From Bretton Woods 2.0 to revisiting the Zong Massacre, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Insider Monkey Staff
In 1944, with the death machine of World War II still very much churning, the Bretton Woods conference saw delegates from 45 nations descend on New Hampshire to devise rules that would govern the post-war international monetary system. Fast-forward to 2020, and another tumultuous global event has led to calls by the IMF for “a new Bretton Woods moment.” This is troubling on many levels.
First, a brief history lesson. Bretton Woods enshrined the US dollar as the world’s de facto international settlement currency, with dollars convertible to gold at $35 per ounce. Overnight, the dollar became synonymous with world trade, supplanting the gold standard and asserting America’s might on the international stage. [continue reading]
One of the most resilient topoi of writing on Black Africa is that of the so-called silent trade. It first appears in Herodotus and from there it is dutifully repeated in geographies, histories, descriptions and travel accounts that portray African people (in Latin, Arabic, and different European vernaculars) well into the 19th century. So much so that already by the 15th century Venetian captain Alvise Cadamosto concluded in the account of his travel to the rivers of Guinea: “Since it is related by so many we can accept it as true.” Each new telling presents a confabulation of the last, updated according to shifting commercial networks and changes in geographical knowledge, yet certain features prove remarkably stable given the way the story traverses language, region, time.
A ship or caravan of gold-seeking traders, considered to be continuous in some capacity with the narrator, traverses the Western reaches of the Mediterranean sea or a Saharan desertscape arriving at an indeterminate location, situated just beyond the proverbial “pillars of Hercules,” which is to say, beyond where there is no beyond, nec plus ultra. There, they engage in a silent, indirect form of negotiation with the native people. Even eyewitness accounts like Ibn Battuta’s rihla, always stage the story just beyond where the narrator has actually been, precisely at the point where information becomes second-hand. [continue reading]
London Review of Books
To have one brother killed by an African animal would be a misfortune. To lose two, at different times, is surely remarkable. Such was the distinction of Sir Edward Grey, who served as foreign secretary from 1905 to 1916. A lion got his brother George, who was hunting in British East Africa in 1911: excited for the kill, he galloped too near his prey, missed and was mauled. Charles, having lost an arm and won an MC in the First World War, was felled by an angry buffalo in Tanganyika in 1928. Grey’s remaining brother, Alexander, a vicar in Trinidad, died aged 44, probably from the after-effects of a childhood cricket injury.
Biographers of Grey, including the latest, Thomas Otte, have taken these three incidents in their stride, granting them a few incurious sentences at most. Instead they have dwelled on Grey’s love of homely nature: his passion for fly-fishing and bird-watching, his long weekends in Hampshire, his occasional quotations from Wordsworth. A famous photograph shows him in country clothes with a robin perched on his hat. This lifelong rusticity led many to label him an insular amateur of limited ambition. As incoming prime minister in 1905, Henry Campbell-Bannerman was reluctant to make Grey foreign secretary because of ‘his ignorance of foreign countries and foreign languages’, a judgment partly founded in the belief that Grey’s only Continental trip had amounted to two glum days in Paris. [continue reading]
Ari Shapiro and Ariane Tabatabai
NPR All Things Considered
An Iranian scientist, who U.S. intelligence says is one of Iran’s top nuclear officials, has been assassinated. NPR’s Ari Shapiro speaks with Iran Middle East expert Ariane Tabatabai about the news.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
An assassination in Iran has the Middle East on edge. The man thought to be the head of Iran’s former nuclear program was killed today in a drive-by shooting outside Tehran. On paper, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was an academic, a professor who taught at a university in Tehran. But intelligence services for the U.S. and Israel have said for years that was a cover story for his real work on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s foreign minister says he believes Israel was involved in today’s killing. There has been no comment from Israel or the U.S. We’re joined now by Ariane Tabatabai. She is a Middle East expert with the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy think tank. Welcome back to the program. [continue reading]
BBC In Our Time
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the notorious events off Jamaica in 1781 and their background. The British slave ship Zong, having sailed across the Atlantic towards Jamaica, threw 132 enslaved Africans from its human cargo into the sea to drown. Even for a slave ship, the Zong was overcrowded; those murdered were worth more to the ship dead than alive. The crew said there was not enough drinking water to go round and they had no choice, which meant they could claim for the deaths on insurance. The main reason we know of this atrocity now is that the owners took their claim to court in London, and the insurers were at first told to pay up as if the dead slaves were any other lost goods, not people. Abolitionists in Britain were scandalised: if courts treated mass murder in the slave trade as just another business transaction and not a moral wrong, the souls of the nation would be damned. But nobody was ever prosecuted.
Charles Warren, professor of American history and professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University
Class of 1973, lecturer in history and fellow at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge
Jake Subryan Richards
assistant professor of History at the London School of Economics