Colonial Curriculum

A particularly interesting aspect of my project has been looking at the American Revolution from a British perspective. It is an area that I was relatively unaware of before Rory’s comment on one of my earlier blog posts, but has now become a central aspect of my project. The Whiggish perspective, outside of the usual accounts of Thomas Paine, is a very complex and historically appealing area of study.

One book that was recommended to me, Robert Tombs’ The English and Their History, has made me ponder the question of why the curriculum is compiled in the manner that it is. Within the British education system, very little is generally taught on the subject of the American Revolution. On top of this, even less is mentioned about the Whiggish sympathies for the American case of independence, an area that, as I have mentioned, is worth its weight in gold when it comes to historical case studies. The complexities of teaching such a topic, whereby British parliamentarians and people felt that the agenda of the Crown and the State was flawed, are undoubtedly the reasoning behind their absence from the mainstream curriculum.

There is an interesting scene in The History Boys, whereby the discuss the morality of studying the Holocaust. Whilst I am not comparing the two, I am highlighting the fact that material that would be sensitive to those studying it is often left by the wayside and forgotten about, especially in mainstream education. A line from that scene states the need to “distance ourselves”, that “there is no period in history more distant than the recent past”. Whilst the American Revolution can no longer be called ‘recent history’, the consequences of British colonialism are very much recent, if not ongoing. Whilst this is very much beyond the limits of my project, it is something that is definitely worth exploring and was included in my dissertation proposal – fingers crossed it is approved!

Indian Academia and Transnational History of Feminism

I spent all of last week trying to look for primary sources. It was a bit of a hassle because some of the most important sources aren’t accessible to undergraduate students. However, I was able to look into some other essential ones such as old newspapers, speeches and British parliament papers. The important task now is to discern the important elements from the sources and corroborate it with my other research which has been drawn from secondary literature. It is way harder than I anticipated. I had dealt with primary sources before but it was assigned by the tutor and I knew exactly where and how to use it. Last week wasn’t really productive in terms of progress- at this point, I feel a bit stuck since I have done most of my research and I don’t how to put it all together. With the aid of the essay question I have always managed to structure my essays- but for this one, I am confused about what is relevant and what is not.  

As I see some of the most prominent Indian academics being forced to resign from their positions at Indian universities for criticizing the government, I feel nervous and disillusioned. It makes me wonder what kind of an academic culture will I return to. The reason why I am bringing this up here is to discuss Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s article that highlighted the importance of Indian academia in correcting the narrative of the post-structuralists scholars in the west. Chaudhuri points that in the past few decades, non-western scholars in western institutions have had an amplified voice within the academic discourse. The post-colonial studies departments in western universities have flourished over the past years. However, she discusses “what post-colonial theory fails to recognize is that what counts as ‘marginal’ in relation to the west has often be central to the foundational in the non-west[1]” (p.20) She later on elaborated on this by discussing the complexity of the Indian feminism and the unique set of problems faced by Indian women. Such concepts have often been ignored by Indian academics in the west.  While discussing the relation of women and imperialism they often overlook the nuances of intersectionality based on caste. Her allegation has been that departments of ‘subaltern studies’ situated in the west erased the history of lower-caste women. They only focused on the racial and gender dynamic while blaming everything on the epistemic violence of the west.  As Tanika Sarakar has also mentioned before, one of the shortcomings of the ‘Siadian magic’ has been of overlooking the hegemonic structures that existed in India. While studying about the suffragists, and looking into the primary sources, one of the major things I noticed was the lack of mention of Dalit women. Almost like their voices didn’t exist. Because non-western academics start using the same conceptual framework that is used in west, they ended up writing a western history of the subaltern that was bereft of any analysis on power structures within the colonized societies. While analysing racial relations is important, it is equally important to keep in mind the inequality that persisted within India which had started long before the colonizers entered, and exists till today. This made me realise the importance of having a thriving Academia in India which can produce work on topics like imperialism which post-colonial studies have failed to produce despite having so much more funding and academic freedom. In today’s India it seems like there is not enough freedom to produce work that could challenge Hindu Brahmanical patriarchy which western academia has has also failed to address.  Transnational history of imperialism and feminism is extremely complex and layered- it is important to keep in mind the ills of imperialism while it is equally important to study how the inequalities that existed in India also reflected on an international level.

[1] Chaudhuri, Maitrayee. (2019). Feminism in India: The Tale and its Telling.

Truly Transnational Thoughts

Firstly, I want to apologise for the alliterative title. Sometimes, I just can’t resist those basic linguistic turns that we were taught about oh so long ago, in primary school.

Secondly, please forgive me if this sounds too like Douglas’ most recent post. The ideas had been brewing before hand, I just hadn’t quite managed to get them down on paper yet. (or, more realistically, “on screen” [is that the suitable alternative to paper?]) Let’s say this could be posited as my own response to Douglas’ blog post, where he talks about his brain entering “transnational mode”.

I have to agree, and say that I’ve found exactly the same. Be it in my other module – Russia – Real and Imagined: Ideas, Identity and Culture, or just in general life, I’ve found that I’ve become attuned to seeing the “transnational” where before I would have glossed over these possible connections.

It’s become somewhat of a routine for me to bake at weekends. Over the last semester, I’ve looked forward to spending some down time away from the readings and my laptop, and creating something edible. Often, I’ve given the product away, to bless a local family. But all this baking, as well as my re-discovered love for the TV series, Masterchef Australia, has really lit a flame when it comes to conversations and connections about food.

