This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Constantinople. Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images

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

From Brexit’s postcolonial clairvoyants to making socialism sexy, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Postcolonial Clairvoyants? Seeing Brexit In The Writings Of Paul Gilroy And Bill Schwarz

Liam Liburd
History Matters

A number of columnists and commentators have pointed to something disturbingly imperial in some of the arguments in favour of Brexit. Few, however, have looked to the academic study of British national identity or imperial history for answers. By using the work of Paul Gilroy and Bill Schwarz as a lens through which to examine Brexit, we can better perceive the role British imperial history and memory has played in exacerbating the current political situation. Writing long before the 2016 EU referendum, both Gilroy and Schwarz analysed the place of Empire in constructions of British national and racial identity. However, their analyses also happened to contain what have become key features of Brexiteer rhetoric.

In his 2004 book, Postcolonial Melancholia (published in the UK under the title After Empire), Gilroy continued a conversation he had begun back in 1987 with his Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Perhaps most pertinent to the Brexit debate, Gilroy analysed Britain’s enduring obsession with the Second World War, summed up for him by ‘the brash motto’: ‘Two world wars and one world cup, doo dah, doo dah’. For Gilroy, the broken record quality of the British collective memory was deeply bound up with decolonisation. The uncomfortable complexities of the imperial past ‘have been collapsed into the overarching figuration of Britain at war against the Nazis, under attack, yet stalwart and ultimately triumphant’. [continue reading]

Do we need to decolonise history? And if so, how?

History Extra

The campaign to decolonise history has gained support from Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex. During a talk to students at City, University of London, in January, the duchess expressed shock at figures showing the underrepresentation of ethnicity in professor positions in universities, and encouraged scholars to “open up the conversation” about the curriculum. But what is decolonising history all about? How do we go about doing it – and do we actually need to? Here, we explore the campaign to decolonise history and ask 10 experts for their views….[continue reading]

Alan Mikhail
New York Times

Where to end the story? For historians, the answer to this question can often shape their accounting of the past. “Empires of the Weak” very consciously ends its story right now. Most histories written in or about the 20th century accept some version of the idea that Europe “won” world history. From the perspective of today, however, this seems an increasingly difficult claim to defend. For J. C. Sharman, a professor of international relations at Cambridge, “Europeans didn’t win in the end: Their empires fell, and their military capacity shriveled. Even the United States has experienced more defeats than victories against non-Western forces over the last half-century.”

In Sharman’s account, the dominance of the West (note Europe’s easy baton-pass to the United States), roughly from the Enlightenment to World War II, represents a historical blip in the last millennium. And, perhaps more important, today we seem to be on the cusp of a return to a more regular state of affairs, where the large states of Asia will again be the globe’s hegemons. [continue reading]

A Study of imported Merchandise to Sweden

Viveka Hansen

A few 18th century East Indian textiles, in a Swedish museum collection, were evidently brought back to Europe via the British East India Company and probably sold in London to visiting Swedish individuals. These sought-after commodities used for fashionable clothing and interior textiles, were later on or close to the purchases in time taken back home for their own family use or to be resold. Other links to similar extensive trades are closely linked to Carl Linnaeus’ so-called seventeen apostles, whereof some had direct contact with several of the East India trading companies which imported cloth for the European market. Travel journals and correspondence from these naturalists’ long-distance voyages, while working as either ships’ chaplains or surgeons onboard or assisting botanists – include various information about silks from Canton [Guangzhou], cottons from Surat and much more which will also be closer observed in this essay.

Three of Linnaeus’ former students travelled as ship’s chaplains with the Swedish East India Company and made textile observations in their journals. Whereof Pehr Osbeck’s journal from 1750-52 has the most detailed notes, describing the various stages of weaving, in which he had very much wanted to take part, but was partially prevented by restriction of movement and other obstacles for Europeans in the Canton area. [continue reading]

Was Socialism Sexy?

Samuel Clowes Huneke
The Point

Eighty percent of women living in communist East Germany always reached orgasm during sex, according to the Hamburg magazine Neue Revue in 1990. For West German women that figure was only 63 percent. Those counterintuitive findings confirmed two earlier studies, which East German sex researchers had published in 1984 and 1988. Those had found East German women reported high levels of sexual satisfaction outpacing those in the West. The 1984 study’s authors contended socialism was to thank for women’s enjoyment of sex, specifically “the sense of social security, equal educational and professional responsibilities, equal rights and possibilities for participating in and determining the life of society.” In short, they claimed, women had better sex under socialism than under capitalism because socialism treated women better.

At face value, these findings seem suspect. Even with socialist ideas filtering into the left flank of the Democratic Party, we are accustomed to believing that everyday life under Soviet-style state socialism was repressive and awful. “There is something impalpable and unpleasant in the human climate” of communist countries, Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz once wrote, “if Hell should … condemn them to breathe in this aura forever, that would be punishment enough.” How on earth could women living in such bleak societies have fulfilling sex? [continue reading]