify colonial invasion and rule. Should we therefore see Britain’s case as distinct, or is historical consciousness at the root of all modern empires?

This leads me to the second question. As a historian, Satia’s book seemed to me as a call for action. On the whole, historians come out of her narrative as powerful ideologues. Intentionally or not, they seem to hold the power to shape political ideas and transform the world (sometimes for the worse). While she acknowledges that historians do not always succeed in ‘speaking truth to power’ because politicians don’t like their advice or because they ignore it, she still seems to argue that they set the conceptual foundation for political action. Looking at the future, I would be interested to know more about the kinds of non-linear, non-oppressive histories that she envisages to reform the imperial mindset and offer new perspectives on Britain’s role in the world. Historians have already published damning accounts of Britain’s imperial past, many of which appear in the book’s notes, but do not seem to settle the debates on the Empire’s moral and political worth. Would a new conception of history succeed in transforming the historical perception of empire, where so many other critical histories have, apparently, failed?


Disha Karnad Jani, Princeton University

Time’s Monster is a sweeping account of how historians participated in and justified British imperialism, and how anti-colonial responses and ways of thinking became entwined with disciplinary history-writing during the empire's long afterlife. One of Satia’s main contentions is that ideas act as an “infrastructure” for human behaviour, at the level of individual action and in aggregate, at the level of the operation of an entire imperial apparatus. (56) Pivoting backwards and forwards with dexterity, the author discusses the development of historicist thinking among arms manufacturers and newspaper editors, statesmen and poets, in order to arrive at a critique of the narrative of progress and its embeddedness in the professional study of the past. Instead, Satia suggests we turn, “along the lines of poet-thinkers” to the “metaphysical appeal [and] imaginative promise of acting in a manner that enabled the transcendence of worldly time itself.” (272) The literature of the Romantics, the nineteenth century novel, Urdu poetry — they provide the idiom for a mode of historical thinking that skirts around the more brutish historicism of the political address or philosophical treatise. This may, in the end, be a way out of the clutches of “progress” and towards something like liberation: “something we experience in fits and starts in the pursuit of liberation.” (297)

Power acts on each of us in a more diffuse way than it did, perhaps, in the nineteenth century, and so, Satia argues, historians have come unstuck from their “old positions at the helm of state power.” (273) In response to this, the author proposes we embrace our role in that other realm, the world of “the wider culture”, in order to bring our expertise to bear on discussions of reparations, restitution, and memorialization — in short, those discussions where the rubber of historical inquiry meets the road. (273) Sandwiched inside this moral appeal to her colleagues, the intellectual problem at the heart of the book remains one about the place of ideas and power: “to understand and help resolve the persistent moral ambivalence around empire.” (58) What might we find if we turned this inquisitive mode towards Time’s Monster itself? 

Throughout the work, Satia writes with the collective pronoun: “we” believe a great many things, and proceed from a set of assumptions about the past. The vantage point of the ideal reader is cast quite clearly: “Today we agree that slavery is immoral, and so we strive to understand how people in the past justified it — they appear exotic. We feel the past is another country. Today we recognize the horror of the Holocaust and struggle to make sense of how Germans and others could perpetrate such a horror. We feel secure that we would have known better.” (59) Who, then, is this book for? To maintain an equivalence between the “we” of this book’s readership and the “we” who would have known better than to commit or tolerate atrocities leaves little room for a political outlook which may not find the horrors of the past at all exotic or strange.

For instance, in the name of disaggregating the role of belief and conscience in historical decision-making, curious equivalences are made: “Even beyond the realm of things, belief shapes our sense of agency: what a Marxist believes about the class structure, what a liberal believes is the proof of progress, what a racist believes is true of his and other races.” (57-8) Satia’s broader point is that what we believe to be true about the past, and about the way stories are told, affects the decisions we make and the harm we do. But surely, a bit more precision is warranted when the stakes of a book are, on the face of it, the place of ethics in history-writing? Not to put too fine a point on it, but if one were to choose between believing in the existence of class, progress, or racial superiority, one of these things is not like the rest. What do we miss if we take all belief to be structured similarly?

To be sure, Satia is writing against the pernicious and enduring strain of public conversation that not only celebrates imperial power of centuries past, but reacts abominably to white supremacist violence in the present. This is not an easy task, and it bears remembering the frequency with which online abuse and very real threats are lobbed at scholars of color, particularly women, who speak in public about racism past and present. If these are the dangers of asking these questions in public, then readers may be left asking what comes next, upon reading how Satia ends her granular and rather useful intellectual history of the relationship between historicism, empire, and ethics with a call to “remove the cloak of narrative deception.” (298) Once the cloak has been removed, perhaps historians might be forgiven for concluding that re-arranging the narrative might not suffice if we want to take the author seriously in her call to bring ethics to bear on our work.

