This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Brutal legacy: Friends and family carry the coffin of Jakelin Caal Maquín, who died in US Border Patrol custody, San Antonio Secortez, Guatemala, December 2018. (Reuters / Carlos Barria)

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

From the malign incompetence of the British ruling class to revisiting the H-word, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Pankaj Mishra
New York Times

Describing Britain’s calamitous exit from its Indian empire in 1947, the novelist Paul Scott wrote that in India the British “came to the end of themselves as they were” — that is, to the end of their exalted idea about themselves. Scott was among those shocked by how hastily and ruthlessly the British, who had ruled India for more than a century, condemned it to fragmentation and anarchy; how Louis Mountbatten, accurately described by the right-wing historian Andrew Roberts as a “mendacious, intellectually limited hustler,” came to preside, as the last British viceroy of India, over the destiny of some 400 million people.

Britain’s rupture with the European Union is proving to be another act of moral dereliction by the country’s rulers. The Brexiteers, pursuing a fantasy of imperial-era strength and self-sufficiency, have repeatedly revealed their hubris, mulishness and ineptitude over the past two years. Though originally a “Remainer,” Prime Minister Theresa May has matched their arrogant obduracy, imposing a patently unworkable timetable of two years on Brexit and laying down red lines that undermined negotiations with Brussels and doomed her deal to resoundingly bipartisan rejection this week in Parliament. [continue reading]

Washington Trained Guatemala’s Killers for Decades

Greg Grandin and Elizabeth Oglesby

John Longan was an agent with the US Border Patrol in the 1940s and ’50s, working near the Mexican border, where two Guatemalan migrant children fell mortally ill in the custody of border agents last month: 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquín, who died on December 8, and 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo, who died on Christmas Eve.

Longan had a reputation for violence, as did many of his fellow patrollers. Since its founding in the early 1900s, the Border Patrol has operated with near impunity, becoming arguably the most politicized branch of federal law enforcement—even more so than J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. As the Cold War heated up in Latin America following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Longan, who’d started his career as a police officer in Oklahoma, moved on to work for the CIA, providing security assistance—under the cover of the State Department—to allied anticommunist nations. Put simply, Longan taught local intelligence and police agencies how to create death squads to target political activists, deploying tactics that he’d used earlier to capture migrants on the border. [continue reading]

‘Killed by injustice’: The hanging of a British Somali

Safia Mohamed

It all started with a conversation over dinner. I don’t know how we got on to the subject, but as we were leaving the restaurant my friend mentioned Mahmood Mattan, who was hanged for murder in 1952, and – I stared at her with wide eyes as she said it – later exonerated… I was shocked and intrigued. We spent the rest of the evening on Google, trying to find out everything there was to know. And the more I read about Mattan, the more I found about the long history of my people in the UK.

When I was growing up, among Somali families who arrived here in the 1990s and early 2000s, no-one ever mentioned that Somalis had been in the country for more than a century. I had no idea. Mattan’s downfall began on the evening of 6 March 1952, when someone slit the throat of a shopkeeper and moneylender, Lily Volpert, at her shop in Butetown, Cardiff. Police immediately stopped any ships leaving the docks and began a hunt for the murderer. [continue reading]

The Amritsar massacre: a cold, callous display of colonial evil

Shashi Tharoor
Irish Times

t was 1919. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires had collapsed; new nations were springing up from their ruins; talk of self-determination was in the air. India had just emerged from the first World War having made enormous sacrifices, and a huge contribution in men and materiel, blood and treasure, to the British war effort, in the expectation that it would be rewarded with some measure of self-government. Those hopes were belied. The dishonest Montagu-Chelmsford “reforms” and the punitive Rowlatt Acts, imposing severe restrictions on Indian political activity and reimposing wartime prohibitions on freedom of the press and expression, were India’s only reward.

In March and April 1919, Indians rallied across Punjab to protest the Rowlatt Acts; they shut down normal commerce in many cities, demonstrating – through empty streets and shuttered shops – the dissatisfaction of the people at the British betrayal. This was a form of Gandhian non-violent non-cooperation; no violence or disorder was reported. But the British government arrested nationalist leaders in the city of Amritsar and opened fire on protestors, killing 10. In the riot that ensued, five Englishmen were killed and a woman missionary assaulted. (However, she was rescued, and carried to safety, by Indians.) [continue reading]

The H-Word

Ryan Irwin

Where does wisdom begin? The question lingers in the background of new books by John Lewis Gaddis and Perry Anderson, two men who have spent their lives writing and thinking about power in different ways. Gaddis came onto the scene in the 1960s, disrupting the field of U.S. foreign relations by marrying diplomatic history with strategic studies. His post-revisionist synthesis, articulated in the 1980s, provoked a flurry of criticism but uprooted the consensus that economics determined U.S. foreign policy. The best way to comprehend power, he argued, was to see the world through the eyes of powerful people.

Anderson also entered academe in the 1960s, challenging the British Left with insights from European theorists like Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Louis Althusser. Like Gaddis, he earned opprobrium, tangling with historian A.J.P. Taylor, among others, and successfully changed the way his colleagues understood the relationship between class, culture, and the state. The study of power, Anderson asserted, had to be entangled with the study of empire. Although Gaddis and Anderson have worked in separate intellectual milieus for most of their careers, in recent years Gaddis has ventured into the history of knowledge, and Anderson has turned to U.S. policymaking. Their latest books, On Grand Strategy and The H-Word, converge on the same argument: To understand a thing, you have name it correctly. Wisdom begins with a name. [continue reading]