You have described yourself as a self-taught historian of Africa. How did that come about?
As a graduate school at Yale, I was interested in the modern Middle East and modern Arab history. My dissertation was about the influence of the British occupation on Egypt in the decades leading up to World War I, and that work led fairly directly to my first book, Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt (1966). But in 1962, soon after I arrived at Princeton, a group of students approached Jerome Blum, who was then the chair of the History Department, and suggested that the Department should offer a course in African history. And he said, “Well that seems like a good idea--and I think I have just the person.” Jerry didn’t seem to understand that these students were interested in sub-Saharan Africa, not Islamic Africa. Jerry asked me to do it, and I said yes. To educate myself better about my new subject area, beginning in 1965 I spent a year doing research and teaching at universities in Nigeria and Kenya; in those years it was virtually impossible to study African history at the graduate level in the United States. So this was an unexpected course change, but I’m very happy things worked out the way they did. I was already interested in questions relating to imperialism and modernization. Why do some societies change rapidly? Why do others resist change? Colonial sub-Saharan Africa allowed me to pursue these issues.
Your first book about sub-Saharan Africa, The Colonial Transformation of Kenya, appeared about ten years later. What is it about?
I was interested in writing a comparative book. I thought, you can’t answer these questions about rapid change, slow change, modernizing capability, and so forth unless you compare societies. Originally I wanted to compare Kenya and Nigeria, but that turned out to be a mammoth task (made more difficult by the outbreak of the civil war in Nigeria). So I focused on Kenya and the impact of British missionaries and settlers on the peoples in the areas surrounding Nairobi between 1900 and 1939. I compared the responses of three African ethnic communities, the Kamba, Kikuyu, and Maasai. The Kikuyu were the hotshots of colonial Kenya: they were the most involved in the colonial system; they profited the most from it; they were the most energetic opponents of it; and at the time of decolonization they were the inheritors of it. By contrast, the Kamba and the Maasai were much less involved. Here were three communities right at the center of the British colonial project. Why did the Kikuyu get really caught up in the British system, while the others did not? Part of the story was coercion; the British were particularly successful at manipulating the traditional political organizations of the Kikuyu. But there was also a willingness among the Kikuyu to participate.
In 1998 you published another comparative study about Africa.
Yes: Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire . Here I finally got to write about Nigeria. This is a study of the business communities in three different countries, undergoing decolonization--Egypt, Nigeria, and Kenya--in the period between 1945 and 1963. As they withdrew, the British wanted to leave in place strong business communities--banks, export-import firms, and so on. If you had looked at the private sector in these three countries, say in 1950, you would have said that the business community in Egypt was the most solidly entrenched and had the best prospects for success. By contrast, the business community was the least developed in Kenya. Yet by the end of decolonization, when the smoke cleared, in Egypt the private sector had been completely dismantled by the state; in Nigeria the business community was gasping for air; and in Kenya business was thriving, this despite the Mau Mau revolt. I was interested in this remarkable difference in outcomes.
You have written most extensively about decolonization in Egypt. What happened there?
The story in Egypt really is tragic. Probably the most dynamic element in Egyptian society in the interwar years was its business community; by “business community” I mean both Egyptian businesspeople and foreigners doing business in Egypt, many of whom were committed to the economic development of the country. I have argued that a lot of economic development--industrialization, increased Egyptian autonomy--took place after World War I under some degree of British colonial rule. But after World War II, things took a bad turn. The British saw Egypt as vitally important to the Cold War, and they wanted very much to maintain a strategic and military presence there. They had a huge military base in Egypt that could accommodate long-range bombers and 100,000 men. In the end, by standing in the way of Egyptian nationalism, they lost everything, including vast business holdings. In 1956 the United States and Great Britain withdrew their financial support from the Aswan Dam; in response Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The subsequent invasion by British, French, and Israeli troops was a disaster for business. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Nasser kicked out the whole expatriate business community and nationalized--took over--much of the private sector. So you can see how these political events, which were influenced by the Cold War context, had tremendous economic repercussions.
Reviewers of your books sometimes discuss your work in relation to “dependency theory.” What does the term refer to?
Generally speaking, dependency theorists have argued that wealthy nations benefit from and perpetuate their unequal relationship with the Third World. I’ve always been interested in the impact of colonialism. Was it, as the dependency theorists argue, that which held back the Third World, and something that needs to be removed root and branch? Or were European influences in some ways beneficial? I have tried to suggest in my work that while the Europeans did some very unpleasant things, they also left behind in their former colonies structures and institutions upon which modern economies and polities could be built.
In 2002 you and other members of the Princeton History Department together published a world history textbook called Worlds Together, Worlds Apart. How did this come about?
In the late 1980s some young members of the history faculty went to Dan Rodgers, who was then the chair, and suggested that the Department should offer a course on world history. And he said, “Well that seems like a good idea,” and so in 1990 Gyan Prakash, a young historian of India, and I began teaching “The World and the West,” a history course covering the world from the 13th-century Mongol Empire to the present. The course has been taught here ever since. Over time we became dissatisfied with the textbook we were using, which was not especially good and was quite expensive. So Gyan and I and several of our colleagues set out to create a new book of moderate length and size.
We thought that the best world history textbooks tended to be those written by a single author, because these can have a clear point of view and a kind of thematic and stylistic unity. But one-author texts are dangerous: How can one person accurately present so much material? The other option was the multi-author book, in which each person writes a chapter in his or her area of expertise. This tends to produce a disjointed book, with clearly separate sections on different regions. We felt strongly that the whole point of world history is to create a world-historical experience, and to bring into view global or trans-regional movements. We spent a whole year just meeting together to figure out how the book should be organized. We did a lot of discussing and arguing among ourselves before we ever began writing. The book we ended up producing was truly a collaborative effort. It’s a unique book in that there are no separate regional histories; the chapters are organized chronologically and are global in scope. By the time the book came out it had gone through so many rounds of editing that it was no longer clear who had written what. We were all forced to learn new material and to think about very broad themes. It was so much fun.
You are just now finishing a biography of W. Arthur Lewis. How did you choose this topic?
Arthur was a well-known development economist who taught at Princeton for close to 30 years and who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1979. Throughout my career I have been a student of Third World development. I have always been interested in how developing societies, especially African societies, tackle the problem of poverty. In the course of my work I came across Arthur’s name many times, because this was the area where he worked. Arthur was involved in trying to understand poverty and trying to promote economic development on the ground in two areas of the world that interest me, Africa and the West Indies (where he was born). I also knew Arthur personally. When it came to my attention that his widow had donated his papers to the Mudd Manuscript Library, it was a natural topic for me.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on two projects. The first is a companion volume to Worlds Together, Worlds Apart. The new book will deal with the history of the world from the earliest human activities in Africa millions of years ago up to 1300. Like the first volume, this book will be a collective, mostly Princeton history department enterprise. Jeremy Adelman, Peter Brown, Benjamin Elman, and Brent Shaw are all involved.
Second, I want to write an overview history of Egypt, from the pharaohs to the present day. No such book exists, and I think there’s something to be said, at a certain point in one’s career, for stepping back and taking a look at the longer range. Egyptian history is divided up into separate compartments, each with its own language issues and experts--ancient Egypt, the Greco-Roman period, the Coptic period, the Islamic period, the Ottoman period, and the modern period. Is this appropriate? Or are there underlying unities in Egyptian history that have been obscured? I want to find out.