Like Roger, I find myself fascinated by food history. How is it, that one day someone decided to whisk egg whites, and add some sugar, and create something called meringue? What about, the initial creation of alcohol? Was that really just someone who tried to make bread, and it went a bit wrong or they left it too long, and then decided to drink the fermented yeast-y liquid?

Throughout Roger’s blog posts, and the latest, “Transnational Tuber” is no different, he has spoken about the special nature of food, and the development of family recipes. Mostly, this is evident in how he talks about the unique blends of spices that form “garam masala” – a blend that is held close to the chest of family members, and yet treasured through many generations. These connections, the way cuisines have travelled (authentically, at least, rather than the street-corner-knock-off attempts), are just one of the many ways in which our world is connected. Perhaps, if I’d have been truly in the “food business” at the beginning of the semester, I would have chosen my project topic around the history of tea – but I fear that opens too many cans of worms that I wouldn’t be able to control them all.

In my latest piece of coursework for my Russian module, I’ve been looking at the influence of Russian émigré literature on Western perceptions – and I can’t escape the transnational. It also feels, at times, as if I’m reading with a dual purpose – because these people were also some of the first 20th century refugees. I really shouldn’t be surprised by now…but everything is quite remarkably, interconnected.

I’ll end with this – I’m so thankful that I stuck with my gut and chose MO3351 when my original module was cancelled last semester. It may have looked like an immense challenge (and, I’m not going to argue that it isn’t), but the practices I’ve learned so far (and I’m not even finished yet) have changed the way I study and read history, and changed it for the better.

We often talk about “lenses” when it comes to historiographical approaches. In this case, MO3351 has successfully placed a filter over my reading glasses, helping to identify connections, and informing my analysis of material. In such an interconnected world, this can only be a good thing.

Connections Everywhere

In the blogs this week a few have commented on the way this module has demonstrated that there are connections everywhere.  I am in total agreement!  My other module this semester is on The Medieval Castle and we have done readings and research about castles all over the world.  One thing that has caught my interest is the idea of trends and influences that have moved from one area to another, for example from the east to the west or vice versa.  Although, we have not gone into this in great detail, it has intrigued me and is something I would like to know more about.  Like the others have said I am also starting to see more and more connections, whilst reading and researching in other modules and even within my working life.

One last push

As the semester is drawing to a close and it has got to that time where deadlines are very tight, there is a distinct one last push to have everything completed.  It has been hard at times trying to study, work and home-school etc, all at the same time, but we are nearly there.  One thing that this semester has taught me is that whether I get an 11, 13, 15 or whatever mark it maybe, it is an accomplishment in itself for anyone to be able to complete and pass modules in the face of extreme pressures and circumstances brought on by a worldwide pandemic.  It has been a privilege to get to know everyone in the class, even if it is only online, rather than in person and I wish everyone the best of luck in the future. 

Reflecting on Neoliberal Policies

While writing my short essay on Mapuche militarization as a response to the Chilean State and Chilean society ignoring the day-to-day reality of the Mapuche in Chile I learned of the pervasiveness that the neoliberal policies had on them. As a result I decided to change my project topic from the Catholic Church in Chile’s relationship with the Mapuche to the Chilean State’s subjugation of the Mapuche through their neoliberal policies and their weak and ironic ‘Growth with Equity’ policy. Through my research it became clear that these policies are at the heart of the ‘Mapuche conflict’ and has what kept the Chilean government from ever truly helping the Mapuche and listening to their demands. 

The radical neoliberal policies in Chile not only commodify all natural resources but also individuals. Alejandro Foxley, the chief architect of the ‘Growth with Equity’ campaign during the Concertacion years, famously reflected on the neoliberal policies, ‘we have already paid the social costs of these neoliberal policies, so we might as well enjoy the economic benefits.’ This quote is what drove me to change my project topic. For the Minister of Finance to admit that the neoliberal policies cause great social costs that benefit only a few was jarring. One of the greatest reasons Mapuche demands are not being met is because of the Chilean State’s economic interests in the south of Chile— the forestry estates. Moreover, the individualism that neoliberalism breeds leaves the Mapuche to ‘help themselves’ and leaves them with the option to either become a capitalistic ‘credit-card citizen’ like the rest of the country or in their current repressed and ignored state. The option is to assimilate or continue in their current state of ‘invisibility.’ 

This project will also greatly aid me as I look to write my dissertation next year. I will be (hopefully) writing about neocolonialism in Chile through the mining industry and will be focusing on economic history. By delving into some of the material now I hope it will help in contextualizing and understanding the topic further. 

A Continuation of the Non-Human: Transnational Fishing

The topic for this blog post fits rather well with last week’s seminar topic of the non-human, or ‘more-than human’: sea-life. While our class focused on non-animal environmental forces, I thought it could be interesting to do some research into another area of the non-human and write a blog post on that topic. Given our current climate emergency, a topic touched on in class and given as a possible reason for the surge in non-human historical study in recent years, I believe strongly in our commitment to protecting our planet.

After watching Netflix’s Seaspiracy, my eyes were opened to the transnational nature of global fishing. It seems an obvious fact that fish are transnational creatures and the fishing industry a transnational practise, but it was something I had not given much thought to prior to sitting down to watch this. This new ability to recognise transnational links is something touched on by both Naomi and Douglas in their blog posts this week, and is a very valuable new skill.

