In 18th and 19th century Britain, historians didn’t just record history, they made it. Historians doubled as advisors to political leaders and were often policy makers or political leaders themselves, with Winston Churchill – who won a Nobel Prize in literature in part for his historical writing – being the prime example. And by abetting or actively wielding power, the historians of this era helped create the violent-beast-wrapped-in-liberal-garb that was the British Empire.

Historian Priya Satia’s book Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire argues that you cannot tell the story of the British Empire without also recounting the “narrative of the rise and fall of a particular historical sensibility” – one that assumes history is progressing towards a liberatory end and that political actors have to play their role in shepherding the world towards this preordained destination.

Because both linear progress and a glorious endpoint were predetermined, Satia argues that policymakers of the Empire found it easy to set aside ethical considerations and carry out monstrous deeds while insisting that they always had good intentions.

“In public memory, redemptive myths about colonial upliftment persistently mask the empire’s abysmal history of looting and pillage, policy-driven famines, brutal crushing of rebellion, torture, concentration camps, aerial policing, and everyday racism and humiliation,” Satia writes.

The mystery that Satia, the Raymond A Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University, seeks to draw out in her book, is how the British managed their conscience despite the overwhelming evidence of brutality perpetrated by the empire.

“To be sure, there is a story about the ‘banality of evil’ to be told— about the automatic, conformist ways in which ordinary people become complicit in inhumanity. But in the case of the British Empire, the bigger story is perhaps that of inhumanity perpetrated by individuals deeply concerned with their consciences, indeed actively interrogating their consciences,” she writes.

The answer, according to Satia, comes from a particular historical sensibility.

“In key moments in the history of the British Empire covered in this book, Britons involved in the empire appeased and warded off guilty conscience by recourse to certain notions of history, especially those that spotlighted great men helpless before the will of ‘Providence.’.. [These moments] allow us to explore how importunate rhetoric about good historical intentions persistently stifled awareness of the destructive nature of modern imperialism.”

Over email, I spoke to Priya Satia about her career as a historian, why she turned the lens on historians themselves, what she makes of the movements to decolonise history, and what people continue to get wrong about the British empire.

I usually like to start off by getting a sense of how you see your own career arc, because these stories are rarely straightforward and newsletter readers have always been interested in learning how people get to where they are. In your case, there is already a lovely essay on your path to becoming a historian and author.

So, maybe to add on to that – how do you look back at what is maybe a more meandering route to this point, from hoping to be a filmmaker to focusing on the history of music to finding the subject of your first book partly because you chose the archives of a ministry beginning with “A”? Do you regret some of the time spent on those turns? Would you suggest, to those hoping to enter the world of history, to come into it with a strong idea of what they want to do, or to brace for the academy (and maybe the market) to guide them?
No, not any regrets – that meandering route was my life, a process of discovery, about the world and myself, that continues to inform the work I do now as a historian and parent, including music and filmmaking and flying and letting archives reveal the truths that they can. The things I took up as supposedly “wrong” turns constantly bubble up into my life as a historian – as any historian knows, the past has a way of haunting the present.

As I said in that essay: Nothing is wasted. The path for a young Punjabi-American woman to become a historian of Britain in the US must go, with the help of immense good fortune (including friends, family, and mentors), through a thicket of patriarchy, lack of familiarity with academic institutions, intergenerational trauma, post-colonialism, sexism, cultural marginalisation, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and neocolonialism; it could not but be meandering and leave that historian with a somewhat agonistic relationship to the discipline.

I did have a strong idea of what I wanted to do, insofar as I was determined to do work that would be anti-colonial and anti-racist in its effects. To those hoping to enter the world of history, I would suggest coming in with a strong, uncompromisable sense of the purpose of that entry, else the academy will instil its own values of personal professional advancement, which are designed to perpetuate institutions as they exist now. As for subject matter, it’s helpful but not necessary to come with a provisional set of interests, conscious that the goal is actually to dive into an unsolved mystery of whose existence we may not yet be aware.

Time's Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire by Priya Satia.

You’ve written of how “there was something about a Punjabi woman as a British historian that also felt anticolonial in itself”. I’m curious about what it also felt as an American (and an Indian-American) doing British history? Did that element of your identity come up at all?
Yes, I was very conscious from the outset of being an American in the field: I came of age during the Persian Gulf War and was very aware of and disturbed by the liberal imperial mindset informing that war. I felt that mindset had been strengthened by American romanticization of British imperialism, and I hoped to help create more critical awareness of that British story.

