The Wa people of the borderlands of Northeast Burma and Southwest China have a foundational myth that claims that all of humanity emerged from a hole in the ground in Wa country. In this story, all human history is a tale of migration from the Wa lands, the centre of world. As with other stories about global history, this is one simultaneously about fixed places and mobile populations. It is also a story with its own centre and implicit peripheries.
I was recently at a fantastic conference hosted by the University of Bristol titled ‘connected histories of Empire’. One of the objectives of the conference was to encourage historians to present papers exploring the interconnectedness of states, people, objects and ideas within empires, as well as between them. It focused mainly on the European, American and Japanese empires (although, predominantly the British Empire) during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The participants at the conference gave really interesting papers that contributed to a re-imagining of empires. Rather than as clearly bounded, homogenous entities in history, most presenters instead depicted empires as fluid and organized by networks, webs and flows. The older story of an imperial core and a colonized periphery was broken down. This re-imagining of the shape and texture of empire has revealed stories about empire previously overlooked.
Whilst I think much of this is really positive, I do have some misgivings. The focus on mobility and on the places through which people and things moved, inevitably produces certain stories at the expense of others. Although some papers did examine people for whom movement across the world was not a choice but coerced, most focused on privileged groups, and mainly imperial elites. The places focused on were predominantly urban hubs of interconnection that were treated as if they were independent of the wider territories in which they were situated. In short, the core and periphery story has been replaced by stories with many cores and peripheries. Or, perhaps, a there is a new division between the connected and the disconnected. This said, most of the papers dealt with these issues very sensitively and productively, telling stories that revealed the creation of imperial privilege whilst critiquing it.
But where this new model of empire becomes concerning to me is when it is taken at a higher level of abstraction: on the scale of the globe over a time-frame of several centuries. This was a vision of history put forward provocatively in an engaging keynote lecture at the conference, delivered by Professor John Darwin. He argued that global history could be written as the history of succeeding and competing empires that sought to control the movement of people, trade and ideas (with limited success), even while empires made these exchanges possible. In such a big history of empire I fear that there is even less space to tell the stories of places and people disconnected in empires. Their lived experience of colonialism might become even less important for historians to re-tell, in comparison to an analysis of how empires managed and enabled flows through networks of mobile people and goods.
Of course, such a global-imperial history does not stop other historians from writing about the daily lives of colonized populations. In fact, these bigger stories rely on detailed studies of particular places. Nevertheless, such a grand narrative purports to have greater explanatory value. It seems to be able to answer the big questions of how large scale changes in history occurred. As a result other stories are deemed, implicitly, as marginal or local. The stories of peripheral, disconnected groups would be viewed as, at best, supplementary and, at worse, irrelevant. But a big history of empires written across a huge chronological sweep does not necessarily explain more than micro-studies embedded in particular cultures and working in a human scale. In particular, it is difficult to imagine the important work of explaining and breaking down imperial ideologies of race and gender being achieved through this big history. Rather, there is a danger that hierarchies of race and gender in colonial cultures may be re-inscribed or even naturalized.
Who is important and who is peripheral is dependent on the story a historian chooses to tell. Focusing on powerful imperial rulers from the Mongols to the British might end-up further marginalizing the stories of the disconnected. But this is not the only way to narrate history. To the Wa, the Chinese Qing empire, the Burmese Konbaung empire, and the succeeding empire of British India, all of whom repeatedly intervened in their lives, were always peripheral to the Wa country, where all of humanity originated.