Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire by Priya Satia - review by Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani

Boiling with Raj

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire


Allen Lane 363pp £25

It may seem surprising that Priya Satia, with a chair in history at Stanford University, should have chosen to write such an uncompromising polemic directed at her own profession. ‘Time’s monster’ for her is history as it is written by almost all historians, who not only record the past but also shape the future by providing policymakers with a lens through which to view the world, and then salve their consciences with pseudo-ethical justifications. Most of us might agree with her about some instances – she is rightly critical of the ‘great men’ approach to history and its role in brushing dubious episodes under the carpet. However, she takes virtually no prisoners in her sweeping condemnation of almost all Western historiography, from the age of Thucydides and Herodotus, through the Enlightenment and the Victorian era, down to our own postcolonial times. Only a small handful of fellow warriors, such as Shashi Tharoor, Priyamvada Gopal and Afua Hirsch, escape her censure.

A problem at the outset is a failure to define and differentiate history (what actually happened) from historiography (how historians have interpreted it) and historicism (how history has been hijacked to legitimise outcomes). Throughout this book, Satia uses these terms as though they are interchangeable.

Satia’s focus is the relationship between historians and the British Empire. Citing examples as diverse as Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and the writings of Winston Churchill, Satia asserts that ‘Historians were prominent among the architects of British power from the eighteenth century until very recently, as both policymakers and

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