The Global Colonial 1914-18: A Public Roundtable

This is the fourth and final post in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18, which is the video and transcript of the public event which took place at SOAS on September 18th 2014. Links to previous posts and the series as a whole can be found here. Many thanks to our speakers Hakim Adi, Catriona Pennell, Parmjit Singh, Martin Spafford and Charles Tripp for their contributions, as well as the audience for their incisive questions.

Global Colonial 1914 poster


M = Meera Sabaratnam

C = Charles Tripp

H = Dr Hakim Adi

P = Parmjit Singh

CP = Catriona Pennell

MS = Martin Spafford

M:       Okay. Hello, everybody and welcome. Thanks very much for coming. My name is Meera Sabaratnam, I’m a lecturer here at SOAS in international relations. And tonight we’re delighted to host a roundtable on the Global Colonial 1914-18. So obviously this is triggered by a number of contemporary events, not least the centenary of World War One, which you’ll have seen all over the news. But one of the stories I suppose, that gets told less often is the role of the wider world in the way that the war unravelled but also as a theatre of war. And in the place of where the war stood as part of the global context. So what else was going on, multiple revolutions, uprisings. So this is a moment in which the war is an important part of a global order which is undergoing substantial amounts of change. I should say this event is also sponsored…has been organised through the British International Studies Association and their working group on colonial, post-colonial and de-colonial research questions.

And this particular group tries to look at the elements of coloniality and colonialism in how the modern world came to be and what that means for when we understand globalisation and global history. I’m delighted to have a roster of speakers here tonight covering not just all of the sort of main areas, the regions that we’re studying in SOAS, namely Asia, Africa and Middle East. But also researchers and teachers who have been involved in how World War One is remembered in the classroom as a form of public cultural memory. Each of our speakers is going to speak for about 10 minutes. And then after that we’ll open it up for questions. Please do be forthcoming with your questions and we hope to have a good discussion afterwards, okay. I’d first like to welcome Professor Charles Tripp who is professor of Middle East here at SOAS. Thanks.

C:        Thank you very much, Meera. It sounds rather grand, I’m not the professor of Middle East, I’m professor of politics in the Middle East. But why not, grander? I was asked to talk today about the relationship between what was happening in the Middle East and what happened to the Middle East in and around the First World War. And I must admit straight off, I’m not a historian, so I don’t work on the first war particularly but clearly anybody who works in the politics of the Middle East is well aware of the fact that legacies of the First World War and what happened to the region are still very much there and indeed are being revived in the press in one form or another as they talk about Syria and Iraq at the moment. But what I wanted to really try and do is to pick out two themes if I can, in the time allotted. One is the notion that as with many other parts of the world, much was happening before the First World War that the First World War changed the course of, if you like. So in a sense one of the dangers of looking, which of course happens now to some extent in the press and elsewhere, is to see the Middle East purely as the Middle East as a political entity, whatever that is, as a kind of creation of European intervention, the First World War.

But what I’m trying to argue is that actually there were processes long before that that had been going on and that in some ways the European intervention set back in various significant ways that had an effect for the future as well. So the first part is really to think about what had been happening in the 50 years or so before the First World War in the region, we now think of as the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Qajar, Iran, North Africa. And I want to look at two themes which are intertwined but really revolve around the same emerging idea and notion which is the idea of the autonomous citizen, which again was quite a novel, a radical idea with hugely radical implications for the dispensations of power. But the two themes that they were intertwined with was, one, the struggle against despotism and the other, struggle against colonialism, both of these seemed to be deeply repressive of the idea of the autonomous citizen. And in some senses therefore what you’re looking at in the long…well, the period before the First World War in the 40 or 50 years, whether it’s in the Ottoman Empire, the Qajar Empire, Iran, in Egypt, you have a struggle against local despotism for constitutionalism. A precarious constitutionalism which is often of course therefore sabotaged by those who would rather not see it. But nevertheless very powerful in the mobilisation of the politics of these regions. Continue reading

Mozambique and the Invisible Bodies: A Contrapuntal Reading of the Great War (1914-1918)

This is the third in a series of posts on the Global Colonial 1914-18.


