This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


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

From how to be a global historian to toppling statues of Gandhi, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

How to be a Global Historian

Serge Gruzinski
Public Books

If the past is still required to understand the present, then approaching the past globally is an absolute necessity. But what does it mean to “think globally” today? What does a truly global history look like?

Though it is quickly becoming one of the most dynamic—if confusing—subfields in the discipline, global history is not easy to define. The first question might be whether such a history is even new. In antiquity, Western historians explored the past of their known world: a world, to them, surely as vast and contradictory as our own today. Many of their Muslim and Chinese colleagues did the same. Is today’s “global” history really more universal than a simple “world” history, whether from a contemporary historian or an ancient one? Or is it just a marketable label to sell old history in a competitive and crowded era? [continue reading]

Meet the 800-year-old golden rhinoceros that challenged apartheid South Africa

John Giblin

It may be small enough to sit in the palm of your hand, but even now – nearly 800 years after it was lost to sight in what is now South Africa – the Golden Rhinoceros of Mapungubwe has powerful symbolism. It’s a representation of one of the region’s most physically powerful animals– the rhinoceros – and one of the region’s most enduring symbols of power – gold.

And, on the eve of its first trip out of the country for a new exhibition in the UK, it bears witness to a powerful and sophisticated kingdom that existed in Africa hundreds of years before white settlement. [continue reading]

World’s oldest library reopens in Fez: ‘You can hurt us, but you can’t hurt the books’

Kareen Shaheen

The caretaker stares at the wrought iron door and its four ancient locks with a gleam in his eyes. Outside, the Moroccan sun shines down upon the ornate coloured tiles of Khizanat al-Qarawiyyin, located in the old medina of Fez. This, it is widely believed, is the oldest library in the world – and soon it will be open to the general public again. “It was like healing wounds,” says Aziza Chaouni, a Fez native and the architect tasked with restoring the great library.

The iron door is found along a corridor that once linked the library with the neighbouring Qarawiyyin Mosque – the two centres of learning and cultural life in old Fez. Inside it were kept the most prized tomes in the collection; works of such immense import that each of the four locks had separate keys held with four different individuals, all of whom had to be present for the door to be opened. [continue reading]

Skies That Bind: Air Travel in the Bandung Era

Su Lin Lewis

In the 1950s, conferences were essential in creating notions of solidarity and collective purpose among Asians and Africans. In our own Afro-Asian Networks conference last week, we traced the great arc of conferences that characterised the Bandung era. Many of the participants at the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung first met in the 1947 Asian Relations Conference in Delhi. The Afro-Asian People’s Conference followed in Cairo in 1958, along with the All-African People’s Conference held later that year in Accra.

The speed and intensity of these gatherings was facilitated by air travel. In the wake of the Second World War, air travel was increasingly accessible to new Asian and African leaders, as well as civilians. Did the way people travel shape the nature of these conferences? [continue reading]

How Tetris broke out of the Soviet Union

Larry Getlen
New York Post

On a cold February day in the 1970s, 15-year-old Alexey Pajitnov leaped over a pile of snow in Moscow. As he landed, his leg hit the pavement with “a sickening crack.” Soviet doctors put him in a full leg cast, requiring two to three months of in-home convalescence. To help him cope with boredom, a friend brought him books of math puzzles.

It was the moment that would change his life, as detailed by Dan Ackerman’s new book, “The Tetris Effect.” Pajitnov became addicted to the puzzles and eventually sought out other brain teasers. He developed a special fondness for pentomino puzzles — geometric jigsaw challenges that require players to join pieces made up of five squares into a set area. [continue reading]

Ghana’s problem with ‘racist’ Gandhi

BBC News

Nelson Mandela said that the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi had helped to topple apartheid in South Africa. Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, was also an admirer. “Mahatma Gandhi will always be remembered as long as free men and those who love freedom and justice live,” he said. Yet not all African leaders are inspired by the man known as the “Father of India”.

An online petition, which has been signed by more than 1,000 people, has been started by professors at the University of Ghana. They call for the removal of a statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from the campus grounds in Accra. The academics say that Gandhi, who has been praised by public figures for leading India’s non-violent movement to freedom from British colonial rule during the mid 20th century, had a “racist identity”. [continue reading]