A 2010 study revealed that an estimated 44.9 people in 2008 were directly engaged in the fishing industry, with 85.5 per cent of these being in Asia, and 9.3 per cent in Africa.[1] Not only is much of the fish we consume in Britain sourced globally, but there are many complex social and political contexts we can delve into when picking out a point in the supply chain. Putting these links in an environmental context, we are shown that the current situation is not sustainable, and the seas will eventually run out of fish.

While individuals can differ on the importance of animal rights, the documentary also shows us the dark side of fishing’s infringement on human rights; something we should all be concerned about. The modern slavery involved in fishing industry was something I was unaware of, but that plays an integral role in the capturing of fish consumed worldwide. When researching more on this topic, I found a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime entitled ‘Transnational Organised Crime in the Fishing Industry’, which uncovered some eye-opening facts. The prevalence of fishers trafficked for forced labour was unveiled, as fishers were cruelly imprisoned on fishing vessels, often suffering sever physical and sexual abuse, and general lack of acceptable safety and working conditions. They found that the transnational nature of the fishing industry, as well as the legitimate presence of vessels at sea, was the main contributor to the opportunity for the industry to be a cover for criminal activities such as drug trafficking. [2]

Importantly, the UN’s study was explicit in stating that its aim was not to “tarnish the fishing industry”.[3] Their goal was to uncover whether there were criminal activities taking place within the transnational fishing industry. Here we see where Seaspriacy falls, and where transnational history faces challenges too. In the west we are benefitting from this slavery, yet we are damning it as inhumane and disgraceful. It is fine to study transnational history, but to critique and bash from the west perpetuates the kind of history we are trying to rid ourselves off in endeavouring to study a more nuanced and transnational history. What’s more is that the documentary hails practises such as dolphin culling in Taiji in Japan as abhorrent. This practise is used by the communities as a way to rid the seas of competing predators of fish, thus allowing them to catch more themselves. But we are a primary consumer of the tuna which is caught by these fisheries, the production of which we cannot stand to face. We are thus a primary producer of the fishing garbage which makes up 40% of the great pacific garbage patch. Our beaches are (relatively) clean in comparison, but we do not have a leg to stand on to critique. 

To sum up, the message of the documentary is clear; eat less fish or we risk killing ourselves. But problematic is the message that in the west we are the pristine consumers, separate from the disgrace of the east Asian fishing industry. The documentary creator, though his message and love for our oceans comes from the right place, I believe, is a British white male in his 20s, who reduces the evil in the fishing industry to a simple narrative; that fishing is the problem. He assumes that the simple solution of ceasing to eat fish will solve our problem, without considering the history, culture, and politics involved in the profoundly transnational industry. The documentary pulled people in, myself included, but if we scratch the surface we see the problematic nature of white saviour and ‘other’ demon. So, while I’m not entirely sure this is a transnational history per se, I did think it an interesting topic to pose, and one which, perhaps had I not been studying this module, I likely would have completely missed. The ability to recognise and consider transnational links thus benefits my everyday life in more ways than perhaps thought! 




The end of an ‘era’

As the module approaches the finish line, I’m genuinely surprised to see how fast time has gone (and how many clichés I can spew out of my mouth and into my writing). But seriously, time has flown, and I enjoyed every second of this module. Although disappointed there was no in-person classes at all, I’m glad I was still able to forge connections through this class and was able to have some resemblance of normalcy (even though the unconference was virtual, I still enjoyed it a lot!)

This module adapted my thinking, and like Douglas said in his blog post, I too am able to see un-forced connections when doing my readings, or even in real life. More than this, this module has allowed me to be creative, in an otherwise rigid university degree structure. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to explore Hong Kong history and culture through a transnational lens. I would love to focus on transnational history more (possibly in my dissertation) when it comes to Hong Kong.

I hope next year’s class will enjoy this module as much as I did!

Transnational Reflection

As we come towards the end for the semester, it seems to have all gone by very, very quickly! It doesn’t seem long ago at all when I had barely even heard of transnational history, let alone where I am now, wading through the heavy historiographical waters surrounding the intricacies of the field.

Nonetheless, it has been an interesting and compelling journey up to this point that will definitely have a long-lasting impact on my historical studies. My brain has switched to a ‘transnational’ mode, wherein every text I read towards my project is viewed through the lens of potential (not forced!) connections, comparisons and entanglements. I think it is much more productive for me, carrying out a comparative history, to view the information I read instantly in this format, rather than as a last minute panic to find some sort of link between events. The odd thing is that, it is not only within MO3351 that I find myself thinking like this, but in my other work as well. Understanding the causations and consequences between parties, nations, individuals and events is truly a very rewarding and refreshing way to view history.

Of course, I will be the first to admit that I will not miss getting my head around some of the complex and theoretical arguments made in some of the texts I have looked at. However, there is again something refreshing about the openness of definitions within transnational history. My other module, on early modern warfare, whilst perfectly enjoyable in its own right, whilst open to historical interpretation, has very strict limits and boundaries that do not allow for individual experimentation. The debate regarding the line between global and world history, for example, is a much more freeing and dynamic way of thinking that undoubtedly delivers conclusions that would otherwise be impossible.

Just my musings at this stage as we work towards the end of the project…

Migratory Sweet Potato: A Transnational Tuber

The Sweet Potato is a versatile, nutritious and if cooked properly, delicious root. Whether it’s in fry form, steamed form, or roasted form, we see this humble tuber across multiple cultures and states across the globe. Although the roots of the sweet potato trace its origins back to Meso and South America, it travelled thousands of kilometres in eras before these distances were easily traversed. This little blog post today will explore the travels of the Sweet Potato, and its role in war, and the curiosities of how it is consumed across different cultures today.

