Queen's University

Writing our Collective Past

Amitava Chowdury

Photo: Bernard Clark

If we are living in a global village, how do we tell its history? It’s not a question we’re used to asking. We understand local histories, certainly, national histories, even the histories of larger regions, say, Europe or Latin America. But the entire world? Wouldn’t global history have to be, somehow, the history of everything?

Spend some time talking to Queen’s history professor Amitava Chowdhury, however, and it starts to make sense. What global history means to him is not so much a subject as an approach to history – an understanding that historical processes are not constrained by borders, and have repercussions that spill out of the traditional categories that historians slot them into.

When the intense historian begins to tell you about his background, his interest in global history starts to make sense. (Chowdhury himself prefers to call it world history – for him, the “globe” is a metaphor, but a “world” is personal and historical.) Born in India, he moved to Mauritius to teach at the university there and work as a field archeologist. Two notable archaeological sites he excavated there were later designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The first was Aapravasi Ghat, which served as the immigration depot that the ancestors of today’s Indian population entered the country through. “Half a million came into Mauritius between 1834 and roughly 1917,” says Chowdhury. The other was Le Morne Brabant, a rocky outcrop located on the southwestern tip of Mauritius, where Chowdhury discovered conclusive evidence supporting the local legends that escaped slaves (the so-called maroons) had sheltered high on this almost unclimbable formation, with the summit 556 metres above sea level. While excavating another maroon site on the island, he and his team uncovered evidence that suggested that the dodo, Mauritius’s famed flightless bird, had survived about thirty years longer than previously believed – into the early 18th century.

This is the only instance, to date, where bones of the dodo have been found in a context pointing to human hunting practices. After three years in Mauritius, Chowdhury says, “I found myself getting interested in questions you could not answer in the field.” Specifically, he began to wonder about the historical formation of Indian labour communities, the experiences of Indian labourers elsewhere in the British Empire and their development of an Indian identity. “When these people actually left India, they had no idea of themselves as Indians. Caste, occupation, religion, yes, but nobody would have said, ‘I am Indian.’ How did they become Indian?” asks Chowdhury. “By crossing the ocean.”

Awarded a PhD by Washington State University, he joined the Department of History at Queen’s in 2008. When it comes to global history, says Chowdhury, “People say it’s too vast, too big. How can you know so many languages? Do you really have to know the entire world? But it’s not like that. It doesn’t have to include all corners of the world. You can do local, archivally-based history that can also be global history if it captures a global process or reveals a global story that would have otherwise remained in the dark.” Indeed, Chowdhury’s own work on Indian diasporas is an example – a series of local studies that are, at the same time, global in reach in the way they capture a transnational moment in 19th century history. Global history is also about how historians have long done history. In some ways, for Chowdhury, global history, beyond all the networks, connections, comparisons and transnational ties, is a critique of the discipline of history. “All societies in the past had a way of engaging with their past and writing history.” In the late-18th century, for the first time, says Chowdhury, history “becomes professionalized, and archivally-based.” But, emerging at the same time as the idea of the nation-sate was taking hold in Europe, it also became “a handmaiden of the nation.” “From the 19th century, history has become a discipline that is mostly framed on a national scale.” The historian became, as Chowdhury puts it, “the accomplice” of the nation-state. “Historical work gradually became something tied to a landscape.”

“The bad thing about this is that a vast number of intellectual and historical processes are transnational. You can’t understand them if you limit yourself to a single nationstate,” says Chowdhury. “Take the English industrial revolution. Can you think of it without cotton from the United States or India?” These indispensable goods went into the creation of an event we once thought of as purely local. In the past decade or so, since he first became interested in global history, Chowdhury has seen its concerns and approaches move from the margins of historical research to the mainstream. “Traditional historians are now writing books on, say, the French revolution – in a global perspective.”

“We are always reconstructing the past,” says Chowdhury. “But we are always really trying to understand ourselves by doing it.” And in that sense, since we live in a global world as we have never done before, our questions are increasingly framed in a global perspective. “We may not all be global historians now, but we can no longer ignore it.”

Ian Coutts
(e)Affect Issue 5 Spring 2014