The Science of Empire

by N. Gabriel Martin

1870 Index of Great Trigonometrical Survey of India

Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most prominent and influential abolitionists in the US prior to and during the Civil War. He campaigned against the “Compromise of 1850” in which the new state of California, annexed in the Mexican-American war, was agreed to be made a state without slavery in exchange for tougher laws against aiding fugitive slaves in the non-slavery states. In his argument against the Compromise of 1850, “Shall we compromise,” Beecher argued, according to his biographer Debby Applegate: “No lasting compromise was possible between Liberty and Slavery, Henry argued, for democracy and aristocracy entailed such entirely different social and economic conditions that ‘One or the other must die.’”[1]

In her Voice From the South, African-American author Anna Julia Cooper writes about hearing Beecher say “Were Africa and the Africans to sink to-morrow, how much poorer would the world be? A little less gold and ivory, a little less coffee, a considerable ripple, perhaps, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans would come together—that is all; not a poem, not an invention, not a piece of art would be missed from the world.”[2]

Opposed to the enslavement of Africans on the one hand, utterly dismissive of their value on the other, for Beecher the problem of slavery would be just as well resolved if Thanos snapped his fingers and disappeared all Africans, as it would if slavery were abolished. Perhaps better. Beecher’s position isn’t atypical of human rights advocates, even today (although the way he puts it would certainly be impolitic today). When charities from Oxfam to Save The Children feature starving African children in their ads, the message isn’t that the impoverishment of those children inhibits their potential as the inheritors of a rich cultural endowment that goes back to the birth of civilisation, mathematics, and monotheism in Ancient Egypt. The message these humanitarian ads send is that the children are suffering and that you have the power to save them. As Didier Fassin writes: “Humanitarian reason pays more attention to the biological life of the destitute and unfortunate, the life in the name of which they are given aid, than to their biographical life, the life through which they could, independently, give a meaning to their own existence.”[3] Read more »

Searching for Exoplanets with Christopher Columbus

by Leanne Ogasawara

Imagine finding out that intelligent life had been discovered in our galaxy. To learn that across the endless ocean of intergalactic space there exists a planet filled with new forms of life –and riches unimagined: this was how it must have felt for the people of the Renaissance, when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. After all, there was a reason why the people of the time called it the New World, instead of just the new continent. For this was a revelation; not just of new land, but of sought-after minerals, like gold and silver. It was a new world of tastes. From potatoes to tomatoes and chocolate to corn, the dinner tables of Europe would be transformed in the wake of Columbus’ trip. There were animals never seen in Europe, like the turkey and bison. And there were wondrous new plants and flowers. There was even a new shade of red. Made from the female cochineal insect, this new dye became– after gold– the second largest import from the New World.

Perhaps most astonishing were the people. At a time when Europe was itself organizing into nation-states, often under all-powerful monarchs, Columbus found in the Americas, what seemed to his eyes, to be free and egalitarian societies. Not only did the people not use money, but even more remarkable was their lack of private property. Private property was, after all, the bedrock of the new banking system back home.

And theologically, how were the Europeans to explain a population of people who could not be descended from Noah’s three sons; of human beings ignorant of the New Testament for over a thousand years? Read more »

Burmese Days

by Maniza Naqvi

“… How does our affair progress? I hope that, as dear Mr. Macgregor would say—U Po Kyin broke into English—eet ees making perceptible progress?”

Burmese-Days-3Burmese Days by George Orwell remains relentlessly relevant and a touchstone for cynics eight decades after it was written. The novel opens with U Po Kyin at age 56 thinking of his achievements with satisfaction—and plotting intrigue to further his interests. He thinks back to his first memory of the British troops with their weapons entering victoriously into Mandalay in 1885. “To fight on the side of the British, to become a parasite upon them, had been his ruling ambition even as a child. He does this by playing one side against the other, planting intrigues and solving them, always putting himself in the position of the problem solver, the loyalist to all—taking bribes and ruthlessly controlling everyone.” U Po Kyin's memory of British troops marching into town is set in the moment in which the oil company Burmah Oil is born in 1886 and when Burma became a province of Imperial India. (here, and here and here.)

George Orwell was in Burma in the Indian Imperial Police from 1922-1927 Eric Arthur Blair or George Orwell was born in India, on June 3, 1903 in Motihari Bihar (here). Orwell’s novel follows the trajectories of the ambitions and the psyches of Imperial administrators, their military officers, wives, concubines, their merchants and those who served them. The title of “U” has been bestowed on U Po Kyin for his services enroute his own trajectory from a lowly clerk to a minor official to a Sub divisional magistrate, through planting seditious activities and creating rebellions and quelling them himself so that he can demonstrate his loyalties to the Imperial masters by jailing adversaries while havig his fingers in every pot in his subdivision for personal gain and pleasure.

His good works of building Pagodas will ensure his next life. But in this life his most ardent desire is to be a member of the British Club:

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