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Posts tagged ‘Imperial History’

Doing History in Public 2020 Year in Review

By Zoë Jackson (@ZoeMJackson1) & Evelyn Strope (@develyn_16)

This New Year’s Eve, we look back at 2020, a year many have described as ‘unprecedented’. The coronavirus spread around the world from the start of the year, and the ensuing pandemic and resulting lockdowns have completely altered life as we knew it.

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22. Remora

By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)

Before the 1920s, visual renderings of the seafloor largely relied on drawings and engravings. This was true even in places where bodies routinely inhabited the underwater, such as the pearl fisheries of Ceylon. Here, photography did play a role: on the shore and on the decks of colonial steamers, British administrators and elite local and European visitors used photography as a tool of art, surveillance, documentation and science.

In the early twentieth century, Ceylon was a laboratory for the biology of the tropical seas. This photograph here, for instance, was made over the course of a of a Royal Society sponsored investigation into the conditions of the fisheries. In one trawl-netting exercise to deduce which fish fed on pearl-bearing oysters, a suckerfish or remora was brought up. The diver in the photograph is unnamed, and the composition is staged, with the fish placed deliberately on the man’s back to attest to its suction-generating maw. The image is a testament to both direct and indirect violence wrought under colonialism on environments and bodies. But it also invokes a space between the sea and land: a fish out of water, a body that was often submerged within it; a place within photography’s reach which gestured also at spaces that—at this point in time—still lay beyond it.

Image credits: Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar (London, 1903), vol. I, 65.

Cherry-picking the past: empire through a public lens

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.[1] Yet beyond the upper echelons of ‘Western’ political discourse lies an even greater challenge.

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Serving ex-servicemen? Demobilisation schemes in India after the Second World War

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

The demobilisation of soldiers has always been fraught with questions regarding jobs, re-skilling, pensions, rehabilitation and transition into peace time society. Such challenges were particularly pronounced at the apexes of the First and Second World Wars due to the sheer scale of demobilisation. Read more

The Congo’s and Belgium’s shared past, present and future

By Eva Schalbroeck

As a historian, I strongly believe in studying history for its own sake, rather than from today’s perspective. As someone who devours news from every type of media outlet, I cannot help but see the connections between the news on the Democratic Republic of Congo and my research on Belgian colonialism. Barely a day passes without news from the Congo. A simple search on Google brings up numerous stories, almost all about conflict, disease and violence. A lot of ink has flowed about the continuing political unrest in the DRC following the presidential elections in December 2018. There seems no end to the stories about the struggle against ebola. Then there is the sad story of the shooting of a ranger in the Virunga national park, barely months after its reopening.

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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