History Department, University of Exeter
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From walking the streets of 16th-century Seville to when China woke up to Wham! Here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Retracing Sixteenth-Century Steps in Seville
Not Even Past
Sitting in the archive, thumbing through delicate sixteenth-century documents and trying to decipher centuries old paleography, it is easy to forget that the city outside breathes history too. Sources are mesmerizing and reading them is addictive and satisfying. But the life of a researcher can begin to feel like scurrying through tunnels made of words, dates, and images spread across paper, or on the screen. Occasionally, when one comes up for air and walks through the streets of a city, the mind wonders in creatively productive ways and the subjects of research can appear in unusual places far away from the archive. These moments remind us that real people walked the same ground centuries before. That is what happened to me during my first research trip to Seville while researching at the General Archive of the Indies, the enormous bureaucratic repository of documents related to Spain’s overseas kingdoms.
It was a boiling hot day and I decided to take a break from my work. Offering a lazy “ciao” to the security guard on the way out, I walked into the wall of heat that surrounds this beautiful Andalus city in the summer. Strolling around the magnificent cathedral that integrates Moorish and Catholic elements, scurrying between the shadows provided by palm trees, I headed up one of the gaudy shopping streets that act as tributaries from the city’s historic center. Undistracted by the pulsating music and new flowery patterned shirts on display, my mind remained fixed on the sixteenth-century English merchant and botanist, John Frampton, who had lived in the city, nearly five centuries previously and was the subject of my research. [continue reading]
From Washington to Tehran: A Legacy of Failure
Bryan R. Gibson
The Obama administration has achieved the unthinkable. It has managed to cultivate a productive working relationship with one of the United States’ most dogged rivals: Iran. Announced on Thursday, the interim deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions cuts its capacity to enrich uranium by about two-thirds for a minimum of 10 years, dramatically shrinks its stockpile of enriched uranium, and eliminates altogether its ability to produce weapons grade plutonium. In exchange, Iran will receive relief from the sanctions that have devastated its economy, so long as it continues to abide by the terms of the agreement. Should it fail to do so, the interim agreement includes “snapback” provisions that would immediately re-impose the sanctions.
What’s even more remarkable about the agreement, though, is that it leaves behind Washington’s three-and-a-half decade long record of failure with Tehran. Every president, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush, sought to improve relations with Iran. But these efforts were undermined by unanticipated actions on the ground, ill-timed leaks, failure to act at pivotal moments, misperceptions, and ideological shortsightedness. In each instance, when faced with an opportunity to improve relations with Iran, the White House balked. This is why the Obama administration’s persistence in seeking a deal with Iran that would hold its nuclear ambitions in check is so impressive. [continue reading]
The Writers’ Building, Kolkata
For decades, bright-eyed Indian schoolchildren leapt up to answer the question “Who is the founder of Calcutta?” with the name: Job Charnock. But this question is now more complex. For one, since 2001 the city has been officially called Kolkata, as it always has been in Bengali. And, in 2003, a panel of historians appointed by the high court averred that the city had no single founder, but instead named several Indians and Englishmen – including Charnock. Regardless of how they choose to reckon with colonial baggage, few would disagree that the urban history of Kolkata is inseparably linked with the activities of the British in the area. One structure in particular, right in the middle of the city, has stood witness to the growth of Kolkata since 1780: the Writers’ Building.
The Writers’ Building (or Writers’) has a deep connection with all three ruling entities the city has had. Early in its life, it housed clerks of the East India Company (EIC), which seeded the city with a trading post and later grew to rule large parts of India. Then, in the 19th century, Calcutta became the capital of British India, and Writers’ served as the secretariat of Bengal state. Later, the building experienced flashes of the Indian independence movement when a British official was assassinated under its roof in 1930. After independence, it continued to house the state government. For the administrative power it holds, the depth of history it has seen and the fact that it’s the usual end point of Kolkata’s many protest marches, Writers’ is the ideal building through which to look at the city. Through its change and growth over its 236 years standing, Writers’ also acts as a monumental barometer of sorts, reflecting the intentions and predicaments of its rulers. It’s structure went from plain and functional during the early years of the East India Company, to ornate and overbearing during the British Raj, to somewhat messy and overwhelmed as a newly independent India found its feet. [continue reading]
When China woke up to Wham!
Everyone who went to see Wham! perform in China in 1985 seems to remember the same details: the dazzling lights, the overwhelming wave of noise when the music began, and the outfits worn by the duo, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. In 1985, China was just opening up to the outside world following the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. At the same time, Wham! were eager to prove that they were the world’s biggest pop band. A concert in China was just the ticket. The duo’s manager, Simon Napier-Bell, tried to convince various Chinese officials over lunch that the concert tour was a good idea. His successful sales pitch hinged on how China would appear to the outside world if George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley were allowed to play. Wham!’s presence would be proof, Mr Napier-Bell reasoned, of the Communist Party’s desire to welcome foreigners, and much-needed foreign investment.
The pitch worked. Two weeks after the Chinese government gave the green light, Wham! were due to perform in Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou in April 1985. The duo were set to become the first Western band to play inside China, beating other hopefuls Queen and the Rolling Stones. “One day, I saw the concert announcement posted on a wall,” remembers Li Shizhong from Beijing. He was just a teenager at the time. “The band members had long curly hair. They dressed differently. I thought their music would sound different and new because they looked so different from anything else I had seen before.” [continue reading]
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