A law to end decolonising debates?

Statue of General Sir Redvers Buller, Exeter, with a traffic cone placed on its head as part of traditional freshers’ week revelries. © Copyright Lewis Clarke 

Andrea Wallace, Nicola Thomas, Natalie Ohana, Freyja Cox Jensen, Nandini Chatterjee

On 8 June 2020, protestors in Bristol pulled down the statue of Edward Colston, slave-trader, dragged it through the streets, and threw it in the canal. While the protests in Bristol were largely peaceful, there were some conflicts in London and elsewhere, resulting in injuries to a small number of police personnel. In response, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that ‘tearing down of the statue was “utterly disgraceful”, adding that “it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about”. Professor Ian Cook, Department of Geography, Exeter, captured the range of voices on the topic in his film Colston Falls. During these debates, members of the Decolonising Working Group in History, University of Exeter, pooled their knowledge to produce this collectively written essay on how statues of historical figures have been literally ‘de-platformed’ and the various physical and ethical solutions that have been found to deal with such toppled statues.

Last week, we were dismayed to find that the government of UK is proposing to close off the debate with a new law that will sharply raise the penalties for damaging memorials. We responded by submitting evidence to the Parliamentary Committee deliberating on the matter, working in collaboration with colleagues in Law and Geography. We are generally critical and wary of the ‘extremely wide ranging’ Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, which in our opinion, combines a raft of highly risky and unncessary provisions together with ones that are less controversial. There are other published criticisms of the Bill. Here, for purposes of this post, we are particularly concerned with the way one tiny section of the Bill, tucked into a mammoth text of more than 300 pages, proposes to close off debate on the place of public memorials in present-day Britain.

This is the section in question.

46 Criminal damage to memorials: mode of trial (1) In Schedule 2 to the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (offences for which the value involved is relevant to the mode of trial), in paragraph 1 (offences under section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971), in the first column, for the words from “any offence” to the end substitute “— (a) any offence committed by destroying or damaging property by fire, and (b) any offence committed by destroying or damaging a memorial (see section 22(11A) to (11D)).” (2) In section 22 of that Act, after subsection (11) insert— “(11A) In paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 “memorial” means— (a) a building or other structure, or any other thing, erected or installed on land (or in or on any building or other structure on land), or (b) a garden or any other thing planted or grown on land, which has a commemorative purpose.

(11B) For the purposes of that paragraph, any moveable thing (such as a bunch of flowers) which— (a) is left in, on or at a memorial within the meaning of subsection (11A), and (b) has (or can reasonably be assumed to have) a commemorative purpose, is also to be regarded as a memorial. (11C) For the purposes of subsections (11A) and (11B)— (a) references to a building or a structure include a reference to part of a building or part of a structure (as the case may be), and (b) something has a commemorative purpose if at least one of its purposes is to commemorate— (i) one or more individuals or animals (or a particular description of individuals or animals), or (ii) an event or a series of events (such as an armed conflict). (11D) It is immaterial for the purposes of subsection (11C)(b)(i) whether or not any individuals or animals concerned are or were (at any material time)— (a) living or deceased, or (b) capable of being identified.” (3) The amendments made by this section do not apply in relation to offences committed before it comes into force.

As the text of the proposed law says, this provision ‘strengthens the courts’ sentencing powers in relation to criminal damage to memorials’. It does so by amending the Magistrate’s Courts Act 1980 and the Criminal Damage Act 1971, increasing the maximum penalty from the existing 3 months’ imprisonment to 10 years, making it an offence more severe than most offences of sexual and physical violence. Women readers, please read that again. A statue of a dead slave trader is worth more than your bones.

Continue reading “A law to end decolonising debates?”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

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

From an imperialism syllabus to rethinking grand strategy, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

PhD Studentship: Race, Ethnicity and Telecommunications in Britain and its Empire, 1850-Present

History Ref: 4145

About the award

Supervisors

Primary Supervisor – Professor Richard Noakes

Secondary Supervisor – Dr Stacey Hynd (University of Exeter) and Ms Anne Archer at BT Archives.  Mr James Elder will provide cover for Anne Archer prior to her anticipated return from Maternity Leave shortly after the start of the studentship.

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship on race, ethnicity and telecommunications in the British empire from 1850 to the present at the University of Exeter in partnership with BT Archives (London).  The studentship is awarded by the Science Museum and Archives Consortium under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.

