This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


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

From colonial Havana to resurrecting the Japanese Empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Between a Wall and the Sea: A New Book on Colonial Havana

Cecilia T. Fernández
Global Urban History

Strolling through Havana’s so-called “casco histórico,” its colonial center, can be a bizarre experience: Tidy cobblestones line the streets, freshly painted facades look onto the spacious “plazas.” Amidst restaurants, cafés, and hotels, stores have emerged that sell designer fashion to no one really knows who. And yet, if one were to take a wrong turn and end up in one of the smaller side streets, the painted facades would quickly give way to crumbling walls and the famous Cuban “baches” – potholes of unpredictable dimensions.

Since approximately the 1980s, Havana’s Oficina del Historiador has made extensive efforts to restore what is considered the core of the city’s colonial identity. However, the politics of the “city proper” are contested and the size of the funds invested in certain parts of the city is controversial given the desolate state of other areas. In her book, Beyond the Walled City: Colonial Exclusion in Havana, Guadalupe García of Tulane University argues that these politics are influenced by the categories of intramuro and extramuro. That is to say that the part of the city that from the eighteenth until the late nineteenth century was surrounded by city walls is considered the genuine core of colonial Havana. [continue reading]

Claude Eatherly, the Bomb, and the Atomic Age

Carolyn Taratko
JHI Blog

In late May, President Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, making him the first sitting U.S. President to visit the city that was the target of the first atomic bomb on August 6th1945. He called for the pursuit of “a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.” The mere suggestion of the President’s visit proved incendiary to many Americans, who argued that it would be seen as an apology for acts that official consensus holds ended the war and saved hundreds of thousands of lives in the process. Obama made no such apology, though. After expressing generalized remorse at the devastation, he used the occasion to call for non-proliferation, albeit on a timescale outside of his lifetime. It was a poignant moment of remembrance, but then there were other pressing issues to attend to. The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are, after all, the reminders of the immediate dangers of these weapons. At home, in the US, who feels this fear acutely and every day?

On June 3rd, 1959, an Austrian philosopher addressed a letter to a former US Air Force pilot from Texas. The Austrian, Günther Anders, initiated this correspondence after learning through the media that the American, Claude Eatherly, had once again been committed to the psychiatric ward of the V.A. Hospital in Waco. Eatherly had flown the mission to scout the weather above Japan before giving the ‘ok’ to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima. After returning to civilian life, he was wracked by guilt over the consequences of his mission. Multiple suicide attempts and petty crimes ensued over the years that followed. Each time he was acquitted on psychiatric grounds. These offences and his outspoken insistence on his own guilt in partaking in the bombing mission left the Air Force and V.A. administration unsettled. Unwilling to risk another incident and wary of Eatherly’s growing media presence, he was to remain under medical supervision in the Waco hospital, at first voluntarily and then against his will. The Anders-Eatherly correspondence bears witness to this difficult time for the man who wanted to draw attention to the perils of nuclear warfare by making himself the first example. [continue reading]

Brexit and the history of policing the Irish border

Evan Smith
History & Policy

With the outcome of the recent ‘Brexit’ referendum being a majority vote for Britain to leave the European Union, the question of what happens to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been raised. The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to ‘remain’, except for a strong Loyalist vote for ‘leave’, in certain parts of Belfast.  The Democratic Unionist Party officially backed a vote to ‘leave’. Despite traditionally being a Eurosceptic party, Sinn Fein has seen this as an opportunity to call for the re-unification of Ireland and declared during the referendum campaign that a vote to ‘remain’ was in the interests of closer ties between the two Irelands.

The victory of the ‘leave’ campaign raises the possibility of an established border control system on the Irish border, with the task of heavily monitoring movement between an EU and a non-EU country. Other EU/non-EU borders, such as the border between Greece and Turkey, have become flashpoints on the periphery of ‘Fortress Europe’, particularly concerning the movement of potential ‘terrorists’ amongst those fleeing the war in Syria and Iraq, and some commentators have raised concerns about the Irish border becoming a similar flashpoint. During the conflict in Northern Ireland, the British, Northern Irish and Irish authorities were also concerned about this border, the movement of potential terrorists, and how travel across it would be monitored. The British were most concerned about potential terrorists crossing the border from the Republic into Northern Ireland and Northern Irish terror suspects fleeing to the South. [continue reading]

Revisiting Global Connections on the Banks of the Suez

Timothy Nunan
Toynbee Prize Foundation

Thanks to the haze of time, the first great age of globalization during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century can sometimes seem like a golden age. It’s true that we live in an age of unprecedentedly inexpensive air travel, cell phones and Skype often replacing long travel to business meetings, and financial management tools making it easier to speculate on the ups and downs of the S&P or Nikkei, the ruble or the euro. But perhaps as we find ourselves bogged down by the kinks in this new post-1970s world of re-globalization–the passport checks, the baggage fees, the broken connections–it’s all the easier to reimagine the world of high imperialism, a lost golden age. Chroniclers like Stefan Zweig and John Maynard Keynes chronicled the time as an age in which

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.

There was perhaps no more potent symbol of this world of ultra-connectivity than the Suez Canal, built in what was still Ottoman Egypt in 1869 and connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. The Canal increased world trade. It also  soon became a vital strategic artery for the British Empire, since it made the “passage to India” via intermediary stations like Suez and Aden far shorter than the former trip around the Cape of Good Hope. So powerful was the imaginary of the Canal as one of the crucial changes of the epoch that, when Henry Morton Stanley finally located David Livingstone (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”) on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871, the Canal was the first thing that came to Stanley’s mind when Livingstone asked him what had changed in the world during his many years out of contact with the Western world. [continue reading]

The Religious Cult Secretly Running Japan

Jake Adelstein and Mari Yamamoto
Daily Beast

In the Land of the Rising Sun, a conservative Shinto cult dating back to the 1970s, which includes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and many of his cabinet among its adherents, finally has been dragged out of the shadows.  The group is called Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) and is ostensibly run by Tadae Takubo, a former journalist turned political scientist. It only has 38,000 members, but like many an exclusive club, or sect, it wields tremendous political influence. Broadly speaking, Shinto is a polytheistic and animist religion native to Japan. The state-sponsored Shintoism promulgated here before and during World War II also elevated the Emperor to the status of a God and insisted that the Japanese were a divine race—theYamato; with all other races considered inferior.

Nippon Kaigi originally began in the early 1970s from a liberal Shinto group known as Seicho No Ie. In 1974, a splinter section of the group joined forces with Nippon o Mamoru Kai, a State-Shinto revival organization that espoused patriotism and a return to imperial worship. The group in its current state was officially formed in May of 1997, when Nippon o Mamoru Kaiand a group of right-leaning intellectuals joined forces. The current cult’s goals: gut Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution, end sexual equality, get rid of foreigners, void pesky “human rights” laws, and return Japan to its Imperial Glory. [continue reading]

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