This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


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

From ending the world’s weirdest border dispute to Russia’s strange world of Soviet nostalgia, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Say goodbye to the weirdest border dispute in the world

Adam Taylor
Washington Post

Just after midnight Saturday, one of the most perplexing border disputes in the world officially ended. India and Bangladesh began the exchange of over 160 enclaves – small areas of sovereignty completely surrounded on all sides by another country – and in so doing ended a dispute that has lasted almost 70 years. This act will have a major effect on the lives of more than 50,000 people who resided in these enclaves in Cooch Behar. Where they had been surrounded by a country they didn’t have citizenship in for decades, now they will finally gain access to things like schools, electricity and health care.

For curious cartographers and others obsessed with geopolitical oddities, however, it’s an end of an era. The exchange between India and Bangladesh means that the world will not only lose one of its most unique borders, but it will also lose the only third-order enclave in the world – an enclave surrounded by an enclave surrounded by an enclave surrounded by another state. [continue reading]

The West’s Decades Long Destruction of Iraq

Louis Allday
The 36th Chamber

Iraq has been under virtually continuous attack by the West for a period spanning almost three decades. After the First Gulf War in 1990 – in which an estimated 100,000-200,000 Iraqis were killed[i] – until the invasion of 2003, the country was subjected to a brutal program of sanctions enforced by the UN’s Security Council. These economic and trade sanctions, imposed primarily at the instigation of the US and the UK, were so destructive that more than one of the UN officials appointed to administer them resigned in protest. In 1998, Denis Halliday, then the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq and the man responsible for overseeing the sanctions, resigned from his post in disgust stating that he could no longer be complicit in the crimes of the “sustained genocidal sanctions” that were being imposed on the “innocent of Iraq”.[ii]

In 1995, three years before Halliday’s resignation, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that the sanctions had already caused the death of over 550,000 Iraqi children through severe malnourishment, lack of access to medication and a general decline in the country’s healthcare facilities.[iii] Subsequently, Madeline Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN, was asked the following on US television: “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. …is the price worth it?” Albright’s response, which can be watched here, is chilling. Rather than dispute the figure or attempt to deflect the question, Albright replied bluntly “we think the price is worth it”. [continue reading]

Gertrude of Arabia: the great adventurer may finally get her museum

Pat Yale

Back in the 1880s, the evening train from Middlesbrough would often stop right in front of a stately house in Redcar called Red Barns. Out would step Hugh Bell, the cultured and wealthy head of a sprawling iron, steel and chemical empire. As often as not, waiting to greet him as he strode up the garden path would be the daughter who would later find fame as an explorer, archaeologist, writer and spy.

Once a book-lined and pet-filled family home, Red Barns has fallen on hard times. But a campaign has now been launched to buy it and convert it into a memorial to Gertrude Bell, turning the spotlight back on to a woman who was, in the early 20th century, as famous as Lawrence of Arabia. [continue reading]

How to Smuggle an Army Through Someone Else’s Country Without Anyone Making a Fuss

Peter Mitchell
Snapshots of Empire

In 1857, as the Indian Uprising threatened the stability and integrity of the British Empire, the British Government and the East India Company engaged in a massive smuggling operation. The cargo was people: armed men, shuttled en masse and in disguise, across the territory of a sovereign state over which Britain had no jurisdiction, in order to suppress, with overwhelming force, an unprecedentedly large colonial rebellion.

In part 1 of this blog, we looked at how the global mobilization of 1857 played out in the Cape Colony. George Grey’s attempts to contribute to the empire-wide movement of troops towards India to suppress the uprising, while simultaneously managing his own problems of unrest and conflict, and putting his case to a metropolitan government that was far from convinced of the quality of his performance or his entitlement to the financial resources he was consuming, shows (we hope) something of the global nature of the crisis that overtook the empire in 1857, and the ways in which colonial administrators, in metropolitan and colonial settings, managed the conflicting and complex demands of responding to the crisis. In part 2, we’re looking at how the apparatus of government managed, between August 1857 and the end of the uprising in early 1858, to smuggle about 5,000 British troops across the Suez isthmus in Egypt. [continue reading]

Inside Russia’s Strange World of Soviet Nostalgia

Rachel Bauman
National Interest

In Svetlana Alexievich’s 2015 Nobel Prize lecture, the 68-year-old Belarusian journalist explained the passion and necessity which underlies her work:

“We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk … I love the lone human voice.”

A brutally honest collection of these human voices compose the majority of Alexievich’s latest book, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets(translated into English by Bela Shayevich). Described as “an oral history,” Alexievich rarely injects her own commentary into the stories, with the exception of an introduction, explanatory footnotes, and clarifying parentheticals. As in her other works, Alexievich has cobbled together a series of diverse tales of the everyman, allowing the uninitiated to sit down, lean in, and listen with the author. Thus Alexievich is able to present those she interviews without detached biographical sterility: rather, as in any oral history, raw emotion and the idiosyncrasies of memory are on full display. [continue reading]