From one of the 20th century’s most unusual books about empire, to how the neocons led the US to war in Iraq, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
If knowledge is power, then the British government’s secret gazetteer of the Gulf, known simply as “Lorimer” after its author, epitomises the scale of imperial ambition. Intended to be a portable handbook, it was anything but, writes Matthew Teller. It’s one of the 20th Century’s most unusual books.
Commissioned in 1903 as a six-month project to produce a “convenient and portable handbook” for British diplomats, John Gordon Lorimer’s Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia covered 5,000 pages when it finally emerged 12 years later, in six giant volumes. Lorimer, born in Glasgow, served as a colonial administrator in India before his transfer to Baghdad and then the Gulf. He took five years over the first volume, an obsessively detailed listing of towns and villages that records everything from topography to demography. To stop such a wealth of specialist knowledge falling into the wrong hands, it was immediately classified “secret”, circulated only among British officials. [continue reading]
As I began to follow Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth of common casts and production teams, I came to the conclusion that there was really a transnational genre of films made between 1949 and 1972 that we might call “the mediterranean,” much like “the western.” For that is really what unites these films: their Mediterranean setting. The biblical content of some of these films is, in fact, secondary and, in a sense, contingent: biblical stories are just one way of telling mediterranean stories, much as the cattle drive was one possible plot for the Western.
What stands out is not the content at all but, we might say, the temperature. Lustiness and voluptuousness are the absolute sine qua non of these films. These films are about bodies—muscles, curves, and sweat—and also about bodies in extremis—in a state of, one might say, torture or tumescence, agony and ecstasy. These are hot films from a hot climate: films about swarthy bodies and sultry eyes. These are films exploring what can be done with light clothing that is sweated through easily, much as today’s superhero films are explorations in spandex. [continue reading]
Many observers of modern social science are convinced of the maxim: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’. Yet good historical scholarship has always used statistics as the antidote to the ‘damned lies’. This is especially useful with the Industrial Revolution, where wild theories dominate. Below I examine three famous theories of the Revolution and show why they do not tell us the whole story.
Underpinning my analysis is the recent work of Professor Nicholas Crafts, Professor of Economics and Economic History at the University of Warwick. In November the Legatum Institute welcomed Professor Crafts to explore the question: ‘why Britain got there first?’ [continue reading]
Meticulously researched and fluently written, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad’s The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War is the comprehensive guide to the neoconservatives and their works. The book’s larger story is of the enormous influence wielded by unelected lobbyists and officials over the foreign policies of supposed democracies, their task facilitated by the privatisation and outsourcing of more and more governmental functions in the neoliberal era. (Similar questions are provoked by the state-controlled or corporate media in general, as it frames, highlights or ignores information.)
The more specific story is of how a small network of like-minded colleagues (Ahmad provides a list of 24 key figures), working against other unelected officials in the State Department, military and intelligence services, first conceived and then enabled America’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a disaster that continues to overshadow regional and global relations today. [continue reading]