This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Knole House, home of the Sackville-Wests. Photograph: IR_Stone/Getty Images.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter

From Belgium’s reckoning with its brutal colonial past to Novia Scotia’s lobster wars, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Belgium’s reckoning with a brutal history in Congo

Neil Munshi
Financial Times

The cleaners who came for King Leopold II in Brussels this July knew what to do. Many times over the past few years, they have used chemicals to dissolve words such as “assassin”, “racist” and “murderer” scrawled across the statue on the Place du Trône. As before, they removed the blood-red paint protesters had dumped on his hands. But this time they missed a spot: the fingertips and palm of his curled right hand were still crimson. As protests following the killing of George Floyd in the US reverberated around the world this summer, Belgium, like many other countries, experienced its own reckoning: with a brutal colonial past, with the systemic racism that inhibits its black citizens today and with the question of what exactly it owes to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which it exploited for 75 years.

With thousands taking to the streets to protest police brutality, racial profiling and racism, Belgium’s leaders came under pressure to respond. In a June 30 letter to DRC President Felix Tshisekedi on the 60th anniversary of the country’s independence, King Philippe for the first time expressed his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” committed by Belgium and linked that period to racism today. If not quite an apology, it was a big step for an institution that was still celebrating bringing its civilising mission to Congo not long ago. That same month, Belgium’s parliament launched a truth, reconciliation and — crucially — reparations commission to examine its plunder of Congo under Leopold II and the following half-century of colonialism. [continue reading]

In the 1960s, Farrukh Dhondy and Leila Hassan Howe became activists in Britain’s Black Power movement.

With racial tensions running high, many black Britons looked to American movements for inspiration. They spoke to the BBC’s Amanda Kirton about how it felt to be on the brink of a revolution of change. Please note that this report contains offensive language.

Senior Producer: Amanda Kirton

Researcher: Bryan Knight

Filmed and edited by Alex Dackevych

[Watch here]

Rosa Luxemburg: an interview with Dana Mills

Katherine Connelly

Katherine Connelly interviews Dana Mills, author of a new biography on Rosa Luxemburg, on her crucial contribution to revolutionary thought

KC: Dana, thank you so much for giving up your time to talk to us today about your new biography of Rosa Luxemburg. I wanted to start with a really beautiful quote that you pick out from one of her letters:

‘I want to affect people like a clap of thunder, to inflame their minds not by speechifying but with the breadth of my vision, the strength of my conviction, and the power of my expression.’ (p.28)

I think that’s also a very good description of the way in which you convey Rosa Luxemburg in this book. It reflects what she was like, the kind of world she yearned for and her view of emancipation. There’s a fantastic part at the beginning where you describe her love of literature and her love of nature and her brightness – both in terms of her intellect and temperament – against the dark times in which she was organising. You present us right from the first pages with a Rosa Luxemburg that the reader wants to sit down and talk with. So I wanted to ask you first of all how did you first encounter Luxemburg and what did that mean to you? [continue reading]

The National Trust is under attack because it cares about history, not fantasy

Peter Mitchell

The National Trust is in trouble. Earlier this week, 26 MPs and two peers from the recently formed “Common Sense Group” wrote to the Daily Telegraph recommending that the heritage organisation’s funding applications to public bodies be reviewed in light of its having “tarnished one of Britain’s greatest sons [Winston Churchill] by linking his family home, Chartwell, with slavery and colonialism”. The same paper reported on the Trust’s AGM, portraying it as a revolt of disregarded members, such as “Diana from Leicester”, who complained that the “majority of members just want to see beautiful houses and gardens, not have others’ opinions pushed down their throats”. The Trust, it is darkly hinted, “could face an official investigation”, a prospect that Lady Stowell, head of the Charity Commission, has done little to downplay.

The National Trust’s major crime was to have produced a report in September that examined Trust properties’ relationship to the slave trade and colonialism. It explored how the proceeds of foreign conquest and the slavery economy built and furnished houses and properties, endowed the families who kept them, and in many ways helped to create the idyll of the country house. None of this is news to most people with a passing acquaintance with history, and the report made no solid recommendations beyond the formation of an advisory group and reiterating a commitment to communicating the histories of its properties in an inclusive manner. So, why the dramatics? [continue reading]

The Nova Scotia Lobster Wars

Ivy Knight
Food & Wine Magazine

This past September a mob of 200 people rose up against the Indigenous lobster fishermen of Sipekne’katik, Nova Scotia, in a blatant display of terrorism that lasted more than a month. Police were minimally present and, to date, only one arrest has been made. Social media showed the violence to the world and inspired a lobster boycott by Canadian chefs to pressure the government to step in. The government—true to form in Canada in matters pertaining to Indigenous communities—has yet to do much of anything. 

Here’s the deal with Canada: We’re always perceived as the slightly boring, but super nice neighbors to the North. The Ned Flanders to America’s Homer Simpson. In Canada we know we’re more than that, a country of people shaped from birth by free healthcare for all, who embrace immigrants and play a staunch role as peacekeepers around the world. Also, we don’t consider ourselves racist; that’s often seen as an American issue. We were the freedom that slaves escaped to on the Underground Railroad. We continue the legacy as a safe haven for refugees; no babies are torn from their mothers and thrown in cages here. Our prime minister, the photogenic Justin Trudeau, greeted Syrian refugees with open arms when they arrived at Pearson International Airport in 2015. “Tonight they step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada,” Mr. Trudeau was quoted as saying in the New York Times in 2015. We’re good people, at least as far as new Canadians are concerned. But when it comes to this country’s first residents, well, that’s a different story entirely. [continue reading]