Please be warned that this week’s post includes references to the genetic study of plants and to a certain degree Archaeobiology. In a bid to shift my focus to the non-human aspect of history, we will be treating the humble Sweet Potat as the main analytical unit of inquiry.

Archaeobiology what now?

The Sweet Potato, scientific name (Ipomoea Batatas), is a tuber (underground root) that is closely related to the morning glory. Eaten roasted, chipped, fried, stewed, ice creamed, curried and even in leaf form, the consumption of this plant is seen almost on every continent throughout the world. This curiously transnational tuber is significant across a range of cultures, with some touting its health benefits, and others using it as a staple in times of war. The origins of the sweet potato are murky. Dating back to nearly 5000 years ago, it was thought to have originated in Central or South America and was somehow spread to the Polynesian Islands. Most Archeaobiologist has referred to this gradual process of consumption and cultivation as “domestication”, and noted that Mesoamerica had the greatest diversity of Sweet Potato genomes.

The struggle with investigating this tuber comes in two parts. Firstly, it’s old. Very very old. Secondly, much of its history rests in areas that are grossly understudied in the discipline of history. Although the Mesoamerican and South American civilisations such as the Aztecs or Incans are introduced to elementary or middle school students as a sort of novelty, very little “serious” research has been done in this field. Similarly, the disparate and migratory nature of Polynesian civilisations (a gross oversimplification), makes it difficult for historians to find a suitable analytical standpoint from which to start. As a result, literature on the Sweet Potato is left to the niche of Archaeobiology.

The Travelling Tuber

According to Francisco J. Morales, a specialist in Plant Virology (of all things), wrote in the Agricultural Journal Geneflow. He points to the incongruity between how the Polynesian Islands were thought to be colonised by South-East Asian migrants, and the strong archaeological presence of the Sweet Potato on Palliser, Mangareva and Easter Islands (Rapa Nui). Most notably, the Easter Islands had an entire agricultural civilisation built on the Sweet Potato before its total agro-ecological collapse. The possible linguistic link between the name Polynesian name for Sweet potato, Kumara and the Central American name Kumar, points at the possibility of migration outwards from South America, but even here the evidence is far from concrete.

Once again, Archaeobiology rears its ornate head, and we see overlapping routes of exchange both linguistically, and genetically. The map above explores the possible routes that the sweet potato may have taken in its travels across the pacific. But with these perplexing travels aside. We can look at the cultural differences in how this particular tuber is consumed.

Taken from Historical collections reveal patterns of diffusion of sweet potato in Oceania obscured by modern plant movements and recombination, PNAS 2013

The Tuber in War and Peace

The Cantonese saying “mo faan sik, sik faan shue”, or “If there is no rice, eat sweet potato“, rings true in several East Asian countries in the aftermath of WWII. Conventional historical evidence points to the post-war US-occupied Japan. Where food production had dropped by nearly a quarter. Okumura Ayo, a Japanese food scholar, notes that from 1944 large swathes of rural Japan were turned towards cultivating sweet potato and that every part of the plant was eaten. This academic account is corroborated by accounts of a close Japanese family friend that to this day, remembers the harshness of rationing and the copious amounts of sweet potato as a staple. This was despite living in a relatively rural part of the country, Gifu, which was an agricultural area.

Taiwan, also saw an enormous amount of sweet potato production before, during and after the post-WWII period, producing 3.7% of the worlds total sweet potato crop. On a personal level, my Grandmother to this day avoids eating sweet potatoes. As it reminds her of rationing during WWII in Taiwan as well. It is curious to see the consistencies in the use of sweet potato as a rationing staple across East Asia.

The Modern Tuber

Most people here in the UK would know sweet potatoes in the form of fries, and it is indeed seen as a healthier and sometimes less tasty alternative to the common potato. The connotation of health that the sweet potato belies in most of the Western world resulted in it being consumed amongst athletes and the health-conscious. With a low glycemic index (meaning it is more slowly digested) it is recommended as a healthy carbohydrate. However, the history of sweet potato as a health food is only a recent development.

In modern-day Japan, sweet potato is sold by street vendors and out of trucks in the winter, with a characteristic Yakiiiimoooo, Ishiyakimooo, Yakiiiimooo (焼き芋ー、石焼きも、焼き芋ー) jingle, meaning “Roasted Sweet potato, rock roasted sweet potato!”. Not unlike the twinkling sounds of an ice cream truck in an American neighbourhood. These sweet potatoes are frozen to drive out the moisture from its cells, resulting in concentrated sugar levels. Creating a food as sweet and rich (and more nutritious) as ice cream. It is probably fair to say that the Japanese cultural equivalent of the American Ice cream truck are these Sweet potato trucks that ply their trade in the cold winters.

In Taiwan, we see an even stranger development. The tuber itself is often incorporated in rice porridge, and the leaves are commonplace in Taiwanese cooking. I distinctly recall having to explain to visiting German friends that what they were eating was Süßkartoffelblatt, and them remarking that they didn’t know that the leaf portion was edible. 蕃薯葉 in Taiwan is something of a unique vegetable that thus far, I have not found anywhere else.

