This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Map of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Park in London. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

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

From new online West African archives to the problems with the ‘balance sheet’ approach to the history of imperialism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Timbuktu manuscripts placed online are only a sliver of West Africa’s ancient archive

Charles C. Stewart

The ancient Timbuktu manuscripts of Mali were back in the headlines following internet giant Google’s initiative to host a collection of them at an online gallery. The images of the documents, text in Arabic, can be found at a page called Mali Magic.

No place in West Africa has attracted more attention and resources than the city that has always captivated the imagination of the outside world, Timbuktu. There have been documentaries and books, academic studies and a renewed public interest since some of Timbuktu’s world heritage status buildings were damaged in attacks in 2012. The manuscripts, themselves, some reputed to date as early as the 1400s, were threatened and the international community responded. [continue reading]

The existential threat to Black British History and Queer History at Goldsmiths

Christienna Fryar, Justin Bengry, Hannah Elias, and Kate Davison
History Workshop

Goldsmiths, University of London, is home to the world’s first and only MA in Queer History and the UK’s first taught MA in Black British History. Both MAs are ground-breaking and support scholarship and research in areas that have been structurally marginalised in UK Higher Education. We write as the convenors and lecturers who designed and deliver these programmes.

Both programmes now face an existential threat. Currently, the College is in the throes of an unprecedented restructure. At its core, this restructure process involves significant staff cuts to both professional services (including student-facing departmental administrators) and academic departments. The History and English & Creative Writing departments are the first targets of the academic redundancies, with each department facing substantial losses of staff (in History, this may amount to about half of the current academic staff). These losses are imminent, with redundancy notices to be sent out on 25 March 2022. [continue reading]

The British Empire Was Much Worse Than You Realize

Sunil Khilnani
New Yorker

At the height of the British Empire, just after the First World War, an island smaller than Kansas controlled roughly a quarter of the world’s population and landmass. To the architects of this colossus, the largest empire in history, each conquest was a moral achievement. Imperial tutelage, often imparted through the barrel of an Enfield, was delivering benighted peoples from the errors of their ways—child marriage, widow immolation, headhunting. Among the edifiers was a Devonshire-born rector’s son named Henry Hugh Tudor. Hughie, as he was known to Winston Churchill and his other chums, pops up so reliably in colonial outposts with outsized body counts that his story can seem a “Where’s Waldo?” of empire.

He’s Churchill’s garrison-mate in Bangalore in 1895—a time of “messes and barbarism,” the future Prime Minister complained in a note to his mum. As the century turns, Tudor is battling Boers on the veldt; then it’s back to India, and on to occupied Egypt. Following a decorated stint as a smoke-screen artist in the trenches of the First World War, he’s in command of a gendarmerie, nicknamed Tudor’s Toughs, that opens fire in a Dublin stadium in 1920—an assault during a search for I.R.A. assassins which leaves dozens of civilians dead or wounded. Prime Minister David Lloyd George delights in rumors that Tudor’s Toughs were killing two Sinn Féinners for every murdered loyalist. Later, even the military’s chief of staff marvelled at how nonchalantly the men spoke of those killings, tallying them up as though they were runs in a cricket match; Tudor and his “scallywags” were out of control. It didn’t matter: Churchill, soon to be Secretary of State for the Colonies, had Tudor’s back. [continue reading]

A Normal War

Alexander Zevin

Russian bombs are falling on Ukraine, not American ones. On this level, the moral aspects of the war are clear. But acknowledging this is not the same as a policy response, nor does one flow automatically from it. By refusing to reflect on either the deeper causes of the war or possible ways out of it, the liberal commentariat in the US falls into its usual patterns, in which America figures as the innocent abroad, a do-gooder, for whom each crisis is something external to be acted on, never something it could be responsible for. ‘You can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless,’ wrote Graham Greene in The Quiet American. For the narrator, a jaded British journalist in Saigon, this is a kind of insanity, embodied in the character of the title: CIA agent Alden Pyle, freshly arrived in Indochina from Harvard in the early 1950s. ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’

Such is the tone underlying mainstream reactions in the press, where moral outrage is easily spent in a blaze of condemnation of a foreign country that leaves little to spare for its own. Now was not the time to argue about whether Putin’s ‘grievances had bases in fact’, insisted the New York Times as the invasion began. Putin bore sole responsibility for the new Cold War, a ‘potentially more dangerous one because his claims and demands offer no grounds for negotiations’. Most of its op-ed writers concurred, from David Brooks to Paul Krugman and Michelle Goldberg, onto not-so-odd couple Bret Stephens and Gail Collins – the US must show Putin that ‘he will never, ever win this war’. This line carried over to editorials in The New Republic, Atlantic, New Yorker. For Timothy Snyder in Foreign Policy, it was 1939 again, and Putin – as heir to both Hitler and Stalin – had made a Nazi-Soviet pact with himself. At White House press briefings, reporters urged the administration forward: had Biden erred in saying he wanted to avoid World War Three, asked ABC’s correspondent, ‘emboldening’ Putin by ruling out ‘direct military intervention’ too early?  [continue reading]

One Tool of “Critical Thinking” That’s Done More Harm Than Good

Priya Satia

Last week, a high school freshman’s history homework made the news. When Cece Walsh’s public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, asked her to list “Positive” and “Negative Effects of Imperialism,” she filled in the second column but left the first one blank. In a note below the empty column, she explained that “asking us to identify positives of imperialism, something that killed thousands and contributed to slavery, is extremely … disrespectful to people whose ancestors were murdered because of colonization.” Her sister Calla Walsh, a senior, shared an image of the homework on Twitter, outraged that her little sister was being asked to list “ ‘POSITIVE EFFECTS’ OF IMPERIALISM??????” and the tweet went viral. Coincidentally, just two days earlier, Britain’s own equalities minister had declared that both the positives and negatives of the British Empire must be taught in British schools, provoking pushback there, too.

In another progressive American public high school, in Palo Alto, California, where my child is enrolled, ninth and 10th graders read William Duiker and Jackson Spielvogel’s World History textbook (ninth edition, 2018), which similarly insists that “neither extreme position [of arguing for or against colonialism] is justified”—invalidating, in a stroke, the epoch-making mass struggles for freedom led by figures like Gandhi and Nkrumah. Stoically valorizing “balance,” the textbook echoes Victorian defenses of empire with lines like this: “British governance over the subcontinent brought order and stability to a society that had been rent by civil war. … British control … led to relatively honest and efficient government that … operated to the benefit of the average Indian” (a claim that flies in the face of scholarship since at least the 19th century). As my child observed in her school newspaper, the book draws up its concluding “balance sheet” by way of a cast of white male scholars (some with shaky claims to expertise). A chapter about the rule of Europeans over Africans and Asians astonishingly neglects to include the perspective of a single historian of color or even a woman. This reading lesson was followed by an in-class debate on the pros and cons of empire. [continue reading]