This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Member, African Choir, London Stereoscopic Company, 1891. Photograph: Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Member, African Choir, London Stereoscopic Company, 1891. Photograph: Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

From uncovering portraits of black Victorians to Star Trek‘s colonial past, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Black Victorians: Astonishing Portraits Unseen for 120 Years

Sean O’Hagan

The African Choir were a group of young South African singers that toured Britain between 1891 and 1893. They were formed to raise funds for a Christian school in their home country and performed for Queen Victoria at Osborne House, a royal residence on the Isle of Wight. At some point during their stay, they visited the studio of the London Stereoscopic Company to have group and individual portraits made on plate-glass negatives. That long-lost series of photographs, unseen for 120 years, is the dramatic centrepiece of an illuminating new exhibition called Black Chronicles II.

“The portraits were last shown in the London Illustrated News in 1891,” says Renée Mussai, who has co-curated the show at London’s Rivington Place alongside Mark Sealy MBE, director of Autograph ABP, a foundation that focuses on black cultural identity often through the use of overlooked archives. “The Hulton Archive, where they came from, did not even know they existed until we uncovered them while excavating their archive as part of our research project.” [continue reading]

Uncovered: U.K. Intel Encouraged Arab Armies to Invade Israel in 1948

Meir Zamir

September 11, 1947. On the eve of the Arab League’s political committee meeting to decide on the Arab response to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) report [supporting the end of the British mandate and partitioning the land between Jews and Arabs], the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient published an article. “Bloc Oriental et extension de la Ligue” argued that, like the Greater Syria plan [that aimed to unite Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine], the Oriental Bloc – a French term for Britain’s planned regional defense pact – hung over the independence of Arab countries and the Arab League like the Sword of Damocles, and that its authors were one and the same: [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nuri al-Sa’id and [Jordanian] King Abdullah.

On September 20, the Lebanese newspaper Le Jour reported that after the Arab League meeting in Saoufar, Lebanon, Brig. Iltyd Clayton – whom it defined as “head of the British intelligence in the Middle East” – had left for Damascus. It quoted a Syrian newspaper speculating on whether his visit was connected to the Greater Syria scheme and the tense relations between the Syrian and Lebanese presidents (Shukri al-Quwatli and Bishara al-Khuri) and Jordan’s King Abdullah, or to events in Palestine. [continue reading]

Elusive Peace: Thirteen Days in September, by Lawrence Wright

Joe Klein
New York Times

On March 11, 1978, 11 Palestinian militants came ashore in Zodiac boats north of Tel Aviv and set about murdering as many Israelis as they could with guns and grenades. They hijacked a taxi and two buses; 38 were killed, including 13 children. The massacre was intended as a provocation; a disproportionate Israeli response was assumed. And three days later, Israel invaded southern Lebanon, which was then controlled by the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasir Arafat. “Those who killed Jews in our times cannot enjoy impunity,” the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin said. More than a thousand Palestinian civilians were killed; more than 100,000 were left homeless. The world, including President Jimmy Carter, was horrified. Following another invasion in 1982, Israel would occupy parts of southern Lebanon until May 2000. The similarity to recent events in Gaza is striking, of course. The Middle East never changes.

Except, very occasionally, when it does. A mere six months after the Lebanon incursion, Begin and the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, would negotiate peace between their countries, having been hounded into a very tentative comity by Carter during 13 days spent in isolation at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park. [continue reading]

Futures on Demand

Matthew Goldmark
The Appendix

In “Far Beyond the Stars,” an episode from the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9), the commander of a futuristic space station hallucinates that he is a science fiction writer in 1950s New York. Far away from his twenty-fourth century life, Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) becomes Benny Russell, a black writer struggling against the prejudice of his managing editor, the condescension of friends, and the racism of local police.

The contrast between the twenty-fourth and the twentieth centuries is striking. While Sisko’s word is law on the DS9 bridge, Russell suffers petty humiliations in the magazine’s cramped offices. For instance, when fans request headshots of their favorite authors, editors plan a photo-shoot that excludes Russell and his colleague Kay Eaton, “played” in this hallucination by Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) an extraterrestrial officer on DS9. Against Russell’s protest, editors argue that fans are not ready to know that women and black authors write their science fiction favorites: “As far as our readers are concerned, Benny Russell is as white as they are. Let’s just keep it that way.” This official lack of diversity on the magazine’s staff extends to the storyboard as well. When Russell proposes a piece featuring a black captain on a space station (that is, the premise of DS9) his editor retorts: “People won’t accept it. It’s not believable.” In the office and on the page, “Far Beyond the Stars” argues that the future remains constricted by the social exclusions of the present from which it springs. [continue reading]