This little historical journey the transnational tuber has taken across the globe is a remarkable one, and the variance in consumption across the globe fascinating. Thus, I have decided to have sweet potato for dinner, tomorrow night.

Refashioning Indian Nationalism and the Reconstruction of Indian Women

I spent the spring break researching for my project, and I found some interesting readings that helped me add some nuance to some of the ideas that I had already formed. I got in touch with Dr Rosalind Parr, who recommended Mrinalini Sinha’s ‘Specters of Mother India: the global restructuring of an empire’. This was an interesting read as it covered some significant elements that are often overlooked in post-colonial historiography. In all that I have read so far on my topic, I noticed an imbalance. The texts either focus on the role of Indian women in isolation with the imperial internationalism of the interwar period, or there is too much emphasis on other international institutions and lack of focus on the role played by subaltern women. Barring two or three readings, at least this is what I have observed so far. ‘Specters of Mother India’ was a satisfying read for me. It explored an exciting transition in the relationship between nationalism and women whilst being placed in an international context. 

Mrinalini Sinha, in this book, demonstrated the importance of studying race and gender together in an analytical framework while reminding the readers of the growing agency of Indian women. US Journalist Katherine Mayo in 1925 wrote a polemic against the extension of political power to Indians. The book titled Mother India was supposed to expose the treatment of Indian women by Indian men. Her pro-imperial propaganda ended up becoming a catalyst in reinvigorating the nationalist project in India. A new discourse on Indian feminism emerged out of her rhetorical text[1]. Mayo’s writing evoked a global response; the book was translated into various languages. Gaining notoriety in the liberal feminist circles of America, her rhetoric called for an Anglo-US alliance in the post-war world that defied self-rule for colonies such as India. Mayo’s sinister writing ostensibly used the women’s question to further imperial propaganda and deny nationalists’ political demands in India.  Mayo argued that Hinduism’s regressive practices led to the oppression of Indian women, which culminated in the depiction of Indian women as victims. When the question of women and children came up, the league of nations also got involved as it resonated with their plan. The post-suffrage organizations started giving into ideas of the white woman’s burden- the plight of women in colonies become a part of white women’s feminist agenda.

Mrinalini Sinha discusses how Indian women delegitimized the civilizing claims of the imperial government by repudiating Mayo’s text and creating a unique place for themselves in the International forum. Indian women challenged the validity of colonial rule by espousing liberal ideals and fighting for social reform. This explains how Subaltern women were able to play a unique role as nationalists and social reformers in the international platform. By furthering ideas of social reform, they contested imperial claims that tried to depict Indian women as oppressed victims. There is, of course, a caveat to this, Mayo’s claims were not plucked from thin air- there was some truth to it. Sinha also later asserts that the Indian women’s organization mainly comprised upper-caste women who were not representative of most Indian women. Some scholars have critiqued interwar internationalism as a façade that existed only to Brahmanise India[2].

Next, I read a few chapters from Rosalind Parr’s book ‘Citizens of Everywhere’. According to Parr, a distinct cosmopolitan nationalism led by women underpinned the processes of decolonization. The general depiction of Indian nationalism has undermined women’s agency and shown them as playing supporting symbolic roles. Popular culture has always depicted nationalist leaders such as Gandhi being in favour of women’s emancipation[3]. However, such narratives have overshadowed women’s independent contributions that go beyond Gandhi’s support for them. Partha Chatterjee’s work on women and nationalism has also been held guilty for downplaying the role of Indian women during the national struggle. His theory suggested that Indian women became a part of an inner/spiritual domain where they tried to establish themselves as different but modern. Therefore, Chatterjee claimed that the only role Indian women had during nationalism was to define themselves as different to the west. Thus, according to him, the cultural nationalist construction of women included limited emancipation of women. Scholars in the same school of thought as Chatterjee have attached little importance to women’s organised activism in the public sphere. Parr has reiterated that anti-colonial women were not passive subordinates in a dominant narrative. They bought their distinct perspectives and ideas to transnational dialogues about various issues. They cooperated internationally and shaped not only their histories but also the histories of the world[4].

[1]rivedi, Lisa. Review of Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 8, no. 1 (2007)

[2]Sinha, Mrinalini. “Refashioning Mother India: Feminism and Nationalism in Late-Colonial India.” Feminist Studies 26, no. 3 (2000): 623-44

[3]Rosalind Parr, Citizens of Everywhere. Indian Women, Cosmopolitanism, and Nationalism, 1920s-1950s. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

[4]Sinha, Mrinalini. “Refashioning Mother India: Feminism and Nationalism in Late-Colonial India.” Feminist Studies 26, no. 3 (2000): 623-44

A Hop, Skip and a Jump

So, back to it again. Spring Break has been a really welcome step back from the desk, laptop, and essay writing, however I can’t help but feel that I’m a little bit behind on blog writing. I’ll do my best to jump back up to speed, and hope my brain can keep up with my fingers.

I don’t know how the rest of you spent your breaks, other than Karen – who mentioned spending time with her kids, eating delicious traybakes, and nice long walks – but mine was definitely split into two halves. The middle weekend, from Thursday to Sunday, consisted of a flying visit to St Andrews, in order to move out of my rented house, (we cancelled the lease early in order to save on rent, when we found out everything was going to be online). [side note: this counts as an “exceptional circumstance” and is a valid reason for legal travel.] When I say “flying” visit, I really do mean it. As the crow flies, St Andrews is around 370 miles from my childhood home, yet, this equates to just shy of 500 miles in car travel. As such, we always find it best to leave around 5am, in order to successfully miss the rush-hour traffic of the M25,  M40 (around Birmingham), and M56 (Manchester-way). Even so, from door-to-door, it takes about 9&1/2 hours to reach St Andrews.

