Benjamin Hopkins is a professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University and author of Ruling the Savage Periphery: Frontier Governance and the Making of the Modern State, published by Harvard University Press and winner of the 2022 AAS Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Prize.
To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.
Simply put, Ruling the Savage Periphery is a global history of the way modern states rule their “ungovernable” frontier spaces. Today such spaces are seen as exceptional—places marked by the absence of state authority at best, and state failure at worst. My book argues that contrary to such understandings, these spaces were intentionally constructed by the modernizing states of the late 19th century. They are not spaces absent governance, as James Scott would have it, but rather spaces marked by a fundamentally distinct form of governance, which I call frontier governmentality.
The work begins on the borderlands between British India and the Afghan kingdom and traces the diffusion and replication of the forms of rule deployed there around the world. While the story is partly one of “imperial careering” of imperial administrative practice, it is also one of seemingly far-removed states—geographically and politically distant—ruling over the problematic peoples of their peripheries in much the same manner. As such, it is really a story about how modern states constructed and ruled themselves.
What inspired you to research this topic?
It was something which struck me in the archives. I was looking at materials in the India Office Records about the tribal agencies the British Raj erected along its frontier with Afghanistan in the late 19th century. The political agent was reporting on a Sufi qawwali he observed among the frontier Pashtun. He was clearly disturbed by it and viewed it as seditious millenarianism which presaged trouble. The document was from sometime in the 1890s, when the Raj faced a number of religiously inspired revolts along the frontier. I honestly cannot recall if the agent made the comparison or if I mentally did—a lesson in note-taking in the archives—but I thought to myself that it sounded like the Ghost Dancing among the Lakota Sioux, which was happening contemporaneously in the U.S. and which was the cause of both suspicion and violence. This thought crystalized a sense I had into a clearly articulated thesis—that despite the cultural and geographical distances, I was essentially looking at the same phenomenon. And not in terms of the indigenous people—the Pashtun and the Sioux—but rather in terms of the state—British India and the U.S.—and how it conceived and ruled these people.
What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?
Lots! The first and most obvious obstacle in researching what became a global history was that I had a lot of territory to cover. I visited archives on four different continents over the space of a decade. Some were exceptionally easy to access and use. Others required more patience and perseverance. But all were immensely rich and rewarding in their own way. And the most exciting thing by far was the serendipity of the archive—running across materials, sometimes misplaced, which were not simply unexpected, but sent my research off in totally different directions. Everyone who has done this long enough knows that feeling.
Related to this, there was a bit of nervousness, if not outright fear, of stepping outside my own area of expertise and comfort level. As an historian of South Asia, specifically Afghanistan, I felt most comfortable on that terrain. Yet the story pulled me to other parts of the world which I had not spent years studying. I had/have a bit of imposter syndrome about these other areas covered by the study, continually worried that I would make some enormous, and obvious blunder. At the same time, I told myself that the “national” historiographies are not the ones I am interested in intervening in. And I hope that my colleagues will see the purpose of the work—an earnest comparative one—and both value and judge its merits on those grounds.
What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?
There were plenty. But my favorite, I think, was in the General Archives of Argentina, where I was looking at the papers of one of the country’s presidents, Julio Roca. I was researching how the Argentine republic ruled the indigenous peoples of the Pampas at the time of conquest, between 1875 and 1885—it is one of the chapters in the book. While I expected to find comparisons between the Argentine and American cases, I never expected to find Afghanistan in the president’s private papers. But he had the dispatches from The Times (London) about the Second Anglo-Afghan War translated into Spanish, which took place at the same time at the Argentine conquest of the desert. He wrote a short covering note on the translation, which essentially said that the Argentine reasoning for conquering the Pampas was the same as the British intervention in Afghanistan. Just as the latter sought to pre-empt the Russian empire as part of the so-called “Great Game,” so did the former seek to pre-empt their rival Chile from the rich lands between these republics. I couldn’t believe it when I stumbled onto that in the archives.
What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?
There has been a significant uptick in interest about frontiers recently and a number of fantastic books which have just come out. In terms of new publications on South Asia’s frontiers, I would highlight Elisabeth Leake’s The Defiant Border, Berenice Guyot-Réchard’s Shadow States, Kyle Gardner’s The Frontier Complex, and Tom Simpson’s The Frontier in British India. While all of these outstanding works focus on South Asia’s exterior limits, Eric Beverley has provocatively thought about British India’s interior frontiers, particularly with princely states such as Hyderabad. But this is not an issue or interest limited to the subcontinent. My colleague Eric Schluessel’s book Land of Strangers, which was recently awarded the John K. Fairbank Prize by the AHA, engages many of the same themes about frontier rule, sovereignty, and state-making in China’s Xinjiang and western reaches. I would say what distinguishes this new cache of works from previous borderland studies—many of which are outstanding—is its conscious transnationlism and transregionalism. In the main they are not thinking of frontiers within a national paradigm. While they may speak to South Asian historians or Chinese historians, they have something different to say about such spaces and the practices which constitute them. To me that is the most exciting, inspirational, and intellectually provocative aspect of these new works.
Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?
As an historian of Afghanistan, I would have to say it’s been the events there over the last year. The shambolic American withdrawal in August was devastating to watch—especially the seeming callousness with which the Washington establishment unceremoniously dropped the country and its people. As difficult has been the near complete absence since then of Afghanistan from the public eye. It is one of the world’s worst unfolding humanitarian disasters, with 75% of the population currently food insecure. And yet it has almost completely disappeared from the proverbial radar. I have long found the profound indifference of the public and policy establishment alike to Afghanistan extraordinarily frustrating. And I think there is a profound need to actually tally the costs of the war—to the Afghans, as well as to the Americans. A generational war has generational costs. That is the focus of my new project—a historical accounting of the costs and significance of the war. It’s provisionally entitled The War that Destroyed America: The Costs of Conflict in Afghanistan.