This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


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

From the imperialism of time zones to remembering the Alamo in Japan, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Imperialism of Time Zones

Kelly O’Brien
Boston Globe

A modern life lived by natural time, dictated by the sun or moon, would be confusing. A conference call dialed at 9 a.m. in Boston would ring at the Springfield office at 8:54 a.m local time. A last-minute birthday text sent instantly from Philadelphia at 11:59 p.m. would need to read “belated” in New York City, as it would arrive at 12:03 a.m. local time.

Fortunately, those cities had all been operating on the same clock time for decades before long-distance communication became so ubiquitous and instantaneous. A 1918 federal law created the time zone, generally referred to as Eastern Standard, that operated on “the mean astrological time” along the 90th degree of longitude west of the meridian running through Greenwich, England, a definition that held for almost 90 years before being simplified. [continue reading]

Both an End and a Beginning: The Long Fall of the Berlin Wall

Ned Richardson-Little
History Ned

From our perspective today, it is easy to see November 9, 1989 as the end of the German Democratic Republic. In most of the coverage of the anniversaries, that date is synonymous with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of monopoly rule by the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the end of the feared Ministry of State Security, the Stasi. In retrospect, it is clear that the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9 was a decisive breaking point, after which the SED could never recover its capacity to rule.

But on November 10, 1989, this was far from obvious for all involved. In the early hours that day it was still unclear what exactly had happened overnight. SED officials still believed they could re-impose controls on cross border travel. The Soviet Union had yet to comment on the events or indicate if it would intervene. While earlier mass protests had been tolerated, Egon Krenz, leader of the SED since late October when he had deposed Erich Honecker, had praised the violent crackdown at Tiananmen Square earlier in the year leading some to fear violence could still come. That the opening of the border would usher in a peaceful transition to pluralistic democracy and later reunification was hardly certain. [continue reading]

Free Movement Proposed between Canada, U.K, Australia, New Zealand

CBC News

When James Skinner moved from the United Kingdom to Australia, he fell in love with Melbourne, landed a great job, met a great group of friends, settled down in his new home — only to leave because permanent residency was much harder to obtain than he anticipated.  Skinner, who now lives in Vancouver, says he fears the same experience could happen again. “We are virtually the same people,” he told The Early Edition‘s Rick Cluff, referring to countries within the Commonwealth. “The only thing that divides us is the cover of our passports.”

Skinner, who is the founder and executive director of the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organization, is calling on politicians in Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand to loosen restrictions on visas and work permits between the four countries. He says citizens within the European Union can work and reside indefinitely in each of the 28 member states, and a similar policy occurs between Australia and New Zealand. There’s no reason why something similar can’t happen between Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, he argued. “We’ve had that Commonwealth tie for generations and decades in the past, we’ve stuck together through thick and thin, [we] share the same head of state, the same native language, the same respect for the common law,” he said. [continue reading]

A Short History of Helping Far-off Peoples

Emily Baughan
Africa is a Country

In the past two centuries, as technologies of mass media have advanced, so too has our knowledge of the suffering of distant others. It is through this knowledge that the new ways of generating empathy underpinning the modern humanitarian movement came into being. But the desire to help others is difficult to disconnect from representations of their need. Humanitarianism is a modern phenomenon, generally traced to the late-eighteenth century, when new forms of print media publicized the plight of far-off peoples. At heart it was about helping a distant stranger, rather than a friend or neighbour.

The abolition of slavery is usually credited as the first humanitarian campaign. During the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries western activists sought to create sympathy for enslaved peoples in the Caribbean through images and narratives that focused on both bodily and emotional pain. New ways of generating empathy for the suffering of distant strangers were created though lurid descriptions of torture and suffering. These were widely circulated due to the expansion of technologies such as the printing press, and reached new audiences due to expanded literacy. By focusing on the physical and emotional pain of slaves, humanitarian appeals highlighted the shared humanity of slaves. In doing so, these appeals created and extended empathy for distant strangers. Thus, humanitarianism has always been inseparable from its literary and visual representations. [continue reading]

Remembering Texas and the Battle of the Alamo in Japan

Franz-Stefan Gady

In the Alamo Convent Courtyard, a few meters away from the sand colored stone structure known as the Long Barrack, where in the early morning hours of March 6, 1836 some of the last Alamo defenders succumbed to the pre-dawn Mexican onslaught, stands a small stone monument, a poem in classical Chinese inscribed on it.

The poem, composed in September 1914 by Shiga Shigetaka—a Japanese scholar, world traveler, popular writer, and eminent geographer —vividly describes the thirteen days of the siege and subsequent battle over the Alamo Mission, located in San Antonio, Texas. It begins:

One hundred fifty are besieged by five thousand;
Not only the provisions but the ammunition is all gone.
Thirty-two men hear the news and hurry to the scene.
The heavy strokes of their sabers lead them into the fortress, through the ranks of the enemy to see
The commander of the fortress wet with blood,
And his men reeling against the walls with exhaustion but with swords in hand.
[continue reading]

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