As my mother has told me on numerous occasions, we could have flown to Canada, India, or even Cuba in the time it takes us to drive up the country. To do that journey twice in the space of four days, resulted in around 20 hours of travel time…otherwise known as a lot of time to think.

Alongside moving out of the house, it was nice to be back in St Andrews, albeit very briefly. I managed to make time for a blustery walk along East Sands, and being by the sea was life-giving. It was also very strange. I’m aware than a year ago now, we embarked on this strange adventure called “lockdown” – and a new realm of vocabulary entered our lexicon, and I fear, will not leave for a very long time. This wasn’t how I’d anticipated my university experiencing unfolding – especially not spending an entire semester studying at home. In an attempt to avoid feeling like the past four years had been erased, and that I was back sitting at my desk in preparation for my A-levels, I did a bit of furniture rearranging back before the start of semester. It seems to have worked…so far. I just hope I can keep the motivation up for the remaining few weeks.

Anyway – I have digressed (apologies). The main reason for this blog post/ramble, was sparked by the notion of travel, and how it has changed throughout time. This, I believe, is intrinsically linked with communication. I don’t presume to speak for my peers, but the majority of us have grown up in the “communication age”. The first mobile phone, ‘pay as you go’ contract was launched two years before I was born, and (random fact time), in 1998, the first downloadable content was made available for phones, and this was ringtones – something that led to the mania of “Crazy Frog”. (That song alone, feels like a throwback to primary school discos.)

I still remember flip phones, sliding ones, the craze that was blackberry’s, and the good old Nokia ‘brick’. But our communication ability has been intensely widened, to the point it’s pretty much instant. If the pandemic had occurred 20 years ago, it would have been a very different experience. No Teams calls, no Zoom, no FaceTime, and with only 16% of the UK population having mobile phones, most would have been reliant on email… or a telephone call from a landline (with dial-up internet.)

Sorry – I got side-tracked again. The point I’m trying to make is, that, for many of us, we cannot imagine life without the internet. Instant communication is what we have grown up with – it is the norm. And the same applies to travel. 2021 is the first year in my life that I haven’t travelled outside of the UK, having been fortunate enough to travel Europe frequently in my childhood. It’s not a “big” deal to go to Canada, or the other side of the world – we can get there in under 10 hours, instead of the months it would have taken in the past.

Does this lack of understanding for “time” hinder our study of history? Do we take for granted the ability to pull up a web browser, type in a question (or even just one word), and almost instantly receive millions of hits?

In the reading for Week 9, Bernhard shared his latest draft for the book he is working on. In it, he talks about Paris – and the presence of a number of international figures. For people such as John Quincy Adams and Benjamin Franklin to be in Paris required a larger feat of travel, time, and thought, than it would today. There were only the beginnings of air travel emerging – something he mentions in the trials of the Hot Air Balloon. And while the scientific and industrial developments of the past few centuries have occurred at a staggering rate, it does not do to forget the primacy of history – of the reliance on shipping routes for sharing news, and for the slower pace of life.

I came across this interactive map, another piece of digital history produced by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab (if you haven’t heard of them, I highly recommend their work). In it, they provide a way of exploring the rate of travel from New York in 1800 – putting into visuals this concept of time and length of travel.

The reason this has landed in a blog post? I believe this is crucial to our study of the transnational. When we’re trying to identify connections, tracing routes of communication, or movement of people, we need to keep an awareness of life before the “instant”. In my reading of works about the life of refugees, this is at the foreground. They cannot just jump on a plane and be whisked away to some far-flung country in a handful of hours. Rarely can they utilise a car, instead, often relying on their own legs. In Mexico, where many refugees seek to ride ‘The Beast’ – a cargo train, by clinging onto the roof or undercarriage, they’re risking their lives for transport that is not scheduled or reliable, but something which they may have to flee at any moment, for fear of being caught.

There is danger in becoming too comfortable with the modern. With what we know to be true, and possible – and assuming that is the case wherever we go. Whether we’re studying refugees, the spice mix of Garam Masala, the Jute industry or the films of Bruce Lee, we are searching for links, communication, and travel. They are at the heart of the transnational approach. And so, with the awareness that our “normal” is still very, very new, we may be able to better understand the contexts which we are studying.

Spirit Politics

Indigenous mobilizations against the State for their autonomy and self-determination has become a marker of 21st century Latin American history. The challenge posed by indigenous people to internal colonialism (i.e. coloniality of power embedded in nation-state building after decolonization) threatens the ideas of nationhood, peoplehood, and citizenship the state has used since independence. It is completely re-writing the Latin American nationalist project.

         From this resistance is where a new form of politics is forming, what is being called ‘Spirit Politics.’ Indigenous communities, in their reflection of the past and fight for autonomy, revalidated the old organizations and functions of their political sphere. In all these cases the shamans role in politics is stressed along with their relation to politics and culture—giving birth to the terms ‘Spirit Politics.’ New indigenous leaders mix foreign with familiar, the present with the past, in the production of hybrid and groundbreaking works that are then claimed to be authentically ‘native.’ Through appropriating the instructions of dominant society, indigenous associations are inscribing their struggles within a global context—they produce their own knowledge and try to recover control over their natural and cultural resources.

