I didn’t fully appreciate the Eurocentric bias of modern history until I read From the Ruins of Empire. Despite taking history at A-level and spending hours pouring over the Treaty of Versailles and the wider Paris Peace Treaties, this was the first I’d heard of the secret agreements to parcel up the Middle East between England and France, or the way Asian countries appealed desperately to the American President Wilson and were ultimately humiliated and betrayed. Suddenly the First World War’s beginnings (something that had never really made sense to me) took on a different slant when you took in the imperialist battle over lands in Asia.
From the first few pages I knew this book would have an enormous impact on me. It opens with the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905 and the consequences of a defeat of a European power that spread across the world. It was raved about in the newspapers, babies in Indian villages were named after Japanese generals; students from the Muslim world were sent to study in Tokyo to learn the secrets of the first Asian-Euro victory in centuries…
And I thought why haven’t I heard of this before? I studied history up to A-level. I grew up in Britain and learnt about the Vikings, Normans, WW1, WW2, the Russian revolution, Victorian Britain, Henry the Eight, and yet the British Empire – the carnage it caused and its eventual defeat was never taught in any class I took. This battle in 1905 is arguably one of the most iconic events of the 20th century but Mishra mentions in his bibliography that there are surprisingly few books written on the event even now.
This book is remarkable not just because Mishra is documenting the Empire from a viewpoint we rarely hear but also because he focuses not on the key players of the era- Mao, Ghandi- but lesser known individuals to the western world. Intellectuals such as the journalist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and the reformer Liang Qichao, born a generation later,are so important, Mishra illustrates, because the messages they preached are still inspiring events that occur in the modern day Asia.
It would take too long to list all the things that shocked me in this book from the atrocities of war and invasion to the manipulation of hooking a people on opium so as to manipulate and beggar them. I already knew the devastation that the Empire caused but even that didn’t prepare me for the utter immorality I read about in this book.
It is hard not to feel vindicated as the power balance shifts to India and China at the end of the book as we read through the ruins of civilisations so the West can have their luxuries but Mishra also illustrates the dark flaws and corruption that occurred in trying to beat Europe at their own game whether that is Japanese Imperialism, Islamic Fundamentalism or Mao’s Communist China. If you want to understand more about current events in the world around us I strongly recommend this book.