Historians of empire have long suspected that documents from the colonies were transferred back to Britain during the last days of imperial rule, only never to enter into the public domain. It was no small surprise therefore when in April 2011 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), under pressure from a high court judge, admitted that it had a secret archive of nearly 9,000 files from 37 colonies. Perhaps the biggest surprise from the ruling was how easy it was for the FCO to keep these documents hidden from historians for so long. Continue reading “Covering Up the Dark Side of Decolonisation”
The sad news of the death of Nelson Mandela has led many commentators to reflect on how he will be remembered. His reputation is now, and has been for many years, almost uniquely positive. So it should be, and let’s hope it will remain that way. Let this not, however, be at the expense of historical complexity. Here are some points which historians should bear in mind when reflecting on Mandela’s career and on his evolution from freedom fighter to world statesman. Continue reading “How Should Historians Consider Nelson Mandela?”
In case you missed it, the newest book by the Centre’s own Professor Richard Toye, The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s Wartime Speeches (2013), has been featured in the New York Times and the Boston Globe this past week, the most recent in a flurry of high-level reviews, which include the Financial Times and the Daily Mail.
The New York Times concludes that what Toye ‘has found deeply complicates, and in many cases utterly destroys,’ Churchill’s ‘popular image of 1940’: Continue reading “The New York Times and Boston Globe Rave about ‘The Roar of the Lion’”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of ‘Operation Coldstore’, when in 1963 Singapore’s Internal Security Council authorised the arrest of over 100 leftist and labour activists. The arrests severely weakened both Barisan Sosialis, a left-wing political party, and the trade union movement, thereby consolidating the Popular Action Party’s (PAP) position as the dominant political force in Singapore. As a result of the PAP’s triumph, the role of trade unions in official histories of Singapore’s struggle for independence has largely been overlooked, with left-wing activists commonly depicted as nothing more than stooges for the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). The marginalisation of the role of trade unions in Singapore’s fight for independence is typical of many former colonial territories, where the actions of labour activists and trade unions during the period of decolonisation are overlooked in favour of broader narratives that focus on imperial decline and the triumph of nationalist elites. Yet, as was demonstrated in the 1950s and 1960s during the struggle for independence and again during the pro-democracy campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s, trade unions in the global south have and continue to play a critical role in movements for social and political change. Continue reading “Reconciling Trade Unionism with Decolonisation in the Global South”
This autumn I spoke at several universities in Australia and New Zealand on the subject of the various shopping weeks that were launched to promote Empire trade during the 1920s and 1930s. The story of the Empire Marketing Board’s efforts to develop the idea of ‘Buying Empire’ in inter-war Britain is well known, and its posters still appear regularly on the covers of books written about imperial culture (and also currently featured as the background to this blog!). What is less well known is that the same cause was taken up with enthusiasm by a variety of organisations in the Dominions, and arguably achieved greater and more lasting prominence there than it did in Britain.
At the same time, it quickly became clear to me that the archives in England and Australasia were telling different stories. Politicians and businessmen in Wellington and Melbourne may have conceived themselves to be members of a ‘British’ trade community, but their understanding of what the future of the Empire as an economic unit should be often differed from their counterparts in London. Continue reading “Buying British Across the World”
International Law and Legal Pluralism, British Style
In 2008, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams courted controversy. He stated that recognition of certain aspects of Islamic law, Shari‘a, was essential for Britain in the interest of community cohesion. ‘As a matter of fact’, he said, ‘certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law’. The erudite archbishop was referring primarily to religious principles being valid bases for conscientious objections, and alternative marital dispute resolution methods. But had he chosen to use historical material, Dr. Williams would have had far more to go on.
And that is where my new digital archive project would have come in most handy to the archbishop. Shari‘a – alongside Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Jewish, and African customary laws – has indeed been part of the British legal system for a very long time. It has been administered by the final court of appeal for the British Empire, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. This tribunal, which sat in London, was originally an expression of royal prerogative. Then, in 1833, it was given its modern form. Between then and 1998, it has heard around 9,000 appeals from all over the British Empire. Continue reading “New Digital Resource: The British Empire’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council”