Ruling the Savage Periphery: Former Governance and the Making of the Modern State by Benjamin D. Hopkins. Harvard University Press, 2020, 288 pp.
In his book, Ruling the Savage Periphery: Frontier Governance and the Making of the Modern State, George Washington University Associate Professor Benjamin D. Hopkins analyses the governmental mechanisms that made nineteenth-century colonialism and how those systems continue to negatively impact the world today.
Hopkins begins by laying out a nuanced definition of “frontier.” In his description, a frontier is not simply a hard border between states. Instead, it can take multiple forms ranging from the aforementioned hard border to something more zone-like, a nebulous “borderlands.” Also, he states that frontiers have a temporal aspect, changing both in physical location (boundaries) and how governing entities managed those areas.
These ideas combine into Hopkin’s “frontier governmentality,” which he uses to help describe managing frontiers as a “practice.” These ideas unite into his primary thesis that understanding frontiers as a practice unlocks new ways to study the history of colonialism and (more importantly) the way historical decisions affected the post-colonial world.
To support his thesis, Hopkins highlights examples ranging from the oft-considered British Empire to the semi-ignored case of Argentinian exploits in its western deserts. He also discusses the questionable history of the US government’s treatment of Native American tribes—a part of American history often glossed over in public discourse. All-in-all, Hopkins takes readers across a century of history and four separate continents while tying in original legal documentation, personal accounts, and a synthesis of previous researchers’ work.
The breadth of regions analyzed strengthens Hopkins’s argument. He does not rely on old tropes and commonly reviewed case studies. Instead, he digs into parts of history oft overlooked. The wide-ranging locations are easily the most compelling part of Ruling the Savage Periphery. Hopkins’ efforts to go beyond the locations colonial histories frequent and reflect a concerted effort to show connections between colonial powers and the current world order. His arguments have additional weight because they tie together broader trends rather than rely on a simplistic outline focused on one colonial power at one point in time.
Furthermore, it is evident Hopkins spent much effort in gathering research for his publication. The well-organized end notes reflect everything from historical case law, a few first-person accounts, and dozens of previous historians’ work. He also provides engaging, illuminating comments in the footnotes that add to the text in a way that would not fit in the prose itself.
All this goes to say that Hopkins strongly supports his thesis. While claiming that colonialism influenced the post-colonial work may seem obvious, Hopkins goes further by digging into the specifics, directly tying old laws, decisions, and traditions to the modern world. As a result, his research and arguments frame a more profound understanding that decisions made then affect today. This leads to the logical conclusion that today’s decisions will have long-lasting consequences for the future world.
Unfortunately, while the points Hopkins tries to make are worthwhile, and the text contains a strong argument, the overall presentation makes gathering the salient points difficult. The text is dense, occasionally repetitive, and often fails to flow coherently. That is not to say the book is poorly written; it just comes across as a book written by an academic, for other academics. Nevertheless, just as Hopkins references other historians’ work, Ruling the Savage Periphery is a tool for reference in future historians’ work.
That, then, may be the point of the work—it exists to be an academic resource. Viewing the Ruling the Savage Periphery as an academic tool helps explain other aspects of reviewing the work. The book itself was difficult to acquire—few physical copies are available for sale with online retailers, and the digital editions cost similarly to a small textbook. Even military libraries had to use the interlibrary loan system to find a copy. This difficulty reinforces the idea that Ruling the Savage Periphery is not meant for the average consumer. The book has a targeted audience of professional historians and severe history buffs. It would be surprising to see this book on the shelf next to best-selling historical publications.
Overall, Hopkins manages to lay out a solid, if not dense, argument for the impact of colonial decision-making, of “frontier governmentality,” on today’s world. Despite the challenges in getting, and then getting through the text, the message Hopkins’ thesis proclaims is one worth studying. If someone is looking to do a deep dive into colonial history, Ruling the Savage Periphery is a book worth considering. But anyone hoping for a more casual analysis of Victorian Era colonialism would is better served by finding a different resource.
Major Ryan Gauntt, USAF