Book Review: Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire

By Priya Satia, Penguin Allen Lane, Oct 2020

Review by Tariq Suleman

A great deal has already been written on the history of empire, but Priya Satia’s ingenious way of presenting empire steers us through a significantly new understanding of the imperial past, establishing her as an original historian. Satia’s study spans an interplay of historical legacies and contemporary politics in postcolonial states, particularly given the revival of interest in ‘colonialism’ as an analytic framework and the emergence of activism around the world.   

…British historians’ imperial accounts guided the consolidation of imperial rule in colonies, history must now liberate its victims…

Satia undermines the very identity colonisers conceived of themselves as the force for good framed within a broader contest between ‘good and evil,’ while history was driving the colonised societies towards achieving ‘progress.’ Instead of achieving ‘progress,’ the West’s quest for, as Satia puts it, ‘conquering in order to free,’ left devastation as its legacy in post-colonial societies. This study initiates a much-needed debate around the question of history ‘rooting ethical claims,’ where imperial historians ‘acted as handmaidens to imperial power,’ rendering ‘history’ subservient to that power. Putting such history on trial, Satia advances the cause of its victims through redeeming history from its imperial past. Satia’s study, though, is situated in post-modernity:  instead of taking ‘conscience’ as essentially a human trait, she is probing its historically contingent nature.   

Satia aptly describes the migration of the word ‘moral’ from religious belief to the domain of the political, conceived as an ‘interior journey guided by the conscience.’ Conscience, which resulted from the secularising process of Christianity, deepening the secularising morality, rendered a ‘humanitarian’ form of politics a liberal norm.

Satia questions the scientifical foundation, modernity conferred on ‘history,’ rendering the process of colonisation ‘ethically thinkable,’ furnishing legitimacy to the European claim to civilisation. Whereas, the colonised people were deemed simply not possessing history, lacking humanity along with agency. Written from a European standpoint, colonial history was in fact peripheral to European history. Despite it being an account of empire, underscoring the role historical imagination played in its unfolding, Satia advocates an alternative ‘ethical mode.’ Since the British historians’ imperial accounts guided the consolidation of imperial rule in colonies, history must now liberate its victims, pressing upon contemporary historians to continue practicing ‘history as a means of deriving moral norms.’ Proposing to ‘reprise’ the modern enterprise of ‘arriving at (new) judgments of value through history,’ Satia suggests historians ‘seek fresh ways to connect the present and the past,’ without elaborating those ‘fresh ways.’ Time’s Monster is more a scintillating reworking of the relationship between history as knowledge and as empire, necessitating the urgency of understanding the calamitous legacy the post-colonial societies are enduring of ‘rooting ethical claims in particular historical narratives.’ 

…‘the sheer brutality of the British empire’ considered as essential for the ‘progress’ of its victims

‘History’ came to symbolise a linear process of ‘progression,’ an ameliorating essence integrated ‘in the very flow of time,’ aiding ‘the sheer brutality of the British empire’ considered as essential for the ‘progress’ of its victims. History as ‘a story of progress’ spelled disaster for the colonised people, leaving no room for imperial ‘conscience’ to explain it. John Stuart Mill was not defying his ‘conscience’ when he categorically advocated employing any means even ‘despotism’ to civilise the ‘barbarians.’ Eventually, keeping distance from power, history freed itself from the clutches of power, but it naturally reduced its influence. The discipline of history was conspicuous by its absence from the US war of aggression in the Middle East. Satia laments in the final chapter that historians are not being taken as seriously as ‘economists and political scientists,’ bewailing their lack of influence in contemporary power politics. For Satia, a historian’s job in a contemporary setting should be to use history to set moral norms, as was done previously to serve empire, this time to correct the wrongs inflicted by empire:  so, historical activism means influencing the decision-making processes of the political power without being influenced by it.