It may also have been easier to think about Britain through transnational lenses in the way that I have because I’m a historian trained in and working in the US. Such transnational framings do make British history more useful and intelligible to American audiences: One way to get American students to care about British history is to remind them of how it shaped the world—their world now—and how the world shaped the familiar sounds, sights, and literature (especially) through which Americans continue to imagine “Britain.”

The harassment to which historians of the British empire in Britain have been subjected in recent years has also made me very aware of the relative freedom with which I can work on this field in North America.

Following Spies in Arabia and Empire of Guns, at what point would you say the idea for Time’s Monster became concrete? When did it become clear to you that this was a separate book, and how did you think of the argument you wanted to make then?
Empire of Guns told the story of a very important eighteenth-century gunmaker named Samuel Galton. As a Quaker, he was forced to defend his gun-making to fellow Quakers who felt it violated the sect’s pacifist commitments. His response, that there was no way to participate in the local industrial and financial economy of their time without contributing to war, opened up a new understanding of the industrial revolution for me – the subject of Empire of Guns.

But after publishing it, I kept thinking about Galton’s words – that his hands were tied by “the situation in which Providence” had placed him – and realised he was making an argument about history as much as the economy. And this historical argument echoed ideas about history articulated by his good friend the philosopher Joseph Priestley and other Enlightenment thinkers.

I also discerned the way my other work had centred on individuals preoccupied by history – perhaps out of a long inarticulate desire to understand how the discipline had been implicated in the history of British colonialism. And I began to perceive connections between the ideas of the 18th-century era of Empire of Guns and those animating British actions in the Middle East in the twentieth century – the subject of my first book, Spies in Arabia.

When I realised that the some of the anti-colonial ideas I came across while working on the Partition of British India in 1947 responded to these colonial understandings of history, I knew I had a book that I needed to write: one that would show how historians and arguments about historical necessity shaped the exercise of agency and the management of consciousness in the making of the British empire – and how anti-colonial thinkers and activists pushed back on those arguments, offering us new visions of what historical thinking can be and do in the world.

“The narrative of the British Empire is, thus, also a narrative of the rise and fall of a particular historical sensibility.” Maybe to explain for readers who haven’t yet read the book, how do you describe “historical thinking” here as being separate from other approaches of the world that are aware of history? What is this “particular historical sensibility”? How did it make “empire”?
This sensibility, which formed during the Enlightenment, imagined history as a providentially guided story of progress wrought by great men. In this vision, we must at times suspend judgment in the moment because seemingly evil events might be vindicated in time; this means that great men at times had to rise above ordinary morality and engage in or tolerate evil for the sake of that narrative of progress. This conviction licensed imperialists to brutally remake other places in the world in the name of progress, anticipating the vindicating judgment of history.

A significant strand of anti-colonial thought consequently argued that ends and means cannot be separated, that conscience should not sacrificed in the present for the sake of some future payoff (this is what nonviolence, for instance, was about), that history was about connection rather than progress, that civilisation is a capacity for ethical action, not a set of material attainments achieved as the result of a brutal and brutalising process of progress.

Priya Satia, author of 'Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire' Photo: Steve Castillo

At what point do British historians become policymakers – and was this something that was unique to the British imperial project (and different from France, Spain etc)?
It took time for the discipline of history to become consolidated as a distinct field; it became professionalised, with its own professorships and journals, in the first half of the nineteenth century. But the understanding of the purpose of historical study coalesced in the eighteenth century, when history was still entangled with moral philosophy and political economic thought, which is why the assumption that history is a story of progress is embedded in many social sciences too.

The idea of history as a form of moral education for the political elite appeared in works by Kant, Priestley, Adam Smith, and other Enlightenment philosophers, many of them explicitly addressing those with – or aspiring to – political power.

From this time, historians and political philosophers who though historically increasingly either had the ear of policy-makers or were themselves the policymakers – think of figures like James Mill and John Stuart Mill, both bureaucrats in the East India Company, or Thomas Macaulay, an MP, imperial policy-maker and very popular historian. By the late nineteenth century, you have the historian of the empire JR Seeley definitively pronouncing, “history is the school of statesmanship.” This was the era that shaped the young Winston Churchill, who went on to become both prime minister and a Nobel-prize-winning historian.

This pattern was very pronounced in the British empire, the most powerful empire of the day, and so it also influenced the approach to empire in the US, France, Germany, and so on, but I leave it to future historians to explore in depth the similarities and differences across these cases.

The British historian and politician Thomas Macaulay seems to expressly bring this up, writing, “A people which takes no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendants.” How did this idea of time judging you become so entrenched in the British approach? Did it have competition, in terms of a framework in British thinking?
This line by Macaulay captures the notion that historical study offers a kind of alternative moral education. He calls on Britons to act, and tolerate actions, in service of their nation in light of prospective historical judgment of them, across time, rather than according to the dictates of their everyday ethical compass.

