Books – recent titles reviewed

How China sees its own history

The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914
Robert Bickers, Penguin, London, 2012, 512pp, ISBN 9780141015859

Robert Bickers has written a fascinating account of a time that saw China on the brink of destruction, with Western countries poised to take their share of her territories and lucrative resources.

During the early 19th century, China remained relatively untouched by the West. Doing business with foreigners was forbidden by the Qing Empire, except in a small part of Canton, but European nations, especially Britain, were desperate to trade. Driven by the domestic demand for tea and in need of something desirable to offer in trade, British ships were smuggling opium into China with devastating effect. The Qing Empire, weakened by drug addiction and rebellions, became vulnerable to foreign pressure. It is against this backdrop, just before the First Opium War (1839-42), that Robert Bickers begins his history.

Defeat and the subsequent establishment of treaty ports marked the beginning of an era later referred to by Chinese historians as the ‘century of humiliation’, when China became effectively semi-colonised by foreign powers. Britain sought to justify its often-violent actions “using the language of Social Darwinism”, as Bickers illustrates graphically in his description of a speech given by the then British prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury. Proffering his belief in the inevitability of the world’s most powerful countries overcoming the weak and failing ones, Salisbury foresaw a time in which the British would have their share of China. It is clear to see, as the author says, that to some China was “not a nation but a ‘geographical expression'”.

The human narratives, sympathetically told, which run throughout give a very personal perspective to the history. The book is full of interesting accounts such as that of Briton Robert Hart, inspector general of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, who saw his grand vision of a coastline alight with lighthouses made real. And Sun Yat Sen, a Chinese revolutionary, whose kidnap and subsequent dramatic release while living in exile in London sparked a media furore in Britain – Sun was later instrumental in the fall of the Qing Empire.

The Scramble for China provides a vital insight into a history that is well known in China but seldom taught elsewhere. The actions of Europeans, especially the British, and the impact of what the author calls “their capricious global experiments with violence and power” can still be felt in China today. “A powerful global China is unprecedented,” says Professor Bickers. Now more than ever, he concludes, it is important to understand how China sees its own history and key events in the not-so-distant past.

Hannah Cochrane, freelance writer and researcher

The Empire strikes back

Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt
Richard Gott, Verso, London, 2011, 576pp, ISBN 9781844678921

The dear dead British Empire is back on the agenda. There has been a veritable avalanche of books and radio and TV programmes, which have mostly taken a nostalgic, rose-tinted look at the legacy of this adventure led by the British ruling class between the 17th and 19th centuries. It has been interesting to note the selective editing of the facts in these media reports – with their focus on the doughty empire builders who, aside from their military discipline and attention to governance, took their good manners, Christianity and cleanliness to the far ends of the earth.

The Empire phenomenon has been triggered by the fervour surrounding the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the tours to some Commonwealth countries by various members of her family. But all this nostalgia around the glorious battles on land and sea entirely ignores the essential three Rs – resistance, repression and revolt. People not only fought to repel the British, but then to free themselves from conquerors who had brought slavery, repression and an all-pervading racism.

A healthy antidote to the rose-tinted tales is Richard Gott’s research into the untold stories of the Empire in its formative years. He takes in the early challenges to imperial land-grabbing – from Native Americans, Caribbean slaves, Indian princes and Irish peasants – in the 18th century, and goes on into a breathtaking litany of conquest and settlement as the British marched into other people’s lands, waging brutal wars and taking over huge swathes of the globe. In the hidden history of the Empire, the British fought almost everywhere and everyone. And whether they were in Burma and Assam or Indonesia and South Africa, people fought back as best they could. Some, like the Australian Aborigines, were almost exterminated.

Gott’s book ends in 1858, at a time when slave revolts were still occurring in the Caribbean and there had been an upsurge of resistance throughout India. The history of the British in India has always dwelled on the wickedness of the maharaja, who were responsible for the Black Hole of Calcutta, and on the Great Mutiny of 1857. But Gott reminds us that Indians were simply trying to protect their religion, their land and their culture. One has to ask the question – what right had the English to march in, kill and subjugate people?

Feeding on glory and profit, the Empire was fuelled by an overweening sense of superiority, which in turn fuelled a deadly racism that still distorts our modern world. Britain’s Empire is a fitting memorial to the millions of people who died resisting the advance of the “greatest empire the modern world has ever known”.

