Things you want to think about

"... it is in vain that Nero prospers, for Tacitus is already born in the empire"

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Derek Walcott translating Joseph Brodsky

The translated poem is a sacred thing. It is a crossroads where one person has chosen to listen, with all the resources of their mind and heart, to something which someone else has given all of their capacities for understanding, truthfulness, communication, and pleasurable play. At its best, it is the most beautiful kind of self-full selflessness: one’s gifts become the medium through someone else’s gifts are born again in another community of symbols. And how much more intense is this act of generous anansi web weaving, when it reaches in to a poem which itself is in a kind of translatory homage to the word aesthetics of another language community? The mediator is mediated, and mediated again, in one unbroken transcultural gift-giving ritual. That is why I love so much Derek Walcott's 1977 translation of Joseph Brodsky's *Letters from the Ming Dynasty* — the Caribbean (English) poet opening his gifts to the Russian poet who opens his gifts to the Tang dynasty Taoist poetic aesthetic, in order to chant down Babylon.

It is an urgently political poem, and the first steep of its meanings yields a brew which tastes only of loss and corruption. But its politics are ordered in poetic figures which insist on the present as the theatre of experience and of moral agency, and that the space of loss from one’s native home, the predicament of exile, measured in time (years) and distance (li), is a space where suffering opens up a hidden redemptive power, for the honesty of the gaze which discovers “this pull in one direction only/ has made 
me something elongated, like a horse’s head” contains within it a rebalancing of the direction of that head, an implicit moment, in the physics sense of movement, towards the restoration of balance, which begins in daring to raise the moral voice, to chant down Babylon.

You got to love too the exquisite Walcott ear for sound play, just check out the breaking wave of ‘ess’-es and the percussive r-ss in that couplet that ends the first stanza:
" is brushed onto scented rice paper given me by the Empress. 
Lately there is no rice but the flow of rice paper is endless.”

It is endless indeed, brother Derek, and yet exquisitely contained, as in a Ming vase.

Letters from the Ming Dynasty


Soon it will be thirteen years since the nightingale 
fluttered out of its cage and vanished. and, at nightfall, 
the Emperor washes down his medicine with the blood 
of another tailor, then, propped on silk pillows, turns on a jeweled bird 
that lulls him with its level, identical song. 
It’s this sort of anniversary, odd-numbered, wrong, 
that we celebrate these days in our “Land-under-Heaven.” 
The special mirror that smooths wrinkles even 
costs more every year. Our small garden is choked with weeds. 
The sky, too, is pierced by spires like pins in the shoulder blades 
of someone so sick that his back is all we’re allowed to see, 
and whenever I talk about astronomy 
to the Emperor’s son, he begins to joke… 
This letter to you, Beloved, from your Wild Duck 
is brushed onto scented rice paper given me by the Empress. 
Lately there is no rice but the flow of rice paper is endless. 


"A thousand-li-long road starts with the first step," as 
the proverb goes. Pity the road home does 
not depend on that same step. It exceeds ten times 
a thousand li, especially counting from zeros. 
One thousand li, two thousand li— 
a thousand means “Thou shalt not ever see 
thy native place.” And the meaninglessness, like a plague, 
leaps from words onto numbers, onto zeros especially. 
Wind blows us westward like the yellow tares 
from a dried pod, there where the Wall towers. 
Against it man’s figure is ugly and stiff as a frightening hieroglyph, 
as any illegible scripture at which one stares. 
this pull in one direction only has made 
me something elongated, like a horse’s head, 
and all the body should do is spent by its shadow 
rustling across the wild barley’s withered blade.Derek Walcott

Filed under Derek Walcott Joseph Brodsky translating poetry

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The Imperial Idea and its cosmopolitan appropriation: the global history of the 1812 Constitution

Imagine that an elegant square in London had busts of C. L. R. James, Nkrumah, Nasser, and Wolfe Tone, or that Washington DC had a sculpture garden honouring Ho Chi Minh, Emilio Aguinaldo, Sandino, and Che Guevara. It seems unlikely, even two hundred years from now. But here in Cadiz is a garden with a bust of José Marti, sentenced as a boy of 17 to hard labour in a stone quarry by Spanish judges for his political activity, and killed by Spanish bullets on 19 May 1895 at the start of Cuba’s last war for independence. Next to him is the head of José Rizal, the Filipino anti-colonial intellectual, about whom Benedict Anderson wrote in Under Three Flags. Down the alley is Juan Pablo Duarte (a father of the Dominican Republic in the 1840s), Don Miguel Arizpe, a leader of Mexican independence, and Ramon Power y Giralt, perhaps the earliest creole visionary of Puerto Rican self-government. This extraordinary celebration of colonial troublemakers on the soil of the imperial power is revelatory both of an intrinsic contradiction of all empires and the very unusual global history of the Spanish 1812 Constitution proclaimed by the Cortes of Cadiz.

