By Liam Grieve @LiamGrieve4
For all academia’s ‘independence’, historians remain tied to one immortal axiom: the past serves at the pleasure of the present. In this sense, history is underpinned by an informal social contract. Yet what happens when the terms of this contract are rewritten without the historian’s consent? Spike Lister recently did a commendable job at examining the current ‘crisis’ which historians face: the fight to resist history’s appropriation by political elites. This represents a trend, he rightly cautions, which is not unique to recent populist movements. Yet beyond the upper echelons of ‘Western’ political discourse lies an even greater challenge.
By Max Long
My first encounter with moving image archives took place in a windowless room in the basement of a building in London. I was there to view a selection of natural history films. I had watched similar films online, but here I could load, spool, and wind up the films myself. Films are the principal source in my research, but prior to my PhD, I had little experience with the medium. Here I was left alone with two towering piles of 35mm and 16mm films, and an unexpected lesson in the materiality of film technology.
By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)
As a colonial officer in India, it was paramount that one knew what to expect and how to prepare for the sweltering climate. The mid to late nineteenth century saw a surge of advice books and manuals, mainly written by men, for families voyaging to the Subcontinent. One such book was entitled Real Life in India, embracing a view of the requirements of individuals appointed to any branch of the Indian Public Service (1847) by ‘An Old Resident’ which detailed precise lists of items required, ranging from home furnishings and hygiene products to clothes and ladies’ equipment for the ship. This list included white cotton stockings, white silk dittos, white muslin clothing and white nightdresses alongside soap, perfume and toothpowder. The emphasis on white represented the colonial preoccupation with purity, propriety and health in a climate that was perceived to be exotic, degenerating and dangerous, especially for women. Many of the items listed also attempted to transport and replicate the perfect English home from the metropole to the colony and such manuals were aimed at middle-class women, in particular, who would be able to afford to hire a host of ‘native’ servants (a departure from their lives in England). Resources from the colonies also enabled a more diverse consumer culture to flourish in the metropole, one that allowed a housewife to purchase branded ‘Windsor’ soap and choose from a variety of other cosmetic products sold by local producers and international companies.
Image: By an old resident, Real life in India, embracing a view of the requirements of individuals appointed to any branch of the Indian public service; the methods of proceeding to India; and the course of life in different parts of the country, London: Houlston and Stoneman (1847), Wellcome Collection, London, pp.145-146.
By Jeremiah J. Garsha (@jjgarsha)
In 1898, Chief Mkwawa committed suicide after leading a seven-year revolt against German rule. His head was severed to claim a bounty, and then displayed as ‘a family trophy’ in the home of a British-born German colonial administrator. It was then defleshed and the skull was shipped to Germany, where it entered into the entangled streams of skulls collected across the German empire to support the creation of racial sciences. Shortly before the First World War, Mkwawa’s skull disappeared into a museum, university, or hospital archive. After the war, British plenipotentiaries inserted a clause into the Treaty of Versailles calling for a return of ‘the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa’. This article was in the ‘special provisions’ section detailing ‘historical souvenirs or works of art’, where Chief Mkwawa was orientalised as a Muslim ruler and his skull ornamentalised, becoming what the German-born British statesman Viscount Milner playfully called ‘a craniological curiosity’. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the British continued to press Germany to hand over Mkwawa’s head, repeatedly being told that the skull was lost. In 1954, the Bremen museum director contacted the British to inform them that skulls taken from East Africa had been located as the museum’s holdings and were recatalogued following their storage in salt mines during the Second World War. Sir Edward Twining, Governor of Tanganyika, personally flew to Bremen and, using the head measurements of Mkwawa’s descendants, identified Mkwawa’s skull and had it sent back to the colony. The skull was handed over to Mkwawa’s grandson during a recruitment ceremony to enlist colonial soldiers to fight in the Mau Mau emergency across the border. It was then transported to a Mausoleum-Museum where it still sits on display today, owned by the Tanzanian government and yours to view for the price of admission.
Image: Skull of Mkwawa, made available under a public domain licence.
By Mobeen Hussain | @amhuss27
In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of period adaptations based on the British in India. This spat of television and film productions depicts particular historical narratives that romanticise the British Empire and hark back to the good-old-days of British imperialism. Indian Summers (2015), Victoria and Abdul (2017) and Viceroy’s House (2017) reveal a lot about the kinds of narratives that producers and the British public are interested in telling, championing and watching. With the exception of Indian Summers, these productions were post-Brexit and released in the year of the seventieth anniversary of India’s partition. Read more