This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Protesters at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2018 © Maximiliano Ramos/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

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

From erasing Hong Kong’s colonial past to Left internationalism in the heart of empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

In These New Textbooks, Hong Kong Was Never a British Colony

Tiffany May
New York Times

HONG KONG — Many schoolchildren around the world have long been taught that Hong Kong was once a colony of the British Empire. But students in Hong Kong will soon learn a different lesson: It wasn’t. Beijing has steadfastly maintained that historical view of the city’s status, long before Britain returned the territory to China in 1997, and years before a sweeping crackdown crushed a thriving pro-democracy movement in the once-semiautonomous territory.

Now, as Hong Kong prepares to commemorate 25 years since its handover to China on July 1, 1997, that narrative — which rejects how the British saw their relationship to the city — will be explicitly taught to Hong Kong high school students through at least four new textbooks that will be rolled out in the fall. [continue reading]

The Quebec Act, Two Fights, and Relative Subjecthood

Mark R. Anderson
Early Canadian History

The king’s face had been “smeared with tar, with a necklace of potatoes around the neck from which was suspended a wooden Cross with this inscription— VOILÁ LE PAPE DU CANADA ET LE SOT ANGLOIS [This is the Pope of Canada and the Fool of England].”  On the morning of May 1, 1775, the very day that the historic Quebec Act entered effect, Montrealers discovered this shocking vandalism to King George III’s marble bust, prominently displayed near Notre Dame church on the central Place d’Armes.  The city buzzed with discussions about who might have perpetrated an act that was so insulting to the monarch and British rule.[1]

Many Montrealers naturally suspected that the vandalism had been committed by Anglo-Protestant “old subjects”—those who had came to Canada from other parts of the empire after the Seven Years’ War conquest—as opposed to the French-Catholic Canadien inhabitants who became “new subjects” as a result of the 1763 Treaty of Paris.  The old-subject minority, comprising maybe five percent of the province’s 1775 population, vocally opposed the innovative new Quebec Act government because it broke with their expectations for English legal and representative customs.  In late 1774, many old subjects had petitioned for the Act’s repeal before it entered effect, but to no avail.  The vandals’ overt political message certainly implied radical old subject involvement, but officials and historians never identified the perpetrators or their true motivations. [continue reading]

Empire Burlesque

Daniel Bessner

In February 1941, as Adolf Hitler’s armies prepared to invade the Soviet Union, the Republican oligarch and publisher Henry Luce laid out a vision for global domination in an article titled the american century. World War II, he argued, was the result of the United States’ immature refusal to accept the mantle of world leadership after the British Empire had begun to deteriorate in the wake of World War I. American foolishness, the millionaire claimed, had provided space for Nazi Germany’s rise. The only way to rectify this mistake and prevent future conflict was for the United States to join the Allied effort an

accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and . . . exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.

Just as the United States had conquered the American West, the nation would subdue, civilize, and remake international relations.

Ten months after Luce published his essay, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the United States, which had already been aiding the Allies, officially entered the war. Over the next four years, a broad swath of the foreign policy elite arrived at Luce’s conclusion: the only way to guarantee the world’s safety was for the United States to dominate it. By war’s end, Americans had accepted this righteous duty, of becoming, in Luce’s words, “the powerhouse . . . lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.” The American Century had arrived. [continue reading]

Slavery researcher quits after fellows try to silence damning report

Tommy Castellani

A researcher looking into Gonville & Caius College’s links with the slave trade has quit after facing pressure from fellows who objected to the findings of the report. The report, commissioned by the College Council, aimed to see if the College had taken any donations from individuals connected to the slave trade.

However, Sam (not his real name), the postdoctoral student overseeing the report, claimed that after fellows produced an eighteen page criticism of his report in January, he was told that he’d have to change it with the help of someone who “knows the fellowship tone” – a demand he described as “censorship” and “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in leading him to cut ties with the College. Sam said the fellows’ objections were “disproportionate” and expressed in a “distressing” way. [continue reading]

Left Internationalism in the Heart of Empire

Aziz Rana

The global international order seems to have entered what political theorist George Shulman has called an “interregnum.” The post–Second World War framework organized around U.S. international leadership is unraveling, but it remains unclear what will come next. As Shulman put it last year, channeling Gramsci, “the old gods are dying, the new ones have yet to be born.” To a significant degree, this unraveling is a product of American policymaking failures—whether destructive wars of choice in the Middle East, neoliberal practices that have promoted financial instability alongside extremes in wealth and immiseration, or internal political dysfunctions that have undermined any coherent strategy for dealing with a global pandemic.

Interregnums offer historical openings; they carry the potential for genuine alternatives, both good and bad. Given the degree to which democratic socialists have been systematically excluded from wielding political power, especially foreign policy authority, in the United States, one might think that the unraveling of the postwar order could present a real political opportunity. After all, that long-standing exclusion from power means that none of the strategic errors of the bipartisan U.S. national security establishment can be blamed on the left. [continue reading]