The imperial idea is based on a fraudulent promise. Empires claim to offer a community of rights and culture, and the best possible future to all the nations they include, with our without their consent, within their regime. This idea is the opiate of imperial elites, who understand the brutality of conquest and repression as the necessary price for civilisation, order, ‘democracy’, ‘economic liberty’. It may even be the doctrine through which an ideological hegemony is anchored in the mental world of subordinate castes. But in all empires some are more equal than others, and the benefits of labour and power go mainly to the dominant class in the central society. As the late great classicist Jasper Griffin tartly asked, in a review of a book by Don Kagan (the Yale neo-con classicist), who had written into a history of Athens a praise song in silhouette of the American empire: “Was the ‘great society’ on offer to the cities that paid tribute to Athens, or only to the imperial city?”. It never is, there is always a master race, a master nation, bleeding the provinces to provide for its opulence, pleasure and waste, making wastelands and calling it ‘peace’. And yet, there are historical moments when that cosmopolitan utopian dream takes on a life of its own, when some at the centre invest in its generosity of spirt while those at the periphery insist that the promise be honoured. 

The convention which began in Cadiz in 1810 which produced the constitution of 1812 was such a moment. Napoleon’s troops were in command of most of Spain, had taken Seville, and had some 70,000 surrounding Cadiz in a siege that lasted two years. In the city, in the name of loyalty to Ferdinand VII, an extraordinary collection of men from all over Spain and its colonies gathered as a Cortes (or parliament) to plan the future of the nation. The conservatives there considered this just a holding manoeuvre until, with English help, the King was restored. But the left, or as they were called in a word which was later translated into English – the ‘liberales’ – pushed for a number of unprecedented measures: Spain and the Indies would be a constitutional monarchy with royal power subject to a legislature elected by all men irrespective of their poverty or wealth, there would be freedom of the press, the abolition of status differences, the end of the power of the Inquisition, etc. The left of the left, and a majority of colonial deputies sought that amerindians, mestizos and free black would share equally in these rights as citizens. But the conservatives fought hard, and built a coalition around the threat that these provisions would have give the 15 million potential colonial voters a dominant role over the 10 million of the Iberian peninsula. The final text of the constitution was far more limited in its implications - granting civic rights to free blacks and amerindians, but not full citizenship without passage through a process of naturalisation. 

But it was still an extraordinarily radical document in its time, particularly as it constrained royal power and broke the social dominance of the Catholic Church over Spain and its overseas extensions. It is thus not surprising that one of Ferdinand’s first acts when he was restored to power in 1814, with strong encouragement from the Church and the aristocracy, was to repeal the constitution, and to arrest many of the liberals who had made it. It can be said that most of the rest of Spanish history through to the Civil War and after, was a struggle between friends and enemies of the 1812 constitution, the liberal reforms it contained, and its potential further extensions. As for the utopian dream of Spain as a global diaspora of constitutional liberties, that of course never returned, instead Spain fought a century of unsuccessful wars to keep its colonies as absolute dependencies. 

But the 1812 moment, with its vision of political simultaneity and equality of rights between Spain and the Indies became a touchstone for the politics of Spain’s colonies in the Americas. Arizpe and Power y Giralt had themselves been there in Cadiz in 1812, and others like Bolivar followed closely its achievements and its betrayal by Ferdinand VII, and all the independence movements of Spanish America rose claiming to defend its vision. We may note too that Marti’s most important early political treatise ‘The Spanish Republic and the Cuban Revolution’ (1873), argued in vain that the new Spanish republic of that year should extend equivalent republican liberty and autonomy to Cubans. It was true, more generally, that the 1812 Constitution became an international cause, as its programme of constitutional liberty, its moderate negotiation of liberty-equality-fraternity, and its anticlericalism, became central to that Spanish-French-Italian strand of freemasonry which led in one direction to the Carbonari and the radical insurrectionary politics of nineteenth-century Europe, and in another to Latin America, to Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti (‘maestro masón’) and, I would argue, to the Cuban Revolution of 1953-59, which began 60 years ago in an attack on the Moncada Barracks by young men who had spent the previous night sleeping in a masonic lodge. 

In a forgotten sculpture garden in Cadiz is contained a particular hispanic cosmopolitan vision. Marti is its most intelligent and articulate representative. I encourage you to turn to his extraordinary Rousseauian writings for children- ‘El Edad de Oro’ – ‘the golden age’, which for Marti, as I read him, was both that greenest moment of youth when morals and sentiments are formed, and his own age of human beings around the world recognising their common humanity, and rising, wherever they were, in defence of human rights. Or to the lines from the ‘Versos Sencillos’ which send electricity through me, ‘Con los pobres de la tierra/ Quiero yo mi suerte echar’ (‘with the poor people of this earth/ I want to share my fate’).

Filed under Cadiz 1812 Liberalism Jose Marti Jose Rixal Imperialism global history

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Age cohorts, social geographies, and social history

Simon Sleight Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870-1914 (London: Ashgate, 2013)

[Simon Sleight is my colleague at King’s. He kindly invited me to launch his new book on July 19, 2013:]

In August 2007, a confrontation took place in the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. The Dean Geoff Baron, lost his temper with a group of teenage skateboarders, insisting that they leave what he called the church’s ‘property’ but which they claimed as their space of play. Taunted and harried, and it seems having perhaps rescued some communion wine from being wasted, he unleashed a string of homophobic and racist insults, striking one youth and kicking a bottle at another. Unfortunately for Monsignor Baron, the incident was filmed on a cameraphone and put up on You Tube. It was game over Monsignor, who was forced to resign his post. But the incident provoked a debate about how children’s play space in the city had been encroached upon by commercial development on the one hand, and the reinterpretation of public space as ‘property’ on the other. It is with this recent incident, anchored with artful references to twenty-first century internet sources, blogs and online comment pages, that Simon Sleight introduces the key questions at the heart of his book.

