Publication Date

September 1, 2010

Perspectives Section

From the President

The purview of an AHA president assuredly is not limited to her particular specialized field. But as the first in this role with a major interest in South Asia, I’d like in this column to write about one specific corner of our larger enterprise. Not surprisingly the traces of South Asia are relatively rare in the programs and publications of the AHA’s early decades. The archive of AHA presidential addresses, a treasure trove for our collective intellectual past, not surprisingly deals very little with either South Asia (“the Indian subcontinent”) or any dimension of the history of Muslim populations, my own two scholarly interests.

But there is a wonderful address, delivered in 1906 by Simeon E. Baldwin (a legal scholar and judge who ultimately became governor of Connecticut). His title was “Religion Still the Key to History,” identifying religion as the central psychological force that, as he put it, “moves” peoples and “actuates” their leaders. Baldwin imagined an inverse ratio between acceptance of external authority, whose decline he took as a key characteristic of the modern world, and an inner and more powerful motor to behavior attuned to “invariable laws” (”We may call it Nature, or call it God,” he stated). All of history is driven, he argued, by unregulated desires that always and of necessity must give way to some theory “more noble and more worthy.” Such theory he equated with civilization, and this noble theory, he argued, worked best in guiding human affairs when internalized, when embedded in conscience, not institutions.

It is easy to peg Baldwin as a progress-oriented Protestant of his day, which he was, and, indeed, tempting to distance oneself from any “grand narrative” of the sort he offered. Scholars of particular regions might well raise factual objections, if nothing else, to the way he treats any given area – like South Asia. Baldwin, for example, identified “ceremonial religion,” even if not enforced by the state, as what deterred the inhabitants of British India (and Spanish America) from enterprise in business, sapping energy by time spent in ritual, and distorting education in favor of instruction in symbols and liturgies. He placed “Muhammadans” in an earlier stage of human history when any state action deemed a duty to God was unquestionably obeyed not only by the “religionist” but also, in this case, by every Muhammadan. “Its adherents stand together like the members of a secret order.”1 These stereotypes are disconcerting—though not unfamiliar from public life—in some of the anxieties and generalizations they advance. For all that, the address stands as a virtuoso attempt to advance a vision of universal psychology and human commonality. It is a testimony to capacious learning, to the admirable conviction that an understanding of history matters profoundly in public life, and that no area of the world is undeserving of attention.

South Asia as a distinctive field of historical study in the United States, however, did not begin to establish itself until the 1960s, and, when it did, it was dominated not by explicit theory but by an “area studies” approach as well as by a geographic focus defined, as most history writing and teaching was, primarily by the national boundaries of modern states. In those years, it would primarily be the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) rather than the AHA that won the participation of most South Asia historians. Accommodating South (and Southeast) Asia, necessitated, in fact, a reorientation for the AAS since American interest in Asia, from trade to missionaries to culture, had long focused on China and Japan. Indeed, for many Americans, “Asia” long meant “East Asia,” and when the AAS was founded in 1941, it seemed reasonable to name its organ The Far Eastern Quarterly (a name that gave way to the Journal of Asian Studies in 1956). An “area studies” association was a congenial place to be. It seemed more welcoming than disciplinary associations focused on “the West,” it encouraged interdisciplinary interactions, and, over the decades, increasingly facilitated cross-regional work as well. This was the spirit behind the graduate program in history where I myself began at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the mid-1960s, a program whose chief architect was the late (and a former AHA president) Philip Curtin. The program was called “Comparative Tropical History” and its participants were expected to acquire expertise in geographically defined areas of the global south, building their studies from history grounded in regions rather than from grand theory or approaches like “the expansion of Europe.”

The “areas” were post-World War II categories devised by the U.S. government for the Departments of State and Education or by the United Nations. The demarcations are confusing. “South Asia” is sometimes equated with Southern Asia, a term that more typically embraces South Asia as well as “Southeast Asia.” Many Americans for whom the term Southeast Asia was long a part of national life elide Southeast with South so that my answer to a casual query about what exactly I teach (“the history of South Asia”), might elicit a reply like, “Oh. Have you been to Vietnam?” It often seems clearer for a historian like myself, who works on the British colonial period, to simply describe her field as “India,” since British India encompassed the now separate countries of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. But what other countries belong? Nepal is uncontroversial. What about Sri Lanka? An extended conversation on H-Asia recently debated whether Afghanistan was part of South Asia.

