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  1. Culture
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21 March 2024

We need a new history of the world

Why historians need to provincialise the west.

By Harry Stopes

There is a clip of the Senegalese film director Ousmane Sembène which one sees periodically making the rounds on social media. Taken from Férid Boughedir’s 1983 documentary Caméra d’Afrique, it shows Sembène relaxing on a beach, leaning casually forwards, one forearm resting on a raised knee. “Are your films understood in Europe?” the interviewer asks off camera. “Europe is not my centre,” Sembène responds calmly. “Europe is the outskirts of Africa. Why be a sunflower and turn towards the sun? I myself am the sun.”

The same politicised self-assurance is evoked in the Congolese artist Chéri Samba’s 2011 painting La Vrai Carte du monde, (‘The true map of the world’), a two by three metre canvas which depicts Samba, half-smiling, his head and shoulders framed by a colourful, stylised world map, the southern hemisphere at the top of the canvas. At the bottom is a quotation from the French footballer Lillian Thuram. The image, Samba told an interviewer a few years ago, represents his sense of his relationship as an African to the rest of the globe: “wherever one is in the world, that’s the centre.”

Samba’s painting is one of the first things one encounters in the exhibition ‘Another history of the world,’ which ran until 11 March this year at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations in Marseille (MUCEM). Organised in six thematic sections each of which contain objects spanning across different time periods and world regions, the exhibition represented a critical reappraisal of global history, one of the most important currents to emerge in the discipline in recent years. Instead of a narrative that reproduces the same Eurocentric hierarchies that Sembène and Samba criticise, the exhibition’s curators described themselves as offering a “decentred history of the world”. But what does this mean, and what are its implications for the way we think about the past?

The rise of global history, typically referred to as the ‘global turn,’ dates to the last three decades and was partly a response to the spread and deepening of globalisation around the turn of the 21st century. Historians were traditionally preoccupied with the nation: political historians explained its rise to maturity in the form of the nation-state; social historians mapped the contours of the social body; cultural historians defined and delimited the national culture, and so on. But as old geopolitical blocs disintegrated in the 1990s and the world became increasingly interconnected – and the challenge of climate change compounded this interconnectedness – scholarship which could clarify things at the planetary scale was more and more in demand across the social sciences. This interest found increasing voice in the academy – the Journal of Global History was established in 2006 – as well as in countless works of popular history, such as the celebrated collaboration between the British Museum and the BBC, A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Global historians have been particularly interested in the 19th century, a period which the late Cambridge historian Christopher Bayly dubbed ‘The Birth of the Modern World’ in his 2004 book of the same title. The century, especially its second half, saw profound changes in material life and the organisation of economies, along with transformations in transport and communications which brought the different regions of the world closer together. These changes were mediated in many cases through the violence of European colonialism. New ideologies like racism, nationalism, or socialism, attempted to give an account of relationships among humankind as a whole, while new sciences such as geology and palaeontology were by definition planetary in scope. “The world is shrinking rapidly,” as one local journalist marvelled upon visiting the Manchester Ship Canal docks in 1906.

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The problem with the “birth of the modern world” school of history, as Pierre Singaravélou, a professor at La Sorbonne and Kings College London and one of the curators of the exhibition at MUCEM argues, is that it can become too focused on the phenomena which define the modern world as the global historians see it. In enumerating and explaining these phenomena – capitalism, industrialised economies, the geopolitical dominance of states in western Europe and North America, the status of the individual as the central political actor, to name a few – global historians elide peoples, societies and regions of the world which do not play, or do not appear to play, central roles in their rise. Western Europe and North America, particularly their cities, are the centres of this world history, consigning the rest of the world to the peripheries.

Though in the last decade historians have become alert to such critiques, Singaravélou argues that in public debates, bestseller lists and media commentary, an almost Victorian-style ‘history of civilisations’ remains dominant in the world history genre. “We end up with a very diffusionist theory of empires, of centres of power and great civilizations, that tracks for example the successive ‘golden ages’ of the Netherlands, France, Britain, the USA and presumably eventually China,” he explains. “Not only is, say, Central Africa ignored, but so is a place like Greece outside of the classical period, or China and India in the 17th and 18th centuries – even though they accounted for around half of global GDP at the time.”

For Singaravélou and his co-curators, telling a “decentred” world history meant giving up the ambition to tell a single, cohesive, global grand narrative, and instead to embrace a multiplicity of human experiences and perspectives. For example, the exhibition opened with a room of objects from different cultures which represent time and space: a Hwezâ from Benin, a kind of engraved wooden calendar used to predict the fortunes of the Danhomé royal family; Aztec codices, a form of map-come-historical narrative; a decorated animal skin used by its Sioux wearer to record his military exploits; an early 19th-century French “universal calendar,” designed around a series of concentric rings that allowed the reader to relate Gregorian, Orthodox, Muslim, Persian, and other dating systems to each other. Other rooms are organised around themes such as exploration; encounters with the other; and ways of telling history, whether orally, in writing or through objects. “We want to restore an abundance of forms, an abundance of histories, an abundance of historicities,” Singaravélou explained.

The approach recalls the book he co-edited with Sylvain Venayre in 2017, Histoire du Monde au XIXe Siècle, whose structure, they wrote, was supposed to represent “a mosaic, rather than a table”. It’s an arresting metaphor, but it invites an obvious question: what does the mosaic depict? In other words, does a more diffuse structure sacrifice too much in the way of coherence? If the eurocentrism of the grand narrative world histories arises from the historian’s attempt to offer a cohesive account of how the world we know came about, might a “decentred” history lose its explanatory power? Even those most inclined to criticise European countries’ historic domination of much of the world might want to centre it precisely in order to understand and subject it to critique.

One might respond by observing, as the MUCEM exhibition was keen to demonstrate, that many phenomena that we consider to be characteristic of modernity are not the monopolistic possession of the West. Objects such as Al Idrisi’s world map, a Japanese scroll of images of “peoples of all the nations,” or a map made in the Marshall Islands from wood, seashells and vegetable fibres to guide navigation across vast distances between islands, demonstrate that non-European societies were not frozen in inertia awaiting European contact, nor did they remain inert after that contact, even if the relationships that developed as a consequence were sharply unequal. If world history is to be faithful to this human diversity, it may need to become a little less neat.

In this sense, Singaravélou emphasises, decentring our view of world history is less about showing sensitivity towards history’s dispossessed – though this might be part of it – so much as it is about applying the historical method to develop a fuller picture of human experience, leaving in more of the rough edges that our more familiar narratives smoothed off. Like any history, he elaborates, this is ultimately an “unreachable horizon” – it’s in the nature of history writing that we sometimes summarise, simplify, or elide complexity – but “it is a question of being more honest and fairer, in order to follow as closely as possible the experiences of the women and men of the past.”

It may after all be a matter of perspective. At MUCEM, inspecting a Japanese world map made for schoolchildren in the late 18th century, I found myself listening in to the conversation of an elderly French couple. They discussed the colours, the various rivers, its confusing orientation. They paused. “Où est la France?” the woman asked her companion, her finger hovering over the map. Wherever one is in the world, it seems, that’s the centre.

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