Kwasi Kwarteng is a Conservative MP, and a Brexiter at that. This may or may not be relevant, but I thought it was worth setting out there first thing. In this history of the British Empire he picks six regions that came under British rule at some point (Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Nigeria, Sudan, Hong Kong) and gives a sort of brief history and analysis of them during and after British control. He doesn’t set out with an idealistic opposition to empire (although I suspect he might be happy to if pushed), instead he strikes at a different argument. In a purely functional sense the Empire was chaotic, anarchic and badly managed – disinterest and a focus on individuals allowed for a massively (and constantly changing) diversity of policy.
Kwarteng’s writing is sometimes repetitive, and often uneven. In Nigeria, for instance, I came away with a desire to read post-colonial literature but no idea why the British were actually there. However, he does use each region to show troublesome aspects of the empire – the strict hierarchy of Hong Kong; the division sowed in Sudan; the priority given to particular cultures in Nigeria; the arbitrary decisions made in Kashmir; and the pointless adventurism of Burma. There may be bigger and better arguments against imperialism, but Kwarteng still convinces with the argument that even on its own terms, the empire was problematic. As a final footnote, as a Tory MP it does feel like he occasionally pulls punches – some relatively mild criticism of Chris Patten seems to back off, and he feels possibly a little too pragmatic on the topic of class.
Last month there were two big podcasts for me to listen to: a new episode of Hardcore History from Dan Carlin, and When Diplomacy Fails’ Korean War podcast. The two together almost simultaneously introduce me to a major historical figure that I had somehow escaped hearing about before – the Chiang Kai-shek of the title.
Dan Carlin takes on the extreme nationalism and militarism of the Japanese empire in the half century or so before the Second World War. It’s an interesting topic – and as ever Carlin, it’s possible to see relevance to modern political situations as the Japanese government is forced down a harder and harder line by the threats (and occasionally assassinations) of the hardcore minority. The episode ends with Japan in China in the early stages of what would become World War Two – and hence my introduction to the struggles of the Chinese warlords.
Zack Twamley of WDF is slowly working his way through the Korean War (at the point I’ve got to, we’re only in the first few days of the war after twenty episodes of setup). The focus is, as ever, diplomatic. There’s also an extra set of provocative theses here: that Stalin engineered the war to pull Mao’s China away from the West; that elements within the US ignored the warning signs in order to justify military spending and strategy. As presented these seem reasonable, the former even more so than the latter, but there’s a lot of diplomatic meetings and messages. Setting these ideas up required a lot of background, particularly in China, much of which was new to me.
I don’t tend to read twentieth century history, and especially not that of World War Two, but both of these were very interesting – taking me to places that I don’t tend to go. I look forward to reaching the conclusion of both, but I understand that will take a while for these two podcasters (for different reasons).
First off, I enjoyed Frank McLynn’s biography of Marcus Aurelius when I read it a few years ago. He occasionally felt a bit bias towards his own opinions, and there was quite a lot of tangential material; but it was a full and detailed biography of the man. This 2015 profile of Genghis Khan keeps the details but drops some of the more out there tangents.
We go right from Genghis/Temujin’s birth on the steppes of Mongolian, beyond his death, to the division of his empire into four on the death of his grandson Kublai Khan. McLynn feels authoritative and familiar with the material; in all aspects – military, social, political. The Mongols and Genghis can be a complex topic. There is a contrast between the nomadic warriors and the ease they settle into the use of Chinese style bureaucracy; between the paranoid cruelty of Genghis (even early on) and his religious tolerance. McLynn does catch this, but often he is telling rather than showing.
At times though, I got lost in the sheer scale and speed of Mongol expansion, along with the horrifying death toll. A more focused approach may have presented these with a bit more skill, rather than the epic one volume history given here. McLynn doesn’t get bogged down in too much ethical judgement of the conquest, but as a reader it is hard not to have to pause at points.
Ultimately, I don’t have the reference points for Genghis and the history of the East that I do for Marcus Aurelius and Rome. This was quite a dry read throughout much of the book, and I found myself having to struggle against the temptation to skim read. By the time the Mongols were pushing into Europe I was a little more comfortable, but it isn’t as easy introduction to the Mongols.