These are two important theoretical claims. First that the age cohort is, or ought to be, as important a problem for social historians as class, gender, race and other categories, ‘age structures everyday experience in overt and subtle ways’ (p.3). His point is not that age is more important than these, but that how age is lived by people is a critical medium through which class, gender, and ethnicity are experienced. But second, connected to this, we need to pay attention to how age, class, and gender are lived in space, to the geography of social experience, to how territory, as Henri Lefebvre suggested, criss-crossed by overlapping individual and group trajectories constitutes the medium through which collective life is made and suffered.

Such a view has a particular purchase for late nineteenth-century Melbourne where among the consequences of the gold rush of the 1850s and 60s, which had brought large numbers of sexually active adults to Victoria, was a very skewed demographic pyramid. Over 40% of the population was under the age of 14, as contemporaries commented: ‘Melbourne was perspiring juvenile humanity’, ‘the whole place was boiling with boys’. This meant, Sleight argues, that the making of modern Melbourne in these decades, the ways in which people lived in this young city culled from the bush, was a product of children’s wilful exploration and occupation of its streets, parks, harbours and sewers. For if this book is, on the one hand, an important addition to theSimon Sleight historiography of youth and the age cohort, it is also a contribution to urban history, a penetrating, and affectionate exploration of the adolescence of the city of Melbourne. Sleight shows how Bourke Street, Fitzroy Gardens, the Esplanade of St Kilda, the broad streets and narrow disreputable alleys were lived by boys and girls playing and working, earning and spending, breaking and being broken by rules. Through and beyond this, the book casts a significant shadow onto the larger story on to the origins of twentieth-century Australia where in its sombre final sections, we see children constituted as a problem, surveilled, supervised, ministered to, ‘rescued’, and ultimately in 1911 boys were subjected to compulsory military service. It is suggested, but Sleight is far too subtle a hand to force the point too heavily, that the kinds of semi-coercive solidarities imposed on the youth were part of a larger enterprise of discipline and repression through which Australian elites sought to organise and constrain the rebellious potential of their fellow citizens.

There is nothing that historians admire more in the work of their peers than the methods they devise to make resistant sources yield insights about the past. Sleight faced real obstacles here. Children create very few contemporary records of their experience, and are almost always only the objects of sources created by adults, including of course themselves looking back. What makes this book such an impressive one is the virtuosity with which Sleight has found and invented ways of attempting to map how children lived the spaces of Melbourne.

I remember still the morning when I first met Simon when he gave his presentation as a candidate for the lectureship here at King’s to which he was appointed. This is a standard ritual these days for all academic hirings in the United Kingdom, and involves candidates speaking to their research over 15 to 20 minutes. Many take this as an opportunity to rehearse their CV, the more shrewd ones use the time to show off their particular feats of research, showing us how they think and not just what they’ve thought about. Simon’s was one of the most impressive I can remember, a demonstration in an extremely short time of an extraordinary variety of sources and methods. He began visually with a classic painting, diaries, memoirs, advertising, novels and political documents, and most ingeniously mapping of the journeys of children through the city through the records of their delinquencies (stealing eggs from nests, petty theft and vandalism) which noted both where the crime happened and where the children lived, so allowing him to show the distances over which they roamed, and the paths which repeated themselves. It was a potent exhibition of a historical intelligence at work, and a teaser for what this monograph might be.

The book fulfilled that promise. It brims with ideas and with experiments, borrowing ideas from, and conversing with work in geography, anthropology, and sociology. But it is also overbrimming with a humanity, with a curiosity about and compassion towards how these boys and girls lived their lives, catching rats for thruppence a head, selling flowers,  advertising brothels, gathering bottles and rags and metal to sell on, selling newspapers, drinking, fighting, rioting, flirting, promenading and parading. It is history from the perspective of the child, of that class of people who may obey or rebel but never get to make the rules, who have to find their way through the grid of a world impressed upon them by bigger and stronger people, such as the old men who forced children out of the bootblack trade and the other ones who forced them in to drilled regiments. It will be turned to by many kinds of historians and social scientists: an impressive debut.

As someone who is not an Australian historian, I was wondering how far the story of discipline and repressions which Sleight tells at the end of the book might be connected to a broader trans-colonial story? The same decade on which a grid of discipline descended on the Victorian youth also saw in other colonies Lord Crewe’s circular which restricted social liaisons between whites and non-whites, the beginnings of organised international prohibitions against cannabis, opium, and cocaine (1911 here also being a key date), Federal Australian penal sanctions against prostitutes dating from 1910. Perhaps it was the Edwardians, rather than the Victorians, who were the real repressors. Is it too much also to hear in the notes sounded at its end a tacit reflection on how the insurgent promise of a more recent wave of baby boomers was tamed and dammed in by new kinds of social discipline, the impress of consumption, debt, fear, new kinds of regulation and surveillance, the continuing colonisation of public spaces by forms of private property and social exclusions? In the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral one episode of this very contemporary drama unfolded. It is Sleight’s achievement to make us see a possible alternative ludic map of the future as a public territory through the spaces of the city’s past.


