It’s been a year now since Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirkwas released to critical acclaim, public approval and criticism. Much of the criticism arose because the film omitted any mention of the Commonwealth troops who were in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and at Dunkirk. It felt like a missed opportunity to correct an anomaly in the collective memory of Britain and the world: to remember the mule drivers of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) who were also on those beaches.
So here’s the missing piece of the story, derived from my research into Dunkirk’s Indian soldiers.
On May 29, 1940, in the middle of the evacuation of Dunkirk, with thousands of British soldiers lined up on the beaches east of the French town, with a giant pall of smoke from the burning oil refinery, with regular sorties by Luftwaffe planes scattering the queues, and with ships large and small taking men off the beaches, Major Mohammed Akbar Khan of the RIASC marched four miles along the beach at the head of 312 Muslim Indians, en route from Punjab to Pirbright.
Five hundred years in the future, humanity has left earth and expanded into a new solar system. New planets have been terraformed and colonised. Life at the centre of this system is luxurious, sophisticated, civilised. On the outer fringes, existence is more precarious, eking out a living a more dangerous game. This is the world of Joss Whedon’s regrettably short-lived television series Firefly (2002) and its feature film follow-up Serenity (2005). Both follow the rag-tag crew of the spaceship Serenity, led by captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), as they struggle to make ends meet by means legal and otherwise on the rough outer edges of this fictional universe, known in the show’s jargon as “the Verse.”
The Verse is cast in the mode of not one but two genres—the space opera and the western—that dramatise life on the frontier, and much of its humour and interest lies in the productive tension between their respective visions of that setting. According to Whedon, Firefly’s genesis lay in his reading of The Killer Angels (1974), Michael Shaara’s historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. He afterwards became “obsessed with the idea of life on the frontier, and that of course [made him] think of the Millennium Falcon.” In imagining the space opera as an adapted western that shifted nineteenth-century imperial tropes into an extraterrestrial future, Whedon was merely making explicit long-standing undercurrents within the genre. (Gene Roddenberry’s working title for Star Trek—a constant intertextual counterpoint in Firefly—had been Wagon Train to the Stars. Its trademark incantation of “space, the final frontier” was not incidental.) [continue reading]
Editor’s Note: In the weeks leading up to the new year, please help us remember 2018 at the Imperial & Global Forum by checking out the past year’s 10 most popular posts.
David Thackeray University of Exeter
Since the Brexit vote the ‘Anglosphere’ has featured prominently in debates about the UK’s future trade strategy. It may seem odd that the CANZUK countries (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have featured so prominently in these discussions. After all, combined together these countries accounted for less than four percent of UK exports in 2017. While Brexiteers may talk wistfully of reviving trade with these ‘old friends’, their efforts build on a problematic historical legacy.
In the 1920s and 1930s various efforts were made to encourage consumers to support trade between ‘British’ countries, based on ties of race. This was only one of a range of attempts to promote ethnically-based trade communities. For example, rival Buy Indian and Buy Chinese movements connected diaspora populations across the British Empire. At much the same time, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association promoted the idea of ‘buying black’, a cause which was subsequently adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the United States.
The practice of running empire shopping weeks was started by the British Women’s Patriotic League in 1923, and subsequently endorsed in the UK by the government-sponsored Empire Marketing Board. Shoppers were encouraged to exercise a voluntary preference for national and imperial goods. The shopping week movement extended into Australia in 1925, and reached Canada and South Africa in 1928. However, the language of empire shopping varied significantly between countries. Within the UK and Australia there was much focus on promoting links across the ‘British’ race at home and overseas. However, the question of the ‘British’ character of empire shopping proved more controversial in Canada, with its large French-speaking Québecois population, and in South Africa, where Afrikaners outnumbered the descendants of British settlers. [continue reading]