From Britain’s shameful role in Biafra to how the German right is rewriting the history of colonialism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
It is a good thing to be proud of one’s country, and I am – most of the time. But it would be impossible to scan the centuries of Britain’s history without coming across a few incidents that evoke not pride but shame. Among those I would list are the creation by British officialdom in South Africa of the concentration camp, to persecute the families of Boers. Add to that the Amritsar massacre of 1919 and the Hola camps set up and run during the struggle against Mau Mau.
But there is one truly disgusting policy practised by our officialdom during the lifetime of anyone over 50, and one word will suffice: Biafra. This referred to the civil war in Nigeria that ended 50 years ago this month. It stemmed from the decision of the people of the eastern region of that already riot-racked country to strike for independence as the Republic of Biafra. As I learned when I got there as a BBC correspondent, the Biafrans, mostly of the Igbo people, had their reasons. [continue reading]
David Milne and Christopher McKnight Nichols
Throughout the Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been careful not to criticize Barack Obama directly—a wise move given his popularity in the party. But their campaign proposals leave little doubt that they view the former U.S. president’s domestic legacy as a series of quarter-measures shaped by a fatalistic centrism. “Medicare for All” is predicated on the notion that Obamacare—the president’s towering legislative achievement—was not close to enough. Where Obama made it easier for college students to reduce their monthly loan repayments, Sanders and Warren propose to forgive student debt and make it free to attend public college. The list goes on.
But is the gulf so wide between Obama and the left’s standard-bearers on the issue of foreign policy? Not nearly as wide as they like to suggest, or their supporters like to think. [continue reading]
To understand the complexity and significance of West African history, there is no better thing to do than to go to Freetown. Sierra Leone’s capital is sited in the lee of the ‘lion-shaped’ mountain that gives the country its modern name. Portuguese sailors began to visit this part of West Africa in the second half of the 15th century; after weeks of sailing down the flat mangrove-strewn swamps south from the Senegal river, they knew they were entering a different region when they saw this mountain, and named the whole part of the coast ‘Sierra Leone’. Today, the mountain shelters the upmarket beach resorts that stretch south of Freetown; and in the distance you can spy the large hump of Banana Island, where the slave trader John Newton (author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’) was imprisoned by a Temne trader in 1747.
Other aspects of this early history of trade and African-European encounters also remain. By the harbour downtown, by a clutch of corrugated-iron-covered stalls where fish is dried and prepared for sale, is the ‘De Ruyter stone’. This stone is named after a Dutch admiral who visited in the early 17th century, during European wars to control the slave trade, and is believed to have carved his name into one of the rocks that still stands on the beach. [continue reading]
Marc Curtis and Phil Miller
The UK’s secret intelligence service, MI6, worked with the CIA to provide a list of alleged Soviet agents in Iran to Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic regime, which took power after the overthrow of the UK-backed Shah in 1979. The information was used by the regime to execute leading members of the Iranian communist party, the Tudeh.
The British files also highlight how at least one Foreign Office official considered how the UK might benefit from the forced confessions given by Tudeh members at the time, which were believed to be extracted under torture. The files suggest British policy was motivated by the desire to curry favour with Iran’s new rulers, rather than concerns over Cold War geopolitics or Soviet influence in Iran, which was recognised to be minimal. [continue reading]
Africa is a Country
The German parliament, the Bundestag, is rarely an exciting place, and even less often the site of debate and protest. But in December, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) managed to scandalize the German public by hosting an academic lecture on German colonialism.
The speaker the AfD invited has made a name for himself as a colonial revisionist in the most literal sense: Bruce Gilley, professor of political science at Portland State University, became the subject of global debate in 2017 when the (small, but renowned) journal Third World Quarterly published his essay “The Case for Colonialism.” In it, Gilley argued not only that colonialism was “objectively beneficial,” but also that it should be reconsidered as a model of governance for countries in the Global South today. Critics, while scandalizing the proposal itself, mainly focused on the question of how a paper that was “blind[…] to vast sections of colonial history,” contained major “empirical shortfalls,” and was essentially “the academic equivalent of a Trump tweet, clickbait with footnotes” made it through peer review. As it turned out, the paper had been rejected by three peer reviewers, and the decision of editors to publish it without consulting the editorial board of Third World Quarterly led to the resignation of most members of the board and the retraction of the article. [continue reading]