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Violence in the Early Modern Period: A Prologue to Genocide?

8 December 2017 – Professor Ben Kiernan, A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History & Professor of International & Area Studies in the MacMillan Center at Yale University, is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub in association with the School of Histories and Humanities. Examining state violence in four early modern kingdoms, his research project is a comparative study of early modern violence in an era when the term ‘genocide’ did not yet exist.

Ben giving his lecture

Collaborating on this project with Professor Micheál Ó Siochrú in the School of Histories and Humanities, Professor Kiernan seeks to take a comparative look at Ireland, England, Cambodia and Vietnam from 1560 to 1840.

‘I’m looking at Cambodia in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and it has always intrigued me to compare Cambodia’s relations with Vietnam in the early modern period with Ireland’s relations with England during the same time’, said Professor Kiernan.

The project seeks to explore the causes, motives, and nature of violence in the early modern world and to assess the contributions of military strategy, political ideology, economic imperatives, religious divides, and environmental conditions.

Although the term ‘genocide’ was not officially coined until after World War II, Professor Kiernan and Professor Ó Siochrú are looking at whether the concept of genocide in the early modern era can be applied. ‘There were other terms that were used in the early modern and ancient periods to describe fairly similar events’, according to Professor Kiernan.

Commenting on the choice of comparisons for the study, Professor Kiernan whose research mainly focuses on South East Asia, describes the history of colonialism between England and Ireland, and Cambodia and Vietnam. ‘Cambodia is a relatively small country which was briefly colonised by the neighbouring Vietnamese kingdom in the 19th century and had a long history of neighbourly relations but also of interventions in one another’s affairs, including military interventions in the 17th and 18th centuries, leading up to a brief period of colonisation in the 19th century. So for a similar period as Ireland, which underwent British intervention and colonisation, Cambodia was undergoing Vietnamese military intervention, but not always for the same reasons.’

Furthermore, in relation to the outbreak of popular violence among these early kingdoms, Professor Kiernan asks whether the circumstances which led to the 1641 Irish rebellion as a war about rights to ancestral lands and access to resources and livelihoods was the same motivator for eighteenth-century Khmer cultivators in the Mekong delta against Vietnamese outsiders or newcomers.

Looking at the case of Ireland, the co-authors aim to explore how early modern English officials and officers established, consolidated and expanded colonial control through the directed use of violence – whether through martial law; networks of garrisons; terror tactics; or destruction of food crops. The aim is to then compare these strategies with those used in mainland Southeast Asia, although the use of force and outbreaks of violence in the early modern era have been much less studied there.

Professor Kiernan argues that a long vernacular literary tradition in both countries – Ireland and Cambodia – is also a key advantage for this study. ‘Ireland has one of the longest vernacular literary traditions, and that also applies to Cambodia – it has a very long documented Cambodian language tradition going back to the 7th century. Ireland in Europe is like Cambodia in South East Asia and so it’s possible to write a long range environmental, political or cultural history of Cambodia that spans many centuries. This would not be possible for such an extended period in Thailand or the Philippines for example, or any other place in South East Asia, except perhaps Java.’

Another key element to the study is the use of environmental history to look at the importance of landscapes and geographic elements in fuelling conflict. Professor Kiernan is consulting with Dr Frank Ludlow, a Trinity expert on environmental humanities to share his knowledge of Irish environmental history and its relationship to outbreaks of violence in the Irish case. Seeking to better understand the nature of violent outbreaks, he asks what impact a natural geographic barrier between kingdoms or communities has in terms of causing armed conflict or if communities settling or intermingling with one another in an open flat delta increases their chances of maintaining peaceful relations.

Ben giving his lecture

‘The tropical climate of Cambodia and the flat open plains were not as easily conquered because of the monsoonal climate and the very muddy terrain. The Mekong delta being the flattest delta in the world meant that armies couldn’t easily traverse it and so in fact Cambodia was only briefly conquered by the Vietnamese. On the other hand, while there was a fairly wide sea passage between Ireland and England, it seems that it was not a difficult one for armies and political power to transform Ireland into part of the British colonial empire for an extended period of centuries.’

Professor Ben Kiernan spoke at the Trinity Long Room Hub’s Behind the Headlines discussion on ‘Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing: from Rwanda to the Rohingyas’ on 29 November 2017. To listen to this podcast, click here. Professor Kiernan also gave a lecture in the Trinity Long Rom Hub on ‘Local Conflict and External Intervention in Early Modern Cambodia' read more here

Watch Trinity Long Room Hub’s Behind the Headlines discussion on ‘Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing: from Rwanda to the Rohingyas


Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | aoife.king@tcd.ie | 01 896 3895

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