The big idea

It may seem like speculation, but ‘what ifs’ can be a way to restore alternative points of view.

By Nandini Das





Why “What if”s matter TH IN K ING A BOU T alternative scenarios is tempting, both in our everyday lives and when we are trying to make sense of the past. Questions about what happened slide ver y easily into conjectures: what if it didn’t happen, or happened differently? Historians tend not to take kindly to such speculation. Fiction is fuelled by it. In November 1616, the first English ambassador to India, Sir Thomas Roe, wrote a letter to his paymasters in the East India Company. Roe’s letter is full of frustration at being treated as the representative of a minor “Frankish” power by the opulent Mughal court, but its main focus is on the company’s own errors. He warns them repeatedly that “warr and trafique [trade] are incompatible”, and it was better to seek profit in “quiett trade”. Roe was no idealist when it came to English global ambitions. His advice was grounded in the best use of the company’s resources rather than any view of the ethical justification of empire, but it is significant all the same. As history tells us, quiet trade did not remain the aim of the English in India. What would have happened if Roe’s advice had been followed? As I worked on a history of the first English embassy to India, this was a question that raised its head repeatedly, both in my own thinking and in conversations with others. While the simple answer is that there is no telling, ignoring the question means imposing a sense of inevitability on the presence of the British in India, erasing the uncertainties that defined it. I would be in good company if I were to speculate. The exploration of events that did not happen is nothing new. Probably the best-known example of it is that old chestnut: “What if Hitler had won the second world war?” For the Roman historian Livy, it was Alexander the Great, although Livy raised the spectre just so that he could lay it properly to rest. His conclusion was that even if Alexander had invaded Rome, Romans would ultimately have won through the strength of their military discipline. His fellow historical speculators stretch from the Sumerians and Egyptians, to the medieval accounts of Geoffrey of Monmouth, to Pascal’s famous 17th-century speculation about the effect that the length of Cleopatra’s nose might have had on the history of the known world. Authors have run with the narrative space that conjecture flings open. The “what if the second world war ended differently” line of thinking has generated a cluster of novels, from Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, to Robert Harris’s Fatherland, to CJ Sansom’s Dominion, each grappling with a timeline in which the allied powers lose to Hitler’s Germany. Others roll back history and send it hurtling like a cannonball in a different direction altogether, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, in which the near erasure of Europe’s population (and Christianity) by plague leads to an alternative geopolitics in which Islam and Buddhism are the dominant religions. For historians, counter factual ism and the attention it pays to what did not happen is an odd, dark realm – often silly, sometimes dangerous, and almost always problematic. Occasionally it leads to entertaining name-calling: EP Thompson’s dismissal of it as “Ge sc hicht swiss en sch lo pff,un historical shit” is colourful enough to have had a life beyond the book in which is first appeared, 1978’s The Poverty of Theory. When Richard J Evans wrote a piece called “‘What if?’ is a waste of time” in the Guardian in 2014, however, his focus was on the ideological implications of such exercises. His barbs were directed towards the popular trend characterised by books such as Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. For Evans, the problem with such exercises lay not simply in the speculation that formed their bedrock. The real danger was in what he calls a kind of “intellectual atavism”, retreating to a “Great Men” line of historywriting where the actions of a few determined the movement of world events. “Why are we so prone in the early 21st century to approaching history in this way?” Evans asked. For him our interest in the history of what could have been is linked to the postmodern condition, to the distrust in expertise and facts that seems to colour both public and academic debate. Those are valid concerns. There is, however, an alternative perspective. In their 2021 book A Past of Possibilities: A History of What Could Have Been, Quentin Deluermoz and Pierre Singaravélou acknowledge the risks, but point out that conventional historical methods are also not immune to what one might call a hindsight bias. In other words, the inferences that emerge from our historical research are shaped not just by our knowledge, but the contexts within which we operate. Questioning such inferences through “what ifs” is different from unrestrained speculation. One of their most interesting claims is that, beyond Europe, conjectures and alternative historiographies have often found home in previously colonised nations, in India and Australia, in Latin American countries, and in marginalised communities. As they argue, these projects “are attempting to build another narrative of world history by changing the scale of analysis and restoring other points of view”. For many engaged in such questioning today, the impetus towards counterfactual history is quite clearly not about prioritising great men and major events. Instead, they remind us that the archives and methodologies on which conventional historical “evidence” depends are themselves hardly ever neutral. Who lived? Whose records survived? What stories are told and how have they been put to work? For historians such as Stephanie Smallwood, it is not even about giving voice to what existing histories have silenced, but about acknowledging what is not there, and why. As present debates about what constitutes history continue to evoke images of a monolithic, unchanging understanding of the past, constructed out of blocks of neutral facts excavated from the archives, it is time, perhaps, that we pay new attention to fragments and lost voices, historical cul-de-sacs and missed turns, to the history that was not recorded, and the history that did not happen. Professor Nandini Das is the author of Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire.