This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Portuguese imperial propaganda poster, 1934. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (Creative Commons).

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

From debating Portuguese colonialism to hiding French colonial archives, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Debating “Discoveries”: Colonialism & Public History in Portugal

Alfonso Dias Ramos
History Workshop

Attempts to write a consensual past will only increase as the polarisation of the present deepens. This may help explain why, at a time when the future of imperial history looks far from settled, many are defensive and anxious to preserve a glowing image of colonialism shorn of its agonies. Examples are visible across the Western world. In 2005, the French parliament passed a law forcing national schools to stress “the positive role played by France overseas”, while in 2010 a former Belgian Foreign Minister hailed King Leopold II (under whom an estimated ten million died in the Congo Free State) as a “hero”. In 2017, an article making “The Case for Colonialism” led to half of the editorial board of Third World Quarterly resigning in protest, prompting a controversial project on ‘Ethics and Empire’ at Oxford University that sought to highlight the ‘positive’ aspects of imperialism. Surveys in Britain indicate that half the population thinks the British empire was a force for ‘good’, an opinion given new prominence in the age of Brexit. Debate over whether colonialism was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, for whom and in what ways, is back with a vengeance, and in many ways has become the prime topic in European public history and cultural heritage.

Of all these memory battles, few have made this clearer than the controversy raging in the longest-lasting of the imperial powers, Portugal, one that has perhaps shed more ink than any other but remains little covered in global media. In 2018, Lisbon’s mayor promised to build a so-called “Museum of the Discoveries”, a space intended to cover the “most and least positive aspects” of the imperial past, with “an area dedicated to the topic of slavery”. This project – one that politicians have been flirting with for a century – went largely unnoticed, until over a hundred academics released an open letter objecting to the word “discoveries” as an “obsolete and incorrect” catch-all term to encompass five centuries of colonial history. Indeed “descobrimentos is one of the most charged words in the Portuguese language, canonised in the ideology of the right-wing dictatorship that ruled the country from 1933-74, almost a cornerstone of national identity. The academic objections sparked fevered responses in newspapers, debates on television, and attacks on social media; indeed in outpouring and duration, there is no comparable postcolonial controversy in Portugal. How did wording elicit such unbridled passions? [continue reading]

From Music to Madiba: A History of US Relations with South Africa


Thirty years ago this week, Nelson Mandela, the renowned civil rights and anti-apartheid leader, was released from prison. His release marked the beginning of the end of South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime and a new future for black South Africans. So on this episode of BackStory, Joanne, Ed and Brian take a look at the complicated and often contentious relationship American officials and anti-racism activists have had with South Africa. [listen here]

Putting the RCMP raid on the Wet’suwet’en in historical perspective

Sean Carleton
The Star

The recent RCMP raids of Wet’suwet’en land defenders in northwestern British Columbia have left many Canadians shocked and angered. The RCMP are justifying their operation as an enforcement of a B.C. Supreme Court injunction to clear resettlement camps and allow Coastal GasLink to carry on building a natural gas pipeline. Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have countered that their lands remain unceded, a fact reinforced by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1997 Delgamuukw decision. The chiefs argue that the laws they uphold predate and override Canadian laws, including injunctions, in their territory. Yet B.C., facing pressure from the energy company, has instructed the RCMP to enforce the injunction anyway.

Images of RCMP officers, some dressed in camo gear and armed with automatic rifles, arresting unarmed Indigenous peoples clash with the popular mythology of the “Mounties.” The stark contrast between the galloping Mounties of the Musical Ride and the militarized police force sent in to be the muscle for an energy company has led some Canadians to view the RCMP raid on the Wet’suwet’en as an anomaly. [continue reading]

The Nellie Massacre Remains All But Forgotten

Subasri Krishnan
The Caravan

On 18 February 1983, Khairuddin, a resident of Borbori—a village located in the Morigaon district of Assam—could not help but notice the eerie calm of the morning as he woke up to go to work in his fields. “I woke up at 7 am that morning and saw no one around. None of my family members were home. Even the children could not be seen. I got worried and wondered where they all went. I assumed that they had all gone to my sister’s house nearby, but when I reached her place, I saw that there was no one there either,” he recounted. By 8 am, he could see teeming crowds of people carrying machetes and marching towards his village, but there was still no sign of his family. A frantic search across the village ensued, and he eventually found his sons, aged four and six.

Khairuddin remembered the events of that day in vivid detail: the manner in which the mob set fire to his house, while he tried to escape with both his sons on his back; encountering his daughter’s lifeless body as he was running, and his inability to spend even a moment to grieve in his haste to get his other children to safety; the injury that he sustained on his head when someone hit him, just before he watched his younger son being hacked to death; and how he lost his older son while trying to swim away from the mob, across the river Kopili. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) eventually rescued him and his wife, but she succumbed to her injuries at the Jaggi Road police station—there was a severe paucity of doctors and she did not receive the medical attention she needed. In one day, Khairuddin had lost two sons, a daughter, his wife, his parents and four of his brothers along with their families. [continue reading]

Secret défense contre l’histoire: fermeture des archives des répressions coloniales

Gilles Manceron

La plupart de ces documents auxquels les chercheurs ne peuvent actuellement avoir accès étaient librement communiqués jusqu’ici, souvent depuis des années, après l’expiration des délais de communication légaux, ou bien par dérogation. Cette situation est le fruit d’une décision prise à la fin de l’année 2019 par le Secrétariat général de la Défense et de la sécurité nationale (SGDSN), rattaché aux services du Premier ministre : celle d’appliquer de façon différente de ce qui avait été le cas auparavant une instruction interministérielle, texte non législatif du 30 novembre 2011, émise huit ans auparavant vers la fin de la présidence de Nicolas Sarkozy, au nom de la protection du « secret défense ».

En application de cette « IGI 1300 », les archivistes sont désormais tenus de mettre sous pli fermé ces papiers tamponnés, ainsi déclarés « classifiés », quel qu’en soit le contenu et la date. Et, si des chercheurs souhaitent les consulter, ils doivent s’adresser aux institutions qui les ont versées, le ministère de la Défense le plus souvent, pour obtenir, page par page, leur « déclassification ». Comme rien n’indique sur les cartons d’archives qu’ils contiennent de telles pièces, tous devront être passés en revue par les archivistes, qui devront examiner, au total, des centaines de milliers de pages, des dizaines de kilomètres linéaires d’archives. En l’absence de personnel suffisant, le centre le plus concerné, le SHD à Vincennes, a annoncé à ses usagers de sérieuses restrictions à la consultation. Pour des documents qui étaient pourtant, pour la plupart, ouverts aux chercheurs il y a encore quelques semaines, et souvent depuis des années. [continue reading]