From remembering the 1884 Berlin Conference to hunger, starvation, and Indian soldiers in World War II, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
On the afternoon of Saturday, November 15, 1884, an international conference was opened by the chancellor of the newly-created German Empire at his official residence on Wilhelmstrasse, in Berlin. Sat around a horseshoe-shaped table in a room overlooking the garden with representatives from every European country, apart from Switzerland, as well as those from the United States and the Ottoman Empire. The only clue as to the purpose of the November gathering of white men was hung on the wall – a large map of Africa “drooping down like a question mark” as Nigerian historian, Professor Godfrey Uzoigwe, would comment.
Including a short break for Christmas and the New Year, the West African Conference of Berlin would last 104 days, ending on February 26, 1885. In the 135 years since, the conference has come to represent the late 19th-century European Scramble and Partition of the continent. In the popular imagination, the delegates are hunched over a map, armed with rulers and pencils, sketching out national borders on the continent with no idea of what existed on the ground they were parcelling out. Yet this is mistaken. The Berlin Conference did not begin the scramble. That was well under way. Neither did it partition the continent. Only one state, the short-lived horror that was the Congo Free State, came out of it – though strictly speaking it was not actually a creation of the conference. [continue reading]
More than seven decades on, Grace Mbithe still remembers the moment when a press gang abducted her husband from a Kenyan village and forced him into Britain’s armed forces at the height of World War Two. “It would just happen suddenly, one morning,” she said. “If you hid, they would just come back another day.” Grace, now a widow in her mid-90s, described a lorry driving into their highland village before soldiers jumped out and grabbed as many fit and able men as possible—under the supervision of a white officer.
It would be several years before Grace saw her husband, Stanley, again. During this turbulent time, she was socially isolated and tormented by her in-laws who, believing Grace was infertile, tried to force her out of the family. “We cried a lot when we heard [Stanley] had been captured,” she said. “We were crying because we knew he would not come back. He would die. He left us with a lot of problems. I suffered so much.” [continue reading]
Suggestions that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is impeding or trying to censor an official history of Australia’s East Timor peacekeeping mission are disturbing but unsurprising. They’re disturbing because good history must have as bedrock an independence from national reputation-shaping and political interference. The line between that and propaganda is fine.
But they are not a surprise because the department, its prominent Liberal ministers – not least Alexander Downer – and successive conservative governments have all spun like blazing Catherine wheels around the facts about Australian diplomatic sycophancy towards Indonesia over the country now known as Timor-Leste before, during and after the 1999 deployment. [continue reading]
New York Times
This document, part of 403 pages obtained by The New York Times, tells Chinese officials in Xinjiang how to explain the disappearance of parents and families detained in camps built to hold Muslim minorities. Anguished students asking about their parents were told they had nothing to worry about. [continue reading]
An Indian havildar, or junior officer, who was part of a Sappers and Miners unit stationed in Egypt during the height of World War II, wrote back home in June 1943: “From my personal experience I can tell you that the food we get here is much better than that we soldiers get in India. But whenever I sit for my meals, a dreadful picture of the appalling Indian food problem passes through my mind, leaving a cloudy sediment on the walls of my heart which makes me nauseous and often I leave my meals untouched.”
The soldier identified with this imagined community of sufferers in his homeland through his own body, as the pain of distant hunger reached out, resulting in him being heartsick and unable to eat. Another havildar clerk, writing to relatives, related his feelings of helplessness to the extraordinary conditions of the Indian wartime marketplace: “I am terribly sorry to learn about the food situation in India and it seems as if there is no salvation for me.… What is the use of money when we are unable to obtain the necessities of life in exchange for it? The situation would drive even the most level-headed of us to madness and when we think of conditions in India we become crazy as lunatics.” [continue reading]