This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Image taken from page 186 of ‘[Our Earth and its Story: a popular treatise on physical geography. Edited by R. Brown. With … coloured plates and maps, etc.]’ London, 1899. Courtesy of the British Library’s ‘Women of the World‘ digitization project.
Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the lost internationalism of Wendell Willkie to a history of authoritarian time changes, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

Whitehouse on Foster, ‘African Catholic Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church’

Elizabeth A. Foster. African Catholic Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2019. 369 pp. £32.95 (hardcover), ISBN 9780674987661.

Reviewed by David Whitehouse (University of Exeter)

On July 1, 1888, Charles Lavigerie, founder of the White Fathers Catholic missionary order, gave a speech to a packed Saint-Sulpice Church in Paris in which he denounced the evils of slavery in Africa. The event was a public relations triumph, with African children who had been repurchased from slavery being paraded by the Fathers, clad in white burnouses with red fezzes on their heads, on the church steps. In the late nineteenth century as in the 1950s, slavery was used by the Catholic Church to galvanize public opinion and to raise funds. Lavigerie was not an isolated forerunner of post-war Catholic radicalism. He trained a generation of missionaries to enter the field as convinced anti-slavery activists, as well as supporting a series of military operations against slavery in Africa, with varying degrees of success. And yet until now Catholic missionaries have usually been relegated by historians to the status of obedient cogs in colonial state machines. Elizabeth Foster’s new book offers a major challenge by showing how missionary leaders like Lavigerie and his successors had aims that were often in clear conflict with those of the colonial state – a conflict between French Catholic missionaries and the colonial powers that resurfaced in a big way after the Second World War.

An emphasis upon political transition from colonial regimes to independent states dominates the literature on African decolonization. But decolonization, defined by Foster as the “ending or limiting of European hegemony” that involved power systems that were clearly outside of state apparatus, was a much broader process (p. 11). The book effectively uncovers the conflict between colonial state and Catholic mission in Africa in the 1950s. Foster sees the emergence of a more robust Catholic Left in France against a backdrop of colonial crisis as a key development. Catholicism in France, Foster argues, had previously been the almost exclusive property of the conservative Right. The Catholic Church hierarchy therefore struggled in an “awkward dance” in the 1950s as it sought to reconcile conservatives with radical anti-colonialists (p. 14). To make its provocative case, the book draws on a rich supply of archival sources in France, Italy, and Senegal, as well as a wide range of periodicals.

Another main strength of the book lies in its illumination of the bifurcation between European and Christian identity that Catholic missionary work in Africa entailed. Catholic intellectuals such as Joseph Michel sought in the 1950s to “reclaim and reorient the church as a defender of the oppressed, colonized populations” of the French Empire (p. 100). As Foster argues, the Catholic church was considerably more successful in keeping its adherents in post-colonial Africa than in Europe. World War Two looms large as a turning point here, complementing other recent scholarship. According to Darcie Fontaine, for example, the war is similarly seen as the turning point in the development of French Catholic thinking about the colonies, as Christian theology was used in France as a basis for resistance to Nazism.[1] This can, however, lead to obscuring the continuity of missionary agendas and practice.

In Foster’s account, racial hierarchy keeps its orthodox place as a guiding paradigm of missionary thinking.[2] Foster argues that racist disdain for évolué Africans was common among missionaries and that blatant Catholic racism only became institutionally unacceptable in the 1950s. The new generation of post-war missionaries had more enlightened attitudes than the old guard they replaced. Missionary longevity in the field, the assumption appears to be, solidified racism. This begs the question of why Catholic missionaries would want to work among “unredeemable” and “inferior” peoples for so long.[3] For Lavigerie, setting Africans free from slavery and building the kingdom of Christ in Africa were intended as achievements that would fully match or surpass the establishment of Christianity in Europe. Why would these goals have resonated with peoples who were considered as inherently inferior? Foster’s book begins to provide answers.

Foster’s focus is on the period of decolonization, and the chronological gap between her discussion of Lavigerie and the 1950s paves the way for a new field of research. So, too, would the addition of Protestant missionary sources. After all, Foster makes quite clear the French hostility to American Protestant missionaries. Protestants usually answered back, and denominational rivalry was itself a potential driver of more polarised political stances taken by missionaries on the ground in Africa. Foster’s work thus raises big questions about how Catholic missionaries’ anti-slavery agenda shaped developments and denominational conflict in the first half of the twentieth century across the vast swathes of sub-Saharan Africa in which Christian missions operated. This important book starts the process of giving radical missionary currents their due place in models of colonialism and decolonization.

