Beat the Heat With These 10 History Reads
It’s August here in the Heart of Texas, and I’m staying indoors as much as possible. I bide my time by doing family stuff* and by reading excellent books. Here are 10 recommendations for you, from me and from your humble servants at RealClearHistory:
10. Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England by Jenny Hale Pulsipher. This is the book that shows how the Indians on the eastern seaboard of the United States competed with colonists for not only land and monopoly power in markets like the fur trade, but for the ear of the British monarchy. It turns out that the British policy of loaning out its legal institutions for use to peoples not under formal British jurisdiction was a great way to build an empire in a cost-effective manner.
9. Into the American Woods: Negotiations on the Pennsylvania Frontier by James Merrell. Another book about the bloody contest for control over the eastern seaboard, Merrell sets his sights on the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania rather than New England. The narrative of this book is frontier history and (mostly) informal diplomacy, but the focus is on individuals plucked from history and placed into context by a talented and passionate historian. This book has won prizes, and all of them are deserved.
8. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. This is the novel that earned Rushdie a fatwa from the Ayatollah of Iran. While all press is good press and Rushdie surely deserves the fame, it is almost a shame that Khomeini’s Shi’ite death warrant is what this story is famous for. The Satanic Verses brings to its reader a world that exists just underneath the surface of geopolitics and global headlines. Rushdie uses fiction to tell real stories about the Orient. In doing so, he humanizes the Middle East and South Asia. The founder of Islam, for example, becomes, in Rushdie’s loquacious prose, a character in a story that everybody can relate to. There are Sikh terrorists, Biblical angels, pre-Islamic polytheists, self-loathing Hindus, and subtly-crafted hosannas directed at the British imperial (and cosmopolitan) realm in this novel. The Satanic Verses is a good reminder that history without fiction is dry, and almost useless.
7. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity by Amartya Sen. An economist by trade, Sen’s book of essays on what it means to be Indian is worth the effort, especially given the country’s growing clout in world affairs today. The obligatory chapter on India and the West is there, and it’s enlightening, but so too are essays on the long relationship between India and China, secularism, and the Indian diaspora. If you want to take a logical-but-breezy trip through South Asia (and who doesn’t, really?), pick this one up.
6. I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography by Jacques Delacroix. I re-read this book every summer, and I will never tire of recommending it. Delacroix, a sociologist trained at Stanford, has produced a book that never gets old. It’s personal, provocative in places, and pithy. As a former Frenchman, there are tales of girls, of course, but also of poverty, of a dying Catholic culture in postwar Europe, and of freedom. What was life like for the second son of a Parisian cop in the second half of the 20th century? The answer is more interesting than you might think.
5. The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages by François-Xavier Fauvelle. Over the past two or three decades much historical research has been done on, and in, Africa. The reasons for this vary, but the results of these endeavors are beginning to come to fruition within the pop-scholarly world. Fauvelle’s book places Africa at the center of the world, rather than its dark periphery, during the 7th through 15th centuries. What the archaeologist finds is that the kingdoms, empires, city-states, and federations which governed Africa during the Middle Ages were sophisticated. Artists and theologians were brought in from Asia and Europe to teach, create, and argue their cases before sometimes skeptical, sometimes enthusiastic African aristocrats. Goods poured in and out of the continent via commercial exchange with India and China as well as Europe and Arabia. African diplomats had the influence, when the balance of power was tilted in their favor, to make or break alliances in Asia or Europe. Books by archaeologists are usually accompanied by photos, and Fauvelle’s masterpiece is no different, so if African history isn’t your thing, at least check this one out for the pictures (and the maps).
4. African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa by Michael Gomez. As mentioned above, African history is getting better. Gomez has written a barnburner of a book. Focusing on West Africa’s connections to North Africa after the Islamic conquests of the latter, Gomez weaves together an explanation for why empires arose in West Africa. The answers might be a bit startling. I’d rather not give the answers away, either, but here is a morsel for your curiosity: social rules and government laws about ethnicity, caste, and race were all around long before Europeans started renting land for trading forts from Africans in the 15th century.
3. The Quills of the Porcupine: Asante Nationalism in an Emergent Ghana by Jean Marie Allman. This is a short (278 pages) book about a political party in Ghana that came into being in 1954, just three years before independence from the British Empire. (Here is where things get interesting.) This political party represented voices from a region in Ghana that was, just 50 years earlier, the epicenter of a powerful slave-trading empire known as the Kingdom of Ashanti. The National Liberation Movement (NLM), as this political party was called, pushed for more decentralization in the Gold Coast Colony and was at odds with the pan-Africanist vision for Ghana that needed a one-party state to fulfil its goals. The NLM lost the battle of ideas and was outlawed when the pan-Africanists took over the reins from the British. We all know what happened under pan-Africanist governments in other parts of Africa during the 1950s and ‘60s, too. Quills of the Porcupine is as much a book about Africa’s future as it is about Ghana’s past.
2. African Kings and Black Slaves: Sovereignty and Dispossession in the Early Modern Atlantic by Herman Bennett. How did the slave trade actually work? How did Africans and Europeans negotiate which people were to be slaves, and which people were to be slave raiders and traders? African Kings and Black Slaves answers these questions in detail, at least as it pertained to the situation in the Iberian Atlantic. I suspect this book will be the cornerstone of slave studies for years to come. (It would, for instance, be useful for historians and archaeologists studying the African slave trade in the Arab-dominated Indian Ocean.) Most importantly, though, this book does much to eviscerate the long-held view that Europeans came, saw, and conquered the African continent in the name of God and glory. Engaging throughout.
1. Persecution & Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama. How did religious liberty arise in the first place? To answer such a big question, Johnson and Koyama look to Europe and leave few, if any, stones unturned. Readers will get no spoilers from me, but here is a short essay  by Koyama introducing the book’s themes.
*”Family stuff” at the Christensen household means checking out museums, zoos, and National Forests, among other things. One exhibit I won’t get to this year is at the Rubin Museum of Art, and it’s called “Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism.” (Ian Johnson has a great review of the exhibit.) One museum I will get to by the end of August is the Menil Collection in Houston.