From erasing the Mughals from Indian history to the 70th birthday of the foundation stone of global commerce, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Times are tough for India’s monument to love. Air pollution is turning its marble surface yellow. Restoration work is obscuring its famous minarets. Tens of millions of tourists still flock to Agra each year, but numbers are reportedly waning. Critics of the Taj Mahal are also growing increasingly bold. In past months, religious nationalists in the Hindu-majority country have stepped up a campaign to push the four-century-old Mughal monument to the margins of Indian history. One legislator recently kicked up a national storm when he labelled the tomb “a blot”.
Resentment at the fact the country’s most recognisable monument was built by a Muslim emperor has always existed on the fringes of the Hindu right. But those fringes have never been so powerful. [continue reading]
Global Urban History
Angolan magazines in the 1960s and early ‘70s often insisted that Luanda was “the most Portuguese” of all African cities. The supposed exceptionalism of the Portuguese colonial case led not only academics but also contemporary social actors to analyze it as a development somehow apart from the British and French empires. Portuguese backwardness, the country’s inability to “civilize” its colonies, and even the high levels of miscegenation and settlers “going native,” amongst other widely held beliefs, had long been deployed to justify this exceptionalism. However, despite the uniqueness of each colonial experience, the Portuguese territories in Africa shared important developments with contemporary empires in the continent, including the rapid urbanization of a few centers, as was the case of Luanda.
Late-colonial Luanda was shaped and reshaped by movements both in and out of the city and within the city, as poorer residents were constantly being pushed further from the center. Residents of post-WWII Luanda mostly came from elsewhere: many migrated from the metropole, others came from Angola’s countryside and from other parts of the empire, such as Cape Verde and São Tomé e Príncipe. Therefore, workers’ experiences in the colonial capital of Angola during the last decades of Portuguese occupation were marked, above all, by mobility. The encounter between people with such diverse backgrounds took place primarily in a particular space of the city: the musseques, Luanda’s shantytowns. [continue reading]
John Kelly’s ignorant remarks about the Civil War and compromise on Laura Ingraham’s show have rightly angered a lot of people. One of the arguments he made was for historical relativism:
““I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society and certainly as, as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say what those, you know, what Christopher Columbus did was wrong,” he said. “You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then.”
Kelly seems to imply that in 1861, most people in the world believed in slavery and so you can’t blame the American South for retaining it. I’m not sure how much actual history Gen. Kelly has read, but this premise is not true. For one thing, a majority of American states had abolished slavery. Ohio did in 1802, and by 1804 all the northern states had. Haiti made a revolution to abolish it in 1804. Chile abolished it in 1823, Mexico and Central America in 1824 (Anglo-Texans resisted this measure, what with being enlightened white people and all and in 1836 they made it legal again in Texas). Spain banned slavery in its European territory in 1837. Kelly’s argument that most people believed in slavery at that time so you can’t judge American plantation owners is false. The Southern states were outliers in the New World along with Brazil, and Anglos actively rebelled against an enlightened Mexico over the issue. In 1846, the Bey of Ottoman Tunis, Ahmad, issued a decree banning slavery in his realm. He had himself been a slave and was convinced by the British consul to take this step. [continue reading]
In October 1958, over two hundred writers from Asia and the emerging African nations descended onto Tashkent, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. Among the participants was W. E. B. Du Bois, who at age 90 had just flown in from Moscow (where he persuaded Nikita Khrushchev to found an Institute for the Study of Africa). Alongside leading Soviet writers and cultural bureaucrats, some of the major figures of the 1930s literary left outside of Europe or the Americas were in attendance: the Turkish modernist poet Nazim Hikmet and his Pakistani counterpart Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the Chinese novelist Mao Dun and Mulk Raj Anand.
Though poorly known at the time, some of the younger delegates at that meeting would go on to become the leading literary figures of their countries: the Senegalese novelist-cum-filmmaker Sembene Ousmane, the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Toer, the poet and founder of Angola’s Communist Party Mario Pinto de Andrade, and the Mozambican poet and FRELIMO politician Marcelino dos Santos. By all accounts, Tashkent impressed visitors with its mixture of Western modernity and familiar “eastern-ness,”—an effect carefully curated by the Soviet hosts who sought to make it a showcase city for Third-World delegations. The gathering that brought all these writers together—the inaugural congress of what would later become known as the Afro-Asian Writers Association—represented the literary front of the Soviet Union’s return to the colonial question after a two-decade-long lapse. [continue reading]
Here’s a bit of trade trivia for you. Which of the world’s most powerful trade officials was born in the same month as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which today celebrates its 70th birthday? As in all things trade these days the answer has to do with Donald Trump: Robert Lighthizer, his trade tsar, came into this world on October 11 1947, in Ashtabula, Ohio. Just 19 days later the European office of the United Nations sent out a press release announcing “the completion of the most comprehensive, the most significant and the most far reaching negotiations ever undertaken in the history of world trade”. It said: “There is no parallel to this achievement in any previous trade negotiations, all of which have been on a more limited scale. The completion of such a large number of simultaneous negotiations of such broad scope in a little over six months is in itself a remarkable feat.” The 23 countries that signed the original GATT, which to this day remains the legal foundation stone of global commerce, accounted for 70 per cent of global trade. They included the US and UK, which together made up more than 35 per cent of global imports. Also signing: the pre-Mao government of China, which was then responsible for just 1.9 per cent of international imports, less than Australia.
The full eight-page release announcing the GATT’s signing is well worth reading. It offers a concise history of how the GATT came to be. It also offers a cogent case against protectionism and for multilateralism over bilateralism. The GATT exists today because countries learned in the 1930s that erecting tariffs to block foreign imports hurt economies more than it helped them. It was a multilateral deal because countries also realised that simply negotiating reductions in tariffs bilaterally was a laborious process that made less sense than negotiating tradeoffs with a group of willing countries. [continue reading]