This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Serbian soldiers on the Balkan front.

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

From sexuality in the Mughal Era to the original Belt and Road, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.


From Babur to Dara Shukoh: Fluid sexuality was never ‘unnatural’ during Mughal era

Lubna Irfan
Daily O

When Sarmad, the Jewish companion of Dara Shukoh, was put to death, there were many allegations against him. But homosexuality wasn’t one of them. Sarmad was a Jewish rabbi who had migrated from Kashan to Mughal India and eventually joined Dara Shukoh’s services. Some accounts claim that this rabbi had converted to Islam while others suggest that he was an atheist and an agnostic. His execution in 1660 was a political act since he was associated with Dara, yet the justifications provided for the act were of moral nature, since nobody could be executed for merely going about naked, Sarmad was charged with denying Muhammad and was accused of reading half the kalma, of saying La Ilaha (There is no God).

Interestingly, in a 17th century world when people in the Mughal establishment were looking for reasons to behead Sarmad, they didn’t find homosexuality a reason enough to punish him, despite the fact that it was well established and known that Sarmad had fluid sexuality and he had helplessly fallen in love with a Hindu guy when he came to Thatta — it is reported that it was due to his love for this guy that he gave up everything and became a naked fakir. [continue reading]

Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization

Christopher Dietrich
New Books Network

The 1973 oil crisis was an event of world-historic proportions, but the stories we tell about it often center the Global North. For instance, the first images that probably come to mind are of the long gas-station queues of Americans in their cars waiting to fill up at the height of the oil shortage. Christopher Dietrich, in his new book, Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization (Cambridge University Press, 2017) approaches the oil crisis with a different perspective. Instead of focusing on the American consumer’s struggles or the State Department’s outlook, Dietrich foregrounds oil elites from the Global South.

Dietrich documents how these elites overcame political and ideological differences to form OPEC, and how they sought to transform the global economy. By exploring, what he calls, “the economic culture of decolonization,” Dietrich shows how the material conditions and shared interests of oil elites facilitated their successful drive to organize and to raise oil prices. It is not an entirely happy story, however, as Dietrich traces the line from “sovereign rights” to the sovereign debt crisis of the 1980s. The book is an impressive feat of scholarship and should reach a wide audience, including scholars of the Global South, resource politics, global governance, intellectual history, and U.S. foreign relations. [Listen to Dexter Fergie’s interview with the author]

A forgotten soldier on a forgotten front

Allan Little
BBC News

Sgt Sandes, an infantry soldier in the Serbian Army, lay semi-conscious on the snowy hillside after taking the full blast of a Bulgarian grenade, and would later recall being wrapped up and bundled away like a rabbit in a poacher’s sack. “I could see nothing,” the trooper wrote. “It was exactly as though I had gone suddenly blind; but I felt the tail of an overcoat sweep across my face. Instinctively I clutched it with my left hand, and must have held on for two or three yards before I fainted.

“The Serbs have a theory that you must not give water to a wounded man because they say it chills him, so they poured fully half a bottle of brandy down my throat and put a cigarette in my mouth. “I caught the little sergeant who had helped carry me watching me with his eyes full of tears. I assured him that it took a lot to kill me, and that I should be back again in about ten days”. It was November 1916. Sandes was among tens of thousands of Serbian troops fighting, from their base in northern Greece, to try to re-enter their own country, which had been occupied by Bulgarian forces a year earlier. [continue reading]

Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850

Cameron Strang
New Books Network

Cameron Strang’s Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850 (University of North Carolina Press, 2018) examines how colonists, soldiers, explorers, and American Indians created and circulated knowledge about the natural world and the inhabitants of the Gulf South. Covering 350 years of imperialism, Frontiers of Science demonstrates both how critical the creation of knowledge about imperial borderlands was to expansion and competition, but also to how diffuse, contested, and unstable these networks were.  Not only explorers, but slave owners and their slaves, American Indians, soldiers, bureaucrats, and merchants all participated in the production of knowledge and shaped the way that the Gulf South was known. [Listen to Lance Thurner’s interview with the author]

The Original Belt and Road? 

Yuexin Rachel Lin
Shots Across the Amur

Over the summer, I managed to visit Harbin – one of the former epicentres of Sino-Russian entanglement – and take in a few of the city’s museums. Harbin is understandably keen to promote the Russian elements in its heritage, just as Shanghai has capitalised on its Art Deco architecture and the French Concession. The city’s main tourist thoroughfare, Zhongyang dajie – Kitaiskaia ulitsa under the China Eastern Railway administration – has become something akin to a Russian theme park, with loudspeakers broadcasting “Katiusha” along the street and innumerable shops selling “Russian” souvenirs. Signs and advertisements there include Russian translations of uneven quality. Elsewhere in the city, many Russian buildings are gazetted as historic monuments and have largely avoided over-zealous “refurbishment”.

This celebration of Harbin’s Sino-Russian heritage has gone up a notch with the introduction of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. OBOR, which is given top billing in the People’s Republic, aims to link China to Europe, the wider Asian continent and Africa by land and sea. Of particular interest to Harbin’s self-image is OBOR’s Silk Road Economic Belt component, a 21st-Century revival of the overland trade route from China to Europe via Eurasia. Harbin, as the hub of the former China Eastern Railway, is well-placed to take part in the discussions surrounding this “new Silk Road”. By positioning the China Eastern Railway as the “original” Economic Belt bridging East and West, Harbin can claim a privileged place in OBOR discourse. [continue reading]

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