A Moluccan Victory in a Dutch Court

Lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld in court with Chris Uktolseja, brother of one of the Moluccans killed by Dutch soldiers.

Paul Doolan
Zurich International School and the University of Konstanz

Last month the Dutch state found itself at court, accused of extra-judicial killing. I have already written how human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld “has twice brought the Dutch state to court for the massacre of civilians in Indonesia, and on both occasions has won.” But that was for killings during the Indonesian War of Decolonization, back in the late 1940s. This time Liesbeth Zegveld is  accusing the Dutch state of carrying out murder in the Netherlands during the 1970s.

To the consternation of the peace-loving Dutch public, the country was confronted in the 1970s with a home-grown terrorist movement that was directly rooted in the decolonization of Indonesia. Additionally, although the perpetrators of the violence had political goals, they were also at war with the Dutch collective refusal to remember decolonization. As such they were battling against widespread unremembering. Continue reading “A Moluccan Victory in a Dutch Court”

Debating the History of Humanitarianism

Human-Rights

Andrew Thompson
Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History
University of Exeter

Humanitarianism developed at the intersection of Decolonization, the Cold War, and new & accelerating forms of Globalization. Decolonisation was about much more than the ending of colonial relationships: what was at stake was the dismantling of an entire global order: an old world of imperial states was replaced by a new world of nation states and this ushered in new patterns of cultural, political and economic relations. In the existential struggle that was the Cold War, the control of overseas territory mattered intensely to each side’s sense of security and power.

Capitalist West and socialist East competed to convince nearly and newly independent African and Asian states to adopt their models of humanitarian and development aid. As a result it became more difficult to distinguish aid given to further state interests from that given according to recipient needs. Globalisation meanwhile expanded the range of voices to which humanitarians had to listen while radically differentiating them. Aid agencies intensified their use of the international media, yet were exposed to greater pressures from their donor states and publics.

Together these 3 geopolitical forces − Decolonization, the Cold War, & Globalization − raised far-reaching questions about the relationship of international organizations and NGOs to state power; the basis upon which humanitarian needs were identified and prioritized; and the interaction of humanitarians with non-state armed groups. Continue reading “Debating the History of Humanitarianism”

Britain, France, and their Roads From Empire: A New Talking Empire Podcast

fight or flight thomasMartin Thomas’s path-breaking book Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and their Roads from Empire tells how the world’s two largest colonial empires disintegrated dramatically after the Second World War. Although shattered by war, in 1945 Britain and France still controlled the world’s two largest colonial empires, with imperial territories stretched over four continents. And they appeared determined to keep them: the roll-call of British and French politicians, soldiers, settlers and writers who promised in word and print at this time to defend their colonial possessions at all costs is a long one. Yet, within twenty years both empires had almost completely disappeared.

The collapse was cataclysmic. Peaceable ‘transfers of power’ were eclipsed by episodes of territorial partition and mass violence whose bitter aftermath still lingers. Hundreds of millions across four continents were caught up in the biggest reconfiguration of the international system ever seen.

In this new Talking Empire podcast Professor Thomas talks about the book with Professor Richard Toye.

Sonny Ramphal’s Global Life

Ramphal3

Stuart Mole
Mr. Mole is a PhD Student at the University of Exeter. He was Special Assistant to the Secretary-General (1984-1990), Director of the Secretary-General’s Office (1990-2000), and Director General of the Royal Commonwealth Society (2000-2009).

Nowadays, Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal – lawyer and international diplomat – is well settled into retirement, though still a giant figure in his native Caribbean and still able to stir the memories of older generations who remember his boundless activism on the world stage.

From 1975 to 1990 he was the longest-serving Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, and for six of those years I was lucky enough to be his Special Assistant. It was an exhilarating time, now given new immediacy by the recent publication of his memoir Glimpses of a Global Life (2014).

This weighty and enthralling record demonstrates a contribution to international affairs which was multi-faceted and never less than exceptional. He served on a string of international commissions, including Brandt, on development and the North-South divide; Bruntland, pioneering the notion of sustainable development; and Palme, on peace and international security. There were other issues where his intellectual leadership and courage stood out. He was among the first to warn Africa and the world of HIV/AIDS – and among the first to speak of sea-level rise and climate change, many decades before such talk became common currency.

But perhaps he is best remembered for his titanic struggle against racism in Southern Africa – in the eventual vanquishing of white minority rule in Rhodesia and, more than a decade later, in helping bring to an end apartheid in South Africa. Continue reading “Sonny Ramphal’s Global Life”

Roundtable Review of Martin Thomas’s ‘Fight or Flight’

Thomas Fight or Flight

Roundtable Review, cross-posted from H-Diplo

Martin Thomas.  Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and their Roads from EmpireOxford:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  ISBN:  978-0-19-969827-1 (hardback, £25.00).

