The politics of history… J G A Pocock

I’ve been reading J G A Pocock, a New Zealander with an international reputation in the world of humanities. Initially a professor of political science at Canterbury University in the 1960s, he has become a leading scholar on the history of Western political thought, particularly of the 17th and 18th centuries. He is now Emeritus Professor at John Hopkins University, being for many years a highly regarded teacher there. From a distance he has made a number of forays into New Zealand history, or rather, has commented at some length on its historiography. This includes a number of fascinating book reviews of leading New Zealand history publications. View these at London Review of Books archive link (part only available, and some interesting letters to editor included at the bottom).

Some select quotations from his 1998 article, ‘The politics of history: the subaltern and the subversive’, reproduced in Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp 239-256:

“There is a kind of history, of great though not exclusive signficance, which is the creation of a political society that is autonomous, in the sense that it takes decisions and performs actions with the intention and effect of determining its character and the conditions under which it exists. That history is both the record of those decisions and actions (here the society both makes its history and narrates it) and the narrative and myth of how the society is said to have come into being and acquired the capacity for autonomy in the sense just stated. Together, they form what I shall term the ‘constructed history’ of the society. This construct will, of course, be the work of the dominant members of the society. But in so far as some of them are equals of others, it will record contests and come itself to be contested between the antagonist equals. And it is possible that it will record the resolution of these contests and come to be the narrative of a state of affairs in which equals rule and are ruled by one another…

“… ‘Subaltern’ is, I believe, a term derived from Gramsci, used to denote the culturally subordinate and, in particular, those having no identity except that which they can derive from the fact of their subordination. ‘Subversion’ is a strategy in which they and others may engage. We have been thinking of history as a means to the creation of identity. But it is possible that the Self cannot be created without the simultaneous invention of Others, whose history is that of the creation of the Self, but who have no part in it. Since this is an ideal type or pure case, it is hard even to imagine, and harder still to discover, as we travel in space or time, in unmitigated reality, though we shall find many cases of which it is close enough to being descriptive to make its employment urgently necessary…

“… Interesting historiographic situations now arise. Such a ruling free people will possess a history of itself as free; it will be an internal history, narrating the interactions between members of the society that make it a free political system, as well as of its attainment of sovereignty over itself that is no less necessary to its freedom. In either of these narratives, its rule over subject peoples, whose history is not the history of its freedom, will appear contingent and occasional rather than necessary. This is how the history of Britain has come to be the history of England, in which that of a non-entity called ‘the Celtic Fringe’ puts in an occasional and unnecessary appearance. But the internal history – the history in this case of England – is valid as far as it goes, and to that extent it will not be possible for the histories of the subject peoples, as they come to be constructed and written, to subvert and unmake it. It has been both enacted and written, and cannot be written out of the record. The ruling free people has to be persuaded that there is a history of its rule, which it may not know or want to know, as well as of its freedom, which it does know and wants to go on affirming. It is not necessary to persuade it, because it is not true, that the former history is the absolute subversion and negation of the latter; but what the relation between the two histories is remains to be debated, and the debate entails the self-constructed history of the ruled as well as the rulers…

I want now to consider this problematic in a particular context, that of ‘post-colonial’ politics, in which I shall suppose the presence of a free and formerly ruling people, with a history of its own, and of a people till recently subject to political and cultural domination, now asserting the autonomy necessary to resume, re-narrate and re-enact a history similarly its own…

“… Indeed, the indigenous have good grounds for regarding ‘history’ as an instrument of alien domination, since this is form in which it was proposed to and imposed upon them. European settlers came and said that agriculture, commerce and capitalism as they practised them were the means of breaking with the cosmogony of the pre-contact cultures, which they termed ‘primitive’, and entering the history of the progress of mankind. They used ‘history’ as an idealogical justification of their dispossession and disruption of indigenous cultures, though the terms on which aboriginals and tangata whenua were admitted to history, or in some cases vigorously asserted their action and autonomy within it, varied very widely from one colonial history to another.

“It is easy to say that the ejection of indigenous peoples from cosmogony and into history was effective, and that their present assertion that history has been unjust is nothing other than their means of acting within history and not cosmogony. Even revolution, were such a thing still possible, would be no more than an essentially European instrument of self-modernization on neo-European terms. Yet cosmogony remains an instrument by which modern or post-modern indigenous peoples criticize history itself even as they practise it. Europeans remember and in certain ways still practise it, and even where the indigenous are obliged to reinvest it, having lost it in the history imposed upon them, they accuse the history which has been the means, as well as the narrative, of their dispossession from it.