Historians are by nature selective about the material they choose to convey their thesis but what is left out sometimes complicates the very project they intend to advance. Satia’s historical project is one of them. Where managing ‘conscience’ was crucial for governing empire, ‘conscience’ was equally a significant factor in opposing empire. The ‘history of Empire’ is also the ‘history of resistance’; the resistive nature of challenges posed to empire shaped its very disposition, even forming ideas of freedom in the metropolis. The colonised were not ‘passive on-lookers’ or ‘unwitting imperial praetorians,’ the challenges ‘subject insurgencies’ posed to imperial powers produced dissent within the colonial power; men with ‘conscience’ were hailed as ‘critics of empire,’ ‘imperial sceptics’ etc. The ‘British anti-imperialist tradition,’ was no doubt influenced by anti-colonial movements, emerging as a ‘dialogical’ and ‘dialectical’ process in which, the pendulum of influence can be seen swinging in both directions. Where the British empire impacted its subjects, it was also affected by them. The process of decolonisation was certainly not the result of ‘the liberal and liberalising project,’ a means of producing social change that empire was set to advance. Colonial subjects were not simply beneficiaries of an enlightened British ‘conscience,’ they were insurgents, who shaped and benefited the nation that oppressed them.   

If historians played a significant role in setting the colonial agenda, they also devised anti-colonial narratives, reordering ‘the ethics that came with it.’ ‘History’ fought for both sides, it was also a site of anti-colonial ‘resistance.’ Not just ‘an instrument of imperial power,’ history was also ‘an instrument of redemption for the victims’ of that history.

Though the discourse of colonial officials possessing ‘conscience’ is significant as placed within the broader context of colonial rule, epistemic violence inbuilt in the West’s reading of ‘history’ renders ‘conscience’ extraneous for the study of imperial legacy in a post-colonial world. Empire was not just a system of governance with ‘conscientious’ administrators, it was a way of knowing and categorising colonial subjects. Constitution of ‘difference’ was at the core of the colonial project, which continues to reverberate long after their departure. Communalism as an essential organising principle had already been seared into the consciousness of its subject populations at the time of their liberation, making liberation an unfinished process; while the colonial discourse on immutable communitarianism exonerated the British for the ‘failure’ of their imperial rule. Satia’s discourse of imperial officials possessing ‘conscience’ also provides empire with some semblance of humanity. The notion of ‘conscience’ should be placed alongside the emergence of colonial ‘governmentality’ as a departure point for its understanding. ‘Conscience was intrinsic to the colonial governmentality, which relied more on manufacturing colonial subjectivities than on brute force to govern colonies.

“…to impose its colonial rule empire necessitated its truth to be the only ‘truth’ and history as a science could manufacture it.”

Satia’s study of ‘conscience,’ among imperial authorities is a great narrative, brilliantly researched but she succumbs to the instruments of history she critiques. Just because 44 per cent of Britons felt pride in the British empire, as Satia points out, does not mean we should use the same imperial tools to correct the wrongs history was complicit in committing.

The most potent weapon in the hand of colonial oppressors was the mind of the oppressed and exposing imperial ‘conscience’ does not divest the post-colonial mind of its colonial tendencies or nature. Nandy emphasises that “as a state of mind, colonialism is an indigenous process released by external forces,” so, for liberation to take effect, colonisation must first ‘end in the minds of men.’  

Though Satia attempts to derive ‘non-imperial forms’ of meaning to set history free from its imperial origins, her advocacy of historical activism to set the victims of empire free makes it difficult for ‘history’ to be free. Satia’s book situates studying empire’s destructive drive as an ongoing process and ‘history’ being closely linked to it; but at the same time she consigns imperial history to ‘a foreclosed past.’ All types of knowledge being ‘historically contingent’ underscores the absence of ‘absolute knowledge,’ either of the contemporary world or of the past. The history of empire that we know now was not the history that was known in the past, so it is equally likely that it might not be the same in the future. Today the ‘truth’ we know about empire is shaped by our subjectivities constituted by the post-colonial discourse. Before we think of de-colonising our present and learning about the history of empire, ‘history’ itself must undergo the process of de-imperialization.

The genealogy of the meaning history took on in order to serve empire traces it to the period when history emerged as a ‘single narrative truth.’ The discipline of ‘history’ was elevated to the status of ‘science,’ because to impose its colonial rule empire necessitated its truth to be the only ‘truth’ and history as a science could manufacture it. So, the multiple interpretations, which had previously been history’s salient feature was its first casualty. The true historical activism today requires history to be restored to its multiple modalities of interpretations, having multiple narrative truths and heterogeneity of historical representations. But history seems doomed ‘historically to history,’ to the persistent constitution of ‘historical truth’ as a ‘single truth.’    

Tariq Suleman is Senior Research Fellow, Bloomsbury Pakistan, London

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