This project is a systematic study of the Black, Middle Eastern and South/East Asian people who worked for the British domestic and overseas telecommunications services from the 1850s to the present. 

It examines their working experiences and their significant contributions to the construction, operation and technological development of telegraphic and telephonic services – questions largely overlooked by historians.  By close and critical study of a wealth of underexplored texts, images and other sources in BT Archives, PK Porthcurno Museum of Global Communications and other collections, as well as the engagement with retired and active telecommunications workers, this project aims to plug this historiographical gap and contribute to the decolonizing of histories of telecommunications in Britain and its empire.

It will also raise the profile of significant materials within British telecommunications archive collections. 

The student will produce a highly original piece of historical research and contribute to the enrichment of BT Archives’ catalogue (by providing context and other details to records) and to its physical displays and related activities in telecommunications heritage.

The project focuses on the following questions, but the student will be encouraged to pursue other, related questions that reflect their particular areas of expertise and strengths of the research materials:

Continue reading “PhD Studentship: Race, Ethnicity and Telecommunications in Britain and its Empire, 1850-Present”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Federal Building in Chicago. Architect: Henry Ives Cobb .Location: Dearborn, Adams and Clark Streets and Jackson Boulevard. Built: Between 1896 and 1905. Demolished: 1965.

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

From liberation as the fine art of losing to investigating the ‘Tartarian Empire’ conspiracy theory, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

The Theosophical Society and Transnational Cultures of Print

Theosophy in India

Lori Lee Oates
Memorial University of Newfoundland

It has long been established by historians such as Christopher Bayly and scholars of post-colonialism such as Leela Gandhi that theosophy was an important nineteenth-century intellectual current. Bayly, for example, credits theosophy with diffusing the Bhavagad Gita throughout India and bringing it to the attention of the wider world. However, what has been less well-established is how those ideas were moving across international lines or the links between theosophy and empire.

My recently published article in The International History Review drew on new primary sources to demonstrate that the Theosophical Society was actively building print networks to expand and move their occult philosophies across the globe. The article paid closer attention to how theosophical texts were moving internationally than previous research. It also demonstrated how Theosophical Society leaders were using expanding imperial networks such as steam ships, telegraphs, and international banking to grow the society across the globe.

Continue reading “The Theosophical Society and Transnational Cultures of Print”

Decolonising public health: India’s COVID crisis is a global one

Nandini Chatterjee, Dora Vargha, Rebecca Williams
University of Exeter

In a  widely criticised interview with Sky News on 25 April 2021, the IT billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates Jr. responded to a question whether he supported sharing the ‘recipe’ of the Sars-COV-2 or Covid-19 vaccines with manufacturers worldwide, with an emphatic: ‘No.’ No, he said, because there ‘are only so many vaccine factories in the world, and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines.’ Moving the production of a vaccine from Johnson and Johnson’s to a factory in India was already novel, he said, and could only happen because of ‘our grants and our expertise.’ Intellectual property was not holding back anything in this case, he said, because it wasn’t as if there were ‘idle vaccine factories with regulatory approvals, that make magically safe vaccines.’

It would appear from this account that most of the world was a place empty of funds and expertise, waiting for the largesse of saviours such as Bill Gates Jr.  and appropriate guidance to be able to protect their own health in a scientific and safe way. Looking at the story of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine with some more attention, however, produces some rather more complicated stories.

On 23 November 2020, an Oxford University-based research team led by Dr Andrew Pollard declared a breakthrough in developing an effective vaccine against Covid-19. The team had been working furiously for months, backed with UK government funding and public donations. Oxford University then announced a permissive protocol for licensing COVID-19 related IP to third parties under ‘these exceptional circumstances.’ Of the 5 points of guidance offered to organisations seeking licences to use Oxford University’s IP (or recipe for vaccine), one was: ‘The default approach of the University and OUI regarding (1) will be to offer non-exclusive, royalty-free licences to support free of charge, at-cost or cost + limited margin supply as appropriate, and only for the duration of the pandemic, as defined by the WHO.’

