On the Spot: Caroline Elkins
We ask 20 questions of leading historians on why their research matters, one book everyone should read and their views on historical drama …
Why are you a historian of the British Empire?
I’m interested in how the past shapes the world in which we’re living. The British Empire’s massive impact over time and space makes it a natural choice.
What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
How rarely leaders understand it, much less draw upon it in useful ways.
Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?
Eric Hobsbawm’s oeuvre. I couldn’t pick just one.
What book in your field should everyone read?
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.
Which moment would you most like to go back to?
Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Susan Pedersen. She ‘adopted’ me when my adviser, Leroy Vail, passed away. Her work and advice (even if I don’t always listen!) have left indelible imprints on me.
Which person in history would you most like to have met?
How many languages do you have?
English, reasonably good French, so-so KiSwahili and basic Kikuyu.
What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
British colonial violence.
What is the most common misconception about your field?
That the British Empire can be approached as a balance sheet exercise.
Which genre of history do you like least?
Anything that recycles old tropes.
What’s the most exciting field in history today?
Any field where the historian takes risks.
Is there an important historical text you have not read?
Where to begin?!
What’s your favourite archive?
Singapore National Archive for its oral history collection and the Rhodes House Library at Oxford when it housed colonial records.
What’s the best museum?
The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
What technology has changed the world the most?
The Maxim Gun.
The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?
Historical drama or documentary?
The Parthenon or Machu Picchu?
What will future generations judge us most harshly for?
Not heeding the warning sirens of environmental destruction.
Caroline Elkins is Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University and author of Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (Bodley Head, 2022).