From Imperial History to Global Histories of Empire: Writing in and for the 21st Century

by Dr. Erin M.B. O’Halloran (University of Toronto)

There is a tweet making the rounds on the internet, accusing historians of inventing 2020 to sell more History.

Screen grab “2020 was invented to sell more history” tweet, via

While we might protest our innocence, it is certainly true that History with a capital His experiencing a grim moment in the spotlight. A cascade of genuinely global crises have defined the past six months, from the pandemic and ensuing collapse of the real economy, to racial and social justice uprisings on multiple continents (met, in many cases, by violent state repression). Intermittent clashes between Chinese and Indian forces continue, raising the risk of war between nuclear powers; wildfires and other climate-linked natural disasters have ravaged the American West Coast, South America, Australia, and Africa. The August 4 explosion in Beirut, too, served as a violent metaphor for government corruption and a criminal disregard for human lifetoday as bitterly resonant in the Anglo West as the Global South.

Damages after 2020 Beirut explosions 1

Aftermath of the 4th August 2020 Explosion in Beruit Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

More interestingtimes would be difficult, and painful, to imagine.

My doctorate, which I completed last year, was in Global and Imperial History, an interlocking set of subfields which came to prominence in the UK in the final decades of the twentieth century. Since the Global & Imperial paradigm first began to overtake the older Imperial History in the 1970s and 80s, many of the approaches and attitudes which initially characterised the academic study of empireincluding reliance on the colonial archive as a neutral repository of facts; conscious and unconscious authorial identification with imperial actors; a corresponding negligence of colonised peoples, their histories, and their agency; and the presumption of a rational, competent, or even benevolent imperial authorityhave been utterly repudiated by the majority of practitioners in the field.

Yet the urgent need for research on imperial history has in no way diminished;1 if anything, it has increased, in light of renewed populist enthusiasm for a nostalgic vision of empireunderscoring the woefully limited impact that serious scholarship has had on public consciousness, at least in Britain. A corresponding (and connected) surge of authoritarian populism has swept much of the Global South, where nationalist rhetoric may cloak itself in anti-imperialism, ideological purity, or cultural authenticity. The climate is nevertheless hostileand potentially lethalto academic researchers who would complicate state narratives about either the past or the present.

Fresh impetus for a new departure in imperial history has also come from the intersecting catastrophes of 2020. The first global pandemic since the dissolution of the imperial world system has us all reassessing the conditions of interconnectivity, mobility, and the administrative regimes designed to control and regulate them. The anti-racist protests (among the largest in US history) sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black victims of police brutality, are similarly inextricable from the history of empire. Protesters know this; hence the targeting of statues not just of slaveholders and Confederate generals, but of Christopher Columbus and Cecil Rhodes. As this movement for social justice accelerates across the planet, it is converging with calls for climate justice, in many places spearheaded by indigenous peoples, whose own confrontation with the extractive practices of European empire predates the advent of industrial capitalism.

The generation of academics principally responsible for initiating and promoting the Global & Imperial agenda (including mentors to whom I am greatly indebted) are now, for the most part, retired or retiring, just as the twentieth century world they inhabited slips definitively out of view. Every generation, argued E.H. Carr, needs its own historians, whose function it is to master and understand [the past] as the key to understanding the present.2 As we come to terms with the radically transformed societal landscape of 2020, it is worth asking what the project of Global & Imperial History still has to offer us, and what it might look like, going forward.

I will begin by acknowledging that I can, of course, only speak for myself. My intention in writing this is to participate in what I hope will be a sustained dialogue with other practitioners in my field, and especially early career researchers like myself. In reflecting on my discipline, I found it useful to organise my thoughts under several descriptive headings. They are by no means exhaustive; but to me, they indicate what Global & Imperial History already is, to some extent, and what it can and should become in the future. Together, these ideas gesture towards a semantic shift, building on the distance already travelled from Imperialto Global & Imperial, towards a yet more pluralistic and intersectional understanding of our discipline, which I am calling Global Histories of Empire.


If the question is how to write about empire in the 21st century, we should begin with the most obvious answer: by de-centring the metropolitan West, and focusing a far greater share of our attention on the peoples and places which were forever transformed by the arrival of white men with guns. This is essential to the integrity of any project which claims to study empire, let alone the extra-European world; and it requires moving out of the archives (on which more later).

Yet de-centring the West does not and cannot mean the simple erasure of Europe and Europeans from the narrative, nor their reduction to caricatures. The rigorous and nuanced study of colonial and post-colonial societies must be accompanied by an equally sophisticated interrogation of European empires as systems and cultures, reproduced by complex human beings. This includes greater consideration of the profound impact which the colonised world had on European culture, politics, and society. As Robert Jago underlines in a recent article, the transfer of Native American agricultural technologies to Europeans was an essential prerequisite of the industrial revolution. Closer attention to dynamics such as this reveal colonised peripheriesto have been, in reality, dynamic and innovative nexus, which moulded the metropole in their image, as much as they themselves were being shaped. To make this point does not deny the reality of sharp imbalances in power. It merely underscores that unequal power relationships existed in dizzying variety on both sides of the colony-metropole divide; that power remains open to subversion; and that agency has never been contingent on equality.

This progressive integration of imperial and colonial, European and global, systemic and local as mutually constitutive research agendas is what I mean by dialogic. To me, it is the hallmark and irreducible core of the Global Histories of Empire project.