Yes, in Britain itself, there was competition and dissent from the moral equivocation demanded by the view that only time can judge what is right and wrong, that there are necessary evils. Strains of such dissent are evident in religious, Romantic, and socialist thought, and eventually helped form the foundations of the post-World War II remaking of the historical discipline.

But, as I argue in the book, liberalism has remained powerful enough to infect even sceptics with its moral succour, partly because of the institutional authority that liberal historical thought acquired through figures like the Mills and Macaulay, who were both historians and policymakers. This is why the world we live in today remains in thrall to liberalism’s certainties, despite mounting evidence of its folly, including our current climate crisis. It remains our dominant, common-sensical, framework for understanding change and the purpose of worldly life. But the struggle against it likewise remains enriching and worthwhile.

Was the East (including, as you explain, Arabia) always considered ‘timeless’ or did that idea also entrench itself alongside this?
The idea of the “timeless” East was a pillar of European orientalism. Modern Europeans constructed themselves as bearers of reason, historical dynamism, and freedom in opposition to an imaginary irrational, timeless, despotic Other – the East – though geographically, the “Other” was extremely slippery, capable of encompassing virtually any region perceived as exotic.

What do you mean when you say “we don’t have a theory of historical agency that accounts for people acting in a manner shaped by their own theories of historical agency.” How does historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s invocation of the Santal, who attributes his rebel agency to a god, Thakur, bring up questions about how to engage with history?
Chakrabarty was talking about the dilemma historians face in accommodating attributions of divine agency in our narratives. But, I ask in Time’s Monster, seemingly secular historical actors are often equally guided by what we might consider imaginative forces: some idea of their place in an unfolding historical narrative, for instance.

For the imperial policymakers I examine, the notion that they were cast as great men in a narrative of historical progress was like the god whispering in the Santal’s ear, goading and absolving their actions. We haven’t really explored how historical actors’ beliefs about history – as linear, cyclical, progressive, karmic, driven by class conflict, providence, etc – shaped the way they actually acted, quite apart from the individual, social, cultural, political, and material motivations of those actions.

As an aside, you say protecting Indian women from feckless Indian men became a validating purpose of empire – this reminded me of arguments used even today, by say the BJP, when it comes to Muslim women for example. Were there other tropes that you saw repeated over and over?
I want to say a bit more about patriarchy and colonialism here with respect to the comparison you draw to the BJP’s pretence of protecting Muslim women today: Colonialism exploits a colony’s labour and resources under cover of paternalistic claims of security, with the collusion of segments of the colonised society. Patriarchy, likewise, exploits the labour and resources (physical, sexual, spiritual, mental) of girls and women under cover of paternalistic claims of security, with the collusion of segments of female society.

There are movements that claim to be anti-patriarchal to serve colonial ends (Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism is excellent on this) and movements that claim to be anti-colonial to serve patriarchal, majoritarian ends – like the BJP. Decolonisation is about recovery from all these mutually-reinforcing chauvinistic and oppressive forces, which harm even those who seemingly benefit from them.

On other colonial tropes that are repeated today – oh, there are so many, since the values of the imperial era are so institutionally and culturally sticky. That past is very much present: The idea that history is about progress in which evil is at times necessary; that “civilisation” is about certain material attainments; that terror is necessary for peace; that there were pros and cons to British imperialism; that British rule was peaceable; that there was anarchy in India before the British; that there are ancient hatreds between Hindus and Muslims, Jews and Muslims, and Catholics and Protestants; that brown and Black lives matter less; that religious belief is an aberration rather than essential to human self-discovery and experience; that women around the world need saving by “the West”; that covert empire increases security; that individuals are complete unto themselves rather than social and inter-temporal beings; that struggles only matter if they achieve their goals; that we are stuck with only the canonical traditions of European Enlightenment thought and its ideas of history, civilisation, selfhood, and freedom and other, dissenting traditions are obsolete…I could go on!

John William Kaye writes: “Because we were too English the great crisis arose, but it was only because we were English that, when it arose, it did not utterly overwhelm us.” Maybe I’m being a bit naive here but, from your reading of these arguments and the archives, do you believe things like this were said with no genuine self-awareness? You argue that it is only much later that the hypocrisy of the project is acknowledged, at least on paper.
Kaye, the historian who wrote these words about the 1857 rebellion, was very alive to the way official history twisted the truth – he built his reputation on criticising government accounts of the First Anglo-Afghan War. But he then wrote about 1857 while himself employed as secretary of the Secret and Political Department of the India Office, which took control from the East India Company after the rebellion. He was yet another historian who was also a powerful administrator and keenly aware of the political stakes of his narrative.

