History Department, University of Exeter
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From murder on the Middle Passage to doubling the time people lived in the Americas, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Murder on the Middle Passage
You are trapped in a net cast by a white man reeking of rum and smoke, and then dragged miles to the coast. You are processed, bound into chains, and led to vast wooden ships. You are packed into the hold and spend months on the ocean. You have little to eat, little to drink, little air to breathe. All around you there is coughing and fever. On deck, they make you dance to keep your muscles taut, to preserve your price at the market. If you resist, they will beat you; if you die, they will throw you overboard.
In time, you see land. You are paraded on the dockside, prodded and inspected. They feel your arms; they look at your teeth. One man says “Yes”. You are loaded on to a cart and driven over rough land along dirt tracks until you arrive at a house and fields. You suffer searing pain as a burning iron pushes into your skin. You are taken to a shed and thrown to the floor. You collapse and sleep, but the sun rises and then you work. You have not done this work before, but if you do it badly, they will whip you. If you complain, they will whip you again. If you refuse to work, or you fight back, they will kill you in front of the others. So, you work. [continue reading]
The Citizen Scholar Who Led the Hunt for Queen Lili’uokalani’s Lost Diaries
Julia Flynn Siler
In April of 1957, as many students in Hawaii spent their spring breaks splashing in the gentle waters off Waikiki, a gawky, self-conscious 16-year-old named David W. Forbes headed away from the beach. He spent his break indoors in a nearly empty government building known as the Territorial Archive, where the most precious of Hawaii’s historical records were kept. This was a time when a new craze for surfing, first pioneered by Native Hawaiians, was catching hold. Hawaii was still a US Territory. A svelte, young Elvis Presley hadn’t yet filmed Blue Hawaii. Forbes, by then, realized he was more comfortable in a library than in swim shorts. “I hated the beach,” he recalled. So the 6’1” sandy-haired teen headed indoors and began a lifelong treasure hunt that continues today.
In a fusty archive that lacked air-conditioning in 1957, the teenaged Forbes settled into a solitary routine of rifling through dusty cartons, filled with century-old documents and images. He’d requested files on a Big Island ranch famed for its paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys. The archivists brought him carton after carton, with some documents dating back to the 1830s. He ended up spending many days there that spring, arriving when it opened at 7:45 am and staying until it closed at 4:30. “There was just so much stuff there. It just blew the top of my head off,” he recalled. “It was a whole story waiting to unfold.” [continue reading]
A song goes round the world
The grave in the Jewish cemetery at Friesenberg in Zurich bears the number 2331. ‘Ein Stern fällt…’ is carved into the black headstone – ‘A star fell’. Below that: Joseph Schmidt. Kammersänger. 1904-1942. It’s the grave of a Jewish refugee whose life ended tragically in peaceful Switzerland during World War II.
Alfred A. Fassbind has been fascinated by the story of Joseph Schmidt since his youth. Fassbind, from Zurich, has written a biography of the famous singer, and provides the key information on the life of the German tenor: Joseph Schmidt was born on 4 March 1904 in Davideny near Czernowitz. The region has had a chequered history, and belonged to Austria-Hungary at that time; later it belonged to Romania, and is now part of Ukraine. Czernowitz was home to a colourful mix of people of different cultures and languages; it was strongly influenced by Jewish traditions, and the German language played an important role. Joseph Schmidt attracted attention for his musical talent while still a child, and in the synagogue he hummed along instead of reading. ‘He was known as “the singing Joschi”, and as the child prodigy from Davideny he was invited to the neighbouring villages,’ writes Fassbind. [continue reading]
A Better Globalization
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted much reflection on the state of globalization, its drawbacks at a time of worldwide disruption, and the supposed benefits of retreating to the national sphere. In this sense, as in many others, the current crisis has accelerated pre-existing tendencies. The global trade-to-GDP ratio – one of the main indicators of globalization – has followed a downward trend since 2012, and anti-globalist political movements have been gaining in popularity for some time.
These movements have good reasons to mistrust globalization, and even more so now. The scarcity of vital materials – from face masks to yeast – highlighted the low resilience of the global supply chains that produce so much of what we use, owing to their excessive concentration in a few countries and the lack of essential stockpiles. Moreover, globalization has created many losers within individual countries, especially in the developed world. [continue reading]
Surprise cave discoveries may double the time people lived in the Americas
When researchers first arrived at a cave high in the desert mountains of north-central Mexico, they hoped to learn what the environment was like there thousands of years ago. But the unexpected discovery of what they believe is an ancient projectile point led to a decade-long excavation that could rewrite the history of the Americas. According to a paper published today in the journal Nature, the site, known as Chiquihuite Cave, may contain evidence of human occupation that places people in North America around 30,000 years ago—roughly twice as early as most current estimates for when the first humans arrived on the continent.
The question of when people first arrived in the Americas has been debated for more than a century. For much of that time the reigning theory put the arrival around 13,500 years ago. But archaeologists are now exploring sites that keep pushing the date farther back, including some who have reported finding signs of human presence beyond 30,000 years ago. The evidence supporting those claims is hotly contested, and this latest discovery is already stirring more controversy. [continue reading]
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