This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


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

From uncovering the brutal truth about the British Empire to the false economic promise of global governance, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire

Marc Parry

Help us sue the British government for torture. That was the request Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, received in 2008. The idea was both legally improbable and professionally risky. Improbable because the case, then being assembled by human rights lawyers in London, would attempt to hold Britain accountable for atrocities perpetrated 50 years earlier, in pre-independence Kenya. Risky because investigating those misdeeds had already earned Elkins heaps of abuse.

Elkins had come to prominence in 2005 with a book that exhumed one of the nastiest chapters of British imperial history: the suppression of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. Her study, Britain’s Gulag, chronicled how the British had battled this anticolonial uprising by confining some 1.5 million Kenyans to a network of detention camps and heavily patrolled villages. It was a tale of systematic violence and high-level cover-ups. [continue reading]

Documenting East-West encounters through Chinese gardens

Josepha Richard
Visualising China Blog

As any person who ever had a garden knows, it takes constant care and careful know-how to prevent greenery from returning to a state best described as ‘Sleeping Beauty’s castle thorns’. By essence, gardens are ephemeral, thus difficult to document consistently and systematically. The gardens of China are no exception to this rule: as a result, it can be difficult to study any specimen built earlier than the late Qing dynasty. To research the gardens of China, the specialist needs to collect a combination of sources such as written descriptions, paintings and photographs.

Photo 1 caption: Photograph 486, Joseph Rock Collection, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Photo: J. Richard
Photograph 1: Photograph 486, Joseph Rock Collection, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Photo: J. Richard

One of the most revealing types of primary sources is that of early photographs of China. These are typically scattered across a number of private and public collections, as well as auction houses: obtaining good quality items with reliable captions, attributions and dates is an arduous task. One example I have come across during my research is that of Austrian-American explorer Joseph Rock, who travelled to the Black Dragon Pool in Lijiang, Yunnan, and took at least two photographs of the garden there. Those two shots are kept in two different institutions across the globe: the Arnold Arboretum image provides us with the date of 1922, while the photograph kept in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in Edinburgh (Photograph 1) is accompanied by matching diaries written by Rock during that year and kept in the same archive. [continue reading]

“Urban and Global History Have Been Converging”: A Conversation With Shane Ewen

Global Urban History

Question: During the past ten years, the growth of global history has also inspired historians of cities, who increasingly investigate the role of cities in empires, long-distance trade, and maritime networks. Urban historians have also shown a growing interest in how global connections manifested themselves in the local spaces that they study. Conversely, scholars of global history draw on urban history as a way to situate their studies in concrete locations. Concentrating on cities as nodal points, for instance, has allowed historians to render more tangible the elusiveness of the far-flung connections they are so interested in. Such a concrete spatial focus may thus not only provide more manageable units of analysis, but also prove to be an effective antidote to some reservations regarding global history. Indeed, Frederick Cooper’s warning about the “lumpiness” of global connections can be illustrated most vividly through urban history.

Even so, explicit combinations of the labels “urban history” and “global history” seem to remain rare—a surprising finding if one considers the two fields to be as congenial as outlined above. This scarcity also contrasts with proliferation of the prefix “global” in other established subfields of the discipline, as in “global intellectual history.” But our first question to the participants of our discussion should really be whether you agree at all with the diagnosis that global history and urban history have not often been coupled explicitly so far? And if so, do you find this surprising and where do you see the reasons for this? If you disagree, where do you see the most important precedents for combining the two? [continue reading]

‘Between the bomb and the ballot box’: the history of the far-right in Australia

Evan Smith

The arrest of an individual allegedly connected to Reclaim Australia on anti-terrorism charges made headlines last week, but it is not the first time that the Australian far right has been accused of acts of political violence. For example, Jim Saleam, then of National Action, was jailed in 1991 for his part in a shotgun attack upon African National Congress representative Eddie Funde, while Australian Nationalist Movement leader Jack van Tongeren spent 13 years in a Western Australian prison for arson offences.

At other moments in time, far right groups have swung the other way, seeking to build “mass parties” and contest elections. Thus since the 1960s, the far right in Australia has oscillated, as the saying goes, “between the bomb and the ballot box”, often with the same individuals involved, merely jumping from organisation to organisation. [continue reading]

The False Economic Promise of Global Governance

Dani Rodrik
Project Syndicate

Global governance is the mantra of our era’s elite. The surge in cross-border flows of goods, services, capital, and information produced by technological innovation and market liberalization has made the world’s countries too interconnected, their argument goes, for any country to be able to solve its economic problems on its own. We need global rules, global agreements, global institutions.

This claim is so widely accepted today that challenging it may seem like arguing that the sun revolves around the earth. Yet what may be true for truly global problems such as climate change or health pandemics is not true when it comes to most economic issues. Contrary to what we often hear, the world economy is not a global commons. Global governance can do only limited good – and it occasionally does some damage. [continue reading]

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