George F Kennan believed that in examining the history of the 20th century, all the lines of inquiry led back to the First World War. Westerners tend to view the First World War through the narrow but compelling lens of the Western Front, but the war was truly global, in part because Britain, France, and other European powers had colonies and allies throughout much of the world. India then was the jewel in the British imperial crown, but as Umej Bhatia shows in his meticulous new book Our Name is Mutiny, the jewel was coming loose due to Indian nationalism and global jihadism, and for a brief moment the Indian revolutionary ferment exploded in Singapore.
Indology—a field of study about India’s history and culture associated with 19th-century British and German figures—had an interesting German-Dutch predecessor, Jacob Haafner (1754-1809). The man reached India as the servant of the VOC (or the Dutch East India Company) after having lived in South Africa and Java for a while. His travel-writing about India, vituperative views on colonialism and writings on missionary activity in India and the East in general made him unpopular among the Dutch elite whose help he desperately needed to be employed as a bureaucrat or to sponsor his writing.
The Code of Civilization might at first seem to be another in the line of books which includes Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and Samuel P Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations that attempt an overarching view of world history with an aim to model the present and predict the future. This time, however, the author—Vyacheslav Nikonov—is Russian.
Among the most colorful and characteristic participants in the caravan trade between India and Central Asia were the Afghan horse dealers, pictured here in the Fraser Album at the V&A. They brought horses from Bukhara across the Hindu Kush to livestock fairs in the Punjab. Their caravans carried Indian cloths for the return trip. Jagjeet Lally’s India and the Silk Roads describes the sophistication and persistence of this trade, which has frequently been underestimated by both historians of India and of the early modern commerce.
Most book milestones are measured in time—six months to deadline!—or word count. For Nicholas Kitto, author of Trading Places: A Photographic Journey through China’s Former Treaty Ports, the pertinent metric was step count: in the process of searching out the subjects for his photographs, Kitto walked 2,784,010 steps in the course of fifty-one different journeys from his home in Hong Kong—which must have amounted well over a thousand miles on foot.
The “diva” is a common trope when we talk about culture. We normally think of the diva as a Western construction: the opera singer, the Broadway actress, the movie star. A woman of outstanding talent, whose personality and ability are both larger-than-life.
Biographies have much to offer as a way into the past. Lives are messy, and avoid neat conclusions about history—frustrating things, they refuse to fit a preconception. Human lives have a complexity that can keep history-writing honest. To navigate subjectivities keeps us alive to the truth that the work of history, too, is subjective.