“The political dialogues now going on in lands of settlement where indigenous peoples are reasserting their identity and claiming autonomy are, therefore, of considerable theoretical interest, since they entail debates between histories and counter-histories. Suppose that the history of one’s society (one is tempted to say ‘one’s country’) is revealed to have been that of interaction between two peoples, each living in a history not reducible to the terms used in recounting the history of the other; so that the citizen (and with the citizen the historian) is required to live, speak and act in two non-reducible histories at once, and in the interactions between them. Can there be a politics, a citizenship, an autonomy and its history, as means to identity, in a life lived on these terms? And will its political form be that of a commonwealth or only a confederation? The problem is that of autonomy, identity and sovereignty in a multiplicity of histories – and we have to consider the possibility that these histories may be a means to their own undoing…

Barbarism and Religion - Pocock

“… These counter-histories [of Enlightenment] interpenetrate one another. As the Enlightenment history imposed upon the tangata whenua is both antagonist and protagonist in the histories they must construct of themselves, so the cosmogony of their animist past and present finds resonances in Enlightenment thought. It finds them in Rousseau, who thought of a natural innocence against which all civil society and its history were an aggression; it finds them in Herder, for whom history resided in the many self-imaginations of disparate cultures through incantation and myth. These Counter-Enlightenments, I argue, arose within what we call Enlightenment rather than from opposed sources, and they arose precisely as Enlightenment history [i.e., agriculture, commerce, capitalism] was being imposed on the tangata whenua and Enlightened minds were wondering what this meant. I am in need, then, of some narratives of what is going on in Enlightened historiography, additional rather than opposed or even alternative to that narrated by Isaiah Berlin [The Age of Enlightenment: the eighteenth-century philosophers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956)] or John Gray [Enlightenment’s Wake: politics and culture at the close of the modern age (London: Routledge, 1995); and Endgames: questions in late modern political thought (Oxford: Polity Press, 1997)]. To relate these narratives will serve various purposes as well as illuminating or complicating the matter of indigenous historiography. It will bear on the problem of the definition of Europe, and of Britain’s place in Europe. It will bear out, and put into practice, my contention that historiography consists in the multiplication of narratives, between which there may exist a variety of relationships, many of them political. And it will lead back to the problems of living in a world where one finds oneself involved in a plurality of histories, each one of them potentially the means of defining a sovereignty, and yet both sovereignty and history are widely regarded as marked out for demolition.” [article ends]

My thoughts:

Pocock highlights some fundamental problems in constructing history or histories in a post-colonial environment. First, that history is itself a political activity, in that histories often serve the purpose of explaining the origins and nature of political societies. Second, that a political society that has imposed itself on another will, at the same time, have imposed its history – a history that both legitimates the former’s existence, but also serves to legitimate the imposition by recourse to categories that are understood to explain a universal history of human progress, viz., in the case of Western European colonialism/imperialism, such categories as agriculture and capitalism, and in particular individual property and the democratic liberal franchise (or perhaps, colonial ‘self-government’). Third, the imposition of that history in the course of carrying out the colonial project, thus rendering the histories of the subject people as ‘subaltern’ or subjugated, means that it may be difficult today to recover or reconstruct a history of the subjugated peoples that does not also utilise the modes and idealogies of the colonizer – perhaps, for example, in the use of the language of political liberties or rights including the right to participate fully in the colonial polity.

Yet, Pocock seeks to problematize the binaries of this picture – colonized/colonizer, western/eastern – by indicating that Western histories are themselves the product of contest and even the melding of different modes of thought: Europeans themselves still possessed older ‘cosmogonies’ and folk traditions that have survived the supposedly imperious and subjugating march of modernity. The biography of Britain’s great Liberal politician, William E Gladstone, is one reminder how ‘liberal’ sentiment could entirely coexist with a Christian moral lens. This accords with what Chris Bayly argued in his seminal global history The Birth of the Modern World (2004), that in many ways the growth of organised religion and religious sentiment and ideas, were more formative of the 19th century world than the idealogies of free trade or democracy.

So we need to problematize even the idea that the 19th century was ‘Enlightened’ if by that we mean the march of capitalism, science and liberal democracy. There were many enlightenments and many modernities, such that the term needs to be stripped of its essentialist baggage. And, of course, there were many and varied ways in which indigenous peoples engaged with these multiple modernities. This varied engagement must mean, then, that many and varied histories ‘happened’ or were produced through this engagement. It cannot be that we have just two histories – colonized/colonizer – but rather, as Pocock suggests, a multiplicity of histories. In Aotearoa is it clear than different tribes/iwi/hapu engaged with British imperialism and colonialism in varied ways, along a spectrum ranging from outright rejection to outright embrace. The task is to discover the internal cultural logics that explain these varied responses, in such a way that the significance of tribal discourse and cosmogonies are maintained but without marginalising the displacements that took place through encounter with European Others. The other task is to explore the multiple meanings of colonialism to those that lived or enacted it, in the context of many texts and histories that suggest different or even conflicting meanings.