         The hybridity of thought that indigenous communities are bringing into the mainstream, along with their perception of the world, is opening incredible doors for development of political and social thought. For example, the redefinition of Mapuche land as territory is made as much in political terms as in sociocultural terms. In political terms because they claim autonomy on their land and try to reorganize space according to their own social principles of organization. In sociocultural terms because the conceptualization of mapu, or territory, Mapuche people have goes far beyond the mere management of political differences. The territory is made out of several different spaces and places which are divided both horizontally and vertically. Mapuche conceptualization of the environment it entirely connected to the political project of reterritorialization. That is why the participation of Manchi (shaman)is so overwhelming in the movement. Manchi are not only playing a role as emblems of the Mapuche struggle for recognition of their cultural and political rights, they are also playing an internal sociopolitical role insofar as they are the ones who are believed to know which spaces are to be respected.

         Spirit politics is articulating politics through the eyes of the indigenous and giving their political agents agency. Its not about left and right wings, but rather incorporating their political and belief systems into the mainstream in order to make their rights understood as legitimate.

Transnational Cinema History

Since my project focuses on one film and one play, but my short essay did not include much on the transnational study of these mediums, I thought I would research the move to a transnational study of cinema. This move comes from the growing discontent with the way we have studied history in general. As early as 1993, Marsha Kinda posited a need to “read national cinema against the local/global interface”.[1] Since then, various developments in concepts of transnational cinema have developed, with different historians paving their own ways in the field. 

But why do we need a transnational history of cinema? By moving away from the limiting national boundaries, we can understand the complex relationships between the film, and the wider cultural and economic movements that existed unconfined by national boundaries. By viewing a film such as Omkara, the Bollywood adaptation of Othello which I will discuss in my project, as a postcolonial reaction, rather than a self-contained film, we can gain a greater understanding of the global cultural and economic climates within which it was produced, and which it was a reaction to. 

In addition, scholars such as Naficy and Marks have argued that transnational cinema history, by analysing cinematic representation of cultural identity, can challenge the western narrative, and its construction of cinema as a Eurocentric phenomenon.[2] Here, power-relations between global and local, or insider and outsider, as in the case of Omkara, are crucial to gaining a greater understanding of the film’s cultural backdrop. This is an avenue I would like to explore in my project, as I seek to understand how Omkara uses this distinction to point to problems in the colonial India past, and to call out and challenge Shakespeare’s hegemonic status.  

Will Higbee and Song Hwee Lim have highlighted an issue which we seem to have encountered frequently in this module. This is the danger that the national becomes negated in this specifically transnational analysis of cinema. We must not assume, they argue, that the transnational model does not bring with it its own boundaries and limitations.[3] Thus, we must analyse transnationally not only in the conceptual space, but we should also “examine its deployment in the concrete-specific so that the power dynamic in each case can be fully explored and exposed”.[4] So, it seems we are at the conclusion again that what is crucial to transnational study is that the nation is not completely forgotten or written over, but that it is removed as the sole method of understanding. I hope that, while discussing Omkara and the power dynamics exemplified within it, my project will consider this limitation in order to produce a transnational film history which delves deeper into the environment within which it was produced. 

[1] Kinder, Marsha (1993), Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain, Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 7. 

[2] See Naficy, Hamid (2001), An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, and Marks, Laura (2000), The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[3] Will Higbee & Song Hwee Lim (2010) Concepts of transnational cinema: towards a critical transnationalism in film studies, Transnational Cinemas, 1:1, pp. 7-21. 

[4] Will Higbee & Song Hwee Lim (2010) Concepts of transnational cinema: towards a critical transnationalism in film studies, Transnational Cinemas, 1:1, 7-21, p. 10. 

Toward an Intellectual History of the Non-Human

I have to admit, I was riding an absolute high this week in regard to this module; I found my key argument which linked my whole project together. Therefore, I wanted to get stuck into these readings on a topic that is so broad and malleable that I am sure that within 20 years’ time any history which conceptualises a self-contained system of humans influencing humans in isolation of the non-human, will be thrown upon the bone-heap. The history of the human will be considered antiquated and a product of a narrow-minded, human arrogance which realises itself throughout academia… of course, I do sound exceptionally glib, and I am trying to have fun while writing these. However, I do genuinely believe in the significance of what these “histories of the non-human” hold, and I believe that these histories contain within them a valuable, if not the most valuable, path for the development of future historiography.

                        One thing I wanted to test with this concept of the historical non-human was, how can we identify an intellectual history within a realm that includes the non-human? How can we bring in the non-human agent to a school of history which has at its core possibly the most human concept; the abstractions of our consciousnesses which we call ideas, emotions, and perceptions? To this end, the Emily O’Gorman and Andrea Gaynor piece was exceptionally useful.[1] This piece asks us to consider how human ideas may be impacted by nature, either through the direct-action of nature or through human semiotics, and how the actions and mentalities of nature may be impacted by the human. Also, through a series of semiotic leaps, how do some humans imprint the image of the non-human upon other humans and thus rob them of their agency and cultural intellectuality. O’Gorman and Gaynor relate this latter concept to post-colonial and classist power-relations over working-class Asian communities, however I thought this could be applied elsewhere. The portrayal of the autochthonous peoples who come from the lands now occupied by the USA could be an example of this. The images presented of these peoples as being part of the “natural” landscape of the now colonised North America, of them holding beliefs of an exoticised mysticism which provides them with their conceptions of the world through semiotic interpretations of nature, that they are part of the natural world which is now being ravaged and destroyed by the industrialism of the European-descended American, the image of which is used by such people as a poster-image for anti-littering campaigns, equates the agency and humanity of these peoples to that of the non-human.[2] Surely the act of dehumanisation and comparison to the non-human has been part of the process by which European migrants in America have intellectually justified the denial of rights and respect to these fellow humans, and thus the human perception of the non-human has effect on human ideas.

