What's in the December AHR?

Robert A. Schneider, December 2011

What do piracy in the Indian Ocean, governance on frontier of the British Empire, changing notions of "freedom" in 19th-century Japan, U.S. imperialism, and the circulation of information across time and space have to do with each other? They're all topics readers will encounter as they open the December 2011 issue of the American Historical Review. In addition, of course, they will also find our large book review section. What they will not find, however, is "In Back Issues," for the simple reason that a hundred years ago the AHR did not publish a December issue.

In the first article, "A Trade of No Dishonor: Piracy, Commerce, and Community in the Western Indian Ocean, Twelfth to Sixteenth Century," Sebastian R. Prange contests the utility of standard conceptual categories in understanding this historical phenomenon. Rooted in distinctively European legal and political traditions, these, he argues, have distorted our understanding of the social, economic, and political dynamics of maritime violence in Indian Ocean history. Prange offers a case study of the Malabar Coast in southwestern India, examining piracy through indigenous conceptions and practices. He thus puts forward an alternative model for interpreting the role of piracy in the trade and politics of the western Indian Ocean. Looking beyond the Indian Ocean, the article makes the case that piracy in the western Indian Ocean exemplified analogous, global dynamics in the commercial exploitation, political contestation, and legal ordering of maritime space that was a key feature of the early modern world.

In "Rethinking the Colonial State: Family, Gender, and Governmentality in Eighteenth-Century British Frontiers," Kathleen Wilson revives a cultural perspective on the arts and strategies of colonial state-making in the long 18th century (1660–1820), examining the practices of governance in three frontiers of the British Empire: Fort Marlborough (Sumatra), St. Helena, and Jamaica. Using the concept of governmentality, the article deploys a notion of state power that was performative rather than rigidly institutional, focusing on the organization of social life and national affiliation among colonizers and colonized alike. Wilson thus demonstrates how problems of governance, discipline, and population permeated early modern forms of colonial rule almost a century before we usually assume they did. Her work illuminates an important transition from early modern to modern forms of colonial governance, a transition marked by the movement between governmental modes of treating subjects like family and apprehending them as population.

Daniel V. Botsman, in "Freedom without Slavery? 'Coolies,' Prostitutes, and Outcastes in Meiji Japan's 'Emancipation Moment'," examines the way in which the great struggles over slavery, which played out in the Atlantic world over the course of the 19th century, helped shape the processes by which ideas about freedom and liberation began to take root in Japan in the years immediately following the Meiji Restoration. Focusing particularly on a court case that unfolded in Yokohama in 1872 (and which bore a strong similarity to the famous Somerset and Amistad cases, which have often been highlighted in accounts of the demise of Atlantic slavery), he shows how the global search for new sources of cheap, easily exploitable labor in the 1860s and 1870s, together with the spread of Western juridical practices, prompted Japanese officials to come to terms with liberal ideas. Although the court case itself focused on the trafficking of Chinese "coolie" laborers between Macao and Peru, it also led to the reexamination of the plight of prostitutes, and eventually outcastes, giving rise to two significant "Emancipation Edicts." Here Botsman aims to contribute to the development of an approach to the history of freedom in the modern world that moves beyond familiar stereotypes of East and West, and seeks to understand formal "emancipations" in relation to complex processes of social change.

In a rather long piece, a review essay on a big subject, "Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World," Paul A. Kramer argues for the utility of the "imperial" in placing the history of the United States in a global context. Combining historiographic review, critique, and prescription, he suggests three necessary pursuits that the imperial facilitates: the study of the ways power operates through long-distance linkages; the mutual and uneven transformation of societies through these connections; and comparisons between large-scale systems of power and their histories. The article proceeds to assess the prospects and limits of the imperial in U.S. historiography across a variety of themes, offering along the way a copious review and analysis of a range of historical literature, both older and more recent.

Finally, the AHR Conversation returns, with six scholars discussing the topic "Historical Perspectives on the Circulation of Information." The participants, led by the AHR Editor, are Paul Edwards, who studies modern information infrastructures; Lisa Gitelman, a media historian interested in print culture and media, new and old; Gabrielle Hecht, who has written on modern technology, especially the nuclear industry in France and Africa; Adrian Johns, a historian of science, of the book, and of intellectual property and piracy; Brian Larkin, an anthropologist who has worked on forms of media especially in Africa; and Neil Safier, an early modern historian interested in the crosscultural transmission of knowledge. The conversation is wide-ranging, but a recurrent theme is a cautionary one, warning against thinking about the exchange of information in terms of "flow" or other such metaphors, and instead suggesting that we should pay attention to the mechanisms, modes, or infrastructures that not only make this process possible but, in many ways, condition its very nature.

In the February 2012 issue of the AHR, readers can look forward to the presidential address by Anthony Grafton, an article on antislavery thinking in 18th-century Haiti, and an AHR Forum on "Liberal Empire and International Law."

Robert Schneider (Indiana Univ.) is the editor of the American Historical Review. He can be reached at raschnei@indiana.edu.

December 2011 AHRThe dissemination of information is as old as human society. One of the points stressed in this month's AHR Conversation, "Historical Perspectives on the Circulation of Information," is the need to focus on the mechanisms, modes, techniques, and "infrastructures" that make such circulation possible, rather than thinking, as we tend to do with the Internet, in terms of the "flow" of information as an almost magical process. Pictured here is a well-used bulletin board, displaying the remnants—staples and stubs of paper—of notices, advertisements, political appeals, and the like, representing one common mode of distributing information. From piles of rocks, wall markings, and beating drums to printed books, electronic media, and the World Wide Web, the mechanisms by which humans have attempted to circulate information have been varied indeed. Photo courtesy of John D. Banks, Tucson, Arizona.