Coffee and Colonialism

… of course there is an important imperial or post-colonial discourse that can be written about the relationship of coffee to colonialism. Right now I’m reading Partha Chatterjee and drinking coffee in sight of parliament. Then off to Archives to read the Edinburgh Review…



My anthropological and post-colonial turn?

I seem to be collecting a lot of anthropological and post-colonial literature at the moment. My shelf (below) is the evidence: Bernard S Cohn, Nicholas Thomas, Ashis Nandy, Partha Chatterjee, and a slice of Peter Burke. I can feel my mind expanding in different directions and assuming new hues. At the same time I’m building up my ‘Whig’ collection, particularly Macaulay’s essays, letters, and – wait for it – I found a beautiful 4 vol set of Macaulay’s History in my local second-hand bookshop yesterday for only $12 (it was half-price). I reckon if I can balance Said and Cohn with Macaulay and Bayly, and a bit of Niall Ferguson and J G A Pocock thrown in for good measure, I’ll be a reasonably well-balanced individual – maybe?

Conversations about land, war, etc

H T Kemp was a native interpreter and Crown purchase agent in the 1840s and 50s. He was a son of early missionary James Kemp. His 1870 English and Māori grammar fascinated me, including the way he starts with enumerating the various ‘tribes of the North Island’ from the 1870 census, and his ‘conversations’ including ‘conversation about land’ and ‘convsersation about war’. Here they are:

From the Archives…

My MA thesis of 2007-08 on New Zealand parliamentary debates of the 1850s-60s emphasized the way history imbued the consciousness of the Victorians. In particular, when conceptualizing the history of the indigenous people Victorian New Zealanders encountered, they placed them in their own civilizational history: as Europe’s history had once been peopled by savages and barbarians who were civilised over time by the influences of religion, law, science, arts and commerce (in varying degrees depending on the perspective), so Māori could become civilized through similar influences. It was not a racial/ racialist discourse, rather an historical and jurisprudential one.

This ‘civilizational perspective’ (ref. Peter Mandler) was reiterated to me again today when looking at catalogues of early New Zealand libraries. I was struck by the prominence of history as a category. In fact in the 1861 catalogue of the Auckland Provincial Council library, and in the 1867 catalogue of the Canterbury Provincial Council library, history was the first category of arrangement. Photos of the first pages of these are appended.

And then I was reading historical anthropologist Bernard S Cohn’s analysis of colonialism’s forms of knowledge. What leads his list of modalities of knowledge? Answer: history, or the ‘historiographic modality’:

In British India, this modality is the most complex, pervasive, and powerful, underlying a number of the other more specific modalities. History, for the British, has an ontological power in providing the assumptions about how the real social and natural worlds are constituted. History in its broadest sense was a zone of debate over the ends and means of their rulership in India.

Bernard S Cohn, ‘Colonialism and its forms of knowledge’, in S Howe, ed., The New Imperial Histories Reader (Routledge, 2010), p 119.

I’ve also been reading J G A Pocock on history and the subaltern. But that should wait for another post.

Reading… Thomas Babington Macaulay

If any Briton represents the image of the statesman-scholar of the nineteenth century, it is Thomas Babington (“T B”) Macaulay. Son of the anti-slave trade campaigner, Zachery Macaulay, he was a pre-eminent man of letters of the Victorian age, a parliamentarian and orator acclaimed by many, a Cabinet minister, and for a time an administrator of Britain’s Indian empire who drafted the Indian criminal code.

Some excerpts from my early reading:

Minute on Indian Education, 1835:

“[7] …We now come to the gist of the matter. We have a fund to be employed as Government shall direct for the intellectual improvement of the people of this country. The simple question is, what is the most useful way of employing it?

[8] All  parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.  It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them…

[33] To sum up what I have said. I think it clear that we are not fettered by the Act of Parliament of 1813, that we are not fettered by any pledge expressed or implied, that we are free to employ our funds as we choose, that we ought to employ them in teaching what is best worth knowing, that English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit or Arabic, that the natives are desirous to be taught English, and are not desirous to be taught Sanscrit or Arabic, that neither as the languages of law nor as the languages of religion have the Sanscrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our encouragement, that it is possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars, and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed.

