Publication Date

January 31, 2011

Post Type

American Historical Review

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The February issue of the American Historical Review opens with the 2011 AHA Presidential Address. Four articles range in subject from barbarians ancient and modern, to the first historian of human rights, to the Baghdadi Jewish diaspora, to the imperial policies of the Soviet state. The issue also contains three featured reviews and our usual extensive book review section.

AHA Presidential Address
What was the story that Lepel Griffin missed? The flamboyant British colonial official of India was blind to both the nuances of Islamic power and their adaptable gender conventions. In “Islam and Power in Colonial India: The Making and Unmaking of a Muslim Princess,” AHA President Barbara Metcalf explores the late-19th-century history of a female ruler of Bhopal, Shah Jahan Begum, and her intellectual male consort, Siddiq Hasan Khan. The address seeks to tell some of the story that Griffin missed in order to place Islamic symbols and institutions into India’s political history and the history of colonial-era social reform. Metcalf reveals Shah Jahan as an author of numerous published works, including a reform-minded guide for women, and the sponsor of a wide array of building, urban planning, and educational projects. Siddiq Hasan, meanwhile, was the leader of an emerging Islamic sectarian movement with extensive India-wide and international ties. The case of Shah Jahan highlights the nuances and novelties of “Islamization” as well as the reformist possibilities for female rulers and their subjects. Outsiders, Metcalf suggests, often misinterpret overt Islamic behavior.

In “Barbarians Ancient and Modern,” Norman Etherington, a past president of the Australian Historical Association, explores two strangely parallel debates. Historians have discussed precolonial wars and migrations in Southern Africa and the barbarian invasions and movements of the later Roman Empire in peculiarly similar terms. Yet in each case the participants involved in the one controversy have not been aware of the other. By following the general course of these debates, Etherington shows that the flawed methodologies and assumptions that generated 19th-century knowledge about precolonial societies of Southern Africa have their origins in Western classical scholarship. Arguably, lessons learned in the debate on the so-called mfecane in Southern Africa may clarify discussions of barbarian identities and impacts in late antiquity. They may also illuminate similar research in more recent nationalisms and ethnicities grounded on supposed connections to long-past migrations, vanished peoples, or defunct polities. The parallel course of the debates we have inherited is rooted in—and exposes—the intellectual development of postwar Europe, contemporary ethnic nationalisms, and larger trends in historiography.

Samuel Moyn exhumes “The First Historian of Human Rights.” The first attempt by a professional historian to place the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 in a historical lineage was offered by a German conservative, Gerhard Ritter, in that same year. No American historian thought of doing so until 50 years later. Ritter’s 1948 essay resituates the whole idea of human rights in that decade. Recent work tends to tell a teleological and triumphalist credentialing narrative. Ritter’s agenda is alien to this easy characterization and points to the conservative and religious sources of human rights in the 1940s. The German’s essay makes the risk of constructing “usable pasts” unusually vivid, and offers a more realistic vision of the ambiguous interaction of norms and powers in history. With Barack Obama having revived Ritter’s “Christian realism” as his own foreign policy philosophy, the first history of human rights remains surprisingly relevant today.

The early 20th century saw an extraordinary battle over the fortunes of one Silas Aaron Hardoon. The deceased was a long-time Shanghai resident, Baghdadi émigré, one-time Ottoman subject, British Protected Person, and out-married Jew, as well as purportedly the richest foreigner in China. In "Protected Persons? The Baghdadi Jewish Diaspora, the British State, and the Persistence of Empire,” Sarah Abrevaya Stein uses Hardoon’s case to explore issues that reverberated through the early-20th-century Baghdadi, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern Jewish diasporas. As the Ottoman Empire gave way to nation-states and mandates, how was the population of Jews in colonial and semicolonial settings—émigré merchants and their families residing in entrepôts in India, Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean Basin—to be legally defined by the state? What allegiances were at stake when extraterritorial status came into conflict with evolving national and international norms? The testamentary battle over Hardoon’s fortune points to the intersection of various environments of modern colonial encounter, from Ottoman, Iraqi, and Indian to British and Chinese, to illustrate how Middle Eastern Jews negotiated the transition from imperial to national and informal colonial regimes.

"The Soviet State as Imperial Scavenger: ‘Catch Up and Surpass’ in the Transnational Socialist Bloc, 1950–1960” explores how the technical and managerial elite of the 1950s Soviet state surveyed the socialist bloc for forms of expertise, technology, and industrial organization that might be useful to the Soviet economy. As Austin Jersild analyzes, the goals of Soviet “imperial scavenging” were remarkably consistent, but with diverse consequences for the vast contiguous bloc that stretched from Central Europe to China. Central Europe and its more advanced economy proved to be of greater importance to the Soviets than China, and Central Europeans were themselves eager to remind the Soviets of their value. Thus the path to competition with the United States in the era of “catch up and surpass” led through Prague rather than Beijing. Greater attention to the transnational character of exchange and collaboration in Moscow’s socialist world, Jersild suggests, can offer new insight into Sino-Soviet relations as well as the history of the Cold War.

The April issue will include a forum on the history of the five senses as well as an article on narcotics trafficking in the Middle East and territorialization.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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