David Whitehouse is a freelance editor at the Africa Report published by Jeune Afrique in Paris and a PhD candidate at Exeter researching the impact of missionaries in Rwanda and Burundi 1900-1972.


[1] Darcie Fontaine, Decolonizing Christianity: Religion and the End of Empire in France and Algeria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[2] For example, Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[3] Adas has even argued that that Europeans in the early centuries of expansion into Africa and Asia rarely used race to explain what they saw as their superiority, but rather Christianity and, much later, technological accomplishment. See Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2014).

Job Klaxon! Lecturer in History of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula

University of Exeter – College of social Sciences and International Studies

Location: Exeter
Salary: £35,211 to £39,609 depending on qualifications and experience, Grade F
Hours: Full Time
Contract Type: Permanent
Placed On: 7th March 2019
Closes: 3rd April 2019
Job Ref: R12795
We are a Russell Group university boasting a vibrant academic community with over 21,000 students.  Ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world, 98% of our research is rated as being of international quality and focuses on some of the most fundamental issues facing the world today. We encourage proactive engagement with community partners, industry and business to enhance the impact of research and education and improve the employability of our students.
We therefore particularly welcome applications from academic staff with strong connections and funded projects with community partners and business and as well as those who are involved in projects which develop impact.

Continue reading “Job Klaxon! Lecturer in History of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Woodrow Wilson, center, in Europe for business relating to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Credit: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the death of the Wilsonian Moment to the Liberal International Order and its discontents, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

An American Woman in the British House of Commons

The poll declaration for Plymouth Sutton in 1919 (source: Getty Images)

‘Born in Virginia, elected to be in the British House of Commons, I had a sense of gratitude and obligation to the two branches of the Anglo-Saxon peoples’[1]

Lisa Berry-Waite
University of Exeter

This year marks the centenary of Nancy Astor’s election to British Parliament, becoming the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. The landmark occasion is being commemorated with the Astor 100 campaign to celebrate Astor’s achievements and legacy, as well as to shine a spotlight on women in politics today. Astor’s political career spanned almost three decades; looking back at her career in 1956, she referred to herself as an ‘ardent feminist’ and continuously campaigned on women’s issues.[2]

Known for her wit and outspoken nature, Astor was elected as MP for Plymouth Sutton in a by-election in 1919 for the Conservative Party. She was persuaded to stand by her husband Waldorf Astor, who previously held the seat, when he was elevated to the House of Lords following the death of his father. Nancy Astor the pioneering politician has attracted attention from historians and the media alike, but few discuss in detail her American nationality and the influence it had on her British life and politics. Continue reading “An American Woman in the British House of Commons”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Martin Jan Månsson has created an incredibly detailed map of trade route networks in Europe, Asia, and Africa in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From exposing the Ukrainian famine to the bird poop of American imperialism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

New Job! Lecturer in Modern/Contemporary British History at @exeterclio

Job title: Lecturer in Modern/Contemporary British History (Education and Research)

Job reference: P65129

Date posted:19/02/2019

Application closing date:19/03/2019

Location: Exeter

Salary: The starting salary will be from £35,211 up to £38,609 on Grade (F), depending on qualifications and experience.

Package: Generous holiday allowances, flexible working, pension scheme and relocation package (if applicable).

Job category/type: Academic

Job description

College of Humanities

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university in the top 200 of universities worldwide.We combine world-class teaching with world-class research, and have achieved a Gold rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework Award 2017. We have over 22,000 students and 4600 staff from 180 different countries and have been rated the WhatUni2017 International Student Choice. Our research focuses on some of the most fundamental issues facing humankind today, with 98% of our research rated as being of international quality in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. We encourage proactive engagement with industry, business and community partners to enhance the impact of research and education and improve the employability of our students.

College of Humanities

The role

The post of Lecturer in Modern/Contemporary British History will contribute to extending the research profile of British History at Exeter, particularly in areas related to race and ethnicity.

The post will include the delivery of teaching in post-1900 History. In particular, it will involve teaching a selection of undergraduate modules in this area, including Understanding the Modern World. Continue reading “New Job! Lecturer in Modern/Contemporary British History at @exeterclio”