[34] In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

[Note: the much-maligned and oft-quoted statement from the Minute is ‘a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, etc…’. I have selected a few other statements which are not often quoted when discussing the Minute, and there are a number of others that could be quoted. Macaulay’s key point is really to enquire how ‘useful knowledge’ can be spread through the Indian populace. In order to do that, Macaulay proposed the development of a new civil service class, trained in English, to translate English/European literature and knowledge into the vernacular languages of India (ie., not Persian, Arabic, and Sancrit because those were ‘classical languages’ only understood by very few educated classes). It is a very utilitarian argument, but one that also anticipates the emergence of Indian nationalism. It must be read together with key documents in the Orientalist-Anglicist debate on what education the British government should be funding in India and also with Macaulay’s other key statements on India.]

Speech on the (Great) Reform Bill, 1831:

“… The question of Parliamentary Reform is still behind. But signs, of which it is impossible to misconceive the import, do most clearly indicate, that, unless that question also be speedily settled, property and order, and all the institutions of this great monarchy, will be exposed to fearful peril. Is it possible, that Gentlemen long versed in high political affairs cannot read these signs? Is it possible that they can really believe that the Representative system of England, such as it now is, will last till the year 1860? If not, for what would they have us wait? Would they have us wait merely that we may show to all the world how little we have profited by our own recent experience? Would they have us wait, that we may once again hit the exact point where we can neither refuse with authority, nor concede with grace? Would they have us wait, that the numbers of the discontented party may become larger, its demands higher, its feeling more acrimonious, its organization more complete? Would they have us wait till the whole tragi-comedy of 1827 has been acted over again; till they have been brought into office by a cry of “No Reform! “to be reformers, as they were once before brought into office by a cry of “No Popery! “to be emancipators? Have they obliterated from their minds—gladly perhaps would some among them obliterate from their minds — the transactions of that year? And have they forgotten all the transactions of the succeeding year? Have they forgotten how the spirit of liberty in Ireland, debarred from its natural outlet, found a vent by forbidden passages? Have they forgotten how we were forced to indulge the Catholics in all the license of rebels, merely because we chose to withhold from them the liberties of subjects? Do they wait for associations more formidable than that of the Corn Exchange,— for contributions larger than the Rent,— for agitators more violent than those who, three years ago, divided with the King and the Parliament, the sovereignty of Ireland? Do they wait for that last and most dreadful paroxysm of popular rage, —for that last and most cruel test of military fidelity? Let them wait, if their past experience shall induce them to think that any high honour or any exquisite pleasure is to be obtained by a policy like this. Let them wait, if this strange and fearful infatuation be indeed upon them,—that they should not see with their eyes, or hear with their ears, or understand with their heart. But let us know our interest and our duty better. Turn where we may, —within,—around,—the voice of great events is proclaiming to us, Reform, that you may preserve. Now, therefore, while every thing at home and abroad forebodes ruin to those who persist in a hopeless struggle against the spirit of the age,— now, while the crash of the proudest throne of the continent is still resounding in our ears,—now, while the roof of a British palace affords an ignominious shelter to the exiled heir of forty kings,—now, while we see on every side ancient institutions subverted, and great societies dissolved,—now, while the heart of England is still sound,—now, while the old feelings and the old associations retain a power and a charm which may too soon pass away,—now, in this your accepted time,— now in this your day of salvation,—take counsel, not of prejudice,—not of party spirit,—not of the ignominious pride of a fatal consistency,—but of history,—of reason,—of the ages which are past,— of the signs of this most portentous time. Pronounce in a manner worthy of the expectation with which this great Debate has been anticipated, and of the long remembrance which it will leave behind. Renew the youth of the State. Save property divided against itself. Save the multitude, endangered by their own ungovernable passions. Save the aristocracy, endangered by its own unpopular power. Save the greatest, and fairest, and most highly civilized community that ever existed, from calamities which may in a few days sweep away all the rich heritage of 60 many ages of wisdom and glory. The danger is terrible. The time is short. If this Bill should be rejected, I pray to God that none of those who concur in rejecting it may ever remember their votes! with unavailing regret, amidst the wreck of laws, the confusion of ranks, the spoliation of property, and the dissolution of social order.”

Review of von Ranke’s History of the Popes (Edinburgh Review, 1840):

“… She [the Catholic Church] saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishment that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished in Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”

[Note: the New Zealander here is almost certainly an indigenous New Zealander. That was the name given to Māori at the time. It reflects a central theme in British intellectual thought concerning the decay of empire.]

imperial projects

Another couple of interesting ‘imperial projects’ currently in progress:

Alan Lester is leading a project called ‘Snapshots of Empire’ based at the University of Sussex. This project will analyse in detail three separate years of correspondence (1838, 1857, 1879) coming in and going out of the Colonial Office and East India Company/ India Office to see how the empire was administered ‘everywhere and all at once’.

