Intrinsic to the practice of empire is the creation of boundaries. We tend to think of such boundaries as borders, physical lines of demarcation past which the empire’s sovereignty has no purchase. But, in fact, the picture is much fuzzier than that. A foundational task of empire is to define, to categorize, and in so doing, to make peoples and places knowable; only once something is known can it be controlled. For this reason, the peoples that stalk the edges of empire have been a constant source of anxiety. These peoples, defying the state’s power of comprehension and inhabiting the very limits of its reach, are the empire’s frontier.
In Ruling the Savage Periphery: Frontier Governance and the Making of the Modern State (Harvard University Press, 2020), Dr. Benjamin D. Hopkins makes the case that such peoples and the practices used to control them constitute “frontier governmentality.” In Hopkins’ formulation, the frontier is not a place, but rather a practice. Frontiers are an ideational space in which empires define liminal peoples and deploy a unique set of tactics to manage them. They recruit imaginative “customs” and “traditions” to institute the illusion of self-rule. They deny them access to state courts without surrendering legal claims to them. And they render them economically dependent while withholding access to the state’s economy. Ranging from India’s Northwest Frontier to the TransJordan, South Africa, Apache reservations and beyond, Ruling the Savage Periphery documents in clear and convincing prose the startling breadth of frontier governmentality, and its tragic legacy still with us today.
Jonathan Megerian is a doctoral candidate in history at Johns Hopkins University. He works on late medieval and Renaissance England. His dissertation explores the role of historiography in the formation of imperial ideologies in Renaissance England.