This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973. Photography by Brian Duffy.

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

From how the Cold War shaped David Bowie to lessons from Japanese Canadian internment, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

How the Cold War’s Fallout Shaped David Bowie

Agata Pyzik

As I was born in the 1980s, I didn’t experience David Bowie’s interest in the communist East firsthand. Instead, I learned to love him via his thrilling, polished pop of the mid-90s. But later, when I discovered Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy as a Western pop culture-obsessed teenager in then-capitalist Poland, it became apparent that these records were a result of a careful immersion in the otherness of the Soviet Bloc. They’re in equal measure about our history as his heart. That the allegedly bleak and sinister communist East was a fascinating place culturally, and that historically charged Eastern Europe must have possessed some truly sophisticated allure, given that it appealed so strongly to a disillusioned generation from the consumerist West. This sophisticated, gloomy music, considered Bowie’s masterpiece, speaks of an “alternative” Eastern Bloc: one that existed more in dreams and yearning than in the everyday reality.


As far as Western popular music goes, a strong argument could be made that Bowie discovered the Soviet Bloc. His relocation to Berlin in 1976 (and the subsequent recording of his landmark trilogy) enabled a whole generation of musicians, from opposing geographical and political backgrounds, to communicate with each other. In the murk of the Cold War’s divided capital— dangerous, concrete-laden, grey, sleazy, sexy—Bowie recognized the potential for a fruitful cultural and historical cross-fertilization. [continue reading]

On (Not) Facing Britain’s Imperial Past at Tate Britain

Louis Allday
The 36th Chamber

In a country where public discourse concerning the actions and legacy of the British Empire is principally shaped by the likes of Dan Snow, Jeremy Paxman and Niall Ferguson, any cultural event that seeks to critically assess Britain’s imperial history is not only welcome, but in fact crucially needed. So, after I saw the sub-heading of Tate Britain’s latest major exhibition ‘Artist & Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past’, I was intrigued and cautiously optimistic that it might be the start of a move away from the wishy-washy apologia of Snow, Paxman’s nostalgic glorification and Ferguson’s transparent adoration of imperial power towards something more honest and critical.

My hopes in this regard were raised further by a glance at the selection of books for sale in the exhibition shop on the day that I visited, for, although the ubiquitous histories of the British Empire by Paxman and Ferguson were unfortunately there, so were C.L.R. James’ crucial studies AHistory of Pan-African Revolt and Black Jacobins, Edward Said’s Culture & Imperialism(although strangely not his classic work, Orientalism – more on that later), Richard Gott’sBritain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt and Franz Fanon’s seminal works Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. The limited edition ‘Empire’ India Pale Ale that I also spotted for sale seemed distasteful, but I hoped it was not a sign of things to come. [continue reading]

“Sold To Africa”: Remembering Patrice Lumumba

Keisha N. Blain

Fifty-five years ago, on January 17, 1961, Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was assassinated in a coordinated transnational effort backed by the United States and Belgium in order to maintain imperial control in the region. Born on July 2, 1925 in the village of Onalua in the Congo’s Kasai Province, Lumumba became one of the leading African nationalists of the twentieth century.

lumumbaAn uncompromising political leader, Lumumba advocated African unity, economic self-sufficiency, and true independence for Africa. Unlike many of his counterparts, Lumumba was unwilling to accept a counterfeit independent government for his own economic and political gain. He was, according to revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon, “sold to Africa” and thus could not be bought by any imperialist power. A political visionary, Lumumba was committed to securing and maintaining the independence of the Congo and actively supported nationalist movements in Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe), South Africa, and other parts of Africa. According to Fanon, the charismatic Congolese leader envisioned “the liberation of the Congo [as] the first phase of the complete independence of Central and Southern Africa.” [continue reading]

America’s Other Original Sin

Rebecca Onion

Here are three scenes from the history of slavery in North America. In 1637, a group of Pequot Indians, men and boys, having risen up against English colonists in Connecticut and been defeated, were sold to plantations in the West Indies in exchange for African slaves, allowing the colonists to remove a resistant element from their midst. (The tribe’s women were pressed into service in white homes in New England, where domestic workers were sorely lacking.) In 1741, an 800-foot-long coffle of recently enslaved Sioux Indians, procured by a group of Cree, Assiniboine, and Monsoni warriors, arrived in Montreal, ready for sale to French colonists hungry for domestic and agricultural labor. And in 1837, Cherokee Joseph Vann, expelled from his land in Georgia during the era of Indian removal, took at least 48 enslaved black people along with him to Indian Territory. By the 1840s, Vann was said to have owned hundreds of enslaved black laborers, as well as racehorses and a side-wheeler steamboat.

A reductive view of the American past might note two major, centuries-long historical sins: the enslavement of stolen Africans and the displacement of Native Americans. In recent years, a new wave of historians of American slavery has been directing attention to the ways these sins overlapped. The stories they have uncovered throw African slavery—still the narrative that dominates our national memory—into a different light, revealing that the seeds of that system were sown in earlier attempts to exploit Native labor. The record of Native enslavement also shows how the white desire to put workers in bondage intensified the chaos of contact, disrupting intertribal politics and creating uncertainty and instability among people already struggling to adapt to a radically new balance of power. [continue reading]

On its 25th Anniversary It’s Worth Talking about the Gulf War

Martin Farr
The Conversation

There’s something of a tendency in Britain to want to remember modern conflicts that – whatever else they may also be – can be presented as triumphs (such as World War II and the Falklands), disasters (which would certainly include Suez and Iraq), or conflicts so profound as to be both (World War I, pre-eminently).

It’s 25 years since Operation Granby, Britain’s contribution to Operation Desert Storm: the removal of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces and the restoration of Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah as Emir. For many in this country at least – and despite its scale – the Gulf War is a “forgotten war”. One reason for this relative lack of prominence is that the objective for the operation was clear, the mission straightforward, the combatants mismatched and the whole thing over in a month. It was a mechanised engagement on broad open battlefields, with none of the hand-to-hand fighting or IEDs of other conflicts. There were also, given the size of the deployment, relatively few British casualties. That’s no comfort to those who knew the 47 who did die, but a number dwarfed by the losses in Palestine, Malaya, Korea, Cyprus, or Northern Ireland. Britain was, moreover, one of 33 other participants in a grand coalition. (As a senior NCO in the war told me last month, “we were a pimple on the backside of the Americans”.) [continue reading]

Lessons from the Japanese Canadian Internments

Jordan Stanger-Ross, Eric Adams, and Laura Madokoro
Globe and Mail

Jan. 19 is an ignominious and little-known landmark on the Canadian calendar. It was on this date in 1943 that Canadian politicians authorized the forced sale of all of the homes, businesses, farms and possessions of Japanese Canadians who had been uprooted from coastal British Columbia in the previous year under the pretext of national security. The lives of affected Japanese Canadians would never be the sameThe dispossession of property was uniquely Canadian. Notably, the United States, which also interned citizens of Japanese descent, refrained from forcing the sale of their property and personal belongings so that many could return to their lives at the end of the war. Not in Canada, where the hard work of generations of Japanese-Canadian families and communities was obliterated by the state.

Order-in-Council 469 of Jan. 19, 1943, demands our attention today. The treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War demonstrates the challenge of upholding civil and human rights at a time of widely perceived national insecurity, a challenge that will help to define Canadian multiculturalism in the coming century. [continue reading]