The British cemetery in Lumbo, northern Mozambique, where individual headstones are inscribed for the fallen white soldiers of the Empire in the Great War. A few names of non-white enlisted East African, West African and Indian soldiers who died are engraved on memorial stones at the side of cemetery. The dead African porters and civilians are not remembered.

The British cemetery in Lumbo, northern Mozambique, where individual headstones are inscribed for the fallen white soldiers of the Empire in the Great War. A few names of non-white enlisted East African, West African and Indian soldiers who died are engraved on memorial stones at the side of cemetery. The dead African porters and civilians are not remembered.

Whatever one’s views on the causes, significance and consequences of the ‘Great War’, few deny that it was ‘world-historical’ as an ‘event’ or series of events. 1914 is offered by Hobsbawm as the end of the ‘long nineteenth century’; a periodization which is widely accepted as giving birth, finally, to ‘the modern world’. The horrors of the Great War, then, are quintessentially the horrors of modernity. The bodies of the Great War are the product of a particular configuration of nationalism, militarism, technology, class relations, capitalist expansion and an effective state administration, which enables death at this level of efficiency and magnitude. The fog of war does not arise from irrationality, but from the awe-inspiring complex edifice of modern political organisation playing out its tragic fate amongst white European nations. If we are looking for the ‘big picture’, this, it seems, is it.

Yet the ‘big picture’ metaphor is only expressive in a two-dimensional and static framing of history, rather like a painting. Said suggested on the other hand that thinking musically might be a more appropriate way of conceiving the pluralities of historical time. Musical counterpoint, in which independently moving melodies weave in and out of each other, creating resonances, harmonies, dissonances and an altogether more complex sound, was his method for thinking about the historical relationship between colonies and metropoles. Neither is subsumed under the other, and they may have different rhythms and patterns, but they move simultaneously through time. The hope is that reading history contrapuntally enables us to hear multiple melodies, neither cacophonously (although this may be itself productive) nor monotonously, but in a way which discloses both the relatedness and distinctiveness of human experiences.

With this in mind, in what follows I reconstruct some fragments of historical melodies in what is now called Mozambique from the period of the Great War, thinking about what this might disclose for our present histories and remembrances – what David Scott might call our own ‘problem-space’. The East African Campaign – if it is remembered at all in the metropole – is remembered mostly as the site of a brilliant and gutsy guerrilla campaign by the German commander Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and a small hardy detachment of Schutztruppe, who surrendered two weeks after the declaration of the Armistice having cunningly evaded the British throughout the war. Yet, this romanticised history of innovative military tactics in exotic tropical climes heavily obscures almost everything about the historicity of the war in East Africa – indeed it obscures much of the history of the campaign itself. Clearly, part of our contrapuntal reading must be a reading of these missing notes and melodies within the campaign.

Beyond this, however, the reading must open up the historical presence and experience of the peoples in what was at the time called Portuguese East Africa. If the ‘Great War’ began in Africa, it did not necessarily mean the same across the continent as it did elsewhere. Whilst both deadly and destructive, the matrix of war-related destruction was also configured by specific colonial historical relations of violence, prestige and dispossession, as well as by political struggles within the colonised space. These experiences resonate in unexpected, but important, ways with the ‘world-historical’ moment of the war.

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The Global Colonial 1914-18: A mini-series

Askaris fighting for Germany listen to the news.

Askaris fighting for Germany listen to the news.

The Disorder of Things hosts a short series of posts connected to the event ‘The Global Colonial 1914-18‘, held at SOAS on 18th September 2014, and co-organised by the Colonial / Postcolonial / De-colonial Working Group of the British International Studies Association.

Our first post is by Lucian M. Ashworth, who discusses the breakdown of the colonial armed peace, as viewed by contemporary observers.

Our second post is by Dušan I. Bjelić, who offers a racial genealogy of the Great War.

Our third post is by Meera Sabaratnam, who suggests a contrapuntal reading of the war based in colonised Mozambique.