Filed under Simon Sleight Melbourne Social History Young People and the Making of Public Space in Melbourne review age cohort social geography spatial history henri lefebvre Australia

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Global History and National History and Christophe Charle

Christophe Charle (2013): « Approche globale et approche nationale ne sont ni des univers radicalement incompatibles, ni de poupées gigognes qui s’emboîtent simplement et harmonieusement puisque chacune contribuent à déstabiliser l’autre tout en l’obligeant à revoir ses présupposés implicites et donc à relancer perpétuellement la question de l’articulation des échelles et la diversité des thèmes a prendre en compte, des plus particuliers aux plus généraux. »

= “The global and the national approaches are neither radically incompatible universes, nor Russian dolls which nest simply and harmoniously one within the other, because each contributes to destablise the other by obliging it to reconsider the implicit presuppositions on which it rests, and thus [together they] relaunch perpetually the question of the articulation of the scales of historical experience and of the diversity of themes which need to be taken into consideration, from the most particular to the most general.”

Christophe Charle is one of the most extraordinary historians practicing the craft today. He is that exceptional thing, a genuinely European historian — trying to work on problems (the book, theatre, the universities, intellectuals etc.) which he studies in several European countries with sources in their languages and paying close attention to their national historiographies. His approach in his own work is very different from that of equivalent english-speaking historians, to the extent that it is strongly grounded in sociology and anthropology, and in particular in the tradition of Bourdieu, and committed to a social historical programme of empirical research, which leads to the careful and precise mapping and naming and counting of the human beings who give life to particular ‘champs’ of historical experience. I never read anything of his without feeling I have learned something new, seen something from a slightly different direction.

His latest book - **Homo Historicus (2013)**- is a collection of essays which go far beyond the kind of ‘what is history’ meanderings to ask who exactly are the historians, what are their social locations, their practises (habitus), to which he attaches adventures into thinking about prosopography as a technique, and short pieces on Brunet, Seignobos, Wehler, Karadi, Hobsbawm and Collini — all towards elucidating that terrain occupied by the ‘homo historicus’ (hommage given to both Dumont and Bourdieu of course) by which he means “not only the historical professional… but the historian who is attentive to living history, even if he has chosen to study distant objects”.

This is work which is not only bracing in the depth of its perspective and of its field of vision, but resonant with a deep humanity, that curiosity about and sensitivity towards other people’s journeys through the world, past and present, which is the taproot of the historical consciousness. It is work which is filled with dry humour, ironic asides, philosophical laughter. It is also quietly but powerfully political, committed to both an idea of a global civil society, and in particular a European one, and particularly with that a Franco-German cultural oecumene, which exists beyond, and is resistant to, the ways in which capital and the state seek to place some bits of the human personality into violent competition with others.

It is a real pity that because it is in French it is not going to be read by many anglophone historians. First because it would be healthy for us to be exposed to very different ways of doing things. But also because the important correctives it offers to many of the arrogant oversimplifications of the French historical landscape which are current in angloamerica. He writes (pp. 214-5) of Hobsbawm summarising in three lines the evolution of the human sciences in France after the 1970s, ’ “to the extent that the thinkers of this country have collapsed into ‘postmodernism’, I find them uninteresting, obscure, and in any event of little use to historians”, to which he responds “This is to accord to postmodernism a very exaggerated influence in the French social sciences when this notion, so used in the anglo-saxon universe, is an artificial label invented on the other side of the Atlantic to collect in a reductive manner French authors who were strongly heterogenous in their interests and styles of works”.

Charle, partly pulled by his own enthusiams, and partly pushed by his own extraordinary doctoral students, such as the prodigious Pierre Singaravelou, has become increasingly interested in the problem of global history for European historians. The quotation at the top is from an essay ‘Histoire globale, histoire nationale’ published in May 2013.

Filed under Christophe Charle Global History Bourdieu national history historians National History

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Slavery, Empire, and Property

A happy moment this afternoon reading this just published book — Myles Lavan, Slaves to Rome: Paradigms of Empire in Roman Culture — on the new books shelf of CUP bookstore (haven’t yet decided to splash £60 on it!). It is is a fascinating study of the Roman rhetoric of empire, and argues that the way the Romans thought about the people in the provinces (the ‘socii’, roughly speaking ‘allies’) was drawn from the vocabulary of the “natural” subordination of children, women, ‘clients’, animals, and in particular slaves. The Master- Slave relationship, Lavan argues, was the key metaphor for the relationship of Rome to its colonial peripheries. Its very interesting to put this together with J. Richardson, **The Language of Empire: Rome and the Idea of Empire** (2008) which argues that between the 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD, the Roman idea of empire changed from a language of power-by-conquest to one of power-by-possession. We are reminded (if we needed to, after the work of Jairus Benaji) how the ideas of empire and slavery not only interpenetrate each other, but are interwoven too with various incarnations of the idea of property. We need to pay more attention to the ideas of human relations to animals and weaker people which emerge with the invention of agriculture in the neo-lithic revolutions. We are still in their grip.

