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‘Our story remains unwritten’: the ethics of writing histories across cultures

by Tom Smith

What does it mean to write a history of a culture other than our own, and how do we do this sensitively? This is an issue upon which historians rarely reflect explicitly. My dual passions for American history and Pacific Ocean history have been fuelled not by any particular personal investment or cultural immersion, but by pure fascination. While I’ve visited the United States a handful of times, dipping my toes in the waters of San Francisco Bay is the closest I’ve ever come (geographically speaking) to the Pacific cultures whose histories I claim to represent. Read more

Wanted: A More Complicated History of Belgium’s Congolese ‘Heart of Darkness’

by Eva Schalbroeck

Whenever I say that I study the history of Belgian imperialism in the Congo, most people confess to not knowing that Belgium had a colony. Others describe it as a particularly nasty and violent episode’. My explanations of ‘it’s far less black-and-white’ or ‘it’s complicated’ often confuse more than they illuminate. Popular media often associates Belgian imperialism with the ‘Red Rubber’ regime of the villainous and greedy King Leopold II. An article in New African calls him a ‘mass muderer’, who exploited the Congolese population to near extinction. Chopping off their limbs was ‘part of the “the butcher of the Congo’s” ‘repertoire’. According to an article in History Today ‘the Congo Free State evolved from a vanity possession into a slave plantation’. Leopold’s ‘playground’ and ‘hell’ operated with an insane logic’, allowing him to ‘cash in’ on rubber. It makes the bold claim that Leopold’s reign of terror anticipated twentieth-century totalitarianism. Depicting him as the ‘African Hitler’, Leopold’s legacy is described as a Holocaust. Read more

In praise of grandmothers (and oral histories)

By Louise Moschetta @LouiseMoschetta

I’m not entirely sure whether I owe my interest in history to my grandmother but she certainly helped. Her house, which until very recently she still lived in, was built in 1972 and hasn’t changed much since. Walking through it has almost always been, with certain exceptions such as an ever larger and thinner television, a walk through a mish-mash of past time. Her attic is an attic of dreams where, as small children, my siblings and I unearthed an old dress from the ‘40s, a bird cage, yellowed women’s magazines with patterns for perfect postwar motherhood and other such treasures. Read more

Pylons and Protest – invoking the Marmite metaphor of Britishness

by Kayt Button

Whatever the period of history, Pylons seem to provoke the marmite response – either love ‘em, like The Pylon Appreciation Society, or hate ‘em like The Friends of The Lake District who are currently protesting against pylons planned for Ravenglass in Cumbria. Curiously enough, Marmite was invented in the late nineteenth century, around the same time Electricity first became available to the public as a commodity. Read more

History from below: fashion, freedom, and the female form

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

Attempts to shape the female form are nothing new, as current exhibitions at the V&A and York Castle Museum show. Neither is the particular concern with the posterior, demonstrated today by an increased demand for buttock implants. Such permanent “improvements” are beyond the financial reach of most people. The less wealthy (or less confident that the fashion will be a lasting one) can employ rear-enhancing items of clothing such as the Booty Pop to supplement their behinds. Modern fashion and lifestyle magazines give ample guidance to those who want a large behind with a small price tag. But what did women in the past do, and what might paying attention to these fashions suggest about our modern obsessions? Read more

Dying Declarations – Last Words in the hands of Historians

By Alex Wakelam @A_Wakelam

In May 1906 the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen lay in his sick bed. That evening an old friend arrived from town to see the aged tragedian. Entering the room he greeted the nurse with “How is Mr Ibsen today?” “Oh”, she cheerily replied, “he’s doing much better.” At this Ibsen sat up incredulous in bed declaring “Tvert imod!” (tr. On the contrary!) upon which he fell back into his pillow unconscious, dying shortly thereafter.[1] For a writer whose characters rarely even cracked a smile, he managed to exit the world with one of the finest deathbed jokes in history. Read more