Can a historian malign a ruling race?

A book I have been reading for fun this summer is Tim Harper Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire. It is a history of the various interconnected radical movements that tried to liberate India, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, etc in the early Twentieth century and how these people met up in Shanghai, Vancouver, Paris, Berlin, Batavia, etc and were tracked and manipulated by the governments of Britain, Japan, the U.S. etc. Here is a sample.

In May 1916 a Rumanian dentist called Max Kindler, who had arrived in Shanghai via Alexandria, Madras and Singapore -where he was wanted for ‘cheating’- came forward to inform on Ettinger. [Ettinger was previously identified as a “Yiddish-speaking Turkish subject under German protection”.] Short of money, Kindler had got caught up in the passport forgery racket. Here he picked up word, from an unnamed Greek, of a plot by Koreans -who were becoming the connecting tissue of many of these underground networks. They planned to raid an ammunition store and blow up the railway between Harbin and Vladivostok in return for German assistance in their struggle against Japan.1

It is a wonderful conglomeration of a book. I say conglomeration in part because it is mostly based on secondary sources but also, as the above quote sort of shows, it does tend to ramble a bit. There are certain themes he comes back to, like the growing state efforts to control free movement, but Harper is not making much effort to shove all this history into a 250 page monograph on Radical Asia. Instead we get a 600 page narrative that tries to follow all these people and groups through their activities, wanderings, love affairs, and prison terms.  Later groups like the Comintern would try to organize and rationalize all this, but one of the points of the story is that these people (rebels, con artists, romantics, students, informers and lost souls, sometimes all at once) don’t fit well into any categories. A tighter book would not have room for discussion of historiography.

This is from the court’s condemnation of Bhai Parmanand in the aftermath of the Lahore Conspiracy Case of 1915. Even the government’s informers agreed that he was not involved in the conspiracy. He had been arrested in 1909, however, in possession of the manuscript of his never-published History of India. This radical document, (researched in the British Library Reading Room), was enough to get him condemned to death. (Later commuted to transportation to the Andaman Islands). I think it is the longest quote in the book.

No doubt a historian enjoys certain privileges. Criticism, exposure and condemnation of what is wicked or unethical; approbation of what is noble and chivalrous; and vindication of the truth are some of the privileges universally conceded to him; but he has no right, under the guise of a historical treatise, to malign, traduce, or calumniate anybody; much less a ruling race, with the object of bringing the subject of his criticism into hatred and contempt, which as a citizen owing allegiance to a Government, he has no rights to assail. He may point out the demerits of a Government, or of a race, or of an individual; but if a historian takes up only the dark side, and studiously avoids all mention or does not even hint of any merit of the subject of his criticism, he is not a historian but a man who abuses his privileges and renders himself accountable to Government and the public.

Now there are times and times. In times of peace a dispassionate condemnation of a people or persons, albeit they be rulers or Kings, cannot be impugned; but to take up old things long buried and forgotten except in books, and to impress upon the subjects of a Government that it is an evil worth ridding themselves of is nothing short of sedition clothed in an ostensible historical treatise. Mutilation and distortions may be forgiven a historian, few are free from this fault; bias may be excused as human fragility; but perversion with a sinister motive cannot be forgiven.2


  1. p.283  

  2. pp 256-257  

3 Comments

    1. The book is not that old, but I wonder if he saw it as a topical thing to include or just an interesting quote.

Leave a Reply to Jonathan Dresner Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.