From liberation as the fine art of losing to investigating the ‘Tartarian Empire’ conspiracy theory, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
BEING ON HUNGER STRIKE was torture enough. But suffering comes in levels, and Dolours Price was about to experience the next level.
They came on a cold morning in the winter of 1973. As Patrick Radden Keefe recounts in the recent book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, doctors and nurses of the London prison strapped Price to a chair that was bolted to the floor and secured her to it with bedsheets. Hands wrenched her mouth open and forced a wooden bit between her jaws, preventing her from biting down. At the center of the bit was a hole just large enough to jam a rubber hose through. A puree of eggs, orange juice, and a vitamin blend coursed through the tube as she gasped for air, fighting to free herself. Before they could remove the tube and bit, she vomited up the food—a victory, feeble as it may have seemed, for the hunger strike her captors had decided to break by force. So they came in the very next morning and did it again. And the next morning. And the next. For one hundred and sixty odd days, they came. It was a grueling battle of wills between the Belfast-born Irish republican and the authorities who served as the enforcing arm of British rule. [continue reading]
Snapshots of Empire
I’ve been spending more time than I’d like in St Thomas’ Hospital lately. St Thomas’ is at the centre of Britain’s memorial landscape, just across Westminster Bridge from the Houses of Parliament. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve become more aware of London’s imperial statuary on my walks to escape the ward. The Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust has recently removed the statue of Sir Robert Clayton, President and renovator of St Thomas’, and a major shareholder in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company. However, I’ve encountered many other men on pedestals who made their reputations, careers and fortunes exploiting people of colour in the British Empire.
The first thing that struck me as an historian of the British Empire was the dates of these statues’ erection. Victorian Britons professed an aversion to the “tawdry glitter” of other European empires. In the 1870s Disraeli acceded only reluctantly to Queen Victoria’s request for the title “Empress”, fearing accusations of being un-British. Statues tend not to have been erected during the period when Britons were most complacent about their global power. Most of the ones in Westminster date from the end of the Victorian and the Edwardian periods, when the Empire was facing new challenges from American and European rivals and anticolonial resistance. Britons sculpted their imperial figures not in triumphal self-congratulation, but in a desperate gesture of reclamation. Now that I’ve opened my eyes to them, I can’t stop seeing petrified imperial men around Westminster. [continue reading]
The chair of an influential museum group has resigned after an academic whose work calls for “decolonising” the curriculum was dropped from the board, amid reports of a government-sanctioned culture war. Sir Charles Dunstone, the founder of Carphone Warehouse, reportedly resigned from the Royal Museums Greenwich board after the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, refused to reappoint trustee Dr Aminul Hoque, an education academic at Goldsmiths, University of London. The development is the latest in a series of vetoes by ministers seen as an attempt to assert authority over appointments to media and cultural institutions. The government refused to reappoint two women to Channel 4’s board of directors, including one of only two women of colour, last month.
It is understood that the government is increasingly blocking reappointments to public sector roles to bring in new individuals to organisations. In a sign that ministers believe that a battle against “woke” culture plays well with voters, there have been a number of recent attempts to ratchet up a culture war. Following the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, Dowden threatened to cut funding to museums and galleries that removed statues associated with British colonialism. [continue reading]
In 1908, architect Ernest Flagg completed the Singer Building in Lower Manhattan, a Beaux-Arts showstopper made for the Singer sewing machine company. From a wide base, a slender 27-story tower rose, topped by a mansard roof and a delicate lantern spire. Every inch dripped with sumptuous detail inside and out; vaulted roofs, marble columns with bronze trim, window mullions with spiral fluting. The lobby was said to have a “celestial radiance.” A book was written just about its construction. For a year, it was the tallest building in the world at 612 feet, and a celebrated landmark for decades after that. But not for too much longer. Despite its great height, the pencil-thin tower lacked office space. In the 1960s the company sold its ornate headquarters; demolition proceeded in 1967. It’s the tallest building to ever be peacefully demolished. By any account, it’s a fantastical tale: Once the tallest building in the world and a New York icon, knocked down in just a handful of decades.
For some, it’s too fantastical to believe … or perhaps not fantastical enough. A dedicated group of YouTubers and Reddit posters see the Singer Building and countless other discarded pre-modern beauties and extant Beaux-Arts landmarks as artifacts of a globe-spanning civilization called the Tartarian Empire, which was somehow erased from the history books. Adherents of this theory believe these buildings to be the keys to a hidden past, clandestinely obscured by malevolent actors. [continue reading]