Jun 30, 2022
The eccentric adventures, academic insights and many prejudices of 12 pioneering scholars
When anthropology first became established at English universities, its practitioners kept a fastidious distance from their subjects. The Victorian grandfathers of the discipline, Sir Edward Tyler at Oxford and Sir James Frazer of Cambridge, based their studies on ethnographic materials sent back by missionaries and colonial administrators from faraway lands. To research his massively influential The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, which eventually ran to 12 volumes, Frazer never travelled beyond Italy. The pioneering Harvard psychologist William James once asked him if he’d ever actually met a “native”. “Good God, no!” was Frazer’s reply.
In 1910, when the dashing Polish polymath Bronisław Malinowski joined the brand new anthropology department at the LSE, its reading list contained just four books, two of which had the same title (The Races of Man). In 1913, he wrote his own first monograph, The Family Among the Australian Aborigines, entirely on the basis of library research in London. Continue reading...
Jul 29, 2021
To the Editors: While I very much enjoyed reading Fara Dabhoiwala’s “Imperial Delusions” [NYR, July 1], I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at his description of Gandhi as “only a peasant” (in contrast to an All Souls’ don who purported to teach him history during his visit to Oxford in 1931). Gandhi held a […]
Jun 10, 2021
In the summer of 1932 Eric Williams arrived in England from the British colony of Trinidad. Like most of the island’s population, his family was so poor that he and his eleven siblings had rarely tasted milk. But from his earliest youth his father, a disillusioned postal clerk, obsessively pressured him to achieve academic success. […]
Jan 29, 2021
Wilful amnesia ... two fascinating journeys through Britain’s imperial past and present suggest attitudes must change
In the endless catalogue of British imperial atrocities, the unprovoked invasion of Tibet in 1903 was a minor but fairly typical episode. Tibetans, explained the expedition’s cultural expert, were savages, “more like hideous gnomes than human beings”. Thousands of them were massacred defending their homeland, “knocked over like skittles” by the invaders’ state-of-the-art machine guns. “I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire,” wrote a British lieutenant, “though the General’s order was to make as big a bag as possible.” As big a bag as possible – killing inferior people was a kind of blood sport.
And then the looting started. More than 400 mule-loads of precious manuscripts, jewels, religious treasures and artworks were plundered from Tibetan monasteries to enrich the British Museum and the Bodleian Library. Countless others were stolen by marauding troops. Sitting at home watching the BBC antiques show Flog It one quiet afternoon in the early 21st century, Sathnam Sanghera saw the delighted descendant of one of those soldiers make another killing – £140,000 for selling off the artefacts his grandfather had “come across” in the Himalayas. Continue reading...
Dec 02, 2020
A stimulating guide, edited by Charlotte Lydia Riley, unpacks the arguments that are raging around free speech
Free speech is impossible. Merely to be intelligible, all communication depends on shared rules. Some of those are basic (you can read this because we both know English), but most are contextual (how you interact with your scary new boss is different from the way you address your children). Who can speak, who gets heard, and who makes the rules about what one can say is always about power, as much as about judgments of harm and danger.
Faced with what we can all agree are illegitimate restrictions of speech (murdering cartoonists, say, or suppressing peaceful protest), it’s natural to cry “Censorship!”, and to celebrate “free speech” as a fragile yet vital political norm – especially when the terrain is, say, Hong Kong, Thailand, Belarus or Iran. Yet when it comes to the everyday chaos of our cacophonous culture in the west, it’s much harder to see eye to eye on what kinds of speech rules are necessary, desirable, or legitimate anywhere – on Twitter, in print, or at work. Continue reading...
Nov 04, 2020
A fascinating history, with a memorable cast of characters, of Africans who had a vital presence in European life
Among the private drawings of the great Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer are two moving likenesses of African Europeans – so vivid and timeless you half expect them to look up and come to life. In Nuremberg in 1508, he sketched a young man with a small beard wearing a simple cloak. A decade on, lodging with a Portuguese merchant in Antwerp, he captured the image of a young woman of the household. “Katharina, 20 years old”, Dürer wrote above her portrait, to remind himself of their encounter. Later, designing his own coat of arms, he centred it around the bust of a Moor.
As Olivette Otele shows in her fascinating book, there was nothing very exceptional about any of this. By the 16th century, the black presence in European life and culture took many forms, and there was a long history of Africans living on the continent. Dürer could as easily have met such persons in Italy, Spain, or the Low Countries, as in the heart of Germany. And, in linking his own status explicitly with the image of a black man, he was probably following a heraldic tradition inaugurated by the Hohenstaufen emperors themselves. Continue reading...
Oct 29, 2020
To the Editors: Fara Dabhoiwala in “Speech and Slavery in the West Indies” [NYR, August 20] makes two claims that cannot be correct. As one of the scholars working on the www .slavevoyages.org site, which he kindly references, I would like to suggest that he has not looked at our work very closely. First, each […]
Oct 29, 2020
A scintillating investigation of how the British establishment resisted the abolition of slavery
Britain’s national myth about slavery goes something like this: for most of history, slavery was a normal state of affairs; but in the later 18th century, enlightened Britons such as William Wilberforce led the way in fighting against it. Britain ended the slave trade in 1807, before any other nation, and thereafter campaigned zealously to eradicate it everywhere else.
As Michael Taylor points out in his scintillating new book, this is a farrago of nonsense. Slavery was certainly an ancient practice, but for 200 years the British developed it on an unprecedented scale. Throughout the 18th century, they were the world’s foremost slavers, and the plantation system they helped create devoured the lives of millions of African men, women and children. In the name of profit and racial superiority, English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish enslavers inflicted a holocaust of suffering on their human chattels, practising rape, torture, mutilation, and manslaughter. Continue reading...
Jul 30, 2020
Slavery was foundational to Britain’s prosperity and rise to global power. Throughout the eighteenth century the empire’s epicenter lay not in North America, Africa, or India but in a handful of small sugar-producing Caribbean islands. The two most important—tiny Barbados and its larger, distant neighbor Jamaica—were among the most profitable places on earth.
Apr 22, 2020
Shermer is a particular kind of “scientific” truthteller, who aims to cut through the bullshit. How useful are these short reflections?
Pick up a book, any book. Is it dedicated to “my friends Christopher Hitchens and Steven Pinker, peerless champions of liberty”? Does it have cover puffs by Jordan Peterson and Pinker? Do the chapter headings refer to many alpha men and “controversial intellectuals” (Richard Dawkins, David Hume, David Irving, Hitchens, and Peterson again) but not a single female?
Is the text peppered with fond reminiscences of boozing with Hitch et al on the global conference circuit? By now you will be getting a strong whiff of a distinctive, testosterone-filled musk. Yes, you’ve wandered into the habitat of that fearless, self-assured celebrity creature: the ageing, raging, white, male, “scientific” truthteller. He’s here to cut through the bullshit for you, whether you like it or not. Continue reading...