From the librarian who saved Timbuktu’s heritage to walking tours of Barcelona’s slave trade past, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Wall Street Journal
For custodians of the ancient heritage of the Middle East and North Africa, the recent rise of Islamist extremist groups has posed a dire challenge. Since its seizure of the historic Iraqi city of Mosul in early 2014, Islamic State has pillaged and demolished mosques, shrines, churches and other sacred sites across the region. The group continues to launch “cultural cleansing” operations from Tikrit to Tripoli.
In this grim procession, there have been occasional victories for culture over extremism, like the recapture last month of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which may now be restored to something of its previous glory. A less familiar case of cultural rescue features an unlikely hero: a 51-year-old book collector and librarian named Abdel Kader Haidara in the fabled city of Timbuktu, in the West African country of Mali. [continue reading]
On the one hand, transnational approaches can be extremely useful. They provide far richer arrays of international contexts and comparisons; they free us from the parochialism of place and regionalism; and they help to combat the anachronisms and ideologies of nationalism. They also help to decentre historical perspectives, to reflect the complex lived realities of historical experiences, to counter enduring legacies of colonialism and racism, and to allow us to create new questions. On the other hand, broad transnational perspectives, particularly Atlantic world and global frameworks, bring risks for Canadian historians, because demographically smaller spaces can get easily overshadowed.
Transnational and international comparisons invariably require the historian to generalize about patterns and trends in Canada or, as some would put it, Northern North America. This raises the risk of over-simplifying the vast regional, ethnic, and linguistic diversity across Canadian and Indigenous historical experiences. It’s hard enough to get it right when we’re drawing on a national canvass. [continue reading]
The global trade regime has never been very popular in the United States. Neither the World Trade Organization nor the multitudes of regional trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have had strong support among the general public. But opposition, while broad, was diffuse.
The difference today is that international trade has moved to the center of the political debate. The US presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have both made opposition to trade agreements a key plank of their campaigns. And, judging from the tone of the other candidates, standing up for globalization constitutes electoral suicide in the current political climate. [continue reading]
Not Even Past
Approaching a new set of questions, Global Indios has many surprises in store for the contemporary reader. The most prominent is the author’s concept of an “indioscape,” a cognitive mapping of the New World and its peoples. By the mid-sixteenth century, Europeans had realized that an entire landmass separated western Eurasia from East Asia. However, the mapping of this supercontinent was far from complete by that time. Relying upon the expert testimony of missionaries and those who had travelled to the New World, the courts pieced together a series of cultural habits and physical traits that roughly differentiated certain environments, regions, and peoples of the New World. In the courtrooms, judicial officials and third-party experts would interrogate litigants, while taking into account their physiognomy and entering it into the legal record.
The debate around racial status reveals just how fuzzy these distinctions were, especially during the early phases of colonialism. Establishing the identity of an “indio” often revolved around a series of guided questions and prejudicial observations that informed the European eye toward an ambiguous legal subject. This assessment may imply limited input on the part of indigenous petitioners. However, as the author shows, these litigants were not passive subjects before a foreign legal process. [continue reading]
Modernisme, Catalonia’s stunning take on art nouveau, is as important to the Barcelona brand as Barça striker Lionel Messi. The work of Antoni Gaudí in particular defines much of the city centre but few locals, let alone the tourists queueing to get into world-famous sights such as Palau Güell and Park Güell, know their dark secret: many were built with money made from the slave trade.
Nations are adept at swerving uncomfortable episodes in their history and Spain is no exception – the civil war’s legacy, for example, was not confronted for decades after Franco’s death. But times are changing: money has been spent on finding mass war graves, and Spain and Catalonia’s role in slavery is getting more attention. Barcelona has a radical new mayor, Ada Colau, who made her name as a social activist, and the city council is supporting a new walking tour of places with a slave history. [continue reading]