In the end, Time’s Monster is a compelling and beautifully written work of intellectual history. In its normative aspirations for professional historians, however, the work falls short. Perhaps the view is simply more grim from where I sit, but one hopes that even the most optimistic reader would be able to detect a strange triumphalism in Satia’s prose, as her narrative careens from the imperialist-historians of the past to the citizen-historians of our present. If you want to believe that most academic history today — and historians today — are a force for good ipso facto, as though the act of writing about the past were itself redemptive — then you will find some comfort in this work. But the “mystery” at the heart of this study may not be the right question to ask. Satia opens her history with the question: “How did Britons understand and manage the ethical dilemmas posed by imperialism?” (5) This question is asked and answered compellingly through Satia’s deft reading of political and poetic texts, but that is not the only question asked by this work. Satia remarks in her introduction that “public memory about the British Empire is hostage to myth partly because historians have not been able to explain how to hold well-meaning Britons involved in its construction accountable.” (5) At this point, it has become clear that breaking the power of this myth may not be possible by simply building an air-tight case against it.


Author’s Response by Priya Satia, Stanford University


Reading these stunning and generous responses to Time’s Monster was a moving experience. Thank you, first of all, to these four scholars for this thoughtful engagement with my book. All four summarize its arguments in illuminating ways and raise profound and urgent questions that I will do my best to respond to here.

In an essay that is at once razor-sharp and lyrical, Anurag Sinha helpfully notes that I have tried to point out the symbiosis between thinkers typically pitted against one another since they were, in fact, engaged in debates with one another: Paine and Burke; Mill and Carlyle. Their debates continue to be reproduced in classrooms; students understand empire by re-enacting the Mill and Carlyle debate about the Jamaican rebellion of 1865. They read Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” and E. D. Morel’s “Black Man’s Burden” as contrasting views of empire. The frame of scholarly understanding of empire thus remains set by the influential British thinkers who set them in the period of empire itself, continually reproducing the limits of their imagination: was British colonial rule morally inspired, was it beneficial? Left off the table, then, are both the voices of the colonized and the counterfactual histories colonial-era British thinkers could not conceive: a West Indies in which ex-slaves rather than ex-slave owners received reparations, South Asian states left to sort out their own destinies and “development.” After all, the goal of Morel’s moving critique of empire is to lay down “the fundamental principles of a humane and practical policy in the government of Africa by white men”[1]—not to allow Africa to be ruled by Africans. When we confine ourselves to studying the poles of British opinion on empire, we surrender ourselves to their limited imagination, losing sight of the way that even critical Britons ultimately endorsed empire and the way their very critiques helped sustain the notion that empire was fixable, extending its life and thus enabling ever more abuses. They worried about instances of scandalous excess in imperial rule as exceptions, mistakes, or disruptions of a form of rule that was otherwise beneficent, rather than as endemic to an inherently scandalous, racist, and violent form of rule without consent.

Anurag asks, fairly, whether my description of the symbiosis between the poles of these debates does justice to sincere critics of conquest, such as Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. My point is not that their critiques don’t matter; they do, and they have been and should be studied. But our habitual attempt to understand debates about empire as debates between influential British thinkers has blinded us to the common ground on both sides of those debates and helped preserve empire’s debatability today. Anurag cautions against confusing the “long-term consequences of empire with the possibilities of critique available to thinkers like Smith and Burke,” but the brutal consequences of empire were already obvious to them in the short-term. It was not that Smith failed to recognize them but that he failed to think anything ought to be done about them—the limited imagination of historical agency that Time’s Monster seeks to explain. If his Providential vision of history did not move him to act, other sorts of Christian ethics available at the time might have inspired him to object to imperialism “on principle”; but the power of the Providential idiom lay precisely in its ability to override transcendental notions of right and wrong.

As Anurag writes, Time’s Monster concludes that the road to renewal lies in recovering different notions of time. But the book also suggests that renewal lies in valuing historians’ role as truth-tellers and in making new history by redeeming the past in new ways in our present—through memorialization, reparations, apologies, or related social, political, and cultural action. It lies also in recovering the ethical modes smothered by our collective attachment to providential notions of progress, including a restored sense of man’s place within nature and of human purpose as connection rather than progress. Anurag asks whether this is akin to Burke’s call for commitment to the “moral imagination”: it is, but without the central role for nations and great men that Burke presumed.