South Asian history is taught at a growing number of colleges and universities, and historical work on South Asia similarly has had a growing audience. In the space of this past half-century, the South Asian–American population has become a substantial and influential group within the larger American population, and the interest of this population, and the presence of “heritage students” in our classrooms, have contributed to the vitality of the field. To an enduring American interest in “Eastern” wisdom have now been joined participation in the grim geopolitics in the northwest as well as awareness of economic vitality (especially in India).

While South Asian history constitutes a recognized field of study, it also has participated in the redrawing of geographic boundaries true of historical scholarship as a whole. One of the most significant changes in the writing of history in recent decades has in fact been this redrawing of boundaries, not only beyond modern national borders, but also beyond the lines of continents and regions forged in the global politics of the two preceding centuries. There are whole new areas of study, like the Atlantic World, and, everywhere, a new recognition that what were long taken as processes within a single nation state or area were in fact embedded in historical developments elsewhere as well. Whatever the administrative answer to the question of where Afghanistan belongs, the substantive answer is “it depends”—any scholar studying Buddhist monks or Silk Road routes or Ghaznavid political and cultural networks or 18th century Afghan regional states or Cold War politics would be drawing different boundaries.

Today—in contrast to the 1960s when my spouse (PhD 1959) recalls that “all the South Asian historians in the country” could gather around a single table for dinner at the annual meeting—members of the AHA who make South Asia their major field now number in the hundreds. But there also are a far larger number who take South Asia into their purview in a wide variety of ways. Numerous studies focused on South Asia, not least those known as “subaltern studies,” have deeply influenced scholarship in other areas, and South Asia and similar areas are studied by historians of “the West” as they recognize the need for more “connected histories.” And beyond these studies of specific areas have been the works of global history that have emerged in the quest for a usable past for a world of economic and migrant flows that have come with liberalization and the end of the Cold War.

One “symbol” of the presence of the South Asia field within the AHA is still to come—South Asia alone remains as a geographic area for which no specific book prize is provided. A campaign to raise an endowment for an annual prize for the best work of historical scholarship published on South Asia was launched last year by a relatively new organization (soon to apply for AHA affiliate status), SAHSA, the Society for Advancing the Study of South Asia. An invitation to contribute to the endowment is elsewhere in this issue.2 The prize is to be named for the late John F. Richards, a historian of early modern South Asia, whose work exemplifies the trends sketched out above. A historian of the Mughal Empire, John Richards did particularly exciting work in seeing patterns and connections beyond national and geographic boundaries. In terms of periodization, he argued forcefully and persuasively for the very term “early modern” instead of the colonial “medieval” that implicitly made India of the 16th to 18th centuries analogous to Europe’s past. Richards moved from his early work on Mughal political strategies to include historical flows of money and commodities across the early modern world, and his work culminated in a magnum opus on world environmental history.3

Janet Abu Lughod wrote, in a memorable phrase, that the Indian subcontinent was “on the way to everywhere” as part of evoking the old world trading networks of the 12th and 13th centuries.4 It’s tempting to take that phrase as a metaphor for the centrality of the field, but even if that is not quite the case, South Asian history has emerged as a substantial subdiscipline on the American intellectual landscape. The number of specialists in the field has substantially increased, and South Asia’s history, as historians from Baldwin to Richards, in their very different ways, have demonstrated, intersects with larger histories of many kinds.

Barbara D. Metcalf (professor emerita, University of California, Davis; and Andrew W. Mellon Emeritus Fellow, University of Michigan) is president of the AHA.


1.The text of Simeon Baldwin’s presidential address can be found online at

2. See the notice on the inside cover page of this issue, and for details about the inception of the prize, see

3. See memorial note by David Gilmartin at

4. The phrase is from the title of Chapter 8 of Janet Abu Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.