Such an approach is not unprecedented. In the 1950s polio epidemics swept through the globe, and in the midst of outbreaks two rivaling vaccines were developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, both without patent. When asked about this, Jonas Salk famously remarked ‘Would you patent the sun?’. It seems that the decision for the Salk vaccines lack of patent might have been a practical one, as it would not have been possible by contemporary standards, regardless of Salk’s moral stance. Sabin’s decision was an openly political one: the vaccine was a result of international collaboration between researchers of the two opposing sides of the Cold War, and this scientific exchange was greatly celebrated at the time. Of course, Gates is right that a lack of patent doesn’t automatically mean immediate access and capability of vaccine production everywhere in the world. It took years for many countries, in war-ravaged European states, up to half a decade to establish infrastructure, skill and procure materials (including live animals) for domestic vaccine productions of the Salk vaccine. However, many others had the capability, while standards of production were developed by the WHO, and this, in the end, dampened the dire global vaccine shortage in both the short and long run. More importantly, the lack of patent did not hinder national or global vaccination efforts. 

Continue reading “Decolonising public health: India’s COVID crisis is a global one”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Orangemen marching in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1922. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

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

From opening secret Northern Ireland files to undoing the myth of Australia’s peaceful settlement, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

titanic survivors
Survivors of the Titanic included Ah Lam, Fang Lang, and Ling Hee. LP Films.

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

From rugby’s victims of Argentina’s dirty war to the search for Chinese survivors of the Titanic, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939

Crowd outside meeting of Te Kotahitanga (the kupapa Maori parliament) at Papawai, 1897. Richard Seddon, Prime Minister of New Zealand is front row, third from left

David Thackeray (Exeter) and Amanda Behm (York) have been awarded a Research Project Grant by the Leverhulme Trust for their project ‘Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939’, which will run from 2021-24. We will shortly be advertising two funded PhD studentships and will be holding a conference at Westminster, which is planned to lead to a special issue of Parliamentary History. The project team are interested from hearing from colleagues working on topics in this field.

Our project examines the role of parliament and the parliamentary idea in civic life in the UK and the British settler colonial world. While we might take for granted constitutional history as the bedrock of historical and civic education across imperial countries from the mid-nineteenth century until 1945, our project proposes a more daunting problem. At the heart of constitutional history lay a reverence for parliament, which found its most celebrated expression in Walter Bagehot’s 1867 description of the Commons as a ‘mirror’ of the British nation, expressing the popular will, educating the people politically, hearing grievances, and legislating.

Yet for all its studied neutrality, parliamentarianism emerged and remained as a cipher at the heart of British imperial politics. In that ‘golden age’ of constitutional history writing, there simmered widespread anxieties about the ability of parliament to mediate the body politic while confronting questions of an expanding electorate and votes for women. Equally significant was the ferment pitting settler colonial groups against the legislative and moral claims of their fellow imperial subjects across a vast transoceanic space.

By exploring how a range of constituencies through and beyond the settler colonies appealed to values of British parliamentarianism, we shed new light on the connected debates about democratic governance and political inclusion that characterised the emergence of nations within a fractious British Empire. The late nineteenth century witnessed a flourishing of local parliaments, parliamentary debating societies, petitions to parliament, and women’s parliaments. This culture was not confined to ‘overseas’ Britons and masculine settler colonists. Maori parliamentary movements, in particular, indicate how indigenous peoples could adopt and adapt the practices of British parliamentary culture to seek redress and assert notions of sovereignty. Women’s mock parliaments, which spread across Britain and the settler colonies, satirised transimperial parliamentary culture and highlighted women’s exclusion from national bodies.

We look forward to exploring how being ‘parliamentary’ was central to diverse claimants’ appeals for political inclusion and authority as they contested  ‘British’ values and appealed particularly to those supposedly on the fringes of the political nation, such as working men, women, indigenous peoples, and foreign and intra-imperial migrants. Our focus is on how ideas of ‘British’ parliamentarianism were performedand contested: how some forms of popular parliamentarianism such as debating societies could promote reverence for the Westminster model while others rejected parliament as an adequate ‘mirror’ of nation and empire. These challenges to, and alternative models of, parliament’s role in public life shine new light on the transnational flow of ideas and networks which continue to connect and divide the British Empire through its tumultuous redrawing.

Continue reading “Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939”

Decolonizing History, Provincializing Europe

Sumit Guha
University of Texas at Austin

The West is a world region that has often presented itself as the crucible of modern historical practice. It has claimed possession a continuous tradition of rational inquiry from Thucydides and Suetonius to Hume and Mommsen. Colonial rule then imposed faith in this genealogy upon imperial subjects world-wide.