The thing about liberal imperialism, though, is that it was a kind of earnestly deliberate hypocrisy. Kaye knew that his task was to recuperate Britain’s national conscience from the crisis induced by the rebellion and its brutal suppression, but this doesn’t mean the recuperation was cynical. He likely very much believed his argument that British “errors…were…strivings after good,” since this was the common sense of liberal thought: that it was hard to know what was right in the moment, without foreknowledge of history’s judgment, and that evil was sometimes necessary to progress, and it was Britain’s moral burden to undertake the historical labor required by Providence.

The power of this understanding of history lay precisely in its power to absolve hypocrisy as a kind of moral martyrdom undertaken for the sake of history. The orientalist idea of India as a place that could not make its own history without the catalyst of “a few eminent” British men was also integral to this confidence – “nowhere,” wrote Kaye, were “there such great opportunities of independent action.”

You place the violence of Partition too into this context, asking whether it would have made sense to partition Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century, and talking of how it was “underwritten by long-circulating narratives of South Asian history” but also an idea that evolution out of that trap of timelessness would require blood… Did your research on this book make you reevaluate your understanding of Partition?
Actually, it was the other way around: research on Partition led me to the ideas in this book.

I have always had an interest in the history of Partition, which profoundly affected my own family. In studying it, I realised that anti-colonial thinkers turned to ideas of federalism, including Partition, as part of an effort to think outside the box of the nation-state model that was the ostensible goal of liberal imperialism, after World War One revealed the destructive power of that irreligious form.

They saw it as the product of a particular conception of history – whose history my book traces – and offered alternative theories of historical agency and the purpose of worldly struggle, arguing that we are morally accountable in the present and that connection is its own end.

At the same time, I was working on the British turn to partition as part of the process of decolonisation. The work of Arie Dubnov and others on transnational histories of partition in Ireland, Palestine, India, and elsewhere showed that not only were many of the same practices and personnel involved across these spaces, but, again, a particular understanding of imperial history was also at stake in the British turn to partition. And I began to connect the dots back to its Enlightenment origins by revisiting Samuel Galton’s defence of his violation of his faith’s nonviolent principles with the argument that his hands were tied by history.

In short, my research on Partition helped me re-evaluate my understanding of the history of the historical discipline and to articulate, at long last, how it was implicated in the history of empire and what that means for how we do history today.

What is the “more constructive vision” of historians’ public roles that you would like to see?
I hope the book helps explain why historians today are less often abettors of those in power and more often truth-tellers against the state, and why this is such an important and valuable role, which we fulfil through our research, teaching, and writing. I also highlight historians’ pivotal role in today’s countless conversations and legal actions around reparations, restitution, apologies, and memorialisation, which attempt to address and heal the wounds of the past in order to make new futures possible.

Collaboration with experts in other disciplines that study the past from a less human-centric perspective (biologists, geologists, cosmologists, climate scientists, etc) is another fruitful avenue of historical study. Above all, our collective efforts to understand the past are essential to forwarding the anti-colonial lesson that meaning is best sought not in the possibility of progress but in the possibility of connection now.

How do you understand the global movement to “decolonise history” and “decolonise the archive” and how do you place that within your focus on British, Arabian and South Asian history?
Anti-colonial movements in the last century helped inspire the reframing of the historical discipline after World War Two, when the idea that history was a story of progress seemed especially dubious. As I said above, rather than abettors of the powerful, many historians positioned themselves as redeemers of the truth and suppressed realities of human experience. So began the discipline’s struggle to shake off the assumptions of progress and great-man explanation and recover voices and values that were lost or repressed while instrumental understandings of the past were dominant.

However, that process remained incomplete because the Cold War, followed by the War on Terror, simultaneously extended the life of liberal imperialism. Today climate crisis is once again forcing a reckoning, as authoritarianism and parochial and chauvinistic forms of nationalism make clear the urgent need to tell new stories about the past, including ones that recover the values (especially of kinship with other beings) that we set aside in deference to providential ideas of history.

Decolonising the discipline is about asking historians to engage, conscious of the discipline’s past role in empire, with public struggles around colonial history, such as reparations and memorialisation, that create new future possibilities. It is also about adopting an anti-colonial understanding of the discipline’s purpose. The decolonising lies in the illumination of the discipline’s historical role in empire, disavowing the vestiges of that role, and making redress for it. It depends on (but is not the same as) greater inclusivity in a discipline long monopolised by and serving the interests of a certain class of white men.

