How did a family of ardent pacifists become Britain’s leading gun manufacturers? How did conscientious British officials convince themselves that they had to stand by and let millions of Indians die of hunger, in famines that were largely caused by colonial policies?

Questions of this kind recur often in the work of Priya Satia. In her seminal 2019 book, Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, Satia, who is a professor of British and International History at Stanford, addressed them by focusing on a single family, the Galtons of Birmingham. Through the eighteenth century and a part of the nineteenth, the Galtons were England’s most successful gun manufacturers and a major presence in Britain’s economy, and in its intellectual life, being closely connected, for example, with the Darwins. The family was also one of the driving forces of the Industrial Revolution because of its close connections with the British state, for which it served as a major provider of arms.

From the late seventeenth century onwards Britain was almost continuously engaged in wars in North America and Asia, in many of which it was pitted against other European powers. The British government’s insatiable appetite for military matériel, and pressure from its European competitors, forced arms manufacturers like the Galtons to invest heavily in technological refinements. As a result some of the crucial inventions of the Industrial Revolution were prefigured in the Galton family’s workshops; not only did they hire inventors like James Watt and Matthew Boulton, they also funded their later work.

Colonial warfare was therefore a critical factor in Britain’s industrialisation. In effect, what Satia shows in Empire of Guns is that contrary to the standard narrative in which the Industrial Revolution is presented as a process endogenous to Britain: “Violence committed abroad, in service of imperial expansion, was central to the making of capitalist modernity”. While Satia is by no means the first, or only, historian to make this argument, the sharpness of her focus on the Galtons, and the astounding extent of their circle’s influence on British financial, scientific and intellectual life, enables her to present the argument with exceptional force and clarity.

Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, Priya Satia, Stanford University Press, 2019.

But this story has another twist to it: the Galtons, like many in their circle, were Quakers, which meant that they belonged to a sect that rejected war and even the bearing of arms: these were indeed the core principles on which the sect was founded. Yet the Galtons’ involvement in the making of guns went without criticism from their fellow-Quakers for many decades. It was not until the 1790s that objections to their trade began to be voiced, leading to formal charges in 1795.

Those charges were answered by Samuel Galton Jr, who was not only an extremely able businessman, but was also a member of the Royal Society and a formidable intellectual in his own right. Turning the tables on his accusers, many of whom were successful businessmen, he asked: “Do you not all, in many ways contribute to the War by supplying the Government directly, or indirectly with Money, which is so necessary, that it is called proverbially the Sinews of War?”

The implication, as Satia points out, is that warfare was so fundamental to the country’s life that no one who participated in Britain’s economy could claim to be exempt from wars and violence. Galton thus directed the charge of hypocrisy back towards the Quakers, by pointing out that they were victims of “another kind of false consciousness, which endures today: avoiding the truth that modern life is founded, intrinsically, on militarism…”

Samuel Galton Jr was thus making the same argument that Satia offers in relation to the Industrial Revolution – that warfare was essential to the emergence of capitalist modernity – and were she an economic historian she might have been content to leave it at that. But economics is by no means Satia’s primary concern. The reason that Galton’s self-defence is of interest to her is that she is also a historian of what might be called the moral, or ethical, life.

Management of consciences

In her new book, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History Satia addresses those concerns even more directly. Right at the outset she makes it clear that the book hinges on a single query: “How did … avowedly ‘good’ people live with doing bad things?”

This question, which has tormented thinkers since antiquity, makes it evident that Time’s Monster is not a conventional history. It is, rather, a book that puts the historian’s craft to brilliant use in examining the philosophical and conceptual foundations of the academic discipline of History. The conclusion she arrives at ultimately is that it was the discipline of History itself, ever since its emergence as a field of academic inquiry in nineteenth century Europe, that provided well-intentioned, highly-educated Western liberals with a set of ethical tools for the management of their consciences as they unleashed murderous violence on “backward” peoples across the planet. “The story of empire,” she writes, “is one in which the villains of history, if there are any, are historians themselves…”

Crucial to the functioning of “History”, as an ethical toolbox for liberals to draw upon, is a linear conception of time that allows present-day suffering to be justified as being necessary for the realisation of a better future. This is, of course, none other than the doctrine of “progress” that is embedded in the very foundations of the academic discipline of History: it is this doctrine, in its many guises that provided the charter for Western imperialism, and continues to do so to this day. “Modern imperialism promised progress,” writes Satia. “It was grounded in a vision of history understood as necessarily progress-oriented.” It is in this sense that Time’s Monster “is a book about how the historical discipline helped make empire – by making it ethically thinkable – and how empire made and remade the historical discipline.”

Time’s Monster; How History Makes History, Priya Satia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2020.

Within a few pages of the last sentence, I came upon references to a book of my own, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). Since I have myself made many references to Satia’s Empire of Guns in a forthcoming book it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Satia and I –who do not know each other personally, and have never exchanged so much as a word – have nonetheless been in each other’s heads for a while, conducting an extended conversation that includes many other interlocutors.

In many ways, the most notable (and the most uncanny) feature of these conversations is that they were not initiated by debates within history or philosophy or literature. Instead they were forced upon us by the interventions of actors and agents who have never before been included in such exchanges: for example, climatic phenomena. The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, who is an important interlocutor for both Satia and myself, has described how his awareness of the world, and of his discipline, were radically altered by his experiences of climate disruptions. I have done something similar in relation to fiction in The Great Derangement.

