From the last known survivor of the Mexican Revolution to how John Brown’s Body crossed the Pacific, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Leandra Becerra Lumbreras was the last known survivor of the Mexican Revolution, the last living soldadera. In January, I travelled to Zapopan, Mexico with the artist Nao Bustamante, who has been learning about the women who fought in the Mexican Revolution. In the fall, stories about her longevity appeared in the news — she was then 127 years old, and in these stories, she was identified as the leader of a battalion of Adelitas. The artist took me on her pilgrimage to meet Leandra. I was part of Bustamante’s team: facilitating conversation, translating — language and history — this was my role.
Just months later, in March 2015, Leandra would move on to the next world. She did not go without a fight. During our visit, we saw Leandra lying on a potpourri of multi colored and functioning pads, blankets, and pillows. Her nest rested against the outer wall of the small room in which she would spend the final weeks of her life. We were the guest of Leandra’s family for two full days. To thank them for their hospitality, we offered to get them something they might need. “An air mattress, that’s what she needs,” explained Miriam, one of Leandra’s numerous relatives and now caretakers. “She scratched a hole through the last one and it deflated.” [continue reading]
Japan’s parliament is debating what many consider its most important legislation since the second World War. Prime minister Shinzo Abe wants to allow Japan’s armed forces to join in military activities abroad and defend foreign allies – principally the United States. But Abe’s long-cherished aim to loosen the shackles of the country’s pacifist constitution and allow “collective self-defence” is beset by peace-mongers. Popular opposition is growing and most of Japan’s constitutional experts say the government’s security bills are illegal.
Abe’s difficulties were embarrassingly highlighted recently when three of the country’s top legal experts said his plans violated the constitution. One of them, Yasuo Hasebe, was handpicked by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). For decades, Japanese governments interpreted the constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 to mean that Japan was banned from cooperating with other armies. Abe successfully argued last year that reinterpreting the constitution would help Japan maintain peace amid the “changing security environment” – largely meaning the military expansion of China. The bills currently being debated in parliament would allow the Japanese Self-Defence Forces to roam further afield and play a more muscular role in the US-Japan security alliance. [continue reading]
Hatful of History
In the aftermath of the mass shooting in Charleston, North Carolina, it has emerged that the killer had been photographed in clothing bearing the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. While a lot has been written on this in the last two days, I thought I would post this on how these regimes (and their flags) are used as symbols of white supremacy and racialised anti-communism by the far right across the Anglophone world.
Between the early 1960s and the early 1990s, Southern Africa became a focal point in the Cold War, where South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South-West Africa (now Namibia), Mozambique and Angola were seen as bulwarks against communism and Pan-African socialism. South Africa had adopted the policy of apartheid in 1948 which separated the population into distinct racial categories and denied most rights to its ‘non-European’ subjects. It also controlled, unofficially the territory known as South-West Africa, which it has inherited as a mandate territory from Germany after the First World War. Although the United Nations did not recognise South Africa’s mandate, South-West Africa was run on apartheid policies until it gained independence in 1990. Southern Rhodesia, also known as just Rhodesia, broke away from the British Commonwealth in 1965 in a Unilateral Declaration of Independence after the Prime Minister Ian Smith disagreed with pressure placed upon the country to broaden its parliamentary framework to include the African majority. [continue reading]
Gone now are the barracks, the sadistic guards and the barbed wire. Just one remaining watchtower and a plaque show that this marshy nature reserve on a river island in Bulgaria was once a place of misery. But now, Belene’s few remaining survivors want to create a museum to remind people of the suffering of the thousands of inmates inside communist-era Bulgaria’s most notorious forced labour camp. “The idea is to set up a museum like in Buchenwald or the other Nazi camps (in Germany),” said Vladimir Gerasimov, a member of a committee organising annual visits with former inmates as guides. “The barracks must be reconstructed and we are currently gathering objects that belonged to the detainees, their letters or written memoirs,” he told AFP.
Between 1944 and 1962 some 23,500 people including 2,100 women were incarcerated in Bulgaria’s 45 labour camps, built to “re-educate” the “enemies of the people” as in Russia’s Gulag system. Like in the Soviet Union or other countries behind the Iron Curtain, an unknown number died in back-breaking manual work, malnourished and living like sardines in horrendous conditions. [continue reading]
LA Review of Books Blog
. . . I remembered that one song sung at demonstrations during China’s Civil War (1945-1949) had been a variant on “Solidarity Forever,” the old IWW (International Workers of the World) anthem. The creator of “Solidarity Forever,” I knew, had put new words to what was already by the 1910s an old melody. Just how old, I wasn’t sure. I thought at first, incorrectly, that the tune’s origins lay in the era of America’s own Civil War, when the marching song “John Brown’s Body” was written and then reworked by Julia Ward Howe into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (aka “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”). It turned out, though, that both the melody and at least one key phrase, “Glory, Hallelujah,” go back another half-century or more, to revival meeting songs with titles like “Oh! Brothers Will You Meet Me?”
I decided that, if I could find out anything interesting about the song’s life in China between the two civil wars, I was home free. So, I set off in search of leads on late 19th through early 20th century renditions in China of the song—known by any of its English-language names or the Chinese protest one of “Tuantie Jiushi Liliang,” literally “Unity is Strength”—while also keeping my eyes out for any examples of post-1949 renditions of it. I’ve found enough of interest relating to both periods to feel this is exactly the sort of song Abby had in mind when she sent me the email that triggered my quest. I am not sure just when the song was first played in China, but the first documented playing of it I’ve found took place 135 years ago. According to Around the World with General Grant, a Shanghai band struck up the tune to greet the globe-trotting Civil War hero and ex-President when he arrived in the city in 1879. [continue reading]