Taylor Sherman’s astute framing of Time’s Monster as the merging of a contemporary conversation about whether empire is good or bad and a scholarly one about the ironies of liberal imperialism helped me see the book in sharper light. I would gently dispute the idea that the Ferguson-Mishra debate is not one that normally sparks the interest of “professional historians.” For many, including myself, contemporary defenses of empire are a constant reminder of the stakes of writing the history of empire.

Taylor asks about the limits of a progress-oriented historical sensibility that could at once propel reformist imperialism before 1857 and the “culturalism” after 1857. It is important to appreciate the significant differences in these eras of imperial thought and practice. At the same time, again, to escape the constraining nineteenth-century British framing of debates on empire, it is helpful and important to recognize continuities between them, most especially the unquestioned imperial prerogative underlying both. Time’s Monster asks why British criticism of empire so rarely targeted that prerogative, and a progress-oriented historical imagination coupled with racism provides an explanation. If this historical imagination has a limit, we have perhaps hit it with the climate crisis—yet, still, it continues to underwrite all manner of imperious activity, every day, around the world, a cultural force so omnipresent that we fail to recognize the way it has smothered the working of other ethical guides.

Taylor’s second question, about why the more romantic historical sensibilities of British spies in the Middle East did not produce more humane results, is fascinating. There certainly were more humane romantic and mystical ways of understanding the world, as described in the book. Though interwar British spies in the Middle East were inspired by certain strands of romantic and mystical thought, their particular sensibility did not, alas, inspire a gentler approach to empire. If liberal empire’s progress idiom allowed noble ends to justify violent means, their romantic outlook freed them of all moral accountability, licensing forms of presence and exalted power in the land of the Bible that they felt the machinelike working of their own “civilized” society had constrained. It was, moreover, coopted into a renewed interwar commitment to the liberal historical idiom: its only moral objective was to bring Arabia into the real world so that the logic of liberal empire might then be fulfilled there.

Or Rosenboim situates Time’s Monster in current British culture wars and offers two tantalizing questions to reflect on. I too am curious about the extent to which the book’s British story might also stand in for other imperial stories. Given the transatlantic and transregional evolution of Enlightenment ideas, and the spread of those ideas through empire, my hunch is that it does, although, of course, manifesting differently in each context. American ideas of progress (especially “Manifest Destiny”) were close to British ones, but the circumstances of American empire—internal and external—were different. French and British ideas of progress were similar but were refracted in the French case through culturally specific notions of republicanism and Catholicism, as opposed to the monarchism and Protestantism that inflected the British story (to give a highly schematic example). Britain tried to create a new Rome, and, as Or mentions, a mythologized Roman Empire also inspired fascist Italy’s imperial ambitions, albeit differently. It, and the example of other empires, also inspired Nazi Germany’s imperial dreams.[2] The British case was paradigmatic and itself offered a template for later European imperial endeavors. The early modern overseas empires of Spain and Portugal offer perhaps the most interesting cases for further understanding. Time’s Monster mentions the influence of early modern accounts of conquistadors on great-man understandings of history, but the influence of the mercantilist, proselytizing vision of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism on later, “liberal” empire deserves greater scholarly attention.

Or closes with the same question that Time’s Monster left me with: Will a new conception of history succeed in transforming the historical perception of empire, at last? Perhaps time will tell, or perhaps, following the book’s prescription, we should focus less on efficacy of such mutinous thought and more on mutiny itself. Rather than evaluate whether to pursue such a new conception based on its likelihood of success, I hope more will let the old progress paradigm go on the grounds of poor ethics alone and begin to write nonteleological histories that recognize the value of recounting histories of connection, regardless of how (we think) those stories ended.

I loved Disha Jani’s description of my view of ideas “as an ‘infrastructure’ for human behaviour.” Disha asks, first, who the book is for—the “we” that, in the passage she quotes, excludes those who may not find the horrors of the past “exotic or strange.” In this particular passage, I tried to represent the mindset of a certain set of readers—not those who continue to suffer the harms of imperialism and racism or committed racists and bigots, but those who have inherited the default liberal attitude towards history, who condemn racism and bigotry but nevertheless entertain defenses of empire as respectable thought.

