From imperial history wars to Wakanda and black feminist political imagination, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Charlotte Lydia Riley
The history of the British empire has never been free from controversy. Historiographical battles have addressed motivations for imperial expansion, reasons for decolonisation, and the extent to which ordinary British people participated in – or even knew about – the empire overseas. This is, of course, perfectly usual; the historical profession exists as a series of interlocking debates and, as new generations of scholars approach evidence in new ways and ask new questions, they also challenge on older interpretations and more traditional ideas. The recent controversy over British imperial history, however, has had a different flavour. Rather than an argument about methodology, sources, or the interpretation of historical events, the debate has instead engaged with ethical questions that get to the very heart of the history of British imperialism.
There has long been a schism within historical writing on British imperialism around the evaluation of imperialism’s qualities or justifications. Niall Ferguson’s Empire, published in 2003, argued that empire had, on balance, been ‘a good thing’. It was critiqued by many historians of empire, including Andrew Porter and Linda Colley, for lacking complexity and nuance by making a positive moral judgement about imperialism based on ideas about idealism and creativity and ignoring darker topics of power, violence, and exploitation. Largely shrugging off these criticisms, Ferguson doubled-down on his approach to imperial history with his 2011 book Civilisation, which detailed the ‘killer apps’ (competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic) that had allowed the West to conquer ‘the rest’. Indeed, Ferguson has few qualms about assuming the mantle of an overtly pro-Empire scholar. Last year, he responded to a YouGov poll, showing that more than half of British people polled believed that they should be proud of the British empire, with the simple Twitter message: ‘I won’. [continue reading]
A silent film from 1924 predicting the rise of Nazism was found in a Paris flea market in 2015 after being lost for decades. Thanks to a huge fundraising campaign, it has now been restored and returned to cinemas, reports the BBC’s Bethany Bell in Vienna.
An Orthodox Jew is set upon by three taunting men. A woman shopping at a market stall becomes outraged at the high prices. She starts pelting a passing Jewish man with fruit. Later, huge protesting crowds gather outside the chancellor’s office. Inside, the leader consults with an adviser. “It is awful to expel the Jews,” he says. “But one must satisfy the people.” The incidents portrayed in the Austrian film The City Without Jews (Die Stadt Ohne Juden) are eerily prophetic. It was made nearly 20 years before the Holocaust, at a time when the Nazi party was banned in Austria, and when Adolf Hitler was in jail in Germany, working on his book Mein Kampf. [continue reading/watch]
On 1 December 2017, Hawaii’s nuclear war siren network was tested for the first time since the Cold War. Then, on 13 January, a message was sent to that state’s mobile phone networks warning of an incoming ballistic attack (38 long minutes later, this was corrected). On 25 January, the Doomsday Clock was put forward to two minutes to midnight by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and on 2 February, the US Government published its Nuclear Posture Review, proposing a new arsenal of tactical weapons. In the space of a few months, the West was transported back to a time that until recently seemed impossibly distant – a time when a new American president was expanding his military ambitions, and a British prime minister was doing anything in her power to galvanise that special relationship.
To grow up in the early 1980s was to grow up with a cloud, one that lifted suddenly into a toroidal fireball usually seen in stock footage or shuddery animation. It was also to grow up with a sound that had been familiar in Britain 40 years earlier: a low wail, rising and descending, like a wounded wolf’s howl. Another eerie sound lingers in the mind from this time: the calm, clipped vowels of a male announcer, advising how to build shelters, avoid fallout, and wrap up your dead loved ones in polythene, bury them, and tag their bodies. [continue reading]
Roundtable on The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and The United States, 1939-1950
Or Rosenboim, Jonathan Hunt, Sarah Claire Dunstan, Jamie Martin, and Jenifer Van Vleck
How should we greet the recent outpouring of works on the history of international thought since the Victorian era? Sent to trace this tidal wave back to its epicenter, will we point to George W. Bush’s steroidal cocktail of American exceptionalism and democracy promotion; the tightening noose of big data on Google Earth; the 1930s’ mantras and 1890s’ gilt of Donald Trump’s America; the false prophets of history’s end circa 1991; or the diminishing life support systems on Spaceship Earth? While the answer most likely eludes us at present, the persistent appeal of the topic indicates that it is no fad. If humanity maintains course toward mounting accumulations of wealth, inequality, hotspots, carbon, and hyperlinks, will we not be borne ceaselessly into the past in search of answers to how we arrived here, and where we might go next?
Or Rosenboim’s The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950, is an exemplary marker of our growing interest in how previous generations pitched the task of fostering community and preventing anarchy at broader and broader levels. Gathering, evaluating, and in some cases rehabilitating a host of philosophers, geographers, economists, planners, jurists, and theists, Rosenboim offers a master class on global thinking at the end of what Albert Camus called “more than twenty years of an insane history:” the First World War, the Great Depression, Hitler’s rise, Stalin’s purges, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Iron Curtain and, finally, “a world threatened by nuclear destruction.” No wonder, Ira Katznelson notes, a decade bookended by the Anschluss and the Korean War strikes us as “an age of broken certainties.” [continue reading]
In 1902, Pauline Hopkins imagined the fictional discovery of Telassar, a hidden Ethiopian kingdom that remained occluded from white view in Northern Africa. Her novel Of One Blood featured gorgeous dark skinned Black women, warriors, advanced technology, a bloodline King, and spies sent out to bring back news of the world outside of the fantastic Blackness Telassar maintained in secrecy over the years of white colonialism and targeted anti-Blackness. Sound familiar? Hopkins created a world like Black Panther’s Wakanda, a fantasy and spectacle of what we’ve taken to calling Black excellence in the face of the crushing defeats of the post-Reconstruction era.
At the turn of the century, Hopkins creates her Wakanda not out of thin air, but as a response to the intersecting narratives of progress dominating the period: medical and biological advances, often under the guise of racist comparative anatomy; nascent anthropology serving as an offshoot of such study and of the so-called natural sciences, this time focused on social organization and pathology; and archeological “discovery” of ancient civilizations. Drawing on these fascinations of the time, Hopkins turns each on its head in her novel. The main character Reuel is a medical genius and innovator who figures out how to bring the dead back to life. As a passing doctor, Reuel is a Black man hiding in the midst of white supremacist logic. Through rumors of his Blackness spread by his scheming white half-brother, Reuel is literally black-balled from his profession and must take a position on an expedition headed to “explore” Africa for its past. While on the ship, Reuel (still passing) makes clear that the work of “uncovering” the continent is just as likely to uncover Black excellence and hence to disprove white supremacist reasons undergirding such missions that fix Africa and Blackness in the temporal and developmental past. During the expedition Reuel stumbles upon Telassar and finds himself their true blood king. He abandons the West to live and reproduce the Ethiopian line, even as he himself is the issue of the white sexual violence of chattel enslavement. [continue reading]