Debating the History of Humanitarianism


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”

Living in the Age of the Storyteller: Global History and the Politics of Narrative


Lori Lee Oates
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @LoriLeeOates

In late June, I had the honour of hearing Professor David A. Bell speak at the Society for the Study of French History conference at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. The theme of the conference was Turning Points in French History and he spoke on the period between 1715 to 1815. Professor Bell went on to discuss ‘the global turn’. He noted that a significant percentage of current history Ph.D. students are using global analysis as the main methodology for their thesis. He then discussed the limits of this methodology, particularly as a largely structural analysis. He argued that the methodologies of ‘the linguistic turn’ might actually be more helpful to us in analyzing the process of why change continues after these same global structures break down. Linguistic analysis largely views language as a structure that is culturally inherited and something that limits our ability to comprehend society beyond those concepts that are available to us in our immediate environment.

As one of many Ph.D. students who have turned toward using global and imperial methodology, I was intrigued. Professor Bell’s talk also reminded me of sitting in an Ex Historia seminar on global and imperial history in 2013 and posing the question of whether this was just another passing academic fad. Like others I had been advised to do a thesis that is an analysis of the effects of globalization and the inherent influence of imperialism on that process. In many ways this is a good approach as a number of new academic positions are being created in the field of global and imperial history on both sides of the Atlantic. However, given the academic hype regarding globalization in recent years, I had honestly been wondering for some time when somebody was going to start questioning the efficacy of the methodology. Continue reading “Living in the Age of the Storyteller: Global History and the Politics of Narrative”

The Eagle & the Dragon: Globalization and European Dreams of Conquest in China and America in the Sixteenth Century


Juan José Morales

Cross-posted from Asian Review of Books

The first Portuguese embassy to China, headed by Tomé Pires, set out from Canton in 1517, reaching the capital Peking in December 1520. Although they carried gifts and letters from King Manuel, the Portuguese did not see the Emperor but were treated as spies, thrown into jail and some executed.

Meanwhile, in November 1519, a Spanish expedition led by Hernán Cortés entered Mexico-Tenochtitlán where they were received with spectacular pomp by the emperor Moctezuma. Months later, in August 1521, the Aztec capital would fall to the Spanish, opening the door to their conquest of much of the American continent.

These first encounters between the Iberians and the two world civilizations of Mexico and China took place therefore around the same time although with completely different outcomes. Serge Gruzinski’s The Eagle and the Dragon, the title referring to the iconic symbols of Mexico and China, is a groundbreaking study that sets to explain the timing and implications of these events. Continue reading “The Eagle & the Dragon: Globalization and European Dreams of Conquest in China and America in the Sixteenth Century”

The Global Village Myth

Global Village Myth

Patrick Porter
University of Exeter

The Global Village Myth takes aim at Globalism, or the idea of the ‘death of distance’ in the world of conflict. And it takes aim at the dangerous policies it tends towards. I argue that even in a supposedly ‘globalised’ world, distance matters.

Does technology kill distance? So often we hear it. The cumulative message of our news cycle, of debate about foreign and defence policy, is the fear that the global spread of ideas, capital, weapons and people makes our world ever more dangerous. Continue reading “The Global Village Myth”

Xenophobia in South Africa: Historical Legacies of Exclusion and Violence

xenophobia is not a crime

Emily Bridger
History Department, University of Exeter

Over the past several weeks, a new wave of xenophobic violence has swept across South Africa, beginning in Durban and quickly spreading to Johannesburg and its surrounding townships. The targets are makwerekweres, a derogatory term used for foreigners, in reference to the “babble” they speak. They are Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Nigerians, Somalis, Bangladeshis and other foreign nationals. Initial violence in Durban was sparked by the remarks of Goodwill Zwelithini, the king of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Zulus, who reportedly called on foreigners to “pack their bags and go back to their countries.”

In the following weeks, the violence claimed the lives of seven people and turned thousands more into refugees. Media images depicted scenes of terror, displacement and hatred: foreign-owned shops looted and ransacked; tent cities hastily assembled for refugees; foreigners boarding buses back to their home countries; and even the brutal stabbing of Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole in Johannesburg’s neighbouring township of Alexandria. Yet these images are not new for South Africans. Just earlier this year, another episode of xenophobic-induced looting and violence occurred Soweto. Recent violence particularly calls to mind scenes from just seven years ago, in May 2008, when 62 foreigners were killed and thousands displaced in the worst xenophobic attacks in the country’s post-apartheid history.

These episodes of violence are not sporadic. They represent long-simmering anti-migrant sentiments that have been increasing in the country since the early 1990s. As apartheid collapsed and South Africa opened its borders to foreign migration, many within the country found new scapegoats for their dissatisfaction with democracy’s failed promises. They blamed foreigners, rather than whites or the government, for high unemployment and scarce resources.

But these sentiments can be traced back much further than 1994 – fear or hatred of foreigners has a long history in South Africa. Continue reading “Xenophobia in South Africa: Historical Legacies of Exclusion and Violence”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Indian Army troops tour Acropolis, Athens, 1944. NAM. 1990-08-65-211. Courtesy of National Army Museum.
Indian Army troops tour Acropolis, Athens, 1944. NAM. 1990-08-65-211. Courtesy of National Army Museum.

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

From Japan’s rightwing war on history, to the First World War through Arab eyes, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

What We’ve Learned From the Crash – Review of ‘The Shifts and the Shocks’, by Martin Wolf

Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

Follow on Twitter @RichardToye

Cross-posted from the Guardian

shifts_758504zMartin Wolf’s new volume on the causes and consequences of the world financial crisis comes with generous advance praise from, among others, Mervyn King, Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke. That, you might think, is a bit like a manual on maritime safety with jacket blurbs from the crew of the Titanic. But there is not much comfort for the these men within the book’s pages. Bernanke, in particular, gets it in the neck: “even two months before the crisis broke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve had next to no idea what was about to hit him, his institution and the global economy. To be blunt, he was almost clueless.” It seems he’s not too careful about reading the books he endorses, either.

That is a pity, because this is a work that repays close attention. Continue reading “What We’ve Learned From the Crash – Review of ‘The Shifts and the Shocks’, by Martin Wolf”