This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


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

From 21st-century US filibustering in Africa to how to make a country disappear, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Reckless Plot to Overthrow Africa’s Most Absurd Dictator

Andrew Rice

After the coup failed, the raids began. On New Year’s Day this year, FBI agents descended on a blue split-level house in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the dead of night, near Austin, Texas, they searched a million-dollar lakeside villa. Agents interrogated an activist at his house in the working-class town of Jonesboro, Georgia. At a rundown townhouse development in Lexington, Kentucky, they found the wife of a US soldier, with a refrigerator full of her husband’s favourite Gambian delicacies – dishes prepared for a triumphant homecoming and repurposed for mourning. When the employees of Songhai Development, an Austin building firm, arrived at work on Monday 5 January, they discovered the FBI had visited their offices over the weekend and seized all the company’s computers. The company’s owner, Cherno Njie, was spending the holidays in west Africa. But Doug Hayes, who managed construction for Njie, expected his boss back at any moment – they had an apartment project that was about to face an important zoning commission hearing.

“I guess he really had a two-track mind,” Hayes said in May, with a rueful laugh, over lunch at his favourite Texas barbecue joint. “He had that going, and he also wanted to be president of the Gambia.” By the end of that Monday, Njie’s name was all over the international news. He had been arrested as he got off a plane at Dulles international airport near Washington DC, and charged with organising a failed attempt to overthrow Yahya Jammeh, the military ruler of the Gambia, a slender riverine nation of fewer than 2 million people. [continue reading]

The Taylor Swift Tiananmen Square Controversy, Explained

Max Fisher

On Tuesday, shortly after Taylor Swift revealed plans to sell new merchandise in China, people began noticing something uncomfortable about the Swift-themed clothing: Much of it bore the initials “T.S.” and the year 1989. Those are the artist’s initials and the title of her most recent album, 1989. But T.S. could also stand for Tiananmen Square, and 1989 is the year of the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre of students and democracy activists. China is known for heavily censoring even the slightest reference to Tiananmen Square. Even the date, June 4, 1989, is considered politically sensitive.

Would it be a geopolitical controversy? Would Taylor Swift’s name be censored on Chinese social media? Could she be shut out of the giant Chinese market, as American musicians have been in the past for, say, associating with the Dalai Lama? [continue reading]

A Sea of Troubles: The Philippines and Pacific Geopolitics

Gregory Kupsky
Origins OSU

In early 2013 I took a tour of Corregidor Island, at the mouth of Manila Bay. Our guide ushered us through the military ruins left over from the “American Period” of Philippine history. After touting the close relationship between our countries, the guide referred back to the Spaniards who had first fortified Corregidor centuries earlier. I noted that the island did indeed provide a strategic vantage point over the entrance to the South China Sea. The conversation paused. “Sir,” he said politely, “I believe you are referring to the West Philippine Sea.”

About a year later, President Barack Obama visited Manila to mark the signing of a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. He and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III hailed their countries’ 63-year-old alliance and framed the deal in terms of military training and humanitarian assistance. They also emphasized what it would not do: it would not reopen American bases in the Philippines, nor was the intent to “contain China.” This statement came in response to questions about a mounting dispute with Beijing over islands to the west of the Philippines. While not explicitly backing Manila, Obama stressed his commitment to preserving stability in the South China Sea. Somewhere, I assume, my tour guide cringed. [continue reading]

Wartime Tunnels Open at the White Cliffs of Dover

National Trust Press Office

Second World War tunnels built on the orders of Winston Churchill underneath the White Cliffs of Dover, have opened to visitors for the first time following a two-year conservation project involving over 50 volunteers. Fan Bay Deep Shelter was built in the 1940s as part of Dover’s offensive and defensive gun batteries, which were designed to prevent German ships moving freely in the English Channel. The shelter was personally inspected by Winston Churchill in June 1941.

Fan Bay Deep Shelter main tunnel – copyright National Trust, credit Barry Stewart
Fan Bay Deep Shelter main tunnel – copyright National Trust, credit Barry Stewart

Carved out of the chalk cliffs, the shelter accommodated four officers and up to 185 men of other ranks during bombardments in five bomb-proof chambers and also had a hospital and secure store. It was decommissioned in the 1950s and filled in two decades later….Over a hundred tonnes of soil and rubble were removed by hand from inside the tunnels to make them accessible once again and the original entrance has been restored. Specialist guides can now lead torch-lit hard hat tours deep into the heart of the White Cliffs to reveal the story of the tunnels. Visitors will descend 23 metres below ground down the original 125 steps to reach the labyrinth of tunnels, once manned by troops from the Royal Artillery. The shelter was originally dug by tunnelling units from the Royal Engineers. [continue reading]

How to Disappear a Country

Amie Ferris-Rotman

Though there were rebel police on the streets of Donetsk, it was not entirely clear what laws applied, and people were on edge. A region-wide curfew of 11 p.m. was in place. Despite the February ceasefire signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany—the second ceasefire of the conflict, since the first began falling apart shortly after it was signed last September—fighting continues in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 7,000 civilians and 1,675 Ukrainian soldiers over the past 16 months. It is unclear how many rebels have been killed.

Across the Donetsk People’s Republic, traces of Ukraine were successfully being extinguished. Most Ukrainian businesses along the capital city’s birch-lined boulevards were fading into oblivion—shops shuttered, ATM screens and cell-phone top-up booths covered in a thick film of dust, untouched for months. Many foreign firms had also pulled out of the region due to security concerns. On the city’s yellow mailboxes, the Ukrainian word for “post”—poshta—had been changed to Russian—pochta—in crudely drawn marker, a divisive difference of one letter. Ukrainian license plates were gradually being replaced with ones belonging to the DPR. [continue reading]