Armas No. 2 — The southern question.
Latin America reemerges into history.
Alexander Mikaberidze’s outstanding 2020 “The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History,” which is well worth your time, contains a single passage on the strategic trajectory of Latin America that (figuratively) stopped me in my tracks. It reads:
“[T]he crisis and collapse of Spain’s empire in the Americas were direct results of the political turmoil in Europe. If the Eastern Question revolved around the key question of the fate of the Ottoman Empire, there was a corresponding ‘Western Question,’ one that centered on Spain and its imperial domains. During the Napoleonic Wars, this vast empire got fragmented and was henceforth relegated to the sidelines of world politics.”
That final line, asserting that the independence of the Spanish and Portuguese dominions in the Americas had the effect of removing the successor states from the mainstream of global history, struck me as so obvious and so true that it was nearly background noise — readily apparent but also never mentioned. It also had the effect of crystallizing much prior thought on my part, on the long-term consequences of what gets called decolonization in places like Algeria, south Asia, and so on. Reading the work of Ramachandra Guha on the life of Gandhi (also outstanding and worth your time, even if you have no interest in the subject himself), or the direct arguments advanced by Nirad Chaudhuri, there is a sense that — whatever the justice of it — the cutoff from the metropole carries with it tremendous costs in societal isolation from the great conversation in the wider world. Gandhi himself would have been impossible as a historical figure had he remained in Gujarat: it was his integration into the British imperial system, that took him to England and South Africa for decades before returning home, that made him. Chaudhuri’s own memoir begins with this memorable dedication:
To the memory of The British Empire in India,
which conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship;
to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: 'civis Britannicus sum,'
because all that was good and living within us
was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule.
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