This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

A dolphin and fish from ‘The London Qazwīnī’, courtesy of British Library and Qatar Foundation.
A dolphin and fish from ‘The London Qazwīnī’, courtesy of the British Library and the Qatar Foundation.

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

From a new Persian Gulf digital history project to why politicians need historians, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Unveiled: Papers from British Residencies in the Gulf

Matthew Reisz
Times Higher Education

The Gulf, according to Nelida Fuccaro, reader in the modern history of the Middle East at Soas, University of London, “has been comparatively neglected by Middle Eastern and British imperial historians. To the former until very recently, the Gulf was a sort of nebulous periphery, often perceived as having little or no indigenous history worth looking into,” said Dr Fuccaro. “As to the latter…it is fair to say that only recently have imperial historians started to link, conceptually and geographically, the study of the Gulf to that of British India and the Indian Ocean world. Both are crucial to understanding Gulf history before Indian independence in 1947.” It is precisely these under-researched areas that should be sharply illuminated and revitalised by one strand of a major digitisation project being pursued by the British Library and Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, which is due to go live later this month. [continue reading]

The Forgotten Army of the First World War: How Chinese labourers Helped Shape Europe

Patrick Boehler and Cedric Sam
South China Morning Post

For centuries, the roots of Cheng Ling’s family burrowed deep into the wheat and potato fields of Shandong province. Yet one family member ventured far away, farmer Bi Cuide. The family has one memento of that journey, in fact the sole possession Cheng has to remind her of grandfather Bi. It is a bronze medal bearing the profile of a sombre King George V on one side, and St George on horseback, clutching a sword, the steed trampling the shield of the Central Powers. The sun of victory rises above. The sun of victory rises between two years: 1914, 1918.

The British medal of merit marks Bi’s sacrifice in helping the British military to win the first world war. The honour arrived after peace had been made, along with some money for his widow. All the family knew is that Bi had died, somewhere abroad. Cheng first discovered the disc when she visited her ancestral home in Laiwu in the 1970s. Then a teenager, she was curious about the number etched along the rim: 97237. For decades, no-one in her family knew what that meant. [continue reading]

The Pointers Eleanor Roosevelt Gave to JFK After His First Televised Debate With Nixon

Rebecca Onion
Slate Vault

In these notes, Eleanor Roosevelt gave John F. Kennedy feedback on his performance in the first televised presidential debate, held on Sept. 26, 1960. The debate famously juxtaposed a sweaty, sickly-looking Richard Nixon with the tanned Kennedy—an unfavorable visual comparison that has often been cited as a turning point in the campaign.

Roosevelt was a powerful figure within the Democratic Party, and had initially supported Adlai Stevenson for the party’s 1960 presidential nomination. When shepublicly commented in 1958 that she had heard that Kennedy’s father was “spending oodles of money” on his campaign, a worried Kennedy implored her to correct herself, lest he look like a spoiled kid manipulated by an influence-seeking father. In a series of letters between the two, they negotiated her revision of the record. [continue reading]

Why Politicians Need Historians

David Armitage

For much of the last 40 years, historians on both sides of the Atlantic have been trained to detach themselves from the supposedly distorting imperatives of “relevance”. They have addressed their work to other historians more than to the wider public. When they have reached out, it has rarely been to shape public policy. It is time to overcome that fastidiousness. History has played little role in policy-making for at least a generation. It made news when in 2012 the then foreign secretary, William Hague, raised the profile of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s in-house historians by moving them into the FCO’s main building on Whitehall. “They were languishing in a basement,” Hague said, “and now the light is shining on their books.”

The FCO’s in-house staff of full-time historians proudly declare on their website that they “provide a long-term, policy-relevant perspective on international issues, and contribute to the collective knowledge and understanding of the FCO and British foreign policy”. Hague, no mean historian himself – the author of well-received biographies of Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce – recognised their usefulness. “People enjoy history. They see the relevance of it. It informs our policies.” No other government department makes such systematic use of historians to form policy. And few professional historians seem to want to be enlisted into the policy process.

More “evidence-based policymaking” has been a battle cry since the 1980s. Yet as the sociologist Pamela Cox argues, what counts as evidence has been quite narrowly defined: either “what works”, derived from the model of clinical trials of drugs, or “what is most cost-effective”, inspired by the audit culture of public services. There is little sense that the kinds of evidence used by historians can be a basis for policy: documentary records, archives or serial data, for instance. They might reveal what “worked” but not what is most cost-effective. When it comes to forming political or administrative decisions, the future still gets much more attention than the past. [continue reading]