This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

‘The Opium Poppy’ (1776), by Mary Delany. Trustees of the British Museum.

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

From how European empires broke their opium habit to the humbling of the Anglo-American world, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

From vice to crime

Diana S Kim

Consuming opium was once a tolerated vice in Southeast Asia. Nowhere was it universally accepted, but it was also not an absolute evil. Sovereigns banned opium, yet royal troops could receive supplies deemed necessary for morale. Religious authorities proscribed the drug, yet a Buddhist monk in Burma could legitimately use it during tattooing rituals. Opium was a ‘sinister friend’ to the Javanese that could at once drag them into penury, and ease the pain and discomforts of life’s necessary labours. Across the Malay archipelago, village elders frowned upon opium smokers as lazy and apathetic even as their communities shared opium pipes in private homes, at public gatherings to enjoy what one European visitor called ‘such a tickling in [the] Blood, such a languishing delight … that it justly might be termed a Pleasure too great for human Nature to support’.

For centuries, opium’s place in everyday life across Southeast Asia had been shaped through a variety of political, legal, religious and cultural practices, which also established boundaries of transgression in fluid ways. Smoking opium was a sumptuary practice with many possible meanings – from an analgesic, curative medicine and aphrodisiac to a depraved habit and immoral indulgence. The habit was not necessarily widespread but still far-reaching, capable of touching the lives of the powerful and the meek, the pious and the profane, the rich and the poor alike. And opium itself could be ‘at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful’, as the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh put it in Sea of Poppies (2008). [continue reading]

Thinking with Gandhi on racism and violence: A letter to a friend

Ajay Skaria

Was Gandhi racist towards blacks? The short answer is: before 1906, emphatically yes; from 1906 to 1913, qualifiedly yes; after 1913 or so, increasingly no. However, we need to ask a supplementary question: what light and shade does thinking with Gandhi throw on our current understanding of racism and anti-racism? To that question, the schematic answer would be: most of us are anti-racist in a speciesist way, or by invoking the idea of a unified human species where all of us are equals. Thinking with Gandhi — and especially, with his concept of satyagraha — allows us to conceptualise an anti-racism and notion of equality that begins from anti-speciesism. Such an anti-racism can help us move towards an equality based on difference rather than similarity, and only an equality of difference can address many of the challenges facing the most marginalised today.

We usually locate a turning point or epiphany in Gandhi’s biography at the famous incident in 1893 when he was thrown off a train at Maritzburg. But in that incident, he is upset partially (though this is somewhat speculative, since he writes at any length about this period only decades later) because as an “educated native” he considers himself entitled to travel in first class. Most Europeans at the time would have placed Europe, India, and Africa on a descending scale of civilizations. Early Indian nationalists largely contested this only to the extent that they claimed Indian civilization was equal to the European; they, and Gandhi, left in place the rest of the racist hierarchy. His criticisms in 1893 were almost certainly not a condemnation of civilizational or educational racism: one can find many examples of such racism in his writings in the next two decades. [continue reading]

Black Lives Matter: four lessons in white allyship from the South African anti-apartheid movement

Leonie Fleischmann and Matthew Graham

As Black Lives Matter protests, triggered by the killing of George Floyd, spread across the world in response to systemic racism and police brutality, questions are being asked about how white people can lend their support. Our previous and ongoing research into the South African anti-apartheid movement provides four key lessons we can draw on today in the fight against racism.

1. Use privilege to support the oppressed

The first lesson is that privilege, conferred to some by the system, can be used to support the oppressed. The African National Congress (ANC) launched its Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign in 1952. Although the campaign did not succeed in overturning repressive legislation, it boosted the membership of the ANC, cemented the leadership of people such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, and created close cooperation between different racial groups against apartheid. [continue reading]

Flailing States

Pankaj Mishra
London Review of Books

‘The abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all,’ Paul Valéry wrote in 1919, as Europe lay in ruins. The words resonate today as the coronavirus blows the roof off the world, most brutally exposing Britain and the United States, these prime movers of modern civilisation, which proudly claimed victory in two world wars, and in the Cold War, and which until recently held themselves up as exemplars of enlightened progress, economic and cultural models to be imitated across the globe. ‘The true test of a good government,’ Alexander Hamilton wrote, ‘is its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.’ It is a test the United States and Britain have failed ruinously during the current crisis.

Both countries had weeks of warnings about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan; strategies deployed by nations that responded early, such as South Korea and Taiwan, could have been adapted and implemented. But Donald Trump and Boris Johnson chose instead to claim immunity. ‘I think it’s going to work out fine,’ Trump announced on 19 February. On 3 March, the day the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned against shaking hands, Johnson boasted after a visit to a hospital treating coronavirus patients: ‘I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.’ [continue reading]

The humbling of the Anglo-American world

Edward Luce
Financial Times

It takes effort to recapture how Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. Images of that triumphal moment are as fresh as yesterday. The atmospherics smell of another era. Yet it is worth the effort. America and Britain’s poor responses to Covid-19 can be traced partly to post-cold war self-congratulation — the belief that neither had much to learn from the rest of the world. In a few short months a microbe has exposed the underside to Anglo-American hubris. It could take far longer to undo the pandemic’s damage to their brands.

The tale is best captured graphically. With the exception of Sweden, continental Europe succeeded in May in flattening its infection curve. Its countries have been taking measured steps to keep it flat. Most of east Asia had already achieved that in April. In America the curve was never beaten, yet half the country has given up trying. Britain eventually flattened its curve in June having reached the second-highest mortality rate in the world (America is seventh and climbing). As is often its wont, Britain deployed Churchillian rhetoric to rally the public against Covid-19. In reality, the UK is now throwing caution to the winds on the beaches, on the streets and on the landing grounds. [continue reading]