From historians against Brexit to the ‘other’ Bandung, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
More than 300 prominent historians, including Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, are warning voters that if they choose to leave the European Union on 23 June they will condemn Britain to irrelevance. In a letter to the Guardian, the academics and writers argue that the referendum offers a chance to underscore the “irreplaceable role” Britain has played, and should continue to play, in Europe’s history.
“As historians of Britain and of Europe, we believe that Britain has had in the past, and will have in the future, an irreplaceable role to play in Europe,” the letter says. “On 23 June, we face a choice: to cast ourselves adrift, condemning ourselves to irrelevance and Europe to division and weakness; or to reaffirm our commitment to the EU and stiffen the cohesion of our continent in a dangerous world.” [continue reading]
War on the Rocks
Fritz Bilfinger spent the Second World War as a liaison of the International Committee of the Red Cross. His job was prevailing upon the Japanese government in Tokyo to respect the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of Allied prisoners of war (POWs). On August 29, 1945, the International Committee of the Red Cross sent him on a fact-finding mission to Hiroshima, where he found a no man’s land “filled with the stench of corpses.” Where a bustling downtown had once straddled the Ota River now stretched a zone of total destruction two kilometers wide, with structures 10 kilometers further out battered, broken, and burnt out. Three weeks after “Little Boy” exploded above the now-skeletal dome of Sea Hospital, a MASH unit and the Red Cross hospital were the only medical facilities left standing. In conditions “beyond description,” available doctors and nurses fought to save more than 100,000 who were suffering from the bomb’s “mysterious” effects. They watched those seemingly en route to recovery experienced “fatal relapses” as acute radiation (to which they had also unwittingly exposed themselves) devastated their patients’ white blood cells, bringing on multi-organ failure and eventual death.
President Barack Obama’s visit to Hiroshima at the G-7 meeting in Japan this week is an occasion to mourn the “ghosts of Hiroshima” and, with luck, to revive an arms control effort that has fallen short of his pledge seven years ago in Pragueto work toward nuclear abolition. Rather than dwell on the past, Obama wants “a forward-looking signal.” He should do more than rehash comatose schemes like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, successes like the Nuclear Security Summits and the Iran nuclear deal, or the faraway idyll of “a world without nuclear weapons.” With global nuclear forces entering a new phase of uneven reductions and modernization even as the United States works to move disarmament forward, Obama should detail how the laws of war restrain U.S. nuclear strategy today and how universal observance of these restrictions would reduce the risks of civilians falling victim once more to the scourge of atomic warfare. [continue reading]
Courtney J. Campbell
The personal histories of enslaved and oppressed peoples are notoriously difficult to access. This is especially true of people who lived in earlier historical periods, since information on their lived experiences usually come via third parties, such as foreign travellers writing about slavery for European audiences, or by way of court cases, where their voices are only faintly heard. These sources are essential to understanding how slave societies worked, but they too often reduce the enslaved to a nameless and faceless crowd. While documents about the lives of the enslaved and free people of colour do exist, they tend to be hard to find and can often be in an advanced state of deterioration. We need these documents to create human historical narratives and to understand how individuals justified, resisted, accepted, and fought against enslavement and other forms of social oppression.
This piece considers one increasingly important method of bringing the lives of the invisible to light: the digitisation and dissemination of archival historical sources related to slavery and its afterlives. I draw upon personal experience arising from two research projects in the state of Paraíba, Brazil. The first project successfully digitised 266 ecclesiastical and secular documents stored at three institutions: the Waldemar Bispo Duarte Historical Archive; the Paraíba Historical and Geographical Institute in the coastal state capital of João Pessoa; and the Church of Our Lady of the Miracles of Saint John of the Cariri in the town of São João do Cariri in the interior of the state. The project digitised many types of documents, but the most exciting are the baptismal, marriage, and death records, which list the names and places of origin of the free, freed, and enslaved, as well as early land grants from the Portuguese government that describe the terrain in great detail. [continue reading]
At the foot of one of Da Nang’s Marble Mountains women with rice hats walk around selling souvenirs. A lift takes tourists to the top, where on one side they look out over the countryside of central Vietnam, on the other the South China Sea. In 1968 David Edward Clark was camped behind these mountains, but then it was impossible to climb them, the 66-year-old says. Anyone doing so would be a sitting duck for the Vietcong camped nearby.
“We even had the rule that you would never leave the camp without a gun,” says Clark. “So I walked around with an M16 all day. And I put that thing in the face of every Vietnamese I encountered. Men, women and children. I wanted them to be scared of me. That would give me a bigger chance to survive.” Forty years later Clark came back to Vietnam, this time not to fight Communists, but to build a new life. Clark is one of about 100 American veterans, maybe more, who have established themselves in Vietnam. Many of them live in and around Da Nang, the city where the US had its busiest military airfield during the war and where the first American troops arrived in 1965. [continue reading]
Historians everywhere view the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference as the starting point for Afro-Asianism. The conference has become such a byword for Afro-Asian solidarity that the simple invocation of ‘Bandung’, the city in which it was held, conjures up familiar images of the leaders of newly decolonized nations standing shoulder to shoulder in their conviction that colonialism is an evil which should speedily be brought to an end. In reality, however, the resolution on colonialism in the final communiqué had been a hard-won battle. Debates on whether it should explicitly include new forms of imperialism had almost brought the conference to a standstill. But so successful was the performance of unity that it sparked a new conceptual approach: the study of diplomacy as theater. The conference, like any performance, had a meticulously designed front stage but looked very different from the wings. G.H. Jansen, an Indian diplomat-turned-journalist and keen observer of all things Afro-Asia, found it simpler to speak of two Bandungs:
Two conferences were held at Bandung in April 1955. One was the real conference, about which not very much is known, about which people care even less, and which has faded away like a bad dream. The other was a quite different conference, a crystallization of what people wanted to believe had happened…
But to all intents and purposes there were indeed two Bandungs, and not just in a metaphorical sense. Two large international conferences were convened in Asia in April 1955 to discuss problems of common interest, Afro-Asian cooperation, and the mounting tensions of the Cold War. From the 18th to the 24th, Indonesia played host to its famous and carefully staged display of Afro-Asian diplomacy. Scarcely more than a week earlier, between the 6th and the 10th, New Delhi had been the site of another conference with similar aims. [continue reading]