                        Other examples of non-human intellectual history could be the recent revelations regarding the increasing sophistication of whales learning to adapt to increased human hunting activity in the 19th Century, with knowledge on how to avoid ships being passed down the generations; the intellectual afterlife of which is still exhibited by whales today after centuries of destruction by humans.[3] How did the techniques of those people who were employed to hunt these whales affect these whales? How does this reconceptualise our understanding of the non-human? Equally, questions ripe for historical exploration are presented by the fact that the non-human has not always been seen as a totally isolated system, and especially in the realm of religion we see the destruction of the human/non-human dichotomy through the common intersection of the realm of spirituality. For instance, take the reaction of Leo III to the storms in Constantinople in 726, how he connected this to the realms of politics and economy and believed that the storm was the surest sign that Byzantium had lost favour with God which explained the political and economic decline the empire had been suffering, and thus led to him to assume an iconoclastic position to try and appease the God whom he saw in nature.[4] This final example relates to my Black Metal project as it reminds me of an interview with Einar Selvik of Wardruna in which he argues that one of the great tragedies of modernity which he is fighting against is the role of Christianity in removing ‘both ourselves and “god” from nature and we need these things back.’[5] The loss of our ability to not only appreciate and respect nature, but also to consider ourselves as a part of nature, and even that our humanity could be shared with all other things “non-human”, whether this be through how we conceptualise nature or through a belief in a literally shared experience of all things human and non-human alike, is something worthy of analysis.

                        Perhaps I will not have enough space to discuss the role of nature within Black Metal in my final project, but its significance should not be overshadowed even for a second. The passion which these artists show for their local landscapes and their polytheistic connections to the environment so directly influences their music in its lyrical content, its cover art, and its “general feel”, as well as their patriotic and anti-modernist ideologies (see Ísland, Steingelda Krummaskuð by Misþyrming for a contemporary example). Ultimately, while this may seem like an unnecessarily long series of ramblings on my part (I would go on and actually write an essay applying all of this to Black Metal, but I fear becoming a “blog-hog”), I have to say the length of this blog is simply due to the way in which ideas of non-human intellectual history has inspired me to consider such ideas, and should we work through these ideas we may eventually get to a point where we can resolve the paradoxical crisis which plagues so many of us; how we view our agency as being absolute in having created the climate crisis we now face, while experiencing ever-increasing angst at our perceived lack of agency in being able to resolve this crisis in the future.

[1] Emily O’Gorman & Andrea Gaynor, “More-Than-Human Histories”, Environmental History, No. 25 (2020), 711-735.

[2] Christa Grewe-Volpp, “The Ecological Indian vs. the Spiritually Corrupt White Man: The Function of Ethnocentric Notions in Linda Hogan’s ‘Solar Storms’”, Amerikastudien, 47: 2 (2002), 269-283.

[3] Hal Whitehead, Tim D. Smith & Luke Rendell, “Adaptation of sperm whales to open-boat whalers: rapid social learning on a large scale?”, Biology Letters, No. 17 (2021).

[4] Bettany Hughes, Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities (London, 2017), 299-300.

[5] Einar Selvik in Dayal Patterson, Black Metal: The Cult Never Dies Vol. 1 (London, 2015), 113.

Cei Ballast (Ballast Quay) : A Transnational Island

A group of boats in a body of water

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Cei Ballast in Porthmadog Harbour (c.1890-1901)

Over spiring break I felt I might mix up my blog posts a bit and write about something a bit different (although it is still related to Welsh history I’m afraid!). This is a story which I heard about a couple of weeks ago and wanted to share it on the blog. Although it has absolutely nothing to to with my project I found it really interesting and I hope you do too. 

In Porthmadog, there is a small island which sits just outside the tourist port. At first glance it appears rather in unremarkable. However, once you take a closer look, it becomes much more interesting. 

Slate from he nearby Blaenau Ffestiniog quarry was transported to Porthmadog whereby it would be shipped all over the world. Like most shipping operations these ships would pick up additional cargo along the way and transport it to wherever it needed to go. 

On the return journey back to Porthmadog the ships were loaded with Ballast from the ship’s trading destination to provide balance and stability. Upon returning to Porthmadog, the ballast was dumped in the harbour which over the course of a century created an island. Thus, this manmade island creates a picture of the global reach of the North Wales slate industry. For example, on Cei Ballast one finds a large collection of eclectic rocks such as altered mudstone from Portugal and marble from Italy as well as rocks native to Greece, Scandinavia, Canada and more. 

So how does this relate to transnational history?

This collection of rocks brings together material from all over the world and tells us about the nature and scale of trade that occurred. This is a fascinating example of a physical reminder of the transnational flows and transfers which have taken place and in this case have left a physical monument of these connections. Thus, perhaps we should look for alternate sources to consider when doing transnational history. This may offer an alternative way of looking at the world around us to try and spot any potential transnational links. Perhaps, then we could look out for similar ballast islands and compare them to Cei Ballast to learn more about the global shipping of materials and the transfer of goods.