This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Team USA congratulating Russian Olympic Committee for winning the gold medal in women’s gymnastics, Tokyo, Japan, July 27, 2021. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski.

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

From how centuries of US imperialism made surfing an Olympic sport to why it’s not surprising that Simone Biles cheered for Angelina Melnikova, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Centuries of U.S. imperialism made surfing an Olympic sport

Thomas Blake Earle
Washington Post‘s “Made by History”

For the first time, surfing will be an Olympic sport. Beginning on Sunday, 40 surfers from 17 nations will ride the waves at Shidashita Beach as part of the Tokyo Games. While traditional surfing powers such as the United States, Australia and South Africa are well represented among the competitors, countries such as Morocco, Peru and Germany have also sent surfers.

Surfing can be thrilling to watch. But the sport has gained a global presence not only because of the pleasures of wave riding. Surfing became a global sport because of the exercise of American power on the world stage. From 19th-century missionaries to 20th-century cold warriors, Americans have used surfing to accomplish the nation’s diplomatic goals. The fact that surfing only now joins the ranks of Olympic events belies the sport’s centuries-long international history. [continue reading]

How the Red Sea Became a Trap

Nicholas W. Stephenson Smith
Foreign Policy

The recent history of the Red Sea reads like a macabre thriller, from industrial-scale hostage-taking by pirates to tit-for-tat naval attacks between Israel and Iran in international waters to unchecked drug and arms smuggling. The aftermath of the most recent major Red Sea news, the wedging of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal, has been equally sour.

As pilots guided the freed mega-ship to an opening about halfway along the Suez Canal (appropriately named the Great Bitter Lake), Egyptian authorities and the Ever Given’s owners began what turned out to be a three-month-long wrangle over the sum of salvage and damages payable to the Suez Canal Authority in return for the ship’s release. An agreement means the ordeal is now mercifully over—not least for the ship’s crew. But while another chapter in the Red Sea’s fraught recent history is concluded, it is far from the end of the story of conflict. [continue reading]

Spain drafts more ambitious historical memory bill amid wave of revisionism

Natalia Junquera
El Pais

The Spanish Cabinet on Tuesday approved the final wording of a bill that tackles the legacy of the Civil War (1936-39) and the decades-long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The initiative, called the Democratic Memory Law, will now go to parliament, where it is expected to face fierce opposition from the conservative Popular Party (PP) and far-right Vox.

The bill builds on earlier legislation passed in 2007 and it has a long way to go before obtaining final approval, but the PP and Vox have already promised voters that if they reach power – Spain is due to hold a national election in late 2023 or early 2024 – they will repeal the law. In recent weeks, both parties have also encouraged a wave of historical revisionism that has been criticized by historical memory scholars and by a majority of party spokespeople inside parliament. [continue reading]

Haiti and the pathos of history

Jack Dickens
Englesberg Ideas

In the early morning of Wednesday 7 July, the president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated by a group of armed commandos. According to the president’s wife, her executed husband was left riddled with bullets before he could cry out for help. The details of the story are still emerging, but the circumstances of Moïse’s death appear to be very strange indeed: twenty-eight gunmen, most of whom were Colombian, had been in the country since early June before committing last week’s attack. They apparently entered Moïse’s private residence without being stopped by the president’s own armed security garrison, possibly by pretending to be officers from the United States Federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The Haitian police forces have arrested a sixty-three-year-old Haitian doctor who lives in Florida on suspicion of orchestrating a coup. The president’s wife, who is recovering in hospital in the United States, accuses shadowy figures of trying to seize power in the country.

The murky assassination is a new spin on a familiar story for Haitians – the history of their country is littered with such political deaths. The titanic hero of Haiti’s founding revolution, Toussaint Louverture, was treacherously seized by the French in 1803 and died while imprisoned in the mountains of Jura. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of the nation’s founding fathers and the first ruler of the newly-independent Haiti from 1805, was deposed by his leading generals and murdered shortly after declaring himself emperor of the young country, in 1806. One of these generals, Henri Christophe, in turn declared himself king over northern Haiti – but in 1820, facing a military rebellion against his government, he committed suicide. [continue reading]

Why It’s Not Surprising That Simone Biles Cheered For Angelina Melnikova: The Cold War used to define gymnastics. Not anymore.

Dvora Meyers
Five Thirty Eight

While Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova was competing on the balance beam in the women’s Olympic all-around final, her name rang out across the arena, but its pronunciation was decidedly American. The U.S. gymnasts sitting in the stands were cheering her on as she went through her leaps and jumps. And as she set up for her flight series, a very Simone Biles-like voice rang out in support. After Melnikova stuck her double pike dismount, she was greeted with a high-five by Sunisa Lee, who was next up on beam, and then with another by Jade Carey.

After the medal ceremony for the women’s all-around was over — Melnikova earned the bronze, Lee the gold and Rebeca Andrade a historic silver for Brazil — the three gymnasts, carrying their bouquets, wearing their masks and medals, took selfies together for their Instagram accounts. In the medalists’ press conference that followed, Melnikova, 21, made a point to offer up her support to 2016 Olympic champion Biles, who withdrew from the all-around competition with mental health struggles after a near-disastrous vault in the team finals brought on by the twisties, a common phenomenon in which a gymnast loses control of their body in the air. In an interview, Melnikova noted that she could distinctly hear Biles cheering for her when she went up on the uneven bars and said, “I hope she’ll recover fast because the whole world admires her gymnastics and everyone is waiting for her to come back to the competition floor.” Even Svetlana Khorkina, the Russian gymnastics legend whose records were broken by Biles and who has repeatedly criticized the American, came to Biles’s defense on Russian TV. [continue reading]