Looking for world history books particularly about colonialism/empire
February 23, 2015 9:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for book recommendations for compelling history books, primarily about the advent of colonialism/imperialism and how the colonized in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East responded to it. More details inside and thanks in advance for your help!

So! I'm working on a long research and creative writing project about the history of colonialism. While I've read a TON about it, I've found that it's sometimes hard to find the right book because 1) I'm not an academic and 2) I'm looking for a more global range, while many books are written on a national level. I hope this question is not too long or too weirdly specific!

-- Intellectual/cultural histories of the colonized: What were the colonized people thinking in reaction to their encounter with the West? How did this change their ideas, spur intellectual revolutions, or lead to the creation of new types of artists and writers? What did key colonized activists do? What were the global modernities that popped up in response to Western occupation? I've liked books like Shu Mei Shih and Liu Kang's histories of the May Fourth intellectuals in China, Pankaj Mishra's Ashes of Empire, and Joe Rabasas's Tell Me The Story of How I Conquered You. But I've had a hard time finding the equivalent for other sites.
-- Fun comparative histories: Books that look at several different places and countries at the same time and draw interesting intellectual comparisons. I've liked books like Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, Vijay Prashad's The Darker Nations, van der Veer's The Modern Spirit of Asia, Mike Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts, and the Mishra book. I love how creative/conceptual these books can be and how they end up taking a more alternative, playful relationship to coloniality.
-- Great literary classics of the global south.
-- Popular histories and compelling national histories: Fun straightforward readable popular histories of colonialism like 1491, King Leopold's Ghosts, Carol Elkin's book on Kenya, and Forgotten Armies/Forgotten Wars (about Southeast Asia). I like these because they're often more surprising because you get insane little reported details and characters.
-- Very historically-situated theoretical work. I read a lot of theory, but I'm not looking for that here unless it is very situated. For example, I've LOVED reading Timothy Mitchell's Colonizing Egypt, which is very theoretically sophisticated and also really factually-informed.
-- Areas I'm weaker in: I'm trying to do more reading on Africa generally, indigeneity more generally, South/Latin America and the US, non-British colonization, less "paradigmatic" colonization (e.g., central Asia).

-- Economic or more traditional statist histories. I've read some economic and global histories of colonialism (such as Blaut, Frank, Pomeranz, Rodney, the Marxists, Giovanni Arrighi's Adam Smith in Beijing and Bernard Porter's The Lion's Share, as well as a overviews from Rutgers/Monthly Review). These are really great, but they're not what I'm looking for because they tend to be inherently euro-centric in nature and tend to be a little bit more abstract than I'm looking for right now.
-- Postcolonial theory that is primarily culturalists in nature and lacks historical situatedness. Love this stuff but I'm in the fact-acquisition stage.
-- Post-Edward Said books that focus primarily on how the colonized subject is represented in the Western imaginary. Again, I'm interested in this, but I'm more interested in what the colonized subjects are thinking themselves.
-- I think it's fruitful to think of lower-class ethnic minorities in the context of imperialism, but that's a whole separate question and not what I'm asking for here.

-- Fairly broadly. I'm interested in the last 500 years of the rise of the West--starting with the colonization of the New World and the Atlantic slave trade and continuing to classic 18th-19th imperialism of most of the world to 20th century colonization of Africa and American intervention in South/Latin America.
-- Consequently, I'm not interested in, say, the Roman empire or the Mongolians, though these things are interesting.
-- I don't think colonization needs to require formal direct control, so I'm also interested in, say the British in China and Argentina.
-- Atlantic slave trade -- I need to learn more about this, but there's so much work on this that it's probably another thread.
posted by johnasdf to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Sorry: one more thing. I'm also very interested in anything brilliant about the British in Malaysia, Kenya, Cyrpus, and Aden.
posted by johnasdf at 9:38 AM on February 23, 2015