In a tribute to his friend, the late Chris Bayly, Dipesh Chakrabarty described his initial unease with Baylys writing on India, and Baylys corresponding lack of enthusiasm for Subaltern Studies (which Chakrabarty was emotionally as well as ideologically invested in). Yet in later years, both men grew more open to alternative historical perspectives, and ultimately became close colleagues and collaborators. In Chakrabartys words, his friend was the consummate pluralist, sympathetic to many ways of thinking about the past, yet

“disturbed by arguments that seemed too sweeping in their claims. What Bayly strove forwas to keep alive an eternal spirit of curiosity about the worlds history, a spirit that led to newer and newer empirical enquiries.”3

By proposing Global Histories of Empire, I wish to signal a similarly pluralist ethic, driven by new questions and empirical enquiries, and open to multiple theoretical paradigms and analytical perspectivesincluding those originating outside of Europe.

For example, it could be argued that in our present historical moment, the insights of Ibn Khaldun on asabiyyah’ (social cohesion),4 and his depiction of the cyclical rise, decadence, and defeat of powerful nations by disgruntled outsiders, have far more potent explanatory capacity than linear theories of progress, or those which fail to account for the power of human emotions.

Similarly, the Vedic-Buddhist concept of interdependent originationillustrated by the metaphor of Indras infinite net, with a jewel at each knot, and every jewel reflected in the surface of all the othersis a potentially compelling way to conceive of a world where the entwined nature of not only our economies and cultures, but our health, and the health of our planet, is impossible to deny.

To these could undoubtedly be added many other examples. My point is that, in telling transnational and multi-vocal stories about empire in and for twenty-first century audiences, we should consider ourselves free to move beyond the confines of twentieth century European ideologies, and the binary oppositions they have thrown up between, eg. economics vs. culture.


As previously mentioned, there appears to be widespread acceptance that reconstructing a history of empire which de-centres European metropoles requires unlearning our reliance on the archive, and expanding our disciplinary toolkits to encompass as many alternative primary sources as possible: non-European scripts, of course, but also spoken dialects; socio-cultural rituals and popular music; art and architecture; technologies, fashion, and food. As we move towards holistic and multi-vocal histories of empire, then, our work will come increasingly to resemble archaeology, or anthropologytwo other disciplines which have had to grapple with their origins as colonial sciences. Just as archaeologists continue to engage with (and complicate) the canons of ancient literature, historians of empire will continue to make use of the colonial archive; we will simply use it in different, non-hegemonic ways.

As is already the norm in archaeology, and becoming more common in anthropology, the best and most rigorous histories of empire will require a shift in our disciplinary norms and professional attitudes, towards collaborative research which draws on the expertise of multiple authors. Many early career colleaguesparticularly those, like me, with backgrounds in interdisciplinary Area Studiesalready know that collaborative authorship is the future. Without it, we cannot really hope to produce rigorous, multilingual, and interdisciplinary histories spanning multiple regions of the world over significant periods of time. In a sense, I am suggesting that the vitality of our field requires the death of the authorial ego, and our surrender to projects larger than we can hope to accomplish on our own. I realise what I am asking for. But new models are already emerging in adjacent fields: a forthcoming work edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain enlisted 80 historians and ten poets to write a single-volume history of African Americans spanning 400 years.

Despite such hopeful developments, the institutional barriers to multi-authored works (and even co-authorship) are, at present, prohibitive to all but the bravest and most established scholars. A similar, and deeply regrettable, lack of regard is assigned to translations and critical editions of extra-European primary sources, despite their incalculable value to both our field and our classrooms. As we re-imagine post-secondary education, and re-evaluate the logistics of historical research in the post-Covid era, I would add to the agenda the goal of normalising, and valuing, these kinds of scholarly activities. By this I mean institutional recognition of multi-authored publications (and translations, and critical editions) as viable milestones towards career advancement for historians, as is already the case for our colleagues in archaeology, not to mention STEM.

In drawing these ideas together, my hope has been to initiate a conversation with other historians of empire, and particularly those, like me, in the very early stages of their careers. I am curious what might be added to these proposals, and of course what my colleagues will see fit to challenge or amend. Clearly, there is no possibility of replicating the historical circumstances which gave rise to Global & Imperial in the late twentieth century; nor would that even be desirablewe have travelled a fair distance since then. So, as we prepare for online lectures and classes this fall, postponing research trips into an indefinite (and uncertain) future, it is probably time to talk about what we imagine for ourselves and our discipline, in a twenty-first century academy which has yet to be defined.

This piece is part of a series on Political Economy and Culture in Global History, derived from a collective discussion project of the same name, supported by the Past & Present Society (among others). You can read an introduction to the series here.These pieces accompany a virtual special issue of the journal Past & Present, which will be published in October 2020.


1A fuller defence of the project of imperial history in the new century can be found in Potter, Simon J. and Jonathan Saha, ‘Global History, Imperial History and Connected Histories of Empire’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, vol. 16 no. 1 (2015). This can be fruitfully read alongside Drayton, Richard and David Motadel, ‘Discussion: the futures of global history,’ Journal of Global History vol. 13 no. 1 (2018).

2Carr, E.H. What is History? (New York, 1961) p. 14.

3Chakrabarty, Dipesh. ‘Reading (the) late Chris Bayly: a personal tribute’, South Asian History and Culture, vol.7 no.1 (2016), pp 1-6.

4Few works have sought to apply ‘asabiyyah beyond the study of Islamic societies; one exception is Tausch, Arno and Almas Heshmati, ”Asabiyya: Re-Interpreting Value Change in Globalized Societies’, IZA Discussion Papers 4459 (2009).

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