Reviewed by Amina Marzouk Chouchene (PhD candidate, Manouba University)
The British Empire has been firmly tied to myth, adventure, and victory. For many Britons, “the empire was the mythic landscape of romance and adventure. It was that quarter of the globe that was colored and included darkest Africa and the mysterious East.”Cultural artifacts such as music, films, cigarette cards, and fiction have long constructed and reflected this rosy vision of the empire as a place of adventure and excitement. Against this widely held view of the empire, Jeffrey Auerbach identifies an overwhelming emotion that filled the psyche of many Britons as they moved to new lands: imperial boredom. Auerbach defines boredom as “an emotional state that individuals experience when they find themselves without anything particular to do and are uninterested in their surroundings.”
Auerbach identifies the feeling as a “modern construct” closely associated with the mid-eighteenth century. This does not mean that people were never bored before this, but that they “did not know it or express it.” Rather, it was with the spread of industrial capitalism and the Enlightenment emphasis on individual rights and happiness that the concept came to the fore.
In a well-researched and enjoyable book, the author argues “that despite the many and famous tales of glory and adventure, a significant and overlooked feature of the nineteenth century British imperial experience was boredom and disappointment.” In other words, instead of focusing on the exploits of imperial luminaries such as Walter Raleigh, James Cook, Robert Clive, David Livingstone, Cecil Rhodes and others, Auerbach pays particular attention to the moments when many travelers, colonial officers, governors, soldiers, and settlers were gripped by an intense sense of boredom in India, Australia, and southern Africa. Continue reading “Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire”→
On a Sunday afternoon in June 1938, the International African Service Bureau (IASB) held one of its numerous rallies at Trafalgar Square in central London. As one of the prime anti-colonial organisations of that time based in London and comprised of activists from West- and East Africa as well as from the West Indies,the gathering was closely monitored by the Metropolitan Police. The sergeant on duty reported that the demonstration was “attended by an audience fluctuating between 100 and 250 persons, of whom approximately 15% were Jews”. Speakers at the protest included, among others, Jomo Kenyatta (later first president of Kenya), the Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James, the Jamaican dockworker Chris Jones, and the Pan-Africanist activist and journalist George Padmore. Furthermore, the informant took notice of placards containing slogans such as “Fascism in the British Empire”, “Abolish fascist methods in the Colonies”, and “Imperialism is incompatible with peace”. The speakers repeatedly denounced the evil practices of British Imperialism and Colonialism in its territories and warned against any form of acquiescence with the Empire regarding the surging threat of fascism posed by Italy and Nazi-Germany. What’s more, they explicitly drew parallels between the practice of British and French colonialism and the policies and actions of their fascist rivals. In short, for the IASB combatting fascism could not be done without simultaneously overcoming imperialism from within.
This event was by no means a forum for black activists alone. There were also numerous white British speakers from the left who contributed to the demonstration. Francis Ridley is a case in point. Ridley was a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was arguably the most consistent of British leftist parties when it came to the question of
how to act in solidarity with anti-colonial and anti-imperial activists in the metropolis. Next to Fenner Brockway, the long time ILP chairman, editor of the party weekly and later Labour MP and the Quaker and Socialist activist and author Reginald Reynolds, Ridley can retrospectively be regarded as a defining figure of British anti-imperialist activism from the 1930s to the 1950s. Tellingly, he was described by the police informant at the scene as a “white man”, in order to highlight the supposedly extraordinary nature of his participation in the rally. In his speech, Ridley demanded that the “democratic conditions under which the people of England lived should be extended to the black workers of the Empire. Much talk was made today of the hardships suffered by the minorities in fascist countries, but these minorities were being treated very well in comparison to the negroes in the British Empire.” Ridley thus attempted to bring the suffering of colonized peoples in the “periphery” into the “metropolis” by connecting it to the condition of subaltern peoples of Europe. The example presented here thus hints at emerging and previously underrated cross-sectional solidarities among the numerous ethnic and social groups of London. Continue reading “Rethinking Anti-Colonial Activism Through London’s Surveillance Material”→
Academic Conveners: Fabian Klose (University of Cologne), Johannes Paulmann (IEG Mainz), Andrew Thompson (University of Exeter) in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (Geneva)
October marks Black History Month in the UK, providing the perfect excuse to delve into some of the best new history writing in this dynamic and rapidly-expanding field. Since my first monograph, Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British Writing, c.1770-1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2018), was published last October, the field of black British history seems to have been completely transformed. The past twelve months have seen several (I counted six) new permanent academic posts in the UK and a new MA programme, all dedicated more or less specifically to black British history. And January 2020 sees the launch of a new seminar series in London supported by the Institute for Historical Research, showcasing some of the best new work in the field from within and beyond the university – hope to see some of you there!
Some of this will have to do with the publication in October 2018 of the Royal Historical Society’s Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report, which highlighted the chronic underrepresentation and overwork of ‘Black and Minority Ethnic’ academic staff in British history departments. But the sudden heightened visibility of black British history in UK academia is not purely down to newfound resolutions to build stronger, better history departments, nor solely to the ongoing work to ‘decolonise’ history curricula, though both are important factors. The simple fact is that we have had an incredible year of high-quality scholarly research publications, accounting for some of the most innovative, dynamic, and vital work on British history as a whole.
Don’t call it a ‘turn’ – but there is more and more great work out there that, taken together, is changing the way we think about Britain’s past and its relationship to global and imperial history. Some of you, especially if you don’t work on topics obviously related to black British history, might be curious about how this impacts on your research interests. So, to celebrate and spread the word about this new wave of black British history scholarship, here are my top picks from the past twelve months. Continue reading “New Books on Black British History”→