This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

US General Smedley Butler. Illustration by Colin Verdi, via The New Republic.

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

From the marine who turned against US empire to the afterlives of German colonialism in East Africa, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Marine Who Turned Against U.S. Empire

Patrick Iber
New Republic

There are some figures whose place in the story of the American past is so central that schoolchildren cannot help but know them: George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln, or Rosa Parks. But there is also a group of people who have not passed into national legend, and perhaps whose lives are not considered fit to explain to children. They are most likely to be encountered, if they are encountered at all, in the institutions that often engage the attention of young people between the ages of 18 and 22.

Among those, there is probably only a single person who will be discovered almost exclusively by two generally nonoverlapping groups: avid readers of the corpus of Noam Chomsky, and members of the Marine Corps. That man, standing lonely astride the lens-shaped center of a peculiar Venn diagram, has the unlikely name of Smedley Darlington Butler. [continue reading]

Amitav Ghosh: European colonialism helped create a planet in crisis

Amitav Ghosh and Hannah Ellis-Petersen

Amitav Ghosh can clearly remember his first interaction with the climate crisis. It was the early 2000s, and Ghosh, now one of India’s most celebrated authors and winner of its highest literary prize, was researching a novel set in the Sundarbans, a network of islands around the mouth of the Ganges Delta in the Bay of Bengal, which is home to the world’s largest mangrove forest. Climate change had barely entered into public consciousness back then, but Ghosh clearly remembers “visible signs that something wasn’t right”. “People spoke of their homes disappearing, of sea water levels rising and salt water erosion, but no one knew what was happening,” he said. “So I began researching. And as the years went on the signs became clearer and clearer.”

Twenty years on, the Sundarbans are widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s most vulnerable areas to the climate crisis. Rising sea levels are eating away at the islands while extreme weather events have decimated the ecology and made the land salty and arid. Drilling for groundwater has only exacerbated the problem as it causes the islands to sink faster. Some predict that in less than a century, the unique biosphere will disappear entirely. [continue reading]

“After Ayotzinapa” Podcast Investigates Horrific Mexican Atrocity

Kate Doyle
National Security Archive

On Saturday, January 15, a new podcast exploring the shocking case of 43 Mexican students disappeared by security forces in 2014 will launch on radio stations around the United States and on podcast platforms. The three-part serial is the result of a two-year collaboration between the National Security Archive and Reveal News from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Although the stark facts of the Ayotzinapa case are known worldwide, the podcast features interviews, insights, and investigative findings that have never before been heard…. We look at how the U.S.-driven war on drugs contributes to conditions that make criminality and violence by state actors and organized crime so pervasive in Mexico. And, through the Ayotzinapa case, we expose a manufactured injustice to reveal how impunity works to hide criminal responsibility and reinforce official abuses of power. [continue reading]

Abdulrazak Gurnah and the afterlives of German colonialism in East Africa

Tom Menger
Africa is a Country

When Abdulrazak Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October 2021, the jury honored “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism.” With East Africa being central to much of Gurnah’s work, German colonialism is a regular presence in his novels, more precisely the colony of German East Africa, the biggest German colony of all, which comprised modern Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda. Although the history of this territory has been thoroughly studied, it still very much stands in the shadow of contemporary public debates on the German genocides perpetrated against the Herero and the Nama, as well as the debate on the continuities between that genocide and the Holocaust.

German East Africa is especially prominent in two of Gurnah’s novels: the early Paradise (1994) and the recent Afterlives (2020). They invoke several themes. The first, perhaps unsurprisingly, is colonial violence. Though such violence is not always in the foreground of Gurnah’s books, it is always present. When Gurnah’s characters refer to the Mdachi, the Germans, and their African soldiers, the askari, they often use terms like merciless, viciousness and ferocity. German colonial rule in East Africa began with violence, when Hermann von Wissmann waged war on the coastal populations from 1889 to 1890, after these had resisted the attempt of the German East Africa Company to run the colony as a private enterprise. The hanging in 1889 of one of the revolt’s leaders, Al Bushiri, which the Germans orchestrated as a grand spectacle, recurs as an incisive event in Afterlives. [continue reading]