Our fourth and final post contains a transcript and video of the public roundtable which took place at the end of the day, featuring Hakim Adi, Catriona Pennell, Parmjit Singh, Martin Spafford and Charles Tripp, in which the colonial dimensions of the war are discussed, as well as their implications for teaching and commemorating the period today.

This post serves as a permanent link for the series.

 

Among the Atavists

If there is one especially lazy characterization among the many about Scotland’s independence referendum, it is the description of the Yes movement as motivated by ‘atavistic ethnic tribalism’ or the like. Toss a pebble at the UK commentariat and you will come across it soon enough: from the Guardian to the Financial Times, the argument is the same. Britain is the outward-looking future, an independent Scotland a reversion to the barbaric past.

Taken literally, the idea of reverting to a period before Scot and Englishman jointly exported the apparatus of colonial power and racial supremacy they forged in Ireland to the rest of the world does not seem at all regressive. One can scarcely imagine an Indian or Ghanaian, for example, objecting to the move on these grounds. In the same breath as condemning the Yes campaign’s alleged ethnic tribalism, Unionist commentators give as their prime reason for retaining the UK its 300 years of success. Of what, in large part, does that success consist? Why, expanding into other territories and enforcing a hierarchy by which the indigenous inhabitants were plundered of their resources and denied self-government on the grounds of their alleged genetic or cultural inferiority. A textbook case of ethnic nationalism, you might say. One might think that someone celebrating centuries of such behaviour would baulk at condemning the ‘tribalism’ of others.

There is no insincerity in such condemnations. We can have no doubt that when Sir Jeremy Greenstock says of the referendum:

in this ­complex, unpredictable and sometimes threatening environment, the instinct to return to the tribe is understandable. Yet it is creating momentum for global chaos.

he believes it. So profound a substratum is British nationalism that men such as these, its prime beneficiaries, cannot see that their tribe – easily identified by its common modes of dress, speech and rituals of adolescent sequestration - dominate all the institutions of the British state and therefore articulate their interests as universal. Were a Kenyan of Gikuyu heritage, or a Syrian of the Alawite faith to do the same, we can imagine what would be made of her.

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Want to Deprovincialize Your Political Theory Syllabus a Little? What I Learned at APSA

ibn_khaldoun_timbr

American Political Science Association (APSA) annual conventions typically offer a rich selection of pre-conference short courses. This time I went to “Deparochializing Political Theory.” Sponsored by Steven Johnston and Michaele Ferguson and organized by Emily Beausoleil, this course offered two excellent sessions on how to enrich your political theory syllabus with ‘non-western’ content. Loubna El-Amin spoke about Chinese political thought, and Michaelle Browers on Arab and Islamic political thought. These are my course notes from last week, in a Q&A form. My gratitude goes to Michaelle and Loubna for letting me copy/paste from their course materials.

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Decolonising the Anglosphere

Alex at Red Fort

A guest post from Alexander Davis, who is a PhD candidate in international relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Alex holds a research MA on India’s international colonial history from the University of Tasmania and his PhD dissertation is a postcolonial examination of India’s relationship with the Anglosphere, supervised by Priya Chacko, Kaniskha Jayasuriya and Carol Johnson. This post provides an outline of his critique of the ‘Anglosphere’, which follows from previous discussion on The Disorder of Things by our own Srdjan Vucetic, and acts as an introduction to the themes of his forthcoming dissertation. Alex can also be found over at Twitter.[1]


Why India? Why the Anglosphere?

