This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

The holy city of Mecca, 2013. Fayez Nureldine—AFP/Getty Images
The holy city of Mecca, 2013. Fayez Nureldine—AFP/Getty Images

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

From the demise of the world’s largest monopoly to the smells of empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The World’s Oldest Monopoly is Finally Coming to an End

Gwynn Guilford

Starting in 2016, China will start liberalizing its nearly 2,600-year-old monopoly on table salt—opening up the world’s oldest monopoly to competition at last. At the moment, China National Salt Industry Corporation is the only entity allowed to sell table salt in China. And it’s a big business. China produces more of it than any other country, and, if you count the demand from the chemical industry, uses a quarter of all the salt consumed on the planet, reports the China Daily.

In fact, demand is so stiff that contraband salt is a recurrent problem. Since 1994, Beijing had its own special salt monopoly-enforcing police force, which was at one point staffed with more than 25,000 officers, reports Forbes contributor Brian Viard. In 2013, Taobao, Alibaba’s massive online marketplace, and other e-commerce sites launched an illegal salt crackdown to comply with regulations. [continue reading]

The Age of Frustration

Ward Wilson
Foreign Policy

We mark this year the 100th anniversary of World War I. Books, articles, and events have mourned the costs, celebrated the soldiers, and extolled the values of the victors. But behind the sentimentalism there are also hard realities and compelling lessons for democracy that apply not to some distant, forgotten world but to our own. There is much about the 1890s that seems disquietingly familiar. Our time echoes theirs.

The period before the First World War was an age of frustration. It was called the Belle Époque by those lucky enough to be the wealthy of Europe — a time of top hats, ennui, and stately promenading. But historian Barbara Tuchman reminds us that there was a frantic, haunted quality to the era as well, what one observerdescribed as a “smell of burning” in the air. It was a time of increasingly feverish foreign policy crises. Seemingly dire emergencies came and went with dizzying rapidity. [continue reading]

Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over Its Heritage

Carla Power
Time Magazine

Over 98% of the Kingdom’s historical and religious sites have been destroyed since 1985, according to the U.K.-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. For centuries the Kaaba, the black cube in the center of Mecca, Saudi Arabia that is Islam’s holiest point, has been encircled by arched porticos erected some three centuries ago by the Ottomans, above dozens of carved marble columns dating back to the 8th century. But earlier this month, any vestiges of the portico and columns were reduced to rubble, cleared to make way for the Saudi government’s expansion of Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

The $21 billion project, launched in 2011, is designed to meet the challenges of accommodating the millions of pilgrims who visit Mecca and Medina every year. Around 2 million currently visit during Hajj alone, the annual pilgrimage that happens during the last month of the Islamic calendar. But activists charge that the recent destructions are part of a much wider government campaign to rub out historical and religious sites across the Kingdom. [continue reading]

Smells Like Empire

Jonathan Saha

Historians who have studied the senses have written about the racist claims, often made in colonial and slave societies, that people of colour smelt unpleasant. I have certainly come across such statements in the writings of some British imperialists regarding the Burmese. In addition to being a way of distancing themselves from colonised populations, describing smells could serve a number of other imperial purposes.

The British judge and colonial ethnographer, Cecil Champian Lowis, discusses the power of smell to open his 1913 novel Fascination.

I have heard it said, by those who ought to know, that the nose is the subtlest and most potent memory tickler that exists; and, for my own part, I can certainly say that what brings my days in Burma with most startling promptness back to me are things like an unexpected whiff of sandal-wood perfume, or a lingering odour of cocoanut oil, or maybe a marshy exhalation that serves to recall the acrid smell of rich squishy paddy fields in the snipe season. [continue reading]

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