It seems to me that Time’s Monster begins from a similar starting point. For let us make no mistake about this: it is climate change above all that has upended our expectations of the future, thereby exposing the fundamental fallacies that underlie the idea that History is a linear chronicle of progress. This idea is so deeply entrenched in modern culture that it would have been impossible to dislodge if the ongoing disruptions in the planet’s climate had not shown that ever-increasing “growth” will lead, not to a glittering city on a hill, but to the envenomed future that now looms ahead of us.

The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh, University of Chicago Press, 2017.

In that sense it could be said that these conversations were instigated by the sudden intrusion of a range of perspectives and voices that were not attended to in the past by academic historians, because those voices belonged either to non-humans, or to humans who were not Western or white. As Immanuel Wallerstein once pointed out, “Ninety-five per cent of all written history before 1945, was that of five historical nations: Great Britain, France, the United States, the Germanies…and the Italies.” It is astonishing today to consider that a scholarly discipline, founded on a claim of universality, was, and to a great extent still is, overwhelmingly focused on a small, mostly white, minority of the world’s population.

The process that was crucial to the unmuting of those long-silenced voices, human and non-human, was decolonisation. It was decolonisation that enabled post-colonial countries to expand their carbon footprints, which had the effect of triggering the atmospheric changes that have made it impossible to cling any longer to the illusion that humans are the only historical agents on this planet. It was decolonisation too that created an upheaval within the discipline of History, by bringing in human voices that could no longer be easily silenced or marginalised. This is a story that Satia tells at some length in the latter chapters of Time’s Monster: “Through these shifts in writing history during the era of anticolonialism emerged the popular twentieth-century understanding of the historian as critic of government… History set out to expose the scandal of empire.”

In this sense History has itself provided the tools for the upending of long-dominant narratives. And such is the explosive power of the counter-narratives that they can no longer be contained within ivory towers. They have burst forth and spilled out into the streets, overthrowing statues and entering the pages of the The New York Times in the form of the 1619 Project which uses the scholarly apparatus of academic History to better effect than do many established scholars. There could be no more powerful validation of Satia’s argument about History’s instrumentality as a mechanism of dominance than the ongoing attempts to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project in various states in the US. The same is true of the BJP’s concerted attacks on the intellectuals who embody the anti-colonial tradition of the “the historian as critic of government.”

Yet the irony is that even as the old narratives are being upended the doctrine of “progress” is becoming ever more entrenched. Thus calls for justice and reparations are themselves often articulated in terms of “progress”, and frequently claim the vindication of being “on the right side of History”. An even greater irony is that it is the Left that clings most determinedly to these conceptions, to the point where its political aspirations have become synonymous with the word “progressive”.

Rethinking time

Is it at all possible, then, to conceive of historical time in a fashion that is not linear, unidirectional and “progressive”? Satia devotes many pages to this question, teasing different conceptions of time out of Urdu poetry, and the work of certain writers and thinkers, most of whom are either from the Indian subcontinent or are closely connected to it. This geographical focus is due, no doubt, to Satia’s position within her discipline, as a historian of the British Empire and South Asia.

This is in itself illustrative of the difficulties that arise in approaching broad philosophical issues from within the regional specialisations of academic History. For the Indian subcontinent is probably not the region that is most likely to provide the alternative conceptions of time that Satia is looking for. She might perhaps have done better to look closer to home – for some of the most powerful critiques of Western conceptions of linear time and History have come from precisely those who have had to face the full fury of those ideas in their most savagely destructive forms: the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and the antipodes.

For the Lakota thinker, Vine Deloria Jr, for instance, the most significant alternative to Western conceptions of linear time lay in the Native American relationship with space, in which meaningful narratives were anchored by particular places rather than dates. Temporal narratives, Deloria argues, anticipating Satia’s position, can defer ethical choices by reference to abstract, future endpoints; spatial thinking allows no such evasion since it is insistently focused on the world as it is. [God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, North American Press, 1992.]

The Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko uses the same idea to suggest another possibility: “In the case of many of the Pueblo narratives,” she writes, “it is impossible to determine which came first: the incident or the geographical feature which begs to be brought alive in a story…” [“Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination,” in The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, ed Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, University of Georgia Press, 1996) What this suggests is that Pueblo oral narratives, in being centered on particular places, and the geological and botanical features that are emplaced in them, accord a significant degree of agency to non-human elements of the landscape.

This brings us to the brink of a chasm that Satia gestures at, even as she backs away from it: what happens when we suddenly wake to the realisation that the planet itself is an actor, along with a vast range of other beings, many of whom are fully capable of inserting themselves forcefully into human narratives? What happens when the inclusion of long-muted voices extends beyond the human? How would historical narratives have to change to include the voices of these protagonists? What would be the sources on which such stories would be based?

It is at this juncture that it becomes apparent why History, in the modern, disciplinary sense, took shape among a tiny group of elite Europeans. These men, and their class, controlled so much power that they were able to convince themselves that they, and only they, were true historical agents: all other beings – animals, landscapes, plants, and of course, the vast majority of humans – were, in their view, brutishly wedded to “Nature” and were therefore incapable of historical agency. In other words, built into the foundations of History, and indeed, many other disciplines in the Humanities, is the repression of some of the most important questions about human existence on this planet. These questions have long eluded the modern gaze but were self-evident to those who did not wear the blinders of “humanism”: that is why the stories of Native Americans, Adivasis, and innumerable Indigenous peoples are filled with non-human voices and other-than-human protagonists.

Priya Satia’s fearlessness in tackling big questions, even to the point of indicting the very discipline that has raised her to a position of not-inconsiderable eminence, suggests that she might well be the historian who could summon the courage to plunge into this chasm.

Amitav Ghosh’s most recent book is Jungle Nama.