This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Black Lives Matter demonstration in London, June 7, 2020 (Steve Eason, Flickr)

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

From the single most important object in the global economy to crafting a global message of anti-racism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy

Tom Vanderbilt

Earlier this spring, the Washington Conservation Corps faced a sudden influx of beach debris on the state’s southwestern shore. Time and tide were beginning to deposit the aftereffects of Japan’s March 11, 2011, tsunami. One of the myriad objects retrieved was a plastic pallet, scuffed and swimming-pool green, bearing the words: “19-4 (salt) (return required), and, below that, “Japan salt service.” A year earlier, Dubai’s police made the region’s largest narcotics bust when they intercepted a container, carried on a Liberian registered-ship, that had originated from Pakistan and transited through what Ethan Zuckerman has called the “ley lines of globalization,” that constellation of dusty, never-touristed entrepôts like Oman’s Salalah Port or Nigeria’s Tin Can Island Port. Acting on an informant’s tip, police searched the container’s cargo—heavy bags of iron filings—to no avail. Only after removing every bag did police decide to check the pallets on which the bags had rested. Inside each was a hollowed-out section holding 500 to 700 grams of heroin.

Two random stories plucked from the annals of shipping. What unites these disparate tales of things lost (and hidden) on the seas is that they each draw attention to something that usually goes unnoticed: The pallet, that humble construction of wood joists and planks (or, less typically, plastic or metal ones) upon which most every object in the world, at some time or another, is carried. “Pallets move the world,” says Mark White, an emeritus professor at Virginia Tech and director of the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet & Container Research Laboratory and the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design. And, as the above stories illustrate, the world moves pallets, often in mysterious ways. [continue reading]

Yukio Mishima: The strange tale of Japan’s infamous novelist

Thomas Graham
BBC Culture

Standing on a balcony, as if on stage, the small, immaculate figure appeals to the army assembled below. The figure is Yukio Mishima, real name Kimitake Hiraoka. He was Japan’s most famous living novelist when, on 25 November 1970, he went to an army base in Tokyo, kidnapped the commander, had him assemble the garrison, then tried to start a coup. He railed against the US-backed state and constitution, berated the soldiers for their submissiveness and challenged them to return the Emperor to his pre-war position as living god and national leader. The audience, at first politely quiet, or just stunned into silence, soon drowned him out with jeers. Mishima stepped back inside and said: “I don’t think they heard me.” Then he knelt down and killed himself by seppuku, the Samurai’s ritual suicide.

Mishima’s death shocked the Japanese public. He was a literary celebrity, a macho and provocative but also rather ridiculous character, perhaps akin to Norman Mailer in the US, or Michel Houellebecq in today’s France. But what had seemed to be posturing had suddenly become very real. It was the morning of the opening of the 64th session of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, and the Emperor himself was present. The prime minister’s speech on the government agenda for the coming year was somewhat overshadowed. No one had died by seppuku since the last days of World War Two. [continue reading]

1918 Germany Has a Warning for America

Jochen Bittner
New York Times

Hamburg, Germany — It may well be that Germans have a special inclination to panic at specters from the past, and I admit that this alarmism annoys me at times. Yet watching President Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign since Election Day, I can’t help but see a parallel to one of the most dreadful episodes from Germany’s history. One hundred years ago, amid the implosions of Imperial Germany, powerful conservatives who led the country into war refused to accept that they had lost. Their denial gave birth to arguably the most potent and disastrous political lie of the 20th century — the Dolchstosslegende, or stab-in-the-back myth.

Its core claim was that Imperial Germany never lost World War I. Defeat, its proponents said, was declared but not warranted. It was a conspiracy, a con, a capitulation — a grave betrayal that forever stained the nation. That the claim was palpably false didn’t matter. Among a sizable number of Germans, it stirred resentment, humiliation and anger. And the one figure who knew best how to exploit their frustration was Adolf Hitler. Don’t get me wrong: This is not about comparing Mr. Trump to Hitler, which would be absurd. But the Dolchstosslegende provides a warning. It’s tempting to dismiss Mr. Trump’s irrational claim that the election was “rigged” as a laughable last convulsion of his reign or a cynical bid to heighten the market value for the TV personality he might once again intend to become, especially as he appears to be giving up on his effort to overturn the election result. [continue reading]

The Caribbean islands poisoned by a carcinogenic pesticide

Tim Whewell
BBC News

“First we were enslaved. Then we were poisoned.” That’s how many on Martinique see the history of their French Caribbean island that, to tourists, means sun, rum, and palm-fringed beaches. Slavery was abolished in 1848. But today the islanders are victims again – of a toxic pesticide called chlordecone that’s poisoned the soil and water and been linked to unusually high rates of prostate cancer.

“They never told us it was dangerous,” Ambroise Bertin says. “So people were working, because they wanted the money. We didn’t have any instructions about what was, and wasn’t, good. That’s why a lot of people are poisoned.” He’s talking about chlordecone, a chemical in the form of a white powder that plantation workers were told to put under banana trees, to protect them from insects. Ambroise did that job for many years. Later, he got prostate cancer, a disease that is commoner on Martinique and its sister French island of Guadeloupe than anywhere else in the world. And scientists blame chlordecone, a persistent organic pollutant related to DDT. It was authorised for use in the French West Indies long after its harmful effects became widely known. [continue reading]

Crafting a Global Message of Anti-Racism

Nicholas Grant
Black Perspectives

In late October, Kemi Badenoch took to the dispatch box in the House of Commons during a parliamentary debate about Black History Month to offer a scathing denouncement of “politicized” education, critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement. The UK Minister for Women and Equalities insisted that, “Our history is our own, it’s not America’s. Too often those who campaign against racial inequality import wholesale narrative and assumptions that have nothing to do with this country’s history and have no place on these islands.” She doubled down on this point by insisting, “Most Black British people who came to our shores were not brought here in chains but came voluntarily due to their connections to the UK and in search of a better life.” Drawing on her own family history and evoking the story of Tom Molineux – the formerly enslaved African American prize-fighter who found fame in Britain in the early nineteenth century – Badenoch concluded that, “…this is a country that welcomes people and that Black people from all over the world have found this to be a great and welcoming country.”

Badenoch’s words speak to the outright refusal of the British government to grapple seriously with the legacies of the slave trade and empire, or to address institutionalized racism in Britain today. Moreover, her insistence that it is misleading to draw links between the racial histories of the US and UK is effectively a call for inaction that works to simultaneously fetishize the nation’s supposedly liberal values while arguing that racism is always worse somewhere else. While Badenoch is right that racism plays out differently in different geographical contexts, she ignores the complex ways in which struggles for racial justice are connected across national boundaries. [continue reading]