This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

“Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)” by J. M. W. Turner, 1840

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

From how not to be an alien to the microdynamics of late colonial violence, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

How not to be an alien: The official history of the United Kingdom, according to the Home Office

Frank Trentmann

A question to test your historical knowledge: “D-Day refers to what event in British history?” Of course you know, or at least you thought you did. The right answer is: “British invasion of Europe”. That is according to the official practice questions “approved by the Home Office” to help people prepare for their citizenship and settlement exam in the United Kingdom, the Life in the UK Test. As a recent new citizen who was born and brought up in Germany, I am very grateful for the heroic sacrifice of many British men and women in the Second World War. But why does the Home Office want us to forget the many Americans and Canadians who died alongside them on the beaches in what was a joint Allied invasion?

In the recent debate about the removal of statues of slave traders and imperialists, Boris Johnson tweeted “we cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history”. Unfortunately, his own government does precisely that in Life in the United Kingdom: A guide for new residents, also known as the Life in the UK handbook. Published by the Home Office, this book “has been approved by ministers and has official status”, and anyone who takes a citizenship or settlement test has to read and remember it. It includes information about the justice system, geography and so forth; it also contains some less relevant bits such as the 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now. The chapter entitled “A long and illustrious history”, however, is not only riddled with factual errors, but amounts to a distortion of the past that does violence to our basic understanding of history and raises fundamental questions for a liberal society. [continue reading]

This abandoned East African city once controlled the medieval gold trade

Maria Jose Noain
National Geographic

Spectacular ruins cluster on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, more than a mile from the coast of modern-day Tanzania. The remnants of a palace and a great mosque, built partly of coral stone, are reminders of the time when the gold trade of east Africa flowed through this tiny island. During its medieval heyday, Kilwa was the principal port in a string of coastal trading cities that formed along what became known as the Swahili Coast. Swahili is derived from an Arabic word meaning “coastal dweller” and became the name for the regional language.

The local inhabitants, descendants of the Bantu people, blended their mother tongue with adopted words from Persian and Arabic. Arabian and Persian customs are also reflected in the architecture, art, and religion of Swahili culture. All bear strong imprints of the intermingling elements among these peoples. [continue reading]

Centuries After Their Loss and Theft, Native American Seeds Are Reuniting With Their Tribes

Maria Paula Rubiano A.
Atlas Obscura

The squash had travelled a thousand miles to rest quietly on Henrietta Gomez’s arms. The elder farmer from Taos Pueblo, a 1,000-year-old Indigenous town in northern New Mexico, held the light-green vegetable like a baby. Before that bright October morning, it had been several decades since the people of Taos Pueblo had seen a squash like the one in Henrietta’s arms, even though it had been part of the town’s diet since time immemorial.

Along with a seed bundle, the squash had been shipped from Decorah, Iowa, where it had been planted in the gardens of Seed Savers Exchange, the nonprofit that found the variety among the 30,000 kinds of seeds in its seed bank. Rowen White, an Indigenous seed keeper and the chair of the nonprofit’s board, had personally shipped the giant seed-and-squash-filled box a few days before. The Taos Pueblo event, held in 2018, was the first of at least 60 rematriations organized by the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network that have returned varieties of ancient seeds to Native American communities that had been lost to colonialism and violence. [continue reading]

‘I literally weep’: anguish as New Zealand’s National Library culls 600,000 books

Eleanor Ainge Roy

Sheltered in the bunkers beneath the National Library in New Zealand’s capital rests a treasure trove of books, including nearly 2,200 first editions that have been carefully looked after for decades. But not for much longer. The “overseas collection” – which includes a first edition of Richard Neville’s Play Power, a 1912 edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and multiple first editions of Graham Greene novels – is now headed out the door.

In total, the National Library in Wellington plans to get rid of more than 600,000 “foreign books” from their collection, saying they need to make space for more works on New Zealand, of which there are an additional 80,000 to 90,000 to store each year. In a promotional video by public relations agency Double Denim (whose bill was paid by the Department of Internal Affairs) head librarian Bill Macnaught said the overseas collection would now “spark joy” in other places. [continue reading]

Microdynamics of late colonial violence

Anne van Mourik and Roel Frakking
NIOD Rewind

Anne van Mourik talks with Roel Frakking on the term ‘extreme violence’ and the importance of local dynamics in researching decolonisation conflict. Roel is a postdoc researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (KITLV, Leiden) where he is researching the regional dynamics of the Indonesian war against Dutch recolonisation (1945-1950). His latest publication, co-authored with Professor Martin Thomas (Exeter), deals with the micro-dynamics of violence during decolonization conflicts in Southeast Asia and Africa after 1945 in the Low Countries Historical Review 135, 2 (2020).