From the problems with Viceroy’s House to the future of global history, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Gurinder Chadha’s Raj film Viceroy’s House begins with an ominous warning: “History is written by the victors.” It sure is. The empire and its descendants have their fingerprints all over this story.
Viceroy’s House, the story of the Mountbattens’ arrival in India and the subcontinent’s subsequent breakup, opens to the sight of bowing, preening and scraping Indians at work on the lawns, carpets and marble floors that are to greet the last viceroy of colonised India, Lord Louis Mountbatten – or Dickie, as he was known – played by the rosy Hugh Bonneville. In one of his first scenes, Mountbatten instructs his Indian valets that he never wants to spend more than two minutes getting dressed – fitting for the man who dismembered India in less than six weeks. As always, it is the Indians, not the British, who fail in the simplest of tasks set out for them (they take 13 minutes). [continue reading]
Emmanuel Macron has suddenly found himself as the new poster boy of Europe’s beleaguered political centre. The insiders’ outsider, if you like. From Marseille to London thousands have been flocking to hear this insurgent presidential candidate for the French speak. But just as pundits began to accept the bid from the former investment banker and minister of economy during the first half of François Hollande’s presidency, a new controversy about the interpretation of colonial history has tested Macron’s electoral appeal, and demonstrated that France’s colonial ghosts are alive and kicking.
On February 15, in an interview with the TV channel Echorouk News during a visit to Algeria, Macron followed protocol and spoke about his desire to “build a bridge” between France and its former colony. But in doing so, he addressed the subject of colonialism. He backtracked on a previous comment about the “richness” of colonial Algeria to brandish colonialism a “crime against humanity”. [continue reading]
One of the most exciting things about archival research is discovering unexpected connections. In November 2013, I traveled to the Bahamian National Archives in Nassau in search of documentary evidence relating to a group of intrepid Native diplomats, sojourners from the Creek and Cherokee Nations in what is now the southeastern United States. They had made their way to the Bahamas to meet with the governor there, Lord Dunmore, to secure passage to London. However, I soon found that Dunmore sent them, not to Britain, but to Quebec! In short order, I found myself reading missives from Lord Dorchester, Governor-General of British North America, grumbling about a group of Creeks that had just turned up in his capital. The Creek and Cherokee diplomats barged their way into Canada, and in turn, Canadian history had just intruded into my project. In the process of following globe-trotting Creeks and Cherokees, I learned about the interconnectedness of the early modern world and Canada’s place in webs linking the peoples of North America and the Atlantic.
The Creeks and Cherokees lived far, far away from Canadian territory, the latter in the foothills of the southern Appalachians and the former nestled in the river basins of what are now the American states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. I had discovered that, in the wake of the American Revolution, numerous Creek and Cherokee leaders had established contacts with a Loyalist named William Augustus Bowles, who had taken up refuge in the Bahamas. Bowles, in turn, had cultivated a relationship with the new governor of the Bahamas, Lord Dunmore. [continue reading]
Mark A. Soderstrom
Russia’s February Revolution turns 100 this year. Less well-remembered than the October Revolution, which ushered in the Bolshevik takeover of Russia and creation of the Soviet Union, the events of February 1917 brought an end to more than three centuries of Romanov rule in Russia and set the stage for the later birth of the world’s first socialist state.
Fueling this “February Revolution” were the mounting strains that the First World War placed on the deeply conservative Romanov Empire, whose tsar jealously guarded his autocratic prerogatives in the face of the mounting stresses that waging a modern war imposed. In Petrograd—as the too-German-sounding “St. Petersburg” was renamed during the war—cracks appeared in the form of severe food and fuel shortages during the winter of 1916-17. These were deepened by the unusually cold weather. Throughout that frigid February, supply trains stopped rolling, bread queues lengthened, factories doors closed, and workers found themselves laid off. [continue reading]
Well, that was a short ride. Not long ago, one of the world’s leading historians, Lynn Hunt, stated with confidence in Writing History in the Global Era (2014) that a more global approach to the past would do for our age what national history did in the heyday of nation-building: it would, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said was necessary of the nation-builders, remake people from the inside out. Global history would produce tolerant and cosmopolitan global citizens. It rendered the past a mirror on our future border-crossing selves – not unlike Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and white American mother, raised in Indonesia and educated in the Ivy League, who became the passing figure of our fading dreams of meritocracy without walls.
The mild-mannered German historian Jürgen Osterhammel might serve as an example of that global turn. When his book The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the 19th Century (2014) came out in English, one reviewer baptised him the new Fernand Braudel. It was already a sensation in Germany. One day, Osterhammel’s office phone at the University of Konstanz rang. On the other end of the line was the country’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. ‘You don’t check your SMSs,’ she scolded lightly. At the time, Merkel was on the mend from a broken pelvis and the political fallout of the Eurocrisis. While recovering, she’d read Osterhammel’s 1,200-page book for therapy. She was calling to invite the author to her 60th-birthday party to lecture her guests about time and global perspectives. Obsessed with the rise of China and the consequences of digitalisation, she had turned to the sage of the moment: the global historian. [continue reading]