This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Photo: R. Barraez D’Lucca

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

From what causes cities to become sites of revolution to what a story of a skull tells us about empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Little Spartas: What causes some cities to become sites of revolution?

David A. Bell

The history of revolutions has gone global. Historians today can hardly avoid a powerful sense of how the worldwide flow of capital, goods, people, and ideas shapes local circumstances. Guided by this understanding, they have now composed a significant body of work showing how similar forces in the past could put states and empires under massive strain, resulting in potentially revolutionary crises. Histories of events like the French and Russian revolutions have always taken their global dimensions into account, but recent work has insisted on the paramount importance of these dimensions. Justin du Rivage’s newly published Revolution Against Empire, for example, casts the American Revolution as the result of a debate within a globe-spanning British Empire as to what form the empire should take. The French historian Pierre Serna has proposed seeing the French Revolution as just one chapter in a long struggle waged throughout the world between elites and the peoples they subjugated, both in overseas colonies and in homegrown “internal colonies.”

Mike Rapport’s lucid, engaging, and evocatively written The Unruly City: Paris, London, and New York in the Age of Revolution seems at first sight like another contribution to this global turn. The three cities were all important nodes of global exchange with diverse, cosmopolitan populations, and the book devotes significant space to the connections between them and their respective countries. But The Unruly City isn’t really a global history, at least in the new sense, for it pays relatively little attention to the cities’ positions in global networks of exchange. Instead, Rapport’s book demonstrates how attention to the specific geography and social forces of a city can illuminate a critical question about which the new global history has little to say: Why do people in some places—but not others—become radicalized, driving revolutions into previously uncharted territory? [continue reading]

The Afro-Asian Grocery: Unpacking Stories of Food, Exile and Community

Saima Nasar
Afro-Asian Visions

Located on St. Marks Road in Bristol’s Easton neighbourhood, Bristol Sweet Mart is an ‘Aladdin’s cave of food’. It first opened its doors in 1978 and tells the story of how a family of exiles transformed their lives, and those of the communities around them. Owner Kassam Ismail Mojothu found himself in a ‘refugee’ camp in Watchet following the Asian expulsion from Uganda in 1972. After visiting Bristol one day, he decided to settle there with his wife and six children. The grocery, now a thriving business, boasts a product selection of 8,000 different items from around the world. Mojothu himself has been honoured by Bristol City Council with a plaque to celebrate his contribution to the region.

Why is this important? This story of the humble origins of a family grocery demonstrates that Afro-Asian connections are not just a feature of the Global South. The migration of approximately 103,500 East Africans of South Asian heritage to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s attests to the entanglement of global identities. [continue reading]

Struggling to see Palestine

Michael Press

The year was 1858 when Josias Leslie Porter, an Irish Presbyterian minister, travelled all across Palestine. Porter was making notes for one of the first modern travel guides to the country, to be published later that year by the London firm of John Murray. The John Murray guides, precursors to today’s well-known Blue Guides, were already famous. Ashkelon, the ancient seaport destroyed in the 13th century, was on the publisher’s itinerary. In Porter’s day, the historic city was farmland for Jura, an adjacent Arab village.

Porter climbed the earthen ramparts that had once served as Ashkelon’s defences. After reaching the top, he surveyed the verdant Palestinian countryside. Gardens covered most of the site, and Porter listed their rich produce: vines, pomegranates, figs, apricots, plus ‘luxuriant beds of onions and melons’. He enumerated the draft animals – ‘five yokes of oxen ploughing, two drawing water for irrigation’. He also counted a total of 28 people working in the fields. How did Porter sum up his impression of Ashkelon? ‘Such is one section of Ascalon. The remaining portion is even more terribly desolate.’ Porter’s conclusion is jarring. He described a scene of seemingly idyllic activity, fertility and productivity, and then summed it up as ‘desolate’. What accounts for this remarkable disjuncture? The short answer is: the Bible. [continue reading]

A White Story

N.D.B. Connolly

More specifically, it’s [neoliberalism] a white story, structurally. Even the way Stuart Hall, a foundational critical race theorist, tells it, the revision of the white social contract gets cast as universal. The seeming arrival of economization in the ’70s and ’80s—of taxpayer and consumer populism as one’s source of rights—misses the fact that these market-based identities stood at the heart of subaltern rights claims at least a hundred years earlier. In the absence of voting rights in European colonies and in the United States, the strongest claims subaltern people could hope for, much of the time, were their rights as respectable bourgeois subjects, as taxpayers, and as consumers—in other words, market rights. Citizenship could not be linked to voting, for such rights were not guaranteed by either the U.S. Constitution or by European imperialists in their colonies. Workers’ movements, including anti-imperial ones, existed, to be sure. But many of those movements, particularly in settler colonies like the United States, depended on whether white workers let racial minorities into their unions.

Thus, concurrent with any demand for citizenship for its own sake, black people within white-controlled political and economic regimes fought on the civic terrain available to them. In the United States, specifically, they bought guns and land. Black British subjects, whether facing down foreign officials or their own colonial government, routinely flashed their bonds to and fealty for empire in any number of claims for rights and status. And both African Americans and West Indians projected their success under capitalism, in part, by demonstrating that one had paid actual capital into state and local governments’ operating budgets. In a post-Reconstruction liberalism built on black exclusion, for instance, black people across the South wielded physical property tax receipts, again and again, just to get their “colored only” world built at all. [continue reading]

Story of a Skull: Rethinking Narratives of Empire

Kim A. Wagner

Claims to a dispassionate approach to the history of the British Empire invariably rely on the assertion that ‘it was not all bad’ and that, as we all ought to know, the other European imperial powers were worse than the servants of Queen and Country. A so-called balanced approach is nevertheless little more than a euphemism for denying the extent of racialised violence and invariably results in the argument that the ‘good’ outweighed the ‘bad’ – or, as Professor Nigel Biggar has recently put it, that ‘pride can temper shame.’ However, the assertions that the Empire was all bad, or that it was on balance a force for good, are not the only positions available when examining the past today. It is possible to study British colonialism without either condemning or condoning it – even at its most brutal. In a post-Brexit era of swelling imperial nostalgia and revisionism, what happened to the hapless Indian sepoy Alum Bheg offers a telling example of how a genuinely nuanced history of the British Empire is yet to be written.

In 1963, the new owner of The Lord Clyde pub discovered a human skull stowed away in a small storeroom. Inserted in the eye-socket was a handwritten note that briefly outlined the skull’s history: the skull belonged to Alum Bheg, an Indian soldier in the service of the East India Company. During the 1857 Uprising, he had supposedly played a leading role in the mutiny at Sialkot, in what is today Pakistan, and was said to have personally murdered an entire family of Scottish missionaries. He was caught and exactly a year later was executed by being blown from a cannon. An Irish officer serving with the East India Company who was present at the execution picked up Bheg’s skull and brought it home as a grisly war trophy when he returned from the Indian campaign the following year. How it eventually ended up in the pub in Deal remains unknown. [continue reading]

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