From reviving the East India Company to questioning whether the American Revolution was a good idea, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
When he left his native India to set up a business in London in the 1980s, Sanjiv Mehta never dreamed of returning home one day with the East India Company in his pocket. By 2005 he had bought the entire company, which gave him the rights to trade using its name, and its coat of arms as a trademark.
Now he has set out to redefine the legacy of the company that once ruled the country of his birth and enslaved his people. This week will mark 160 years since the Indian Mutiny – what Mehta and many Indians call the first war of independence. The anniversary commemorates a revolt by Indian soldiers which kickstarted the freedom struggle against British imperialism. To Mehta, the anniversary has a special poignancy – his own story seems the final nail in the coffin of the colonial East India Company, finishing off what those rebellious soldiers started in Meerut in 1857. [continue reading]
Lawrence S. Wittner
Political parties on the far right are today enjoying a surge of support and access to government power that they have not experienced since their heyday in the 1930s. This phenomenon is particularly striking in Europe, where massive migration, sluggish economic growth, and terrorism have stirred up zealous nationalism and Islamophobia, but it resonates through large areas of the world including the Asia-Pacific.
In France, the National Front―founded in 1972 by former Nazi collaborators and other rightists employing anti-Semitic and racist appeals―has tried to soften its image somewhat under the recent leadership of Marine Le Pen. Nevertheless, Le Pen’s current campaign for the French presidency, in which she is one of two leading candidates facing a runoff, includes speeches delivered against a screen filled with immigrants committing crimes, jihadists plotting savage attacks, and European Union (EU) bureaucrats destroying French jobs, while she assails multiculturalism and promises to “restore order.” In Germany, the Alternative for Germany party, established three years ago, won up to 25 percent of the vote in state elections in March 2016. Led by Frauke Petry, the party calls for sealing the EU’s borders (by shooting migrants, if necessary), forcing the migrants who remain to adopt traditional German culture, and thoroughly rejecting Islam, including a ban on constructing mosques. According to the party platform, “Islam does not belong in Germany.” [continue reading]
Today, the expression “concentration camp” evokes the horrors of Nazi Germany, conjuring up black-and-white images of Auschwitz and Belsen. But Germans were neither the first nation to make use of concentration camps nor the last.
Both during and immediately after the war, concentration camps and slave-labor camps operated throughout the United Kingdom. A year after World War II’s end, British agriculture only functioned thanks to slave labor. In May 1946, while high-ranking SS officers were preparing for trial at Nuremberg, 385,000 enslaved workers were held behind barbed wire across the British Isles; thousands more were arriving every week. At the time, they made up over 25 percent of the land workforce. [continue reading]
Alliances between maritime Empires in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were rarely harmonious; but only a few hold the distinction, of being completely dysfunctional. The post-Napoleonic War alliance between Britain and Spain for the purpose of abolishing the slave trade was one of the few. The anti-slave trade treaty of 1817, which had pledged Spain to Britain’s anti-slave trade cause and was the cornerstone of the alliance, established a court of mixed commission at Havana for the purpose of condemning illegal slave ships [see Blog Post 1 for an explanation of the treaty and the courts]. The treaty, however, did not come into effect all at once. Spanish slave trading on the coast of Africa north of the equator became illegal in 1817.
Slave trading south of the equator, which was far more profitable, did not become illegal until May of 1820. The treaty also guaranteed a five month grace period that allowed slave voyages which left a Spanish port before May 1820 to return legally with slaves until October 1820. The early dysfunction of the alliance is perfectly illustrated by negotiations in 1820 between Britain and Spain over the five month grace period and a Spanish slave ship named Jellus. [continue reading]
And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy.
Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada. [continue reading]