Filed under Myles Lavan Rome Roman Empire Slavery Imperialism Property Jairus Benaji

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Violence and the British Empire

my review of

Richard Gott, Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt London: Verso, 2011.

( on December 7, 2011, print edition December 10, 2011)

"We insisted on reserving the right to bomb niggers." So the Liberal politician David Lloyd George explained the British government’s demand at the 1932 World Disarmament Conference to keep the right to bomb for "police purposes in outlying places". Airpower had shown its value in spreading what Winston Churchill, when defending in 1919 the use of poison gas against "uncivilised tribes", had called "a lively terror". Richard Gott shows how a hundred years earlier more hands-on means were used to similar ends: the heads of rebel slaves in Demerara in 1823 and Jamaica in 1831 were cut from their bodies and placed on poles beside the roads. The mutilation of the corpses of the defeated never quite goes out of fashion.

Empires have always depended on violence. Killing, torture and the destruction of property are essential to those tasks of destroying resistance, extracting information and collaboration, and demonstrating dominance that underly all conquest. But it is the privilege of conquerors to tell stories that flatter their own past. It is, thus, rare to find the historians of any imperial power describing the ugly business of the frontier as more than unfortunate exceptions to an otherwise honourable enterprise. Britain is no exception: from the Victorians until the 1afghan950s, its historians mainly saw in the British empire a great engine for diffusing liberty and civilisation to the world. If such Whig piety declined in the era after Suez, later scholars, studying particular places and times, never connected all the episodes of massacres, rebellions and atrocities. Popular historians continued profitably to sell happy stories of the empire to the British public – always marketed as daring revisionist accounts.

Gott’s achievement is to show, as no historian has done before, that violence was a central, constant and ubiquitous part of the making and keeping of the British empire. This vivid and startling book embarks on a journey through the origins of Queen Victoria’s Pax Britannica. Except that Gott shows in 66 short, gripping chapters, which take us from North America to the Caribbean, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Africa and Asia, that the span from 1750 to 1860 was never peaceful. Not a year passed, he shows, without conflicts, large and small wars, uprisings, repression and reprisals of astonishing brutality. This kind of study is newer than it seems: while in France there has been Rosa Plumelle-Uribe’s La férocité blanche (2001) and Marc Ferro’s Livre Noir de Colonialisme (2003), only John Newsinger’s shorter The Blood Never Dried (2006) has ever portrayed with such system the dark side of the British empire, or told so fully the stories of those who resisted it.

Imperial history is so often viewed with triumphalism, nostalgia or regret, luring the reader into a patriotic investment in a fictional national past. Gott instead always writes from the perspective of the victims and rebels. We are introduced to a dazzling series of extraordinary men and women – Pontiac in North America, Tacky and Nanny in Jamaica, Papineau in Quebec, Wickrama Sinha in Ceylon, Myat Toon in Burma, Lakshmi Bai in India – who stood at the centre of communities in revolt. slaverebelsGott shows the injustices that pushed them on the dangerous road of resistance, and makes us partners in their moments of victory and defeat. Yet he is always precise in explaining the British imperial interests at stake, and readers with interests in grand strategy and war, or students searching for vignettes to anchor essays, will derive as much pleasure and benefit from Britain’s Empire as those reading for the drama of situation and personality.

Resistance, he shows, was not merely a detail. While most rebellions ended in defeat, North Americans in 1776-83 won their independence, the slave rebels of Haiti by 1798 forced the humiliating surrender of General Maitland, and the Javanese prevented the realisation of Raffles’s dream of a British south-east Asia. Gott further punctures the “Jewel in the Crown” idea of the empire by reminding readers, as Linda Colley did in Captives (2002), that it was a very unpleasant place for most British people who went to the frontier as convicts, forced labourers or press-ganged soldiers and sailors. The rebellions of white settlers were as constant a fact of the regime as indigenous resistance.

What Gott loses by this focus on resistance, however, is any subtlety in understanding the meanings of collaboration. He repeatedly imposes the lens of 20th-century nationalism, and even anti-fascism, so that those who did not rebel become traitors or “fifth columnists”. He does not examine with care or sympathy the varieties of loyalism, and the motives and experiences of those who chose, however mistakenly, to throw in their lot with the British. Neither does he explore how the economic and technological bases of British power changed between 1750 and 1850. For the revolution that science and industry brought to production, transport, communication and war made Britain able to attract and to extort indigenous collaboration more easily, and changed how the British understood themselves as a nation and their rights in the wider world. The empire was made by more than violence.

Gott has done well to remind us that violence was always at the centre of the “empire story”. But this is not a book to make any British person feel guilty. For guilt could arise only if the reader made a narcissistic identification with the past of the British empire. Gott shows instead that today’s Britons can, if they dare, choose to identify with the rebels rather than the conquerors, and to claim Lakshmi Bai and Gandhi, rather than Victoria and Churchill, as spiritual ancestors.

