This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

The Roman ruins in Palmyra. Photograph: G Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty
The Roman ruins in Palmyra. Photograph: G Dagli Orti/De Agostini/Getty

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

From the centenary of the “humanitarian occupation” of Haiti to internationalizing the ruins of Palmyra, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Humanitarian Occupation of Haiti: 100 Years and Counting

Mark Schuller

This Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the commencement of the U.S. Occupation of Haiti. On July 28, 1915, U.S. Marines landed on the shores of Haiti, occupying the country for 19 years. Several college campuses, professional associations, social movements, and political parties are marking the occasion with a series of reflections and demonstrations. Several have argued that the U.S. has never stopped occupying Haiti, even as military boots left in 1934.

Some activists are using the word “humanitarian occupation” to describe the current situation, denouncing the loss of sovereignty, as U.N. troops have been patrolling the country for over 11 years. The phrase “humanitarian occupation” may seem distasteful and even ungrateful to some considering the generosity of the response to the January 12, 2010 earthquake, however there are several parallels between the contemporary aid regime and the U.S. Marine administration. First and foremost, foreign troops are on the ground, controlling the country; the military regimes operated with complete immunity and impunity. Second, a new constitution was installed, centralizing power in the executive. Third, both occupations involved Haiti’s gold resources. [continue reading]

The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations

Heather Jones, Barry Buzan, Craig Calhoun, George Lawson, Juergen Osterhammel, Ayse Zarakol
LSE Roundtable

From Burma to Nagasaki: the Man Who Walked Through Hell

Elizabeth Day

Jan Bras does not like to hurt any living thing. If he spots a fly crawling across a table he will cup it carefully in his hand and release it out of the window. “I very quickly feel sorry for people or creatures,” he says, sitting on a beige sofa in the drawing room of the central London flat he shares with his wife of more than 57 years. “That’s one of my things.”

At 92 he thinks this surfeit of empathy comes from having witnessed appalling violence as a young man. From the formative ages of 18 to 21, Jan Bras was a Japanese prisoner of war. When the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies during the second world war, he was transported by “hell ship” and cattle wagon to work on the construction of the Burma railway. Later, he was interned in a camp and sent to work in the perilous coal mines at Fukuoka. After liberation in 1945, he was one of the first to walk through a decimated Nagasaki after the detonation of the atomic bomb. He witnessed unimaginable terror, brutality and death. Throughout it all, Jan Bras survived. [continue reading]

The Archive of Black Marxism and the Story of Twentieth Century Black Radicalism

Minkah Makalani
African American Intellectual History Society

The opening of Russian state archives in the early 1990s allowed for the first time an unprecedented window into the inner-world of V. I. Lenin’s Communist International (Comintern) and the numerous national communist parties constituting its membership. For many scholars writing about the American left, such access held the promise of indisputable facts from which would issue the true story of international communism. It likely surprised few that Cold War historians would locate within these voluminous files the necessary documentation to confirm their long held suspicions about Soviet intrigue and control over American communism. It should have been equally unsurprising that historians of the left would mirror such positivism in demonstrating the value of international communism and the autonomy of the American Communist Party.

As far as black people in organized communism were concerned, the respective arguments in this debate continued largely unchanged, the former still portraying black Communists as either naïve pawns or willing agents of Kremlin intrigue, the latter still presenting U.S. and Soviet Communists as, on the whole, positive forces in antiracist and anticolonial struggles. For each, the villain or the hero of the story, its central figure, remained the Comintern and its member parties, with black people appearing largely as evidence to substantiate their competing claims. [continue reading]

Palmyra: Ruins that Inspired the Architecture of Power

Jane O’Brien
BBC Magazine

What do the ruins of an ancient Roman city in Syria and some of the most iconic buildings in Washington and London have to do with each other? A new exhibit aims to connect US audiences with antiquities under fire in Syria’s civil war. Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl named Haliphat. She was rich, but also modest and virtuous. She lived in a magnificent desert city that glowed pink when the sun set. This could be the beginning of a fairy story – except the tale is true and right now there is no happy ending in sight.

Haliphat really did exist about 1,800 years ago. Her home was Palmyra, a vibrant commercial hub at the heart of the Roman Empire. Today its ancient ruins stand at the crosshairs of Syria’s brutal civil war. We know about Haliphat thanks to Charles Freer. He acquired her limestone bust in 1908 to and gave it to the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington DC. The sculpture was taken from her tomb and shows her dressed in her finest clothes. According to an Aramaic inscription, she died in 231 AD. The museum has decided to put the bust on display for the first time in almost a decade after the group calling itself Islamic State (IS) overran Palmyra in May. [continue reading]