‘History is written by the winners’, why not start with that?
Despite claims we live in some kind of glorious post-colonial world—where nation-states are free and independent, where Empire is a thing of the past—the world we live in and the history we learn is still very much narrated by the Anglosphere. I’ve become increasingly interested in the history of colonisation lately, both as a someone who’s lived my life on still-colonised land, and as a person with half my heritage, and extended family, in Malaysia—in a village they were forced to relocate to in the 1950s as part of a program that created prison-like camps to remove potential support for the armed anti-colonial independence movement, and in a country where the political party that British and Australian troops propped up remains in control nearly sixty years later.
It astounds me that in high school history I learnt the strategic thinking behind the German invasion of Belgium in the Second World War, yet I learnt nothing meaningful about the history of colonisation. From the Ruins of Empire by Indian author Pankaj Mishra is a beautifully detailed book in which each chapter serves as a biography for a different intellectual and anti-colonialist thinker’s life. The intellectuals come from across Asia, from vastly different worlds, but their stories all share a common thread of their commitment to breaking down colonial rule.
Instead of focusing on famous historical figures of this movement Mishra chooses the stories of those thinkers who came before: instead of Ghandi or Nehru he writes about Rabindranath Tagore, a famous Bengali poet and philosopher, instead of Mao he writes about Liang Qichao, an academic and political organiser of the early years of twentieth-century China, he writes the incredible story of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a political organiser and journalist who spent his life traveling throughout the Middle East setting up newspapers (that the governments would close) and agitating for political change. Ironically, and unfortunately, for a book that seeks to address those written out of history there are no women featured in Mishra’s work.
Despite this shortcoming, From the Ruins of Empire is an important work for thinking beyond the usual narratives of world history, encapsulating the philosophical thinking and mindset that fuelled anti-colonial struggles around the world. In the Introduction Mishra talks about the Japanese annihilation of the Russian fleet that had sailed around the entire world to meet it near present-day Korea in May 1905. He discusses the gravity of the event and the way it shook Asia from its lethargy and motivated movements across the colonised world to challenge the Europeans anew.
The examination of Japan’s rise is fascinating, and challenges many of the accepted narratives about Japan and the Second World War. Mishra details the events of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, which created the League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations), and the Japanese delegation who were snubbed, ignored and laughed at when they put forward a simple motion stating Asian people were not inherently inferior to the white race. He argues this was a defining moment for Japanese relations with the West in the lead up to the War.
Mishra goes on to explore a variety of narratives conflicting with more traditional versions of events: that Japan’s invasion of South-East Asia was in many ways a philosophical challenge to Europe’s perceived inherent right to rule Asia; the formation of Pan-Arabism as an anti-colonial movement and the role of religion therein; that the ‘technological marvel’ of the Indian mountain railway was merely a means to steal natural resources at an unprecedented level, in contrast with the idea of the ‘benevolent coloniser’. This enduring narrative about the ‘progress’ brought on by colonisation is also explored and challenged in Mishra’s discussion of the rise of industrial Japan. The history and the struggle for decolonisation from the late nineteenth century highlights the need for a careful analysis of the language we use and the rhetoric of nations being ‘given’ independence.
Mishra is astoundingly level-headed in his work and avoids drawing moral conclusions, instead presenting the chapters as biographies, but the simple fact of this history—this alternative narrative—is of course inherently political. Soon after From the Ruins of Empire I read The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf, which explores the Crusades using only Arab historians as sources and is likewise a fantastic book for reconsidering Eurocentric narratives of history.
As someone who has always taken a keen interest in history and global politics Mishra’s book was an incredible eye-opener for me personally, honestly I’m sick of reading history books by white men on a whitewashed history of the world. Since reading Mishra, and Maalouf, I approach the history section of the bookshop more carefully.
Jarni Blakkarly is the Politics and Arts Editor at Asian-Australian publication Peril Magazine. He is a journalism student at RMIT and has previously interned at Malaysiakini. He has had work published across many publications including Al Jazeera English, The Diplomat, Crikey and Kill Your Darlings. You can follow him on Twitter @jarniblakkarly