Well, for slave trade stuff, and Atlantic maritime history in general, Peter Linebaugh's The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic is good, as is Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship. While neither focuses too heavily on groups generally considered "colonized," they both tease out some of the economic and cultural complexities of the trade systems necessary for the colonial endeavour. And Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic, although maybe too theory-y for what you're looking for, is also quite good on diasporic populations under colonialism.
posted by experiencing a significant gravitas shortfall at 9:43 AM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

After Tamerlane isn't about colonialism primarily, but its subject matter regarding the rise of empires covers the rise of colonialism and the challenges faced in the early years specifically regarding the difficulties of establishing viable colonies and how other empires (like the Ottomans) approached their own challenges when it came to increasing and profiting off trade vs. the west and the specific drives for colonialism that increased in response to the industrial revolution
posted by deanc at 10:40 AM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Open Veins of Latin America from Eduardo Galeano might be what you're looking for. It combines journalism, political analysis, and history and is definitely from a local perspective.

Currently, Galeano himself is not very fond of the book but, along with Memory of Fire, it is still one of his most influential books.
posted by florzinha at 11:15 AM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Where The Sea Breaks Its Back - is the about the work of Naturalist Georg Stellar while aboard the ill-fated voyage of the St Peter, commanded by Vitus Bering. This voyage opened the Alaskan wilderness for exploitation by Russia and Europe. Just one example is the description of Sea Otters at that time, a stunning difference to its endangered species status today. This is a highly readable and enjoyable book which contrasts imperialism and science (Bering and Stellar) of 18th century.
posted by Flood at 12:11 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

You haven't mentioned a relatively recent colonisation of the world's oldest culture, but If you are interested in Australia's experience check out anything by Henry Reynolds, especially The Other Side of the Frontier.
posted by Kerasia at 12:46 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

You'll find a unique perspective on the Dutch East-Indies in Max Havelaar; Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. A novel written by Multatuli in 1860. Multatuli was the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker, a senior government official turned whistle blower. He only got noticed when he wrote the brilliant Max Havelaar. A novel that stayed mysteriously contemporary in structure, in style and in its message. One of my absolute favorites. Google Books, WikiSource
posted by ouke at 1:55 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might try Howard Zinn: Masters of War: Latin America and U.S. Agression From the Cuban Revolution Through the Clinton Years.
posted by halhurst at 2:04 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell about the colonization of Hawaii.
posted by PJMoore at 4:58 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been reading Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Joseph Kinsey Howard's Strange Empire, two classic older popular narrative histories about colonialism in mid-to-late 19th century North America. I've also heard good things about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, which was published last year.

Linebaugh & Rediker's Many-Headed Hydra (mentioned above) has been on my reading list for a while.

Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History is perhaps too big-picture for your current needs, but it may be worth a look. It's an anthropologist's global history of the colonial era and a critique of the implicit Eurocentrism of world-systems theorists like Wallerstein.

You mentioned Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities. Are you familiar with his more recent book Under Three Flags? It sounds like it's right up your alley.
posted by twirlip at 3:50 PM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey everyone--these responses are great. Keep them coming!

Some of these I've read parts of, like Under Three Flags, Europe and the People without History, Open Veins of Latin America, and the Black Atlantic--which are all great and that everyone should read. But I haven't heard of all of these. Max Havelaar seems amazing--the Wiki link quotes Toer saying that this was the book that destroyed Dutch colonialism!?

Halhurts -- I've that Masters of War book in my Amazon shopping cart (I think Zinn just wrote the intro)--is it good?

I will definitely try to check out Bury My Heart, Strange Empire, Many-Headed Hydra, Rivers of Blood and the Other Side of the Frontier...
posted by johnasdf at 12:25 PM on February 26, 2015

I can't remember if American Holocaust is the book I read some of, some number of years ago. But if it is I thought it was quite well-researched.
posted by latkes at 12:42 PM on February 26, 2015

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