Filed under Richard Gott Britain's Empire The British Empire Violence

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E. P. Thompson (1924–1993) in 1977 speaking at the SSRC ‘Models of social change’ seminar.  Thompson EPTas always underlines that for historians what matters is concretely who did what to whom when where and why with what consequences and that ideas like ‘society’ or ‘class’ or ‘nation’ or ‘empire’ etc. etc. are only tools which help us think about how human beings relate to each other, they do not exist except as concrete human relationships.  

(EPT is certainly the most interesting historian produced by Corpus Christi, the Cambridge college with which I’ve been associated for the last decade, although I don’t think there was much lost between him and it.  Put it this way, the Master of the college when he was an undergraduate is said  to have been Hitler’s nominee for Gauleiter of East Anglia if the Germans had invaded…[NB almost certainly a myth].)

Filed under E. P. Thompson History materialist history

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The secret archives of colonial counter-insurgency: Kenya and Cameroon (6/11/11)

When in the decades after 1945, Britain and France came to recognise that they could not keep colonies, their political priority became the manipulation of decolonisation. The European powers, with the support of the United States, sought to ensure that the right kinds of nationalists came to power.1 The ‘right nationalists’ were those leaders who would give the West full access to their resources, would keep their independent countries safe from communists, from such Pan-Arab or pan-African “ultranationalists” as Nasser and Nkrumah, and would not nationalise the land and mineral resources which Europeans had seized during the colonial era. The British and French did not care if their successors were kleptocrats, Islamicists, or thugs, so long as they promised not to change the colonial social and economic arrangements.

This could often be done easily and cheaply: many were the ambitious lawyers and doctors educated in Oxford or Paris who wanted nothing more than collaboration with the former colonial masters. But in many places— such as Malaya and Kenya or Cameroon and the Congo — to ensure that the West got what it wanted in the post-colonial world required brutal interventions, campaigns of bombings, the mass internment of tens of thousands of people, torture, Mau Mauthe assassination of key leaders of the wrong kind, and even small and large massacres. Most of this was done in secret, covered up at the time and for decades afterwards. We are only gradually discovering the scale of violence and human rights abuses which were part of the secret history of decolonisation. This deserves our attention because, as we have learned, there is a direct line of descent in terms of personnel, tactics, and strategy, from the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau nationalists in Kenya and the regime of Idi Amin (veteran of the King’s African Rifles) in the 1970s, from the shoot-to-kill orders given to paratroopers in Aden and the Bloody Sunday Massacre in Northern Ireland in 1972, and from the extermination of the Bamileke rebels in Cameroon c. 1960 to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.

In April 2011, the British government admitted that it had a secret archive of over two thousand boxes of files which had been brought back from former colonies when they became independent. They were and are held at Hanslope Park, a Foreign Office base which is also part of the British intelligence community (it is an important centre forHanslope Park electronic communications and surveillance). These files should, with the rest of local colonial government’s documents, have remained in Palestine, Malaya, Nigeria, Kenya, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, British Guiana, Cyprus, Aden, and another twenty-five territories when they became constitutionally independent. Instead, those papers which might have lead to the criminal prosecution of British officers for crimes of murder or torture or other abuses, would have exposed local collaborators and informants, and would embarrass Britain, or all three, were secretly removed and returned to Britain.

Only the archival ingenuity of the historian David Anderson forced the British government in court to come clean. He was able to find  

daenough evidence in open archives of some of the hidden documents, and of the process of hiding, to allow the lawyers of alleged victims of British human rights abuses in Kenya to force their release through the courts,  A few years ago, when the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins had written about the scale of torture she was accused of wild exaggeration, and of depending once unreliable oral testimony. But we now have in black-and-white detailed accounts of beatings, torture, death squad killings, even “murder by beating up and roasting alive” of one captive (Top Secret telegram of January 17, 1955,

On October 31, 2011, Anderson gave a paper on “Rule of fear: Col. Arthur Young, state violence and the Kenya Emergency, 1953-55” to the Imperial and World History seminar that I co-convene at the Institute of Historical Research in London. What was striking about his paper, one of the most important ones given to our seminar in recent years, was not just the scale and histories hangedrange of violence, but the layers and layers of cover-ups, with officers on the ground, colonial officials in Kenya, and ultimately politicians and civil servants in London putting a blanket of silence over the most extraordinary atrocities, while granting amnesty and protection to their perpetrators. We may hear much more when the matter comes before the British courts in 2012.

The Hanslope Park papers, if they are ever released as was promised by William Hague, will force us to rewrite the story of decolonisation. Only 300 of the 2,000 boxes concern Kenya. What else do they contain? The lawyers for the victims of a 1948 atrocity in Malaya, when the Scots Guards allegedly murdered 21 villagers, forced the survivors onto trucks and burned villages to the grounds, are suing to find out what the secret records say about the incident? Will the Nigerian papers tell us how the independence census was manipulated to the benefit of the more pro-British Muslim North and of British oil companies? Will the British Guiana papers tell us how much the British government knew about who was organising strikes and terror bombings in Georgetown, and about the involvement of the CIA? And what really happened in the SAS suppression of the Dhofar insurgency?

