This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Inmates of a relief camp in Madras (during the famine of 1876-1878), by Willoughby Wallace Hooper. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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

From memorializing Britain’s colonial crimes to the end of “Western civilization,” here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Britain’s colonial crimes deserve a lasting memorial. Here’s why

Afua Hirsch

The trouble with the English, remarked Salman Rushdie in typically apt fashion, is that they don’t know their history, because so much of it happened overseas. And so the island status that motivated Britain’s imperial story in the first place has helped us distance ourselves from all aspects of that story.

There is the way, for instance, that the empire was built and sustained. From the Norman conquest of Ireland in the 12th century, the English began imagining themselves as the new Romans, persuading themselves they were as duty-bound to civilise “backward” tribes as they were destined to exploit their resources, land and labour. [continue reading]

The Uncounted

Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal
New York Times Magazine

Late on the evening of Sept. 20, 2015, Basim Razzo sat in the study of his home on the eastern side of Mosul, his face lit up by a computer screen. His wife, Mayada, was already upstairs in bed, but Basim could lose hours clicking through car reviews on YouTube: the BMW Alpina B7, the Audi Q7. Almost every night went like this. Basim had long harbored a taste for fast rides, but around ISIS-occupied Mosul, the auto showrooms sat dark, and the family car in his garage — a 1991 BMW — had barely been used in a year. There simply was nowhere to go.

The Razzos lived in the Woods, a bucolic neighborhood on the banks of the Tigris, where marble and stucco villas sprawled amid forests of eucalyptus, chinar and pine. Cafes and restaurants lined the riverbanks, but ever since the city fell to ISIS the previous year, Basim and Mayada had preferred to entertain at home. They would set up chairs poolside and put kebabs on the grill, and Mayada would serve pizza or Chinese fried rice, all in an effort to maintain life as they’d always known it. Their son, Yahya, had abandoned his studies at Mosul University and fled for Erbil, and they had not seen him since; those who left when ISIS took over could re-enter the caliphate, but once there, they could not leave — an impasse that stranded people wherever they found themselves. Birthdays, weddings and graduations came and went, the celebrations stockpiled for that impossibly distant moment: liberation. [continue reading]

Who was the photographer who took these dehumanising images of the Madras famine?

Sujaan Mukherjee

On March 26, 1993, The New York Times published a photograph by Kevin Carter that became the haunting image of the famine in Sudan: an emaciated child in foetal position, in the background a hooded vulture. Newspapers and magazines around the globe carried the image and in 1994 Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his work. Although the girl’s ultimate fate remains unknown, it is believed that she succeeded in escaping the inevitable fate suggested by the photograph.

The question of ethics in photography is almost as old as photography itself. “For photographs to accuse and possibly invoke a moral response, they must shock,” Judith Butler wrote in her essay Torture and the Ethics of Photography. The framing of the two subjects in Carter’s photograph shocked people across the world into recognising what was unfolding in Sudan. But the shock soon spread beyond the frame. Who shot the photograph and what role could he have played? Inevitably, Carter faced public criticism When the famine of 1876 started taking its toll on the people of the Madras Presidency, a few stray voices could be heard within the colonial administration that maintained that the British must shoulder responsibility for the deaths. [continue reading]

Violence, Okinawa, and the ‘Pax Americana’

John W. Dower
Asia-Pacific Journal

In American academic circles, several influential recent books argue that violence declined significantly during the Cold War, and even more precipitously after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. This reinforces what supporters of US strategic policy including Japan’s conservative leaders always have claimed. Since World War II, they contend, the militarized Pax Americana, including nuclear deterrence, has ensured the decline of global violence. I see the unfolding of the postwar decades through a darker lens.

No one can say with any certainty how many people were killed in World War II. Apart from the United States, catastrophe and chaos prevailed in almost every country caught in the war. Beyond this, even today criteria for identifying and quantifying war-related deaths vary greatly. Thus, World War II mortality estimates range from an implausible low of 50 million military and civilian fatalities worldwide to as many as 80 million. The Soviet Union, followed by China, suffered by far the greatest number of these deaths. Only when this slaughter is taken as a baseline does it make sense to argue that the decades since World War II have been relatively non-violent. [continue reading]

The concept of ‘western civilisation’ is past its use-by date in university humanities departments

Catharine Coleborne

A number of NSW and ACT universities are vying for the opportunity to access funding from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which aims to “revive” liberal arts and the humanities in university education in Australia. The centre, launched on Monday by former prime minister John Howard, has the support of former Labor leader Kim Beazley, and former prime minister Tony Abbott. The centre defines “western civilisation” through classical studies, including ancient Greek and Rome, the European renaissance and enlightenment, modernism, and Christian thought and philosophy. It seeks to put European cultural production at its heart.

The idea is to reform the current Bachelor of Arts degree in Australia by reinforcing the traditional western foundations of it. The centre will partner with universities to create the degree, and offer scholarships. The announcement is a welcome endorsement of humanities disciplines such as literature, history, philosophy and classics. Yet the shaping of a Bachelor of Arts curriculum around western European concepts of knowledge should be viewed very carefully. The concept of “civilisation”, and particularly “western civilisation”, rose to prominence in universities after World War II. [continue reading]

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