URL:  http://www.tiny.cc/Roundtable-XVI-20

Contents

Introduction by Christopher Goscha, Université du Québec à Montréal

One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cites, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.

-J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians[1]

In his Nobel prize-winning novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee masterfully describes how the agents and members of empire struggle incessantly against the imperial state’s demise by creating a constant state of fear against barbarian attack. It is not enough to rule. The imperial state needs an enemy. It then marches the army into the borderlands to attack the nomads before they can descend upon the empire. The deployment of the army, the use of torture, and the suspension of rule of law are necessary evils. The preservation of civilization and of the white race depends on it. Empire simply cannot fathom its own end. And yet, throughout his novel, Coetzee has his borderland administrator remind us that all empires must one day perish. Imperial time, the Magistrate whispers ever so seditiously in our unsuspecting ears, is not universal: “We have been here more than a hundred years, we have reclaimed land from the desert and built irrigation works and planted fields and built solid homes and put a wall around our town, but they still think of us as visitors, transients.” Driven almost mad by the failed military campaign against the barbarians he has come to admire, the Magistrate finally admits that he “wanted to live outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them.”[2] Our tortured colonial administrator had dared to imagine decolonization from the inside.

In the comparative study under review here, Fight or Flight, the talented and prolific British historian Martin Thomas provides an in-depth account of how and why the French and the British tried to hold on to their empires against all odds but in the end had to let go. Sometimes, Thomas tells us, the colonizers chose to cut their losses and get out in order to focus on other parts of the empire. It was a question of preservation. On other occasions, Thomas counters, they went to war to hold on to their prize possessions. In both cases, it –what we now call decolonization – was a messy, complicated, unpredictable, and terribly bloody business. There was no roadmap for ending empires because, at least in the immediate wake of World War II, neither the French nor the British decision-makers could fathom that imperial time was perhaps not universal.[3]

Nor could they imagine that the ‘barbarians’ were thinking of historical time in different terms and were willing to fight to force that change upon their colonizers. While Thomas’s comparison turns on the French and British imperial endgames, he successfully weaves in the stories of the Africans and Asians. For many colonial nationalists, Thomas reminds us, decolonization did not magically begin in the wake of World War II; but emerged in many colonial minds as the only response to failed reformist promises. Nicholas White is right to suggest that Thomas is on to something big by suggesting that the colonial crisis that coalesced in the 1930s was as important as anything that came after ‘1945.’ Some chose communism, like Ho Chi Minh, the future father of Vietnam, and Thomas shows how that pre-WWII communist connection would differentiate the French war of decolonization in Indochina from other ‘fight experiences’ in French Algeria and British Malaya. Continue reading “Roundtable Review of Martin Thomas’s ‘Fight or Flight’”

Film Archives and the Future of Imperial History

Thackeray 1

David Thackeray
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @d_thackeray

Last month I had the pleasure of participating in a joint workshop staged by the AHRC Care for the Future and Labex: Passes Dans le Present research clusters at the Royaumont Foundation near Paris. The two days showcased a range of projects assessing how study of the past can inform contemporary and future policy-making and cultural debates- from the use of colonial heroes in modern Africa, to how digitisation is reshaping understanding of museums, and the links between modern and historical anti-slavery movements.

My own focus was on the challenges facing film archives and how this affects the future of imperial history. For the historian of imperial trade networks – film provides a fascinating, and in many ways under-used resource. Continue reading “Film Archives and the Future of Imperial History”

Charlie Hebdo’s Anti-Imperialist Roots

L’Assiette au Beurre, Terre à Galons ("A place to earn stripes"), March 14, 1908.
L’Assiette au Beurre, Terre à Galons (“A place to Earn Stripes”), March 14, 1908.

Daniel Foliard
Assistant Professor, Paris Ouest-Nanterre la Défense University

In a recent interview, George Wolinski (1934-2015), one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists killed in the Paris terrorist attacks on January 7, 2015, had claimed his magazine’s work was the legacy of L’Assiette au Beurre, an innovative satirical weekly published in France between 1901 and 1912.[1]

Both stylistically and politically, the two periodicals, separated by more than a century, could also claim an affiliation with a long French tradition of dissent. Accordingly, although Charlie Hebdo is now known around the globe for its unmediated satire on religions, we should not overlook its position in the longer history of French anti-imperialism. Continue reading “Charlie Hebdo’s Anti-Imperialist Roots”