This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Curry Coolie. Image source: Bridgeman Images.

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

From renaming Mt Everest to curry tales of the empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

There’s a case for renaming Mt Everest but is it ours to rename?

Sandip Roy
Times of India

There is little reason for Mt Everest to be called Mt Everest. George Everest’s claim to the highest mountain in the world is tenuous at best. ​The mountain’s height was measured by Radhanath Sikdar in 1852 as part of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. He named the peak Peak XV based on the nomenclature in use at the time. In 1865, it was confirmed that this was indeed the world’s tallest peak instead of Kanchenjunga. The British named it Everest honouring Colonel George Everest who had been the Surveyor-General between 1830 and 1843. His successor Andrew Waugh proposed it because the peak was “without any local name that we can discover”, unaware of or ignoring the Tibetan Chomolungma and Nepali Sagarmatha. Or perhaps the Calcutta correspondent of The Times put it more accurately when he said the peak “had no name intelligible to civilised men”, civilised of course being a euphemism for white.

Everest had nothing to do with the peak. He had never even seen the peak named after him or been involved in measuring it. “It’s fascinating how he’s one of the few people, if not the only person who actually has his name attached to a Himalayan peak,” says Stephen Alter, author of Wild Himalaya. Everest’s connection to the peak was Sikdar. He had hired the 19-year-old Sikdar from Hindu College in Calcutta to be his “computer”. [continue reading]

David Olusoga on race and reality: ‘My job is to be a historian. It’s not to make people feel good’

Aamna Mohdin

History’s purpose isn’t to comfort us, says David Olusoga, although many in the UK seem to think it is. “History doesn’t exist to make us feel good, special, exceptional or magical. History is just history. It is not there as a place of greater safety.”

As a historian and broadcaster, Olusoga has been battling this misconception for almost two decades, as the producer or presenter of TV series including Civilisations, The World’s War, A House Through Time and the Bafta-winning Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. His scholarship has been widely recognised: in 2019, he was awarded an OBE and made a professor at the University of Manchester. (He is also on the board of the Scott Trust, which owns Guardian Media Group.) Yet apologists for empire, in particular, like to dismiss him as a “woke historian” in an attempt to politicise his work or flatly deny the realities that he points out. [continue reading]

Colonial Fantasies of the Offshore

 Lucy Mayblin, Joe Turner, Arshad Isakjee and Thom Davies
History Workshop

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of people who are forced to cross the English Channel in small boats and aboard lorries in search of asylum in the UK. Ever stronger border infrastructure, the removal of safe and legal routes to asylum in Britain, diminishing hopes of gaining asylum in the EU, and the state-enforced squalor that displaced people are exposed to in the port towns of Calais and Dunkirk, have all led to an increasing number of desperate attempts to reach the UK by any means possible. Around 8400 people made their way from northern France to the UK coast using small vessels such as rubber boats and dinghies in 2020, with 98% claiming asylum upon arrival. Many made it to the British shoreline, landing on beaches in Kent and East Sussex, while others were picked up by Border Force patrols in the English Channel. Some who attempted this dangerous journey drowned or were declared missing. Faced with this maritime spectacle, and with refugee drownings off the coast of England bringing total border deaths since 1999 close to 300, the UK government has taken an offshore approach redolent of colonial era logics. They have deployed military ‘assets’ including drones, coastal patrols and warships, comprising three cutters named HMC “Vigilant”, “Searcher”, and “Seeker”. The UK Home Office appointed an ex-marine to the new position of ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander‘ with the explicit aim of ‘adopting interceptions at sea and the direct return of boats’. These actions set the stage for a ‘New Plan for Immigration’ announced in April 2021 by Home Secretary Priti Patel.

This new policy approach will remove the right to asylum from people who make their own way to the UK and will seek offshore solutions to the administration of the asylum system. We suggest that contemporary attempts to exclude racialised outsiders through maritime measures have deep colonial histories. [continue reading]

Paintings reveal hidden histories of Africans in England

Mark Brown

Six paintings that tell fascinating, not widely known stories of people from the African diaspora in England’s history, including the Roman emperor who strengthened Hadrian’s Wall and Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, have been unveiled by English Heritage. The heritage body commissioned six artists to paint portraits, putting them on display at forts, abbeys, historic houses and barracks where they have an association.

The project was about bringing their stories to life for a wider audience, said Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s curatorial director. “African figures from the past have played significant roles at some of the historic sites in our care but many of their stories are not very well known.” The subjects include Septimius Severus, who was born in Leptis Magna, the present day city of Al-Khums in Libya. He travelled to Britain in AD208 and ordered the strengthening of Hadrian’s Wall and the reoccupation of the Antonine Wall, across what is now central Scotland, with a view to expanding his empire. [continue reading]

Curry Tales of the Empire

Arunima Datta
Journal of Victorian Culture Online

Indian curry is an extraordinarily popular genre of food, visible not only in the shape of curry houses across the world but also as take-aways, frozen curry meals and curry powders sold in grocers’ stores. But what is the history of the Indian curry? Was it Indian to begin with or a colonial imposition evolving from a simplified and over-generalized understanding of local food cultures? 

This essay traces the history of Indian curry as we know it today and the lingering tastes of Empire that we engage with in our everyday lives. To an Indian, the term “Indian curry” is confusing and often appears as a superficial understanding of the complex culinary cultures that exist in India.  In reality, there are thousands of Indian curries in India. No one Indian curry from one particular region of India is similar to another, nor is there one universal magic curry powder that could satiate all cravings for varied Indian dishes. [continue reading]