The new field of “global and imperial history” has attracted many to research centres and postgraduate programmes. It bears revitalised views on traditional ideas of empire. In fact, British imperial history has become particularly entangled in this new global phenomenon, with Potter and Saha claiming that unscrambling the two is now almost impossible for historians.
But, is this a good thing? Will this leave imperial history dead in the water; an unwanted, unapproachable field? One can only hope. If we define imperial history through its desire to answer the “big” questions – the economic, political, social, and cultural aspects of empire – then a globalisation movement can help remedy this traditionalist disease. The interconnectivity of micro- and global historical methods can allow historians to trace ‘connected histories of empire’, as Saha and Potter argue. Connected history is a branch of global history which uses transnational history as an influence to demonstrate connectivity between certain areas. This method would bring forth the players in the historical battlefield; the oppressed and their power in driving “big” issues.
My problem with this approach, however, is that we can end up meandering down a never-ending river of theoretical approaches. When does global history become imperial history? When does imperial history become connected history? Where do all of these encompass the necessary postcolonial theory? And most importantly, how do we define all of these things? Historians of the future can end up wasting half of their word counts defining all the methodologies they ended up using, leaving a reader not only baffled, but severely put-off! A puzzle historians need to solve is how to make this mode of imperial history more approachable than the last, allowing it to boom more than it already has.
Potter and Saga, in their article Global History, Imperial History and Connected Histories of Empire do the dirty work for us. They approach this issue by presenting a historiographical survey of connected, imperial histories, analysing the boundaries and language these historians used to conduct their studies. Interestingly, borderlands and oceans became key players, as they not only became places in which to conduct trade, but actually facilitated imperial trade systems. Therefore, we can use these to understand both imperialization and the connectivity of different empires, feeding into this ‘connected history’ phenomenon in two ways: the connectivity of metropole and colony, and of separate empires with colonies close together. These geographical features can act as boundaries and definitions for connected history, providing a starting point for historians who wish to investigate connected, imperial histories, and thus making the field more accessible.
I know, I know, “so what’s the problem this time?” you might ask, and unfortunately, I do have a few. Not issues with the method this time, though (always a plus), but with historians themselves. Potter and Saga again find that global histories tend to be not-so-global, but in fact still focus on the Anglophone world and call it globalised. We must, therefore, find a way to push these historians out of their comfort zones, and make them compare areas encompassing different languages and cultures, not just Anglophonic entities and possessions. Admittedly, this is difficult. The historian may not speak other languages, or may not have the facilities to learn more obscure languages to involve non-European or Anglophonic countries. From a postcolonial viewpoint, it is important to learn about African and Asian colonies on their own terms, using sources written in the vernacular, but this method is severely difficult for European historians.
I hope this blog has shown you that, although using the ‘connected history of empire’ approach is the finish-line, we still have obstacles to leap over and stumble across before we reach the globalised imperial history many scholars desire.