From teaching contemporary comparative slavery to 19th-century globalization and hopelessly drunk KGB spies, here are this week’s top reads in imperial and global history.
Historians Against Slavery
Nearly twenty years ago I taught my first course that I called Comparative Slavery. I was a new Ph.D. hired at a small liberal arts school in Virginia; my training was in antebellum U. S. and southern history (my own research is in antebellum politics), but I got the job partly because I had a minor field in Latin America. To impress my new colleagues I thought I should teach a slavery course that was much more Latin America than United States. So I constructed a brutal reading list, and in hindsight I’m surprised anyone survived the whole thing.
But youthful hubris aside, this first attempt taught me that a comparative slavery course could be a great way to discuss contemporary issues like race and identity. In some ways it was my first experience with connecting history to society and culture today, at least in an intentional way; I guess I’d never really thought about it much before it happened sort of accidentally. Although most of the course focused on historical slavery in the Americas, I had the students read Carl Degler and Joel Williamson to discuss some post-emancipation legacies of slavery. And we framed a lot of the discussion in the old Frank Tannenbaum arguments from Slave and Citizen—it was Comparative Slavery, after all. It turned out to be the best week of the class, even though some of the students thought it was only marginally related to slavery. [continue reading]
In the imagination of historians, the 19th century once reigned supreme. The French Revolution of 1789, some said, had given birth to a “permanent revolution,” as the forces of progress and reaction struggled for supremacy. Karl Marx insisted in his essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” that the spirit of communism seemed to be burrowing through the 19th century like a mole that would eventually break ground definitively. Twentieth-century historians, who had the benefit of hindsight, knew he was right. Eric Hobsbawm gained fame largely for picking up Marx’s narrative of capitalism and its contradictions and showing how, through the ages of industry and empire, it still held good in the 20th century.
And there were further reasons to care about the 19th century. The origins of fascism and Nazism, not merely 20th-century communism, needed to be explained, and it was not unreasonable to suppose that their roots lay in the previous century. It seemed obvious to many that a pan-European phenomenon that began in Italy and Germany in different decades—before and after the Great Depression—did not merely spring from short-term origins and accidents. After the First World War, then in droves after the Second World War, historians of German lands zealously traced the German nation’s Sonderweg—the notorious “special path” that led it to bring so many calamities to the world. Scholars of German history, like the Marxist historians, became habitués of the 19th century.
Then something happened. The fall of communism made the seeds of revolution seem less interesting. By that time even the 19th-century roots of Nazism, once obsessed-over, had became unfashionable. (Wasn’t every nation’s path special?) A few months ago I heard a leading critic of the notion of a German Sonderweg, historian David Blackbourn, note regretfully that his attack 30 years ago on the old assumptions had inadvertently destroyed scholarly interest in the 19th century. Academic historians simply stopped studying it. Many departments of history now skip the era. Even historians of empire, a topic that has boomed over the last 30 years, have tended to prefer the 20th century, when anti-colonialism surged. [continue reading]
In 1919, as Europe emerged from the carnage of the first world war, race riots broke out in Liverpool, which had justifiably called itself a “world city” during the Edwardian era; the city Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, had described back in 1849 as “a port in which all climes and countries embrace”. In his slipstream, visiting black Americans marvelled at the sight Melville had seen in Liverpool of a black ship’s steward “arm in arm with a good-looking English woman”, unthinkable in America.
Liverpool was host to Britain’s first black community, but by 1919 some firms had discharged all their black employees, because whites refused to work with them. That year, gangs of up to 10,000 “John Bulls” and their supporters unleashed what the author of this book calls “a reign of terror… a white rampage” across areas of the city in which west African seamen had dropped anchor, followed by the Chinese. So ebbed and flowed the tides of race and race relations on the Mersey. Local history at its best is both focused and universal: inimitably about a specific place in time, but with lessons for elsewhere and – if it is really good – beyond its time. [continue reading]
Members of the “Cambridge Five” spy ring were seen by their Soviet handlers as hopeless drunks incapable of keeping secrets, newly-released files suggest. Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, “Kim” Philby and Anthony Blunt were recruited as Soviet spies while at Cambridge University in the 1930s. There may have been a fifth spy in the ring, possibly John Cairncross. Documents from the Mitrokhin Archive have been made publicly available for the first time. The FBI described them as the most complete intelligence ever received.
Major Vasili Mitrokhin smuggled the information out of Soviet archives during 12 years working for the KGB. He defected to Britain in 1992. Among the thousands of pages of documents are profiles outlining the characteristics of Britons who spied for the Soviet Union. They include references to Donald Duart Maclean and Guy Burgess, two of the five men recruited while studying at the University of Cambridge during the 1930s. A short passage describes Burgess as a man “constantly under the influence of alcohol”.
Written in Russian, it goes on to recount one occasion when Burgess drunkenly risked exposing his double identity. “Once on his way out of a pub, he managed to drop one of the files of documents he had taken from the Foreign Office on the pavement,” translator Svetlana Lokhova explained. Moving on to Maclean, the note describes him as “not very good at keeping secrets”. It adds he was “constantly drunk” and binged on alcohol. [continue reading]