This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Hans Sloane collected this specimen of cacao in Jamaica in the 1680s. Sloane often collected on or near slave plantations, taking advantage of slavery’s infrastructure to advance his science. NHM IMAGES

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

From how to film a revolution to exposing scientists’ debt to the slave trade, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

How to film a revolution

R. Joseph Parrot
Africa is a Country

A dark-skinned man in fatigues tiptoes across a log amidst dense forest, automatic machine gun slung over his shoulder. A South African accented voice reports with news anchor’s smoothness on the 1971 uprising in New York’s Attica prison. Armed men and women wade through a stream as the voiceover shifts to discuss the expansion of the liberation wars in Southern Africa. This is how African American filmmaker Robert Van Lierop introduces the audience to FRELIMO (Frente da Libertação de Moçambique, or Mozambique Liberation Front), in his 1972 documentary, A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues). These soldiers are fighting the Portuguese military for control of Mozambique. But it’s clear in the opening scenes that their struggle has meaning for battles against racism and exploitation the world over.

A Luta Continua was arguably the most important of a minor genre of films produced on the liberation struggles that occurred in the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau between 1961 and 1975. Produced mostly by activists, these politically charged documentaries explored not just the dismantling of Portuguese colonialism, but also the construction of a progressive, socialist nation behind the front lines of revolution. Battle footage contrasted with extended scenes from collective farms, rural medical centers, and elementary classrooms—semblances of the independent nation that FRELIMO fought to achieve. Narration explained how these seemingly distant events revealed the global nature of empire and racial inequality. By introducing FRELIMO’s socialist freedom struggle to global audiences, A Luta Continua and similar films aided the creation of a transnational anti-imperial solidarity. [continue reading]

Why the Brazilian far right loves the European Middle Ages

Paulo Pachá
Pacific Standard

On the day of Jair Bolsonaro‘s inauguration as president of Brazil, Filipe Martins, a political blogger close to the Bolsonaro family, tweeted his personal celebration of Bolsonaro’s victory: “The New Order is here. Everything is ours! Deus vult!

Observers would be forgiven for wondering why “Deus vult”—Latin for “God wills it,” a medieval battle cry associated with the First Crusade—is reappearing in 21st-century Brazil. In recent years, the “Deus vult” line has been appropriated by the far right in Europe and the United States, and has now become a slogan for the far right in Brazil. Indeed, Martins had already explicitly linked this battle cry to the Crusades when he tweeted on the day of the second round of elections, “The new Crusade is decreed. Deus vult!” On January 3rd, Bolsonaro named Martins as presidential special adviser for international affairs. [continue reading]

The Arab Spring of 1919

Hussein A. H. Omar

1919 was a year of travelling revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa. The uprisings were triggered by the efforts (sometimes secret, sometimes not) of Britain, France, Italy and Spain to colonise the Middle East and to divvy up its territories at the end of the First World War. As their intentions became apparent – after both Britain and France had repeatedly promised otherwise – thousands of men and, for the first time, women took to the streets in protest. War-weary peasants staged sit-ins, removed railroad tracks and occupied buildings across Libya, Egypt, Palestine and Tunisia. By 1920, the tremors had spread to Iraq and Morocco, where guerrillas declared independence from the semi-colonised kingdom. Sudan was engulfed by protests in 1924. By 1925, Syria was in the throes of a full-blown war. The recently established RAF bombed Egypt and Iraq to put an end to the revolutions. Instead, the bombardment energised them.

These uprisings have often been understood as isolated national revolutions, but they may be better thought of as a single (if protracted) wave that lasted from 1918 to the early 1930s, much as the Arab Spring movements that began in 2011 continue to reverberate today. The revolutionaries shared slogans, ideas, ideals and personnel. [continue reading]

When there was trouble in paradise

Emma Wynne
ABC Radio Perth

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a speck in the Indian Ocean, is closer to Indonesia than Australia. Many mainland Australians are barely aware of its existence, let alone that the islands are home to a population with an extraordinary history and unique culture. On April 6 each year, the islanders celebrate Act of Self-Determination Day — remembering the date in 1984 when they voted overwhelmingly for full integration with Australia.

It was not until that United Nations-supervised referendum that the people were released from more than a century of feudal control and handed the same rights as other Australians. The tiny circle of coral islands, 2,700 kilometres north-west of Perth, were discovered in 1609 by William Keeling of the East India Company. Officially, they are the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, but to the locals they’re just called Cocos. The first settlements began in the 1820s, led by Englishman Alexander Hare and Scottish sea captain John Clunies-Ross. A fierce rivalry developed between the two that eventually forced Hare to leave. [continue reading]

Historians expose early scientists’ debt to the slave trade

Sam Kean

At the dawn of the 1700s, European science seemed poised to conquer all of nature. Isaac Newton had recently published his monumental theory of gravity. Telescopes were opening up the heavens to study, and Robert Hooke and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes were doing the same for the miniature world. Fantastic new plants and animals were pouring in from Asia and the Americas. But one of the most important scientists alive then was someone few people have ever heard of, an apothecary and naturalist named James Petiver. And he was important for a startling reason: He had good connections within the slave trade.

Although he rarely left London, Petiver ran a global network of dozens of ship surgeons and captains who collected animal and plant specimens for him in far-flung colonies. Petiver set up a museum and research center with those specimens, and he and visiting scientists wrote papers that other naturalists (including Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy) drew on. Between one-quarter and one-third of Petiver’s collectors worked in the slave trade, largely because he had no other options: Few ships outside the slave trade traveled to key points in Africa and Latin America. Petiver eventually amassed the largest natural history collection in the world, and it never would have happened without slavery. [continue reading]


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