From what happens when a bad-tempered, distractable doofus runs an empire to how our colonial past altered the ecobalance of an entire planet, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
One of the few things that Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ruled Germany from 1888 to 1918, had a talent for was causing outrage. A particular specialty was insulting other monarchs. He called the diminutive King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy “the dwarf” in front of the king’s own entourage. He called Prince (later Tsar) Ferdinand, of Bulgaria, “Fernando naso,” on account of his beaky nose, and spread rumors that he was a hermaphrodite.
Since Wilhelm was notably indiscreet, people always knew what he was saying behind their backs. Ferdinand had his revenge. After a visit to Germany, in 1909, during which the Kaiser slapped him on the bottom in public and then refused to apologize, Ferdinand awarded a valuable arms contract that had been promised to the Germans to a French company instead. Not that this deterred the Kaiser. [continue reading]
In July 1971, during a routine visit to Pakistan, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger feigned illness and retired to his hotel room to recover. In reality, though, Kissinger was springing into action. Smuggled under darkness from his hotel to the Islamabad airport, he traveled secretly to Beijing, where he held meetings with China’s supreme leader Mao Zedong. A few days after Kissinger’s return, President Richard Nixon announced that he’d be the first-ever American president to visit China. He and Mao held their first summit only seven months later, in February 1972, in a visit that changed the world.
It’s difficult to recapture the shock Nixon’s visit caused at the time. Ever since Mao had taken power in 1949, the People’s Republic of China and the United States had been sworn enemies. Their governments refused to recognize one another, their leaders routinely traded public insults, and their armies fought during the Korean War. As a young congressman, Nixon himself had attacked President Harry Truman with cries of “Who Lost China?” Washington protected the breakaway, non-communist island of Taiwan from invasion and recognized Taipei, not Beijing, as the legally sovereign capital of China. Mao openly speculated about winning a nuclear war because China’s enormous population meant it could absorb more losses than the United States. Yet despite all that, Nixon went to China. [continue reading]
Hanae Kurihara Kramer
Maritime powers in the nineteenth century conquered, seized, annexed, and bought Pacific empires. Few islands escaped their grasp. Even fewer still remained to be conquered. Divided according to the logic of imperial rivalries, Oceania was pulled piece by piece into regional and global schemes. Gunboat captains and civilian sailors alike planted their country’s flag with patriotic zeal on remote shores in far-flung latitudes. Native sovereignty largely went ignored and, at times, so too did prior claims made by other great nations. As adventurers painted the globe in their national colors, overlapping ambitions led to conflicts that demanded resolution through bloodshed or diplomacy. The Pacific Ocean offered opportunities for rising powers to gain political leverage and promised established powers a way to cling to the status quo. It is in this context that the British Empire, United States, and Japan all laid claim to the Bonin Islands or, as they are known in Japan, Ogasawara Guntō (Ogasawara Islands).
These three countries and numerous imperial dreams competed for sovereignty. British merchants envisioned Peel Island—the largest of the Bonins—as a thriving hub in the growing transpacific trade, while some of their hawkish countrymen contemplated turning it into an island fortress from which to dominate the region. [continue reading]
It was the time of the Fulani empire and this prosperous ancient city in northern Nigeria bustled with activity. Hundreds of years before British colonisers set foot, Kano – now the second most populous city in the West African nation – was surrounded by a brown-mud wall standing 3.5-metres high and 1.5-metres thick to protect it from outside invasion.
The fortification covered an area of 24km and all entry and exit to the city, which at the time was home to an estimated 50,000 people, was through one of 13 giant gates manned by security guards. The city was a centre for Islamic studies and a thriving trading hub with abundant water and rich iron deposits. The massive barrier protected the inhabitants inside, but that was the old days. Things are very different today. [continue reading]
It brought riches to Britain and many other European nations; played a major role in enslaving more than 10 million Africans; and created the first global markets in cotton, tobacco and sugar. But now colonialism has been accused of having an even greater influence. It is claimed that it changed the Earth’s very makeup.
This is the view of two UK scientists who believe the impact of colonialism was so profound it can be detected in Earth’s air and rocks, an idea revealed in The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, published last week. The two researchers, who are based at University College London, describe the colonising of the Americas and other lands as “a planet-wide human-driven evolutionary experiment” which began in the 16th century and “will continue to play out indefinitely”. [continue reading]