From Brexit reinforcing Britain’s imperial amnesia to what nationalism looks like, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
As a piece of branding, it was unfortunate. The fact that some British officials refer to their efforts to sign new trade deals with Commonwealth nations as “Empire 2.0” started life as an internal office joke. But the phrase has been seized upon by critics of Brexit as confirmation that the whole idea is driven by nostalgia for empire.
This strikes me as a serious misunderstanding of Britain’s relationship with its past. Rather than being obsessed by empire, the British have largely consigned the whole imperial experience to George Orwell’s “memory hole”. Most British people, including leading politicians, are profoundly ignorant of the country’s imperial history. This imperial amnesia does, however, have a crucial bearing on Brexit. [continue reading]
On May 27, 1935, hundreds of Bermudians gathered in a protest chaired by barrister David Tucker, member of the League of Coloured Peoples and editor of the local Afro-Bermudian Recorder newspaper. The subject of the meeting was a new “Report on Unemployment” put forward by the local House of Assembly, a body composed almost entirely of members of the British colony’s white male elite. Like many before it, the report avoided a discussion of the island’s reactionary economic policies and lack of a social safety net, blaming declining fortunes instead on the “indolent and inefficient” labor force.1
However, the committee went a step further than usual in its audacious proposals. Claiming that the high unemployment rate resulted directly from unrestricted reproduction, legislators called for the dissemination of birth control, the legalization of voluntary sterilization, and the compulsory sterilization of “mental defectives,” women who mothered two illegitimate children and men who fathered one illegitimate child. The logic underlying the report was not unique to Bermuda. In the context of rising population growth rates, economic depression, and labor unrest, theories that located population growth as the cause of poverty and discontent gained increasing currency across Britain’s Caribbean/Atlantic colonies in the 1930s. [continue reading]
A great deal of ink—and much blood—has been spilled during the current “refugee crisis.” But what do we mean by that phrase? It describes what has happened recently when Syrian, Afghan, and other refugees attempted the difficult journey to member states of the European Union in their ongoing search for safety. By extension, it describes the response of governments and the media to the refugees on Europe’s doorstep, a response many call inadequate.
The desperation of these refugees and asylum seekers and the challenges they face should not be minimized. But the shorthand of “refugee crisis” (meaning, in effect, “a crisis for European states,” rather than a crisis for refugees) neglects two fundamental issues. One consideration is that, since 2011, most Syrian refugees either remain in Syria as internally displaced persons outside the scope of international legal conventions, or have found shelter in adjacent states such as Turkey and Lebanon. Likewise, Afghan refugees are mainly sheltering in Pakistan: only a minority attempt the hazardous journey to Europe. [continue reading]
Global Urban History
Africa’s cities are now among the fastest growing in the world. But how well are their pre-colonial origins understood? Recent research on Lagos’s past reveals a thriving, indigenous yet cosmopolitan urban community, one which lasted through cycles of civil strife and peace, being bombarded and rebuilt, all prior to British annexation in 1861. Clear patterns emerge when we reimagine Lagos as it existed between 1845 and 1851, that is, the six years between the Ogun Olomiro (the Salt-Water War) and the British bombardment of Lagos Island.
Three themes frame the debates around pre-colonial urbanism in nineteenth-century West Africa: the use and interpretation of sources, the conceptual (and historical) boundaries of ethnicity as an explanatory factor, and the impact of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonialism on the growth and decline of port cities on the Atlantic coast. In plotting nineteenth-century Lagos, responses to these questions require an interdisciplinary framework, preferably one that relies on both narrative and visual cues. [continue reading]
Thomas W. Zeiler
International Security Studies Forum
The H-Diplo/ISSF Policy Series asks, among other questions, what diplomatic history and international relations theory tell us about the future of the U.S. in the world. I attempt to answer from the historian’s side, by focusing on economic nationalism in the 1930s. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 represents the most famous case of trade protectionism in American history, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s rejection of the World Economic Conference three years later added to the U.S. economic nationalist response to world affairs. Both issues inform us of the possible consequences of Donald Trump’s approach to the global economy. I think history offers some dismal lessons.
Recently in this series, Randall Schweller argued for Trump the realist, in which America under his direction will pick its battles carefully rather than engage in disastrous fits of interventionism, idealistic missions, or globalized economic policies that hand over the farm to foreigners at the expense of American workers. Trump will respond to “American citizens,” who will “demand a more narrowly self-interested foreign policy.” Wise, realistic citizens – some 63 million of them (though a minority of the voter total) – hope to overcome the oppression of globalization. [continue reading]