It is interesting to consider these British cases in the light of the recent revelation of the scale and violence of French counterinsurgency activity in Cameroon in the 1950s. This weekend I have been reading a remarkable new book— Thomas Deltombe, Manuel Domergue and Jacob Tatsitsa,
Kamerun!: Une Guerre Cachée aux Origines de la Françafrique, 1948-1971 (Paris: La Decouverte, 2011). It tells the story of the dirty war Kamerun!fought by France to destroy the Union des Peuples Camerounais (UPC). Key leaders in particular Reuben Um Nyobe and Felix Moumie were murdered— Moumie poisoned with radioactive thallium by a French spy in Geneva, while hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes, thousands of people tortured. British diplomatic sources in the 1960s estimated that 70,000 civilians were were killed, but noted that the exact number of deaths was difficult to calculate because the French army frequently burned entire villages, often by dropping incendiary bombs from planes. Credible estimates run over 120,000, and less reliable estimates go much higher. As in Kenya, many deaths resulted from the system of mass detention of insurgents and their supporters, especially among the Bamileke. But Kamerun! is also a portrait of “the origins of the French neo-colonial system in Africa”, showing how the promise of oil and uranium in the territory made its destiny a priority for French geostrategy, and how during and after decolonisation France worked through local collaborators to preserve its interests. The authors note in particular how the French army created a model of counter-insurgency which would later be applied, with its help, by African politicians seeking to maintain power by force. The “French school of counter-insurgency”— the systematic use of propaganda, psychological warfare, mass surveillance, torture, targeted killing, punitive reprisals —- found a post-colonial afterlife.   The photographs of the severed heads of nationalists make clear the reign of terror which these “techniques” involved. While tetes decoupeesthese methods applied in Algeria failed, in Cameroon they were judged a success, and from the bloody Central African Republic of Bokassa in the 1970s to Rwanda in the 1990s, the authors argue that we may see how African soldiers were trained in methods of eradication of the “internal enemy” forged and diffused by French military and political figures in the era of decolonisation. As the journalist Patrick de St-Expury wrote about Rwanda: “we instructed the killers, we furnished the technology, our theory, we supplied the method, our ‘doctrine’” of counter-insurgency.

From the “successes” of colonial counter-insurgency in the 1950s, the rivers of blood continue to flow across Africa. 

1For which see R. Robinson and W. Roger Louis, ‘The Imperialism of Decolonisation’, Jl of Imperial and Commonwealth History (1994).

Filed under Cameroon Caroline Elkins David Anderson Felix Moumie Foreign and Commonwealth Office Francafrique Hanslope Park Imperialism of Decolonization Kamerun! Kenya Malayan insurgency Mau Mau Reuben um Nyobe counter-insurgency Nasser Nkrumah COIN

6 notes

Fernand Braudel and Algérie française (and Sarkozy and Francafrique)

So what did Braudel think about French colonialism on the other side of the Mediterranean?  Its almost as if no one notices that he became perhaps the most important single historian of his age at exactly the time when France is fighting a dirty war to crush Algerian nationalism….

Fernand Braudel’s two-volume The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II (1949) is one of the monuments of twentieth-century historical writing.  Braudel and his friends in the Annales school are famous for having told historians that they need to look at longer time frames, 500 or 1000 years or more, and not just at 10, 20, or 50 year periods of time. The Med is a great three-tiered wedding cake of a book in which the first bottom layer is a long discussion of geography—  mountains, sea, desert —- and how it shaped those  ancient, very slow moving structures of life which constituted that slow time, the “longue durée”  (always makes me think of The Long Goodbye….)  on top of which lay those lighter layers of social and individual time.  Here’s the dude himself near the end of his own histoire événementielle: (   

Now it was well known that Braudel conceived the book mostly in Algeria during the period it was a French colony, and there have even been some speculations about what difference that made.  But a recent article by the distinguished historical geographer Florence Deprest singadeprest suggests that French colonial ideas about North Africa played a central role in shaping the Annales school’s idea of time (the essay I am commenting on is ‘Fernand Braudel et la géographie algérienne: aux sources coloniaux de l’histoire immobile de la Mediterranee’ but you follow some of the threads also in her article in the April 2011 issue of the Journal of Historical Geography).  

Deprest suggests that we examine the influence of the colonial geographer Émile-Félix Gautier (1864-1940) on both Braudel and Lucien Febvre. Gautier, a generation before them, had insisted that geography was the discipline which linked geology and history, and who argued that one could understand the long run history of North Africa by studying its soils.  He traced a line in the geological structure and grandly proclaimed that the pattern of 2,000 years of human history could presto! immediately be discerned. Numidians and Moores, Zenetes and Sinhaja, Arabs and Kabyles were only “different names, applies successively, to those more profound entities the nomads and the sedentary peoples, these indestructible entities, like the soil itself”. Every attempt to unify the Maghreb collapsed under the weight of this natural division, and this had made necessary and inevitable the successive domination of foreign powers in North Africa, successively carthaginian, roman, byzantine, arab, turk, and ….. French.  At the heart of his work was an argument for the manifest destiny of French colonial rule and settlement in the Maghreb, and a regret about the “terrible task of trying to occidentalise a piece of the orient”.