‘Soldiers of Empire’ is a project led by Charlotte McDonald at the University of Victoria, Wellington that focuses on the ways in which war and British garrisons took people, goods, ideas and habits around the world. The research ‘aims to put a face to the British army and navy presence in New Zealand’.

Reading… C A Bayly

So I’m reading Christopher Bayly at the moment. When he passed away last year he was one of the leading historians of British India, the British empire generally, and also of a new global history. Richard Drayton gave a nice write-up of Bayly’s work in his obituary in the Guardian.

I’ve been reading his 1998 work Origins of nationality in South Asia: patriotism and ethical government in the making of modern India. In it he argues that 20th century Indian nationalism had older roots in pre-colonial India, in the form of various communal and political attachments to place and institutions.

He uses comparative method to trace patterns in the development of Indian nationalism that are seen in European/British contexts, including a ‘traditional patriotism’ that involved ‘attachment to the territory, custom, political and religious institutions which had developed in parts of the western world before the rise of plebiscitary nationalism, the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the modern state’ (p 4).

Was ‘India’ a mere ‘geographical expression’ or an area that expressed strong regional loyalities? 19th century British contemporaries thought that different states did express a strong ‘nationalism’, although others were more like ‘states of plunder’. By the 1820s, one British officer thought Bharatpur had become ‘the very Palladium of native pride and independence’ (p 51).

In the Epilogue, Bayly gives an insightful account of his own biography and historiographical journey. In a poke at post-modernist/-colonial approaches, he believes the abandonment by Indian historians over the previous 20 years of political and economic history, in favour of histories of cultural and ‘discourse’, was ‘retrogressive’ and representing ‘a syndrome of traumatized denial’ by historians of the ongoing significance of global capitalism and an ideological Indian politics of the present day. (pp 317-318)

Bayly argues that continuity or ‘distorted continuity’ in Indian politics/society under British rule was more significant than in other places, such as Latin America or Africa: ‘… Indians recruited from pre-colonial service and commercial communities continued to control the bulk of mercantile capital and title to land and to populate the lower ranks of the army, judiciary and police…’ (p 319)

He rather provocatively notes how Ronald Inden and Bernard Cohn considered the Subaltern Studies volumes of the 1980s and 1990s as inaugurating a true indigenous and post-colonial historiography. ‘The trajectory of Subaltern Studies from class and resistance to a concern with discourse and colonial knowledge really represented the replacement of E.P. Thomson with an Americanized version of Michael Foucault. This is  what Sumit Sarkar has deplored in Writing Social History, his polemic against the  “disapperance of the subaltern” from Subaltern Studies, and the tendency of young Indian historians to try to be “with it” by hitching their colours to the mast of post-modernism. Actually, if a true “indigenous, post-colonial historiography” is coming into existence (and this is probably impossible), it is  perhaps in the regional universities and sometimes in regional languages and has little to do with the conferences, academic exchanges and refereed journals of the international elite.’ (p 321).

Food for thought, Sir Christopher.


My first books have arrived by courier from the fantastic Massey Library Distance Service! Here’s the list:

Origins of nationality in South Asia: patriotism and ethical government in the making of modern India / C.A. Bayly

Imperial meridian: the British empire and the world, 1780-1830 / C.A. Bayly

The Maori and New Zealand politics: talks from a N.Z.B.C. series with additional essays / edited by J. G. A. Pocock

The spectre of comparisons: nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the world / Benedict Anderson

India and the British empire / edited by Douglas M. Peers and Nandini Gooptu

Political thought and history: essays on theory and method / J.G.A. Pocock

Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism / Benedict Andersonbooks

My PhD has begun…

I’ve set up this blog page to profile my work and to blog/journal my way through my PhD.

I am a PhD candidate in history on a Marsden trust scholarship.

My PhD will reconstruct mentalities and political argument concerning New Zealand’s constitutional evolutions, late 1830s-1860s, in both European and indigenous (Maori) worlds. Methodologically the work will reflect ‘Cambridge School’ and ‘New Imperial History’ priorities. It forms part of a wider Marsden-funded project at Massey University, led by Prof Michael Belgrave, which will explore the extent to which a civil society was created or imagined that  transcended the scattered European settlement and different Maori polities, allowing the wars of the 1860s to be seen as ‘civil wars’.