Patsy Robertson, expert on Commonwealth affairs

Understanding Islam’s debates and fatwas

Critical Muslim 1: The Arabs Are Alive
Editors: Ziauddin Sardar and Robin Yassin Kassab, Hurst/Muslim Institute, London, 2012, 264pp, ISBN 9781849041904

This new journal describes itself as “a quarterly magazine of ideas and issues, presenting Muslim perspectives on the great debates of our times”. To judge from the first issue, which is largely devoted to the Arab Spring, it promises to be lively, informative and unafraid of controversy.

The inaugural issue, as its title, The Arabs Are Alive, suggests celebrates the drama and excitement of those extraordinary events last year, when the dictators of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were overthrown in popular revolutions. The two editors and Anne Alexander (one of the volume’s non-Muslim contributors) provide vivid insights into the nature of popular protest in Egypt – what Alexander calls the “intoxicating, beautiful collective madness of Tahrir [Square]”. Perhaps their tone would be a tad more subdued if they were writing today, but they provide hints nevertheless of the challenges that lie ahead in all the countries affected by the Arab Spring.

Shadia Safwan, a Syrian blogger, critiques the behaviour and the narrative of the Damascus regime, while grimly acknowledging that the country “still does not have an opposition worthy of the name”. Ashur Shamis gives a candid account of his own difficult odyssey as a Libyan oppositionist who was, until recently, a voice crying in the wilderness.

How are we to make sense of the Arab Spring overall, and in particular of the role being played by Islamist groups? Here, Abdelwahab El-Affendi’s contribution is both valuable and stimulating. He argues that this is not, as some have suggested, a ‘post-Islamist’ moment in the Middle East but a ‘trans-Islamic’ one.

The popular movements in Egypt and elsewhere are not so much rejecting Islamism as transcending it, says El-Affendi. Political Islam is now an ingredient – albeit an important one – in a much broader picture and Islamists need to be nimble enough to adapt to the new reality. In Tahrir Square, he writes provocatively, “Islam was everywhere and nowhere. It was no longer an issue.”

Beyond the realms of political debate, Critical Muslim makes room for art, poetry and book reviews. And the editors have some fun (while also making a serious point) with a list of their favourite ‘Top Ten Towering Fatwas’ – the work of “Muftis and Mullahs, online clerics and television preachers, bearded bovines and senseless sheikhs”.

Roger Hardy, Visiting Fellow at LSE, and author of The Muslim Revolt: A Journey Through Political Islam (2010)

Treasure trove for Africaphiles

Dictionary of African Biography
Editors: Emmanuel K. Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, six volumes, ISBN 9780195382075

Reading about Akhenaten and Cleopatra side by side with the likes of musicians such as Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango and Miriam Makeba has to be a mind-expanding experience any day of the week. None of these individuals may now be idolised the way they once were, but their life stories are well worth recounting as a way of getting to know them and the times they lived in.

In a more businesslike mode, you may just want to familiarise yourself with the continent’s political giants, such as Nkrumah, Nyerere, Kaunda, Obasanjo and Senghor, and remind yourself of what it was they stood for.

Of course, this kind of random name-checking is perfectly easy with Wikipedia, but the results are unlikely to be to the assured standard of scholarship and editorial judgement that have been deployed here. Better still, this brand-new ‘DAB’ will also be online; the editors promise that the 2,126 entries in the printed volumes will rise to 10,000 over the coming years.

The scholars behind this ambitious project have succeeded in creating something that is both impressively comprehensive and highly readable. Akyeampong and Gates set rigorous criteria while ensuring they did not exclude important Africans living abroad, or even a handful of foreigners who made an impact on Africa’s history. They also succeeded in including numerous women.

The historical reach is astonishing. The earliest-born entry is that of African Eve, who would have lived 200,000 years ago. Next comes a man named Narmer, generally thought to be the first of Egypt’s pharaohs.

Most impressively, hundreds of leading political figures since the 1950s are included while no country is ignored, making it possible to build a picture of critical moments in each country’s political development, whether it be Burkina Faso or Burundi, Mauritania or Mauritius. Equally helpful is the inclusion of important opinion formers and intellectuals, such as the great Cheikh Anta Diop and Claude Ake, as well as Michel Kayoya, a Burundian writer and originator of the term Ubuntu – a notion of togetherness and compassion later popularised by Nelson Mandela.

Not all the entries will satisfy those with close knowledge of the subjects, and some judgements are clearly slanted or else distorted by an absence of reliable contemporary accounts, but for the most part an effort is made to provide a good description of how they interacted with the world in which they moved.

Overall, the editors’ ambition to create something with “a transformative impact on teaching and research in African studies” has been amply fulfilled. Africaphiles will find this resource to be sometimes compelling – but always illuminating – reading.

Richard Synge, Consultant Editor, Global


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