For a book that is fundamentally about hope, Philippe Sands’s The Last Colony is a depressing read, not just its in its tale of colonial injustice, but also in its recounting of the US and Britain’s refusal to abide by the norms, the “rules-based order”, that they demand of others. “One rule for you, another for us?” as Sands succinctly puts it.
It may come as a surprise, but probably shouldn’t, that the seemingly well-worn concepts of “losing” and “saving face” are relatively modern and their wide usages in English date from the period of 19th-century imperialism. In his new (and refreshingly brief) book On Saving Face: A Brief History of Western Appropriation, Michael Keevak claims the terms’ wide acceptance can be quite precisely traced to a publication of the last decade of the 19th century.
2019 marked the five-hundred year anniversary of the launch of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the world–a milestone marked by commemorative sailings, museum exhibitions, and a joint submission from Spain and Portugal to UNESCO. Two years later, the Philippines marked their own commemoration of Magellan’s voyage: the 500th anniversary of his death at the hands of local leader Lapu-Lapu.
Sometimes the further away in time you get from an event, the clearer it becomes. Time often enables historians to learn more facts and circumstances about, and fosters a more dispassionate view of, historical events like wars. The Vietnamese wars against France in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and against the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, have far too frequently been analyzed through ideological and political lenses, with both sides ignoring or downplaying facts that do not fit within their ideological-political agendas. The greatest merit of Christoper Goscha’s splendid history of the First Indochina War (1945-1954) is his unsparing devotion to letting facts inform his assessments and conclusions.
The story of Alexander the Great has inspired conquerors and would-be conquerors throughout history. Alexander’s sweep through the Middle East and Central Asia left behind evidence of his mark on history—namely, in the several cities that he founded, and that sprung up to govern the kingdoms he left behind.
Opium’s role in the history of East Asia has been well-documented, most notably perhaps in Julia Lovell’s definitive 2011 book The Opium War. This, and others like it, deal with the issue mostly from the perspective of the consuming countries, in particular China; Thomas Manuel’s Opium Inc. is noteworthy in focusing just as much on the producer: India.
In the 11th-century Persian classic Book of Alexander, the great world conqueror goes to the farthest reaches of the world, only to have a wiseman show him what he was looking for, in a mirror—self-awareness. But as Edmund Richardson shows here in his powerful retelling of the life of Charles Masson, we do not live only to know ourselves. We are social animals and we care very much what others think about us. Alexander’s quest led, if not to gnostic knowledge, then to undying fame. Masson’s quest for Alexander’s lost city in the Hindu Kush ended in poverty and obscurity. What did Masson lack that other great explorers and archaeologists had?