So I’m teaching the second iteration of my course on counterfactual history this semester.
I’m doing a really different kind of group research project in this version of the class. Basically the students are working in two-person teams to develop one stage of a counterfactual history, and they then hand the counterfactual to the next team who have to take it the next step. As this goes on, as with any counterfactual, it gets harder and harder and necessarily shades into fiction. The first team to handle a scenario has to make a decision about whether to backtrack and talk about the branching points or plausible circumstances that caused the counterfactual or whether to take it as a given and move forward from it.
Here’s the six scenarios I handed them:
1. The Internet does not come into existence between 1970-1990.
2. Mary Wollstonecraft does not die after the birth of her daughter but in fact lives into old age.
3. There is no “new imperialism” in the second half of the 19th Century, no rivalrous claims of colonial dominion by European nation-states over Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania.
4. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton never duel.
5. Native American societies have robust resistance to Old World diseases at the time of contact with Europeans in the 15th Century.
6. There is no Balfour Declaration nor a Sykes-Picot Agreement and shared Arab-Jewish councils are successfully formed under the Mandate government in the 1920s.
The students have already really surprised me with the theoretical and empirical savvy they’ve put into the first round. Here’s how things stand so far:
1. This is because Vincent Cerf decides he likes the cello more than computers; TCP/IP doesn’t develop and packet-switching experiments remain more boutique, obscure DARPA projects for a while, only becoming more known much later than they did. (Next team has to decide what the 1980s and 1990s would have been like without the Internet…)
2. Wollstonecraft has to retreat somewhat from public life anyway because of her Jacobite sympathies, but takes an interest in the early 19th Century in educational reform and the abolition of apprenticeship by indenture.
3. [This one was amazing] The students decided to depart a bit from the spirit of my prompt a bit and argue that “liberal imperialism” wins out more thoroughly at an earlier date in the UK and leads to the establishment of something more like a loose liberal/commercial “sphere of influence” in much of the non-Western world that is almost entirely maintained by England, largely eschewing direct administrative or territorial control. (For various reasons I don’t think this is necessarily plausible but I really appreciate that they tried to figure out how to make this more than just a by-fiat counterfactual. It also kind of punts the really, really hard job to the next team, which is part of the fun of the exercise.)
4. The Burr-Hamilton people decided that Burr and Hamilton were kind of washed-up and irrelevant anyway by the time of their duel, so they said, “Nothing really changes”. But they were very thorough about building their case for that, referencing a lot of the work we read in the first part of the class about determinism and contingency. The next team is apparently going to back up and change the first team’s scenario a lot by having Jefferson die in office and Burr become President, which is why there’s no duel in their version.
5. This group took disease resistance as a given (as I think they have to, given that this prompt is modeled on James Axtell’s counterfactual essay that considers how events from the 15th Century onward would have been different without any previous human inhabitants of the New World). They chose to focus on 16th Century contacts in North America and argued that the capacity of Native American societies in North America for military resistance to European settlement would have been dramatically enhanced. Several students noted the possible similarity between this counterfactual New World and the actual history of European contact with African societies from 1450-1650, which I thought was very perceptive. Now the next group has the hard job of either deciding to talk about the rest of the Americas in comparison, or moving the counterfactual forward by a step to the late 1600s/early 1700s.
6. The Balfour Declaration/Sykes-Picot group backed up to think about how that might have happened and argued specifically about a counterfactual England that for various reasons was markedly more hostile to Zionism before and during World War I, leading to a much more diffident approach to governing Mandate Palestine. The next group has a much more difficult job in talking about the 1920s and 1930s in this counterfactual.
1. The Internet group focused on the psychological impact of an absent Internet on the early adopters who felt most empowered or transformed by its existence. But I think it’s really hard to figure out what to say next, so I’ve decided to consolidate a little and take this one off the board.
2. The Wollstonecraft group decided that she would have been a supporter of Luddite unrest and also very drawn to the early Romantics, and even decided that she would have had an affair with Lord Byron, essentially being drawn into the same social and intellectual world as her daughter was, which I thought was a very amusing idea that can be worked further by later groups. We talked a bit today about what the counterfactual Frankenstein (or Shelley’s oeuvre generally) looks like in a world where Mary Shelley has her mom hanging around with her and her friends/husband, but that’s sort of the next group’s thing.
3. The imperialism group focused on Egypt, South Africa, India and China and how they would be different in a “spheres of influence” model, absent of formal administrative imperialism. Too many balls to juggle, maybe, but I liked their idea that company rule would have ended earlier in India and that there would have been no move to consolidate a Raj, leaving most principalities more intact and autonomous. The next group can work with that.
4. President Burr sounds pretty interesting. This team had him fixing to go to war with Spain over Florida, but left a lot of the thinking about Burr’s counterfactual personality and career to the next team.
5. This group has the Five Nations forming a much more assertive “secondary imperialism” to deal with European presence and a very limited British trading presence in the Hudson Valley (the Dutch having decided to avoid it after seeing other European outposts shut down by Native American aggression). They also had the French expelled by Five Nations action. I think this leaves the next group with some pretty workable ideas about what comes next.
6. The No-Balfour group chose to focus on their counterfactual Zionism, arguing for a much stronger split between those who were determined to settle Palestine, those who pursued emigration to Argentina, and for the Uganda idea to get a second look by the British and the ITO advocates and for an active settlement project to begin there after 1917. So they had a “three-pole diaspora” going into the late 1920s where all three options had strong advocacy and participation within Zionism. This seems really promising as a counterfactual concept for the next group.