This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

marchand Contemporary illustration of Major Marchand's trek across Africa. - See more at-

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

From revealing the sheer scale of British slave ownership to America’s colonial fiscal crisis, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The History of British Slave Ownership Has Been Buried: Now its Scale Can be Revealed

David Olusoga

The past has a disconcerting habit of bursting, uninvited and unwelcome, into the present. This year history gate-crashed modern America in the form of a 150-year-old document: a few sheets of paper that compelled Hollywood actor Ben Affleck to issue a public apology and forced the highly regarded US public service broadcaster PBS to launch an internal investigation.

The document, which emerged during the production of Finding Your Roots, a celebrity genealogy show, is neither unique nor unusual. It is one of thousands that record the primal wound of the American republic – slavery. It lists the names of 24 slaves, men and women, who in 1858 were owned by Benjamin L Cole, Affleck’s great-great-great-grandfather. When this uncomfortable fact came to light, Affleck asked the show’s producers to conceal his family’s links to slavery. Internal emails discussing the programme were later published by WikiLeaks, forcing Affleck to admit in a Facebook post: “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed.” [continue reading]

Steaming Through Africa

Sarah Searight
History Today

On the evening of July 10th, 1898 a small flotilla paddled to rest on the shore of the left bank of the White Nile, about latitude 10 degrees N. From the boats stepped five white men, haggard beneath their beards, and a group of black soldiery. They looked around wearily; after two years’ travel from the Atlantic to the Upper Nile they had reached their goal – a few palms and the collapsed walls of an Egyptian fort.

This desolate spot was Fashoda. Pride at reaching their destination was helped that evening by champagne drunk from chipped goblets. Next morning they began rebuilding the fort and planting a vegetable plot. Clearly the party was there to stay. But no one actually knew they were there. [continue reading]

Mau Mau


This is the story of a few documents that tumbled out of the secret archives of the biggest empire the world has ever known, offering a glimpse of histories waiting to be rewritten. Just down the road from a pub in rural Hanslope Park, England is a massive building — the secret archives of the biggest empire the world has ever known. This is the story of a few documents that tumbled out and offered a glimpse of histories waiting to be rewritten.


When professor Caroline Elkins came across a stray document left by the British colonial government in Nairobi, Kenya, she opened the door to a new reckoning with the history of one of Britain’s colonial crown jewels, and the fearsome group of rebels known as the Mau Mau. We talk to historians, archivists, journalists and send our producer Jamie York to visit the Mau Mau. As the new history of Kenya is concealed and revealed, document by document, we wonder what else lies in wait among the miles of records hidden away in Hanslope Park. [Click Here to Listen]

The Puerto Rico Problem


. . . there is another reason why mainland politicians may be reluctant to talk too much about Puerto Rico. It involves guilt. America is proud to be a superpower that never built an empire. But Puerto Rico was, in essence, grabbed as a colony in 1898, after a brief war ended four centuries of rule by Spain (islanders went from being “fervently Spanish” to “enthusiastically American” within 24 hours, grumbled one of the vanquished Spanish commanders at the time).

To this day goods must be shipped between the mainland and Puerto Rico on expensive American-flagged vessels, under a law of 1920 that Congress declines to repeal. Under Rexford Guy Tugwell, appointed governor by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, the island was one large experiment in central planning, down to the creation of favoured industries, from tuna canning to pharmaceuticals. The island was further subsidised during the cold war as a counter-example to Cuba, but never became competitive. [continue reading]