This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

The María Pita departing from Coruña, 1803, engraved by Francisco Pérez via Wikimedia Commons

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

From how children took the smallpox vaccine around the world  to how American slave owners started again in Australia, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

How Children Took the Smallpox Vaccine around the World

Jess Romeo

On November 30, 1803, the Maria Píta set sail from a Spanish port, headed west toward the Americas. The ship bore a small cohort of people tasked with a historic mission: to circumnavigate the globe distributing the vaccine for smallpox. The Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition, as it was called, was staffed by a handful of physicians, two surgeons, and four nurses. The vaccine itself was carried beneath the skin of twenty-two orphan boys, ages three to nine.

Before the invention of a vaccine, the scourge of smallpox devastated Europe, causing death in up to one third of cases. In Spain’s extensive overseas colonies, the plague was even worse. “The impact of successive epidemics was devastating,” write immunologist Catherine Mark and epidemiologist José G. Rigau-Pérez. Fatality rates in the Americas could reach up to 50 percent. Colonial governors begged for some form of relief. [continue reading]

Colston Revisited

Madge Dresser
History Workshop

Statue toppling in Bristol is not new. In 1813 the statue of George III, in the city’s Brunswick Square, was violently torn down after a rally led by the radical campaigner Orator Hunt. Hunt’s followers, frustrated by the slow pace of reform in the face of poverty, inequality and unaccountable privilege took matters into their own hands. In that respect, plus ça change. Global coverage of the Colston statue which was taken down and dumped into the Bristol harbour this month, has led many to ask more about Colston himself. But people are asking too why that particular statue was erected in 1895, over 170 years after the death of Edward Colston himself.

The possible motives for erecting this late Victorian statue with its elegant Art Nouveau plinth celebrating Colston as the ‘wise and virtuous son of the city’ have since been the subject of some controversy but my own research and that of others, largely accords with the view that the statue’s primary purpose was to ‘big up’ Bristol and assert a common civic identity that would unite Bristolians at a time when growing working class militancy threatened to undermine the existing social order. [continue reading]

King’s College London and the Challenge of Windrush

Richard Drayton
Diversity Digest

Since 2018, Windrush Day has been the day in which we celebrate what Caribbean people have given to Britain. Such a celebration should be anchored in the memory of why we came. But it cannot just be retrospective. The anniversary of Windrush should challenge us each year to address the question of racial inequality, both within Britain, and in Britain’s relationship to the West Indies.

Our contributions to Britain began long before the arrival of the Empire Windrush to Tilbury docks in 1948. Here at King’s, for example, a significant part of the wealth on which King’s was founded in 1829 was based on enslaved and tortured people in the West Indies.  More generally, plantation slavery created a world in which modern Britain was rich, and its Caribbean colonies poor. It was in the context of this inequality of life chances that West Indians chose to leave their homes to come to London. It is against that background, too, that King’s relationship to the Caribbean was constituted. [continue reading]

Ola Mae Spinks, retired librarian, dies at 106; helped organize ‘Slave Narratives’

Bill Laitner
Detroit Free Press

Ola Mae Spinks, a retired librarian from the Pontiac schools who helped to organize the historic “Slave Narratives” in the U.S. Library of Congress, died June 16 at a senior living center in Southfield. Mrs. Spinks was 106. Her age was verified by her birthdate noted in a family Bible, her children said. In 2017, she moved to Southfield from Detroit’s Boston-Edison area, where she had resided since 1959. Until age 102, she was still driving herself a mile to People’s Community Church in Detroit, and she stayed remarkably alert and active in social groups for her entire life, family members said.

It was near the end of her career in education, when she was working as a school librarian in Pontiac, that Mrs. Spinks took on a brief volunteer project of national significance. She and a friend, also a librarian, contacted the U.S. Library of Congress and volunteered to visit Washington, D.C., to help organize the “Slave Narratives.” According to published records of volunteer work performed at what is the world’s largest library, and that are still on file there: “For two months, beginning in June 1972, two Detroit librarians, Ola M. Spinks and Phyllis G. Williams, labored to organize the unwieldy materials in the Archive of Folk Song.” The records about their work, provided to the Free Press by a communications official at the library, go on to state: “Mrs. Spinks and Mrs. Williams began organizing the materials for two states, Alabama and Arkansas, of the 17 states covered by the Project. In July 1972, the two dedicated librarians contacted Mrs. Oscar Mervene Couch of the History Department at the Federal City College and persuaded her and students from the college to continue this ambitious project.” [continue reading]

From Louisiana to Queensland: how American slave owners started again in Australia

Paige Gleeson

Scott Morrison says “we shouldn’t be importing” the Black Lives Matter movement. But in the 1800s, Australia imported plantation owners from the American South. Prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, the American south produced almost all of the world’s cotton. As war threatened, plantation owners returned to England and English cotton mills ground to a halt.

Under 1861’s “Cotton Regulations”, individuals and companies could lease land and receive the freehold title within two years if one-tenth of the land was used for growing cotton.A new source of cotton was required, and Queensland would be widely promoted as a cotton growing colony and the “future cotton field of England”. The colony government invited mill and plantation owners and workers to re-migrate and re-establish their industry in Queensland. As early as June of that year – barely two months after the civil war officially began – the Muir brothers, Robert, Matthew and David, established the Queensland Manchester Cotton Company and initiated plans to send an agent to Queensland to begin the process of establishing plantations. [continue reading]