 Gautier’s idea of geography imposing an immobile history, a physical destiny on human history, deeply impressed Braudel, and Gautier’s Maghreb became Braudel’s Meditteranean.  Gautier had argued that that Islam was received easily in Tunisia, Andalusia and Sicily because the Cathaginians had long before seeded these soils with oriental culture and civilisation.  Examine Braudel’s parallel flourish “Is it by chance that the Islamic conquest was so easily accepted in the Near East and in the double domain of Carthage, North Africa and a part of Spain?”  Thus too Braudel’s aside, popular now with a certain kind of islamophobe, that “Islam with respect to the Occident, it is the cat with respect to the dog”, which echos clearly Gautier’s epigram that “The Orient and the Occident, this is like the cat and the dog…”.   Long after Gautier’s kind of geography had gone out of fashion with the geographers, Braudel and Febvre were citing his work.  

The Annales school project not only took a vision of the relationship of history and geography from the French colonial social sciences. Deprest notes the active political sympathy which Braudel had for Algérie française during decades when both many Algerians fought against the French for their independence and many French denounced the colonial order.  Writing about the Algeria he knew as a young man Braudel wrote “colonial Algeria never presented itself to my eyes as a monster”, and in 1966 angrily wrote of North Africa having “betrayed” the West (although he located the moment of that betrayal, in the spirit of Gautier, in the Carthaginian conquest, millenia earlier).

The sting in the tail of Deprest’s essay is that Braudel’s writings were explicily cited by Henri Guaino who was the speechwriter for Nicolas Sarkozy’s infamous Dakar discourse of July 26, 2007 where the little man spoke of “the African peasant who for thousands of years lived with the seasons.. knowing only the eternal recommencement of time rhythmed by the repetition without end of the same gestures and speech…man [here] remains immobile.” The Maghreb of Gautier, the Mediterranean of Braudel, the Africa of Sarkozy: so a colonial imaginary survives into our own time. 

expoco 1922sarko 2007

Filed under Algérie française Annales School Braudel Dakar discourse Florence Deprest French colonialism Henri Guiano Islam Islamophobia Orientalism Sarkozy Émile-Félix Gautier Lucien Febvre

6 notes

diasporas and world history (2/11/11)

Toby Green 2012Once the department meeting ended at 12, I read a chunk of my colleague Toby Green’s new book: The Rise of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589  (CUP, 2012). It is a masterpiece, a field changer.  Green changes what we understand about the early history of the slave trade in four big ways. First, he shows the scale of the trade from  the Upper Guinea coast in the 16th century was a multiple of Curtin and Eltis’s estimates.  Second, he shows how this depended on creolised eastern-Atlantic merchant networks which had emerged in the 14th and 15th centuries, which spanned the Cape Verde archipelago and the northwest Atlantic coast of Africa, into which ‘new christian’ refugees from Spain and Portugal became enmeshed.  Third, he shows how Spanish demand for slaves for the Americas lead to the thickening of these diasporic networks, as ‘pan-Atlantic’ flows of migrants and trade tightened around this Cape Verde centred axis. Fourth, he argues for a cultural approach to the slave trade, as against the brutally quantitative focus of the last 40 years which has involved so much systematic undercounting (dependent as it is on European archives) and also more importantly a lack of attention to the human experience of the slave trade in Africa and the Americas.  It is based on a remarkable range of research, archival and oral, done in Spain, Portugal, Cape Verde and west africa, and Colombia.  

On the train home, in a coincidence I only clocked later, I finally got a chance to start reading solidly through Volume XI of THE MARCUS GARVEY AND UNIA PAPERS (Duke, 2011), which is on Garvey in the Caribbean diaspora, 1910-20.  It was just published this summer and the editor, the indefatigable Bobby Hill kindly had Duke send me a copy.  It is an amazing collection, offering an unprecedented view into the radical political world of the Caribbean diaspora in the early 20th century— soldiers mutinying in Palestine, Jamaicans in Costa Rica and Barbadians in Panama learning politics, mysterious waves of strikes in Antigua and British Guiana which leave the colonial government wondering what was going on, anxious cables from British military intelligence to the Americans asking for them on information on Garvey’s correspondence with servicemen, Arab sailors thrusting copies of the Negro World into the hands of Africans, tiny newspapers, friendly societies.  Many history books and many novels could be written on the basis of this collection.  

Read together both books remind us of what is now one of the critical subjects in transnational history— the role of diasporas as forces constituting new kinds of ethnicity and political community, and as bridging space.  To which I would add that in a context of imperial expansion we will always find diasporic systems: in which a dominant elite diaspora (for the British case, white, propertied, Anglican), is intertwined with subordinate shadow diasporas of class, religion, race, national identity.  It is impossible to understand Pan-Africanism in the 20th century without understanding its relationship to the undeclared pan-europeanism/white separatism of the late 19th century for which Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line (Cambridge, 2008), about which I will write another day if you like, is the most valuable guide.

UNIA vol XI 

Filed under Toby Green Atlantic Slave Trade The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Cape Verde Upper Guinea Coast Marcus Garvey Robert Hill Bobby Hill Caribbean Diaspora World history Henry Reynolds Marilyn Lake