The term ‘Anglosphere’ refers to a distinctly murky combination of states, peoples or cultures with an implication of both cultural superiority and closer international relationships on the basis of a shared identity. Even dictionary definitions of the term illustrate the difficult. For some, Anglosphere is based simply on the English language, for others it includes the ‘cultural values’ associated with the political development of Great Britain. Srdjan’s recent book on the Anglosphere shows excellently how the idea of the Anglosphere is rooted in its colonial history and is an expression of Anglo-western superiority. Because of my previous research and teaching interest in India’s colonial history, the idea of the ‘Anglosphere’ struck me as an assertion of cultural superiority and dominance, suspiciously similar to colonial justifications for imperial rule. Once we realize this, India, just as it was central to the British empire, becomes central to understanding contemporary discourse on ‘Anglosphere’. The first question I asked, sensibly enough I thought, was ‘is India in the Anglopshere?’ I have since realized deep inadequacies of this question, which in turn has led me towards to believe in need for a decolonisation of the Anglosphere subject.

800px-Anglospeak_svg

Thinking the Anglosphere through India

In order to understand contemporary Anglosphere discourse, and the position in which India fits within the concept, we first need to understand its historical context. An early form of contemporary Anglosphere debates on India can be in England on the future of the British empire at the turn of the 20th century which turned into a discussion on the concept of ‘Greater Britain’. This idea was to be federation between Britain and her colonies might look like. Some thinkers at this time saw India as central to the empire, and therefore central to any ‘Greater Britain’. Sir Charles Dilke originally began to use ‘Greater Britain’ as shorthand for the British empire as a whole, but later argued it should only be the ‘English-speaking, white-inhabited, and self-governed lands’. Others, such as historian John Seeley, took up the idea, initially including India on the inside as a territory of the Crown. However, later, in the same book, he argued Greater-Britain needed to be racially homogenous, declaring India to be ‘…all past and, I may almost say, has no future’.

Winston Churchill’s work on the ‘English-Speaking Peoples’, itself an echo of Alfred Taylor’s ‘English Speaking Races’, emphasizes the supposed superiority and unity of these peoples. Conservative historian Andrew Roberts has recently taken it upon himself to follow up on Churchill’s work. Roberts cuts down the magnitude of his chosen topic by ignoring English-speakers outside the geographical centers of the Anglosphere. His approach to India and colonial history is revealed by his depiction, and ultimate defense, of General Dyer’s massacre at Amritsar. This is the worst example of ‘imperial’ history I can think of. Roberts goes so far as to defend Dyer from the propaganda of the nasty Indian nationalists. Even the British government no longer defends this event, though on a recent trip to India, David Cameron declined to apologize for it. Roberts defends the massacre even though many of Dyer’s victims were English-speaking. Leaving the victims out of the ‘English-Speaking peoples’ is a final act of humiliation and dehumanization.

Just as the debaters over ‘Greater Britain’ were unsure of where India might fit with the concept, contemporary Anglospherists are unsure of what to do with India. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Rhythm, Time and History

With thanks to Elisabetta Brighi and Xavier Guillaume for putting together the Rhythms of the International roundtable and their inspiring contributions, to Robbie Shilliam for his song, and Kyle Grayson for his spirited and thoughtful engagement. And by no means least, to the pleasingly sizeable and lively crowd who gave the last panel of the last day such a buzz.

Below is a write-up of my contribution to the roundtable, in which I reflected on the relationship of rhythm and history, and drew out some of the potential disruptions that a different rhythmic sensibility might have on our conception of history.


What is rhythm?

To my shame, colleagues, and partly out of curiosity, I looked it up in the dictionary. Shame, because if you are looking something up in a dictionary before giving a talk on it, you probably shouldn’t be giving a talk on it. Curiosity, because I wanted to know how they would define ‘rhythm’ in words rather than in noises.

The dictionary answers were not particularly edifying. One definition spoke of ‘repeated, regular beats’, another of a ‘regulated succession’ of beats. Thud, thud, thud. Boom, boom, boom. Boom, thud, boom, thud. These definitions felt flat, and rather forbidding. But I suppose this is because they were the generic definitions of all kinds of ‘rhythm’, and not just the samba playing in my head.

Using some thinking developed earlier in some work on music and politics, I started again, with a different question:

What is the relationship of rhythm and time?

This yielded a much more direct answer: it is the production of rhythm that makes time itself knowable. In the making of music, rhythm generates movement and flow, and makes it possible for sounds to synchronise and arrange themselves. Continue reading