In general, however, the book seeks to speak for those who have felt in their bones the things that I try to express in words in the text: the frustration of a perceived ethical ambiguity around a form of rule that we know to have been unethical, the way, as Taylor so elegantly summarizes, “much of the ‘empire was good’ vs ‘empire was bad’ debate is determined by one side’s focus on intentions and the other’s focus on outcomes.” It is also aimed at those who have not felt this frustration in their bones, today’s liberals, who may not realize how much their own thinking is a form of instrumentalizing of the present for endlessly deferred future progress, who set store by balance sheets when it comes to empire, though they are able to recognize the irredeemable immorality of slavery and the Holocaust, regardless of the industrial, commercial, or engineering feats they may have enabled.

Disha reads my illustrations of the way belief shapes the exercise of agency as premised on “equivalence.” They are, however, simply examples of actual ways people on this earth have thought, often horribly. To list them is not to endorse them. A belief in racial superiority is certainly different from a belief in class or progress; at the same time, we must be careful not to put too fine a point on that distinction: our notions of class and who should sacrifice in the name of progress have been deeply conditioned by racial beliefs.

Describing the frequent abuse lobbed against antiracist scholars of color, Disha reads the book’s closing call to remove “the cloak of narrative deception” as an inadequate call for merely “re-arranging the narrative.” Persistent racism is a primary reason for my book and its effort to explain the liberal culture in which such racism thrives. The struggle against racism is an unending one we must engage in whatever its likelihood of success. Likewise, we cannot evaluate a call to abandon the progress-oriented historical imagination instrumentally, according (paradoxically) to its prospective efficacy.

What Disha diagnoses as a “strange triumphalism” in the book’s prose is perhaps my proud defense of the rich potential of a discipline that has been increasingly attacked the more it has become populated by women and people of color, as the book explains. It is a defense of the importance of historians’ truth-telling role in a persistently imperial world—against those who would claim the discipline for the powerful: a utopianism (rather than “triumphalism”), which, the book argues, is necessary for practical politics, not as a future goal, but as a way of being now. This is the freedom that is always accessible through non-cooperation with oppression, deadly as it may also be. It does not ask us to believe that historians are “a force for good ipso facto,” but that there is a way for history writing to be a force for good.

Without this hopefulness, there is either submission or despair—the “grim” perspective Disha describes. A graduate student working on the intellectual history of anti-imperialism, Disha is doubting the value of both re-arranging the narrative and building an “air-tight case” against imperialism. I understand the worry about the redemptive power of writing about the past, perched at elite universities. At one level, like all humanistic endeavors, it is inherently redemptive for those engaged in it. At another level, of course, writing history is just one way to push back against racism and imperialism—and one arena in which this struggle is necessary. Whether writing redemptive history can work—actually change the world—is a separate question, and one that emerges from the liberal historical mindset that the book counsels us to let go of precisely because of the way it makes us skeptical of our agency as ordinary people. In any case, a better future will depend on greater humanistic understanding and appreciation of the iniquities of the past; historical work is not futile, even if its effect may not be measurable or obvious. We know, as historians, how circuitously cause and effect work. As with activism, it’s the struggle itself that matters.

Raah ke patthar se bardh kar kuchh nahin hain manzilen / Raaste aavaaz dete hain safar jaari rakho

(Destinations are nothing more than stones in the way / The paths call out, keep the journey going)

--Rahat Indori

Adab inquilab nahi laata balki inquilab ke liye zehn ko bedaar karta hai

(Literature doesn’t bring revolution but makes the mind awake for revolution)

--Aal-e-Ahmad Suroor

My warmest thanks again to these four reviewers for their thought-provoking responses.



[1] E. D. Morel, The Black Man’s Burden (Manchester National Labour Press, 1920), vii.

[2] See A. Dirk Moses, The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression (Cambridge University Press, 2021), chap. 7.


[1] ‘The Empire Slinks Back’ 27 April 2003, (14/3/2021)

[2] Pankaj Mishra, ‘Watch this Man’, London Review of Books, 3 November 2011 (14/3/2021), and subsequent duelling letters from Ferguson and Mishra in the LRB

[3] ‘David Cameron promises in/out referendum on the EU’, 23 January 2013, (14/3/2021)

[4] ‘Rival Historians Trade Blows Over Brexit’, 13 May 2016, (14/3/2021)

[5] E. D. Morel, The Black Man’s Burden (Manchester National Labour Press, 1920), vii.

[6] See A. Dirk Moses, The Problems of Genocide: Permanent Security and the Language of Transgression (Cambridge University Press, 2021), chap. 7.

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