I argue that a decolonial history has to provincialize Europe itself (as Dipesh Chakrabarti said twenty years ago). But to provincialize the West is not to deny its existence. Rather we should re-situate Western protocols of history in a comparative frame and investigate the actual working of collective memory there, past and present. Continue reading “Decolonizing History, Provincializing Europe”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

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

From Berlin’s plan to return Benin statues to trouble at the V&A, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

Meghan Markle and the Colonial Roots of Tabloid Media

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex sitting down with Oprah Winfrey on her prime time special.

Lori Lee Oates
Memorial University of Newfoundland

The tabloid press in the United Kingdom was on the receiving end of serious allegations of racism from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on 7 March 2021. This occurred after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sat down with Oprah Winfrey to discuss the exit from their royal roles in January 2020. Women Members of Parliament had previously signed an open letter condemning the “colonial undertones” of the media coverage of Markle in October of 2019.

And yet many remain unaware of the extent to which today’s tabloid media was forged by the British political class to control and distribute colonial narratives, particularly during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. This has, of course, been well documented by scholars such as Simon Potter in News and the British World: The Emergence of an Imperial Press System (2003) and Chandrika Kaul in Reporting the Raj (2004). Gauri Viswanathan has also demonstrated how the education system and English literature was used as a tool of imperial control in Masks of Conquest (2014). Such work highlights the longstanding desire of colonial powers to control narratives about empire, the colonies, and the relationships between Indigenous citizens and colonial settlers. Continue reading “Meghan Markle and the Colonial Roots of Tabloid Media”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

José Epita Mbomo’s card as a deported member of the French Resistance, issued by France in 1954. FAMILY ARCHIVEARCHIVO FAMILIAR

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

From the Spanish electrician who sabotaged the Nazis to the remarkable influence of Walter LaFeber, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Women workers demonstrating in St Petersburg, Russia on International Women’s Day 1917.

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

From the socialist origins of International Women’s Day to Hong Kong in the neoliberal imagination, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

Recovering the Socialist Free-Trade Tradition

Figure 1: Front and back of the cover of the Jan. 1919 issue of the US Communist magazine the Liberator.

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

[The following has been adapted from Marc-William Palen, “Marx and Manchester: The Evolution of the Socialist Internationalist Free-Trade Tradition, c1846-1946,” International History Review 43 (March 2021): 381-398.]

Free trade, or Freihandel, was a hot-button issue at the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) Congress held in Stuttgart in 1898, most notably because of the policy’s numerous advocates. SPD leader Karl Kautsky kicked things off with a resolution denouncing protectionism for counteracting ‘international solidarity.’ Luise Zietz, a German feminist and head of the SPD women’s movement, seconded Kautsky’s call: ‘We have to adopt a principled stance, and that is in favor of free trade and against protective tariffs.’ August Bebel, SPD chairman and longtime pacifist, followed up on Kautsky and Zietz’s free-trade endorsements, and the congress adopted a qualified resolution along these lines. Free trade would receive an even stronger SPD endorsement in 1900 because ‘free international exchange is . . . before all, a working-class question,’ German Marxist revisionist Eduard Bernstein explained in a subsequent letter to London’s 1908 International Free Trade Congress.[1] Their efforts were part of a rich socialist free-trade tradition that began germinating when Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx migrated to Britain in the 1840s, just as the island-nation was embracing free trade as both policy and ideology. The same British free-trade embrace was also giving rise at this time to the Manchester School (Manchester liberalism, Cobdenism), an economic ideology that tied international trade liberalization together with cheap food, democratization, anti-imperialism, and peace – a cosmopolitan concoction that socialist internationalists increasingly imbibed by the turn of the century.[2]

Recovering the free-trade dimensions of socialist internationalism, and the pacific influence of Britain’s Manchester School upon it, upends the commonly held assumption that socialists the world over have supported nationalism and protectionism amid their collectivist opposition to free-market capitalism.[3] Doing so also provides a much-needed prehistory to the growing body of literature on ‘socialist globalization’. This scholarship has focused primarily on socialist attempts to deepen regional and global interdependence through market integration and supranational governance amid the Manichean ideological divide of the Cold War.[4]  By contrast, earlier attempts have received far less attention, and the role of free trade within the socialist internationalist tradition less still. As a partial corrective, this article traces the evolution of socialist internationalist support for free trade across the century before the Cold War, wherein the cosmopolitan subscription to free trade increasingly made strange bedfellows among those capitalists and socialists seeking a more interdependent and peaceful world order. Continue reading “Recovering the Socialist Free-Trade Tradition”