Decolonising our approach to the archives means recognising that colonial priorities and their historical outlook have shaped what was kept and released, destroyed or hidden, how the archives are structured, and who has been allowed to leave traces in them. Decolonisation asks historians to stop taking archives as transparent repositories of truth because doing so tends to reinforce the colonial narratives the archives were sculpted to support. Postwar decolonisation remained incomplete partly because of deliberate British destruction of archives, designed to erase memory and enable continuity – neocolonialism – in postcolonial relations.

But beyond archives, decolonising the discipline also means dealing with its default, colonial epistemological outlook- – that assumption of a universal path to progress, which has become a cultural common sense undergirding the social sciences broadly as well as our sense of social and political possibility. This is what anti-colonial thinkers called for a century ago: abandoning a historical mindset that asks us to set aside ethics in the name of history.

Gandhi, Fanon, and other thinkers and activists all warned that decolonisation won’t be achieved with the mere departure of the British or the French. It wasn’t about the mere transfer of power but required transformation at the level of the self – an ethical remaking of the self, decolonisation of the mind and body, what Fanon called “a new humanism.”

An individual might recover that selfhood instantly, Gandhi affirmed, but spreading awareness of the need to do so would take time. The sticky influence of colonial modes of thought, thanks partly to education systems, meant that anti-colonialism would have to be a permanent outlook. As we’ve long known, thanks also to more recent scholars like Edward Said, universities have been the sites of training for colonialism, the stores of its archives and looted artefacts, and its financial beneficiaries. They are the home of the humanistic and social sciences developed in and designed to perpetuate a world of extractive, racist, and violent empire.

Gandhi recognised this a century ago: “The foundation that Macaulay laid of education has enslaved us,” he wrote. This is why anti-colonial movements invested so much in creating alternative educational institutions (eg Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, National College in Lahore, and Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan, to name a few) aimed at disrupting the inculcation of the values of liberal empire. The effort to decolonise higher education began in the era of anti-colonialism itself. Today’s effort to decolonise can be understood as a continuation of anti-colonial practice.

This struggle is necessary even in institutions in former imperial metropoles, like Britain, because colonial modes of thought that abetted greed and brutality were not good for the colonisers either, whatever the wealth and power they brought.

Finally, the three questions I like to put to all:

What misconceptions about historians or historical thinking do you find yourself having to combat all the time?
The ideas about history that enabled empire remain influential – as we remain in an imperial age. So, I find myself pushing back constantly on those common misconceptions: that history is about progress in which evil is at times necessary and that, accordingly, only history can judge an action; that fascism was a unique evil unrelated to other troubling pasts; that great men make history; that we can evaluate British imperialism according to its pros and cons; that we can excuse certain figures as “men of their time”; that history is about making people proud of their nation; that only humans make history; that the nation-state is the natural unit of history and history-making; that the past doesn’t matter and formerly colonised countries should just “move on.” There’s a clear pattern here—these are the misconceptions that arose to help enable, perpetuate, and justify modern colonialism. That is still very much our time.

For younger scholars entering the field, are there areas of research or tools of examination that you wish more historians would engage with?
I think we have much to do and redo with a mindset that de-centres human beings as the subjects, objects, and agents of history. Given the limitations of archives, there’s also a great deal to be learned by plumbing memory, myth, and oral traditions to recover otherwise marginalised intellectual traditions. There are so many exciting areas of new research: Indian Ocean, Pacific World, environmental, and medieval history, the history of anti-colonialism, military practices, religious belief, death and dying, and more.

That said, I wrote a book on a very old, traditional topic with one of the deepest historiographies – the British industrial revolution. There is always more to say about such topics because we are always writing about them from a new position, and from new perspectives and an awareness of how earlier explanations were coloured by the politics of their own time. This is why historical work is fundamentally about redemption and is an unending and continual process of inquiry. This is its poetic function.

What three books (or papers or podcasts or videos) would you recommend for anyone who has read Time’s Monster, or this interview, and wants to learn more about how historical thinking created empire?
A few works on related themes that helped me think while I wrote my book:

  • Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History
  • Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe
  • Catherine Gallagher, Telling It Like It Wasn’t
  • Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

Some excellent recent works, not exactly on the subject of how historical thinking created empire, but on related themes:

  • Joan Scott, On the Judgment of History
  • Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse
  • Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums
  • Manan Ahmed Asif, The Loss of Hindustan
  • Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire
  • Caroline Elkins, Legacy of Violence
  • An interview with Faisal Devji on Gandhi, from 2021.

Rohan Venkataramakrishnan writes at India Inside Out.