This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

A plate from Curry and Rice on Forty Plates (no date; author died 1859). No copyright asserted at

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

From Indo-English and Anglo-Indish to the class conflict hiding behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Indo-English and Anglo-Indish

Sumit Guha
India Forum

The English humorist Edward Lear traveled through British India in the winter of 1873–74. He was immediately struck by the possibilities of the strange language that he found the British upper-class English speaking there. His humorous poem was published in the Times of India (Bombay) in 1874. But it was not the first dig at ‘Anglo-Indian English’. The Bengal Army officer G.F. Atkinson published Curry and Rice on Forty Plates in London in 1859. It described “our station” as rejoicing in the “euphonious name of Kabob; it is situated in the plains of Degchy [degchi, a cooking pot], in the province of Bobarchy [bawarchi, cook].” Turmeric was the Judge, and so Mrs. Turmeric was the Burra Beebee, the great lady of Kabob. Other characters were given similar names. 

While Lear, Atkinson, and many others deliberately misapplied many Hindustani words that they employed (in English mispronunciation), yet the jokes turn upon such use of common terms of British conversation and even writing. There have been many books that consider the effect of English upon Indian languages. Humorous books and essays written by those affecting a superior grasp of the language mock different variants spoken by others, the “lesser breeds without the law” as Kipling called them. We have not often considered how Indian languages affected English as spoken in the Empire and even back ‘Home’, in Bilayut or Blighty. This word literally means a province (wilayat) but goes back to the days when Ottomans informed credulous easterners that Christians came from rebellious provinces of the Sultan’s empire. Some of the said rebels then applied it to their own home island. Scholars have not thought much about the social mechanisms of these usages. This is what this short essay addresses. What caused the English to speak like that only? [continue reading]

Has the CIA Done More Harm Than Good?

Amy Davidson Sorkin
New Yorker

On January 4, 1995, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of New York, introduced a bill called the Abolition of the Central Intelligence Agency Act. It had been a rough stretch for the C.I.A. The year before, Aldrich Ames, a longtime officer, had been convicted of being a longtime mole for Soviet (and then Russian) intelligence. Despite having a reputation among his colleagues as a problem drinker who appeared to live far beyond his means, Ames had been given high-level assignments with access to the names of American sources in the U.S.S.R. When the F.B.I. finally arrested him, he was in the Jaguar he used for commuting to work at Langley; by then, he was responsible for the death of at least ten agents. Moynihan said that the case was such a flamboyant display of incompetence that it might actually be a distraction from “the most fundamental defects of the C.I.A.” He meant that the agency—in what he considered to be its “defining failure”—had both missed the fact that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and done little to hasten its end.

He gave a diagnosis for what had gone wrong. “Secrecy keeps mistakes secret,” he said. “Secrecy is a disease. It causes a hardening of the arteries of the mind.” He quoted John le Carré on that point, adding that the best information actually came from the likes of area specialists, diplomats, historians, and journalists. If the C.I.A. was disbanded, he said, the State Department could pick up the intelligence work, and do a better job. [continue reading]

Echeverría’s Legacy of “Co-opt and Control”

Claire Dorfman
National Security Archive

To mark this year’s anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, the National Security Archive today posted an essential collection of ten key U.S. documents on Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1922-2022), the former Mexican president later charged with genocide for his role in the Tlatelolco and Corpus Christi student massacres.

U.S. documents depict Echeverría—a career politician in the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)—as a man intent on crushing his enemies through manipulation and, if necessary, the unapologetic use of force. A CIA report from January 1971, published for the first time today, concluded that he “shares heavily in the blame” for the violence at Tlatelolco. An Embassy memo produced days after the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre described the Echeverría government’s “continuing effort to co-opt and control [the] student movement.” Other documents featured in this collection illustrate an acute “period of tensions” in U.S.-Mexican relations during his administration and the “psychological crisis” that gripped Mexico after his presidency, while records of his meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon illuminate his immense ambitions in global leadership. [continue reading]

China: Back to Authoritarianism

Ian Johnson
New York Review

Ten years ago China was in the midst of what was being touted as a remarkably predictable and peaceful transfer of power—proof that its authoritarian system of government was capable of implementing term limits and an orderly succession from one top leader to another. Chinese President and Communist Party Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were about to step down after two terms, just as Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji had done a decade earlier. Stable leadership—the elusive goal of Chinese politics for the past century—seemed to have arrived.

Beneath the surface, however, China was facing its biggest political crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. As the year unfolded, senior officials were purged and their families’ debauchery and corruption exposed. Within five years, seemingly secure institutions had broken down as the new top leader, Xi Jinping, turned out to be an ambitious strongman who sought to remake the political system and expand his power. At the Chinese Communist Party Congress in mid-October he will almost certainly be reelected to a third term as head of the party. [continue reading]

Behind Russia’s War Is Thirty Years of Post-Soviet Class Conflict

Volodymyr Ishenko

Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine earlier this year, analysts across the political spectrum have struggled to identify exactly what — or who — led us to this point. Phrases like “Russia,” “Ukraine,” “the West,” or “the Global South” have been thrown around as if they denoted unified political actors. Even on the Left, the utterances of Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky, Joe Biden, and other world leaders about “security concerns,” “self-determination,” “civilizational choice,” “sovereignty,” “imperialism,” or “anti-imperialism” are often taken at face value, as if they represented coherent national interests.

Specifically, the debate over Russian — or, more precisely, the Russian ruling clique’s — interests in launching the war tends to be polarized around questionable extremes. Many take what Putin says literally, failing to even question whether his obsession with NATO expansion or his insistence that Ukrainians and Russians constitute “one people” represent Russian national interests or are shared by Russian society as a whole. On the other side, many dismiss his remarks as bold-faced lies and strategic communication lacking any relation to his “real” goals in Ukraine. [continue reading]