On the Spot: Priya Satia

‘Struggles matter in and of themselves.’

1969 stamp featuring Mirza Ghalib. India Post, Government of India / Wiki Commons.

Why are you a historian of the British Empire?

It shaped my family’s history and so much of the world, and I felt I could contribute – and correct influential myths – from the United States.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you? 

That struggles matter in and of themselves.

Which history book has had greatest influence on you?

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes

What book in your field should everyone read?

Edward Said, Orientalism.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

No need – they are all here with us. The past is contained within the present.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

My adviser, Thomas Laqueur.

Which person in history would you most like to have met? 

Mirza Ghalib.

How many languages do you have?

English; Hindustani and Punjabi; decent French; marginal German; forgotten Tamil; lost Latin.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

The Silk Letter Plot.

Which genre of history do you like least?

Economic history that ignores context. South Asian intellectual history that relies only on English-language sources. Triumphalist narratives of ‘the West’.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

It’s all exciting: medieval, environmental, anti-colonialism, Indian Ocean.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

So many! 

What’s your favourite archive?

Friends House Library and the Middle East Centre Archive at St Antony’s College, Oxford. Also, poetry.

What’s the best museum?

A museum that has reckoned with its origins in the era of colonialism.

Normans or Anglo-Saxons?

Celts.

Rome or Athens?

Byzantium?

Braudel or Gibbon?

Braudel.

Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo? 

Yes.

What is the most common misconception about your field?

That we can understand British imperialism by weighing pros and cons.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

Ideally, they won’t judge us at all but will seek to understand us and thus themselves, just as we seek to understand ourselves by understanding our past. On the folly of the idea of future judgement, see my new book!

 

Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History and Professor of History at Stanford University. She is the author of Spies in Arabia (Oxford, 2008) and Empire of Guns (Penguin/Duckworth, 2018). Her latest book is Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire (Allen Lane, 2020).