This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

The statue of Mary Thomas called “I Am Queen Mary” is the first public monument to a black woman in Denmark, according to the artists. Credit Nick Furbo

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

From Denmark’s memorializing of a Caribbean ‘rebel queen’ to the Left’s embrace of empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Denmark Gets First Public Statue of a Black Woman, a ‘Rebel Queen’

Martin Selsoe Sorensen
New York Times

The statue of the woman is nearly 23 feet tall. Her head is wrapped and she stares straight ahead while sitting barefoot, but regally, in a wide-backed chair, clutching a torch in one hand and a tool used to cut sugar cane in the other. In Denmark, where most of the public statues represent white men, two artists on Saturday unveiled the striking statue in tribute to a 19th-century rebel queen who had led a fiery revolt against Danish colonial rule in the Caribbean.

They said it was Denmark’s first public monument to a black woman. The sculpture was inspired by Mary Thomas, known as one of “the three queens.” Thomas, along with two other female leaders, unleashed an uprising in 1878 called the “Fireburn.” Fifty plantations and most of the town of Frederiksted in St. Croix were burned, in what has been called the largest labor revolt in Danish colonial history. [continue reading]

Imperialist Realities vs. the Myths of David Harvey

John Smith
Review of African Political Economy

When David Harvey says “the historical draining of wealth from East to West for more than two centuries has largely been reversed over the last thirty years,” his readers will reasonably assume that he refers to a defining feature of imperialism, namely the plunder of living labour and natural wealth in colonies and semi-colonies by rising capitalist powers in Europe and North America. Indeed, he leaves no doubt about this, since he prefaced these words with reference to “the old categories of imperialism.” But here we encounter the first of his many obfuscations. For more than two centuries, imperialist Europe and North America have also been draining wealth from Latin America and Africa, as well as from all parts of Asia… except from Japan, which itself emerged as an imperial power during the 19th century. ‘East-West’ is therefore an imperfect substitute for ‘North-South’, and this is why I dared to adjust the points of Harvey’s compass, drawing a petulant response.

As David Harvey knows full well, all sides in the debate on imperialism, modernisation and capitalist development acknowledge a primary distinction between what are variously termed ‘developed and developing’, ‘imperialist and oppressed’, ‘core and periphery’ etc. countries, even if there is no agreement about how this primary division is evolving. Furthermore, the criteria for determining membership of these groups of nations can validly include politics, economics, history, culture and much else, but NOT geographical location—‘North-South’ is nothing more than descriptive shorthand for other criteria, as is indicated by the fact that ‘North’ is generally acknowledged to include Australia and New Zealand. [continue reading]

Lesec, From Brave Mulato Into Blackness?: Defection to France and Spanish Racial Regression

Charlton W. Yingling
Age of Revolutions

In May 1794, Governor Joaquín García of Spanish Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic) praised the “brave spirit” of “Carlos Gabriel Lesec, mulato,” a term denoting European and African heritage. As an officer in Spain’s Black Auxiliaries, Lesec had just repulsed troops of the French Republic in a resounding victory at Santa Susana on the border with Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti).  As the third anniversary of the Haitian Revolution approached, thousands of ex-slaves had expanded their liberatory war under Spanish flags and occupied nearly half of Saint-Domingue.[1] 

These “Black Auxiliaries” of Spain enjoyed limited manumissions and material support in their war against the French, their former exploiters. Their leaders, Jean-François and Georges Biassou, represented some of the earliest participants in the initial slave revolts of 1791.  Those who ascended later, such as Toussaint Louverture and his officer Charles Lesec, seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at upward mobility by punishing their former French oppressors. Despite these victories, García was dismayed by the “disunion that reigns between the black chiefs Biassou and Toussaint,” who along with Jean-François were Lesec’s superiors.[2] Six months earlier French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax had begun tactical, practical emancipations, in part to attract black supporters due to desperation over his opponents’ successes. [continue reading]

Being a white nurse in colonial Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) before World War II

Clement Masakure
Australian Women’s History Network

The colonial hospitals of Central and Southern Africa are an important space to analyse, among other things, the experiences of the white working women who toiled day and night to provide medical and nursing care to African and European patients. This blog considers the case of colonial Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia), which had three types of hospitals: first, mission hospitals, under the control of various denominations and based mainly in rural areas, provided medical services to Africans in the vicinity of the mission station; second, mining hospitals, again located in rural areas, provided medical care to mine workers; and third, government hospitals, the majority of which were located in urban areas. By the 1930s and into the 1940s, government hospitals existed in major towns such as Salisbury (now Harare), the capital, as well as Bulawayo, Umtali (Mutare), Gwelo (Gwelo) and Fort Victoria (Masvingo). These hospitals employed the largest number of white nurses in Central Africa, on both a permanent and temporary basis.

Located in Central Africa between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, the land that became known as Southern Rhodesia was occupied by the British South Africa Company under Cecil John Rhodes in 1890. Rhodesia was a British settler colony whose main characteristics were land seizures, white settlement, segregated colonial governance, and economic and social privileges for the white community. The nation gained independence from Britain in 1980. Analysing archival material from the Southern Rhodesia Nurses Association and oral and written evidence provided by nurses and hospital administrators to the government-appointed National Health Services Commission (1945), it becomes clear that the Southern Rhodesian Nursing Services experienced numerous challenges that had an adverse effect on the daily work of the nurses working in government hospitals. Archival material points to their frustrations with nurse shortages, increased workloads and low salaries. At the same time, one gets an idea of how these nurses responded to the challenges they were facing. Nurses actively shaped colonial nursing policy in Southern Rhodesia by the time of World War II. [continue reading]

The Left’s Embrace of Empire

Lyle Jeremy Rubin

Bret Stephens, arguably the most hawkish voice at The Wall Street Journal throughout the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies, now occupies an even more prominent perch at The New York Times. Bari Weiss, also formerly of the Journal, has also moved to the Times, despite a history of smearing Muslim and Arab professors. And Max Boot, yet another Journal veteran, has been rewarded with columnist status at The Washington Post for his intrepid defense of America’s wars. A similar pattern can be discerned across network television and public radio, where proponents of American hegemony—ranging from former Bush speechwriter David Frum to founder of The Weekly Standard Bill Kristol to editor in chief of The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg to former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and a daunting litany of national-security-state officials—are presented as wise sages.

Since Trump was elected, both parties have backed massive increases to the military budget; the extension of Bush-era surveillance powers; sanctions on RussiaNorth Korea, and IranUS strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria; and provocations on Russia’s periphery, specifically in Ukraine, where weapons and other forms of military assistance continue to flow to a coalition government riddled with fascist sympathizers. Some of these policies, like sanctions on Russia and North Korea, are debatable. But debate has been absent, even in most marquee left outlets. The presumptions of empire are conceded at the outset. Either by unashamed affirmation or complicit silence, the mainstream, institutional American left has endorsed the latest restoration of the empire and the accompanying resurgence of militarism. [continue reading]