History Department, University of Exeter
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From Simón Bolívar as theorist of empire to the Muslimness of Dune, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Simón Bolívar: Theorist of Empire?
Strange as it might seem, Simón Bolívar belongs with Thomas Hakluyt, Edmund Burke, and James Mill as a British imperial thinker. While he led the campaign to expel the Spanish empire during the 1810s and 1820s, ‘El Libertador’ was at the same time imagining a British imperial order to help organise South American independence.
Latin America was (and remains) the part of Britain’s empire least visible to Britain itself. The irony, of course, is the sheer importance of the region to imperial finance, trade, and political economy. It is no surprise Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher made it the main evidence for their theorization of informal empire. And yet, Latin America was not regarded as an imperial political space in the British public sphere. Latin America was concealed by informality rather than a ‘thinning’ of empire from the occupation of property to the occupation of sovereignty – direct to indirect rule – which Fitzmaurice traces in the 19th century. This concealment has also helped keep the region largely out of view to the post-Cold War renaissance of empire scholarship among historians of political thought in the Anglophone academy. Whether due to their own, relatively narrow definition of ‘empire’ or the analytical challenge of grappling with informal empire from an historical perspective, many scholars have passed over it. [continue reading]
The Rise and Fall of an Afro-Brazilian Publisher
Celso Thomas Castilho
Francisco de Paula Brito (1808-61), an Afro-Brazilian man of letters, “a son and grandson of freedpersons,” catalyzed critical transformations in Rio de Janeiro’s publishing world (1). His entrepreneurial and political acumen enabled an influential, thirty-year career in public life, where he circled among merchants and statesmen, novelists and playwrights, and the Brazilian emperor. Paula Brito also lived among a range of unfree people, who included the enslaved and liberated Africans that kept his home and were hired at his businesses.
Cogently, historian Rodrigo Camargo de Godoi’s biography captures the multiplicity of Paula Brito’s worlds, and most importantly, their interconnections. A Black Publisher powerfully demonstrates that to “understand the historical circumstances that converged to bring the emergence of the publisher,” we need to account for the braided histories of print, slavery, and the state (3). As such, this study is also a touchstone for reflections on race and public life, for grappling with the permeabilities and predicaments of Blackness in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. Paula Brito’s ascent, after all, occurred amid major developments in the history of African slavery. His rise in the 1830s and 1840s transpired as the illegal transatlantic slave trade boomed. The vast majority of the 700,000-plus Africans taken to Brazil in those two decades disembarked in Paula Brito’s Rio. The close of the slave trade in 1850, meanwhile, opened new capital flows, and the expansion of Paula Brito’s businesses reflected these dynamics. This book, then, allows readers a glimpse into the contingencies of running a print shop, participating in the book trade, and supporting a wide array of political newspapers in a context where Rio accounted for the largest urban slave population in the Americas. [continue reading]
Mathematics in Africa has been written out of history books – it’s time we reminded the world of its rich past
In Trinidad and Ghana, it’s known as susu. In Senegal and Benin it’s tontines. In Nigeria, where it began in the 1700s, it’s esusu. Whatever you call it, this system of large-scale money-pooling for mutual benefit shows that Africa has never had a problem with mathematics. When we learn the history of mathematics, we tend to learn about the achievements of Greek, Hindu, Chinese and Arabic civilisations. If we learn anything about African mathematics, it’s almost entirely about Egypt. But sub-Saharan Africa has a rich mathematical history too – and it is possible that the world’s museums hold the key to bringing it back to life.
Sub-Saharan Africa has largely been written out of the history of mathematics because many of its traditions were passed down by word of mouth and then lost because of disruptive events such as the slave trade. It also suited Europeans to spread the idea that the peoples that they had captured and enslaved were not intelligent in any meaningful way. But the records we do have, some written, and some bound up in historical artefacts that give a glimpse of daily life, tell us that complex mathematics was always central to the activities of African civilisations, just as it always has been to civilisations in other regions of the world. [continue reading]
Ongoing Native Power and Precarious Anglo-American Empires
If Native nations controlled the vast majority of North America above the Rio Grande at the end of the eighteenth century, then the nineteenth century was when non-Native empires finally gained preeminence. Or at least that was my general impression when, as a green doctoral candidate, I came across the British imperial records that sparked the original idea for this article. Unlike the bluster I was accustomed to reading in U.S. records, British colonial officials writing in the 1820s and early 1830s seemed to admit a relative powerlessness in their dealings with Native nations in the Great Lakes region.
I was, by that stage of my training, schooled in the Native American and borderlands histories that had recast early America as a space of Native power and European precariousness. But as a budding historian of U.S. and British imperial policy, I was drawn to the first half of the nineteenth century when, it seemed, the balance of power began to shift with increasing speed against ever-more Native nations, especially east of the Mississippi. These British records suggested something more reminiscent of earlier America. My efforts to figure out these dynamics ultimately became an article about U.S. and British officials as nursing diplomatic fathers in the post-War of 1812 Great Lakes. [continue reading]
The Muslimness of Dune
It is common knowledge that Frank Herbert’s classic Dune novels are chock-full of Islamic and MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) references. However, as a Muslim reader, I have long maintained that the Muslim influences go deeper than many may have realized. I am of the theory that if one is Muslim, or otherwise intimately aware of Muslim traditions, that person’s experience of Dune differs vastly from any other reader’s encounter with the saga.
While many embrace Dune’s Muslim influences, there is a strong contingent of readers who, I believe, have misunderstood them as linguistic costumery or, at most, intriguing non sequiturs largely irrelevant to the series’ substance. From this perspective, they are seen as orientalist garnishes. For instance, one of the 2021 film’s screenwriters, Jon Spaihts, stated that Herbert’s use of such terms was little more than exotic corsage. Similarly, a conlanger for the film, David J. Peterson, wrote that the novels’ Islamic terms are simply pulled verbatim from Arabic, without accounting for inevitable changes thousands of years into the future. As I will discuss in this essay’s conclusion, these perspectives seem to have influenced the disconcerting absence of MENA or Muslim creatives both before and, perhaps more importantly, behind the cameras of the latest adaptation. Meanwhile, even positive interpretations of the novels tend to focus on the origins of particular words and passages rather than their relevance to the saga’s deeper meanings. [continue reading]
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