Booker’s Bitter Legacy: British Guiana after Empire

A guest post from Ben Richardson, Associate Professor in International Political Economy at the University of Warwick. Ben researches trade and development with a focus on agricultural commodities. He is author of Sugar (Polity, 2015) and is currently completing an ERSC project Working Beyond the Border: European Union Trade Agreements and International Labour Standards on which this post is based.   


Awarded annually for the best novel in the English language, the Man Booker Prize has established itself as a major event in the British cultural calendar. Its fiftieth anniversary was commemorated accordingly: a documentary on the BBC; a festival at the Southbank Centre; a reception at Buckingham Palace for former winners. But the prize harbours a darker history, one which this Anglocentric story of literary triumph firmly seals within the distant past. The prize takes its name from its initial sponsor, Booker McConnell, one of the preeminent companies of the British empire. The commercial lifeblood of Booker had been sugar and its heartland was British Guiana, a colony on the northern tip of South America. Indeed, so dominant was the company in the country’s affairs that it became known simply as ‘Booker’s Guiana’.

Bringing a rare shaft of light onto this imperial relationship, the winner of the Booker Prize in 1977, John Berger, used his acceptance speech to publicly denounce the company’s exploitative practices in what by then had become the independent state of Guyana. Fusing race and class politics, he symbolically dedicated half his prize money to the Black Panthers and their ongoing resistance in the West Indies “both as black people and workers”. While Berger’s intervention retains critical force, it requires contemporary renewal. Booker’s has long since gone, divesting from the country and diversifying into other activities like wholesaling, slowly erasing public memory of their colonial past. For Guyana meanwhile, the preeminent issue in the sugar industry is no longer exploitation but expulsion, with mounting economic pressures linked to trade reforms in Europe erupting in plantation closures, mass redundancy and political discontent. The ongoing celebration of the Man Booker Prize thus provides a way to reconnect these developmental stories and consider again what the legacies of British imperialism mean for both modern-day Guyana and the UK.

Formerly owned by the father of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, the Wales sugar estate was closed in 2017. Source: author.

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“The Ecological Indian” and the History of Environmental Ideas

A guest post from Philip Conway, a PhD candidate in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University. His thesis is titled “The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics.” He blogs at Circling Squares and micro-blogs @PhilipRConway.


Cosmological questioning

‘But what about indigenous cosmologies?’ This kind of question is becoming more and more common in debates in International Relations, human geography and other fields. Whether articulated in terms of decolonisation, worlding, ontology, lifeways, cosmopolitics or pluriversality (other terminologies are available), there is a strong and growing conviction that making space for modes of collective existence beyond, besides and despite the hegemonic naturalism of the West is a pressing intellectual and political priority.

Indeed, this is a question that I am asked (and ask myself) on a regular basis. However, it is a more conceptually, ethically and politically complicated question than it may first appear. This essay explores some of these complications in relation to the research project that I am currently embarked upon – namely, a history of how ‘environment’ became a conceptual commonplace of Euro-American scientific, literary and political conversation by around about 1910.

The project investigates how this everyday expression – ‘environment’ – came to be taken for granted and, more to the point, what this tells us about the ways in which we think (or don’t think) about ourselves, the world around us and, in short, how our conceptions contrive to carve things up (and stitch them back together).

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Capitalism: A History of Violence

Alexander Anievas and TDOT resident Kerem Nişancıoğlu introduce their new book How The West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism.


‘For the last two decades, challenges to the inequalities and injustices of capitalism have been casually dismissed by a status quo swimming in hubris. From Margaret Thatcher’s infamous proclamation that ‘there is no alternative’ to Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history’, the study and critique of capitalism has been relegated to margins of public discourse. More recently, Mark Hunter argued that any attack on capitalism is ‘an attack on human nature’, thereby reaffirming the now centuries-old conceit that capitalism is as ‘natural and organic’ as living and breathing.

However, as stock markets came crashing down in 2008, the force of history reasserted itself in a series of revolutions, square occupations, anti-austerity protests, strikes, riots, and anti-state movements taking place from London to Ferguson, Athens, Cairo, Istanbul, Rojava, Santiago and beyond. Such movements have torn at the certainties of ‘capitalist realism’ and started sporadically – if inconsistently – challenging such long-held ‘common sense’ truisms and the power structures that bolster them.

howthewest

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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

The Colonial Armed Peace: Was the Great War a Failure of Imperialism?

LukeThis is a guest post from Lucian M. Ashworth, and the first in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18. Lucian is Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His current research focuses on the history of international Relations (IR) theory, and on the disciplinary history of IR. This builds on a number of previous interventions on the politics and history of the inter-war period (including on the absent idealists, the early feminist IR of Helen Swanwick, and Halford MacKinder as League supporter). He is the author most recently of A History of International Thought. From the Origins of the Modern State to Academic International Relations, published by Routledge in 2014.


Entente Cordiale

A common response from many opponents of Michael Gove’s ill-informed presentation of the First World War as a just cause has been to write the war off as one that was caused by the imperialism of the great powers. In this view those who died were victims of an imperial system.[1] By seeing the war as primarily an imperialist conflict it is possible to simultaneously denounce the pre-1914 imperial order and also to oppose the war. It is, therefore, a handy position that avoids any moral dilemmas.

At the same time, it is interesting that amongst all these debates about the causes and nature of the war few scholars have seen fit to examine one form of evidence: the writings of international experts before the war. This gap is even more surprising in International Relations (IR), as these pre-war writers are IR’s forebears. What is interesting about studying these pre-war international writers is that they were well aware of the imperialist nature of their global society (and of the role played by colonial control), but it was not this imperialism that was seen as the source of instability. Rather, a more complex story emerges of a two-tier global system, and the coming of the war is seen as a threat to, not a result of, imperialism.

buy-empire-goods

The first point about the pre-1914 world is that this was a thoroughly recent system, and that for many of those writing on international affairs it was novel because for the first time in history there was a truly global order. Whether it was W. T. Stead writing about the movement away from states to a Europe united by transnational links, Paul Reinsch’s examination of the new ‘public international unions’, or Norman Angell’s wonder at the development of the global economy in trade and finance, the common feature was the recognition that the world from the late nineteenth century was global in a way that was thoroughly unprecedented.[2]

Much of this new politico-economic order was built on one product: coal. Timothy Mitchell has outlined how the growing dependence on coal as a concentrated source of energy radically changed society into an industrial ‘hydrocarbon civilisation’. The combination of coal, steel and steam powered railways allowed for the easy extraction, transportation and use of coal in industry.[3] This rapid industrialisation made the new industrialising societies vulnerable in a way they had never been before. The loss of self-sufficiency in food and the requirements of industry for a growing list of raw materials not often available in north-western Europe or eastern North America meant that these societies were dependent on trade with often distant societies. Yet, trade alone was not sufficient to extract these raw materials, so European powers increasingly turned to direct control and the deliberate imperial restructuring of the non-European economies.[4] This creation of a two-tier fully global economy was well-known to the political economists of the time.[5]

Two very different writers who captured the nature of this new global order were the American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, and the British journalist and political activist Henry Noel Brailsford. Mahan was an advocate of a higher level of armaments and a notorious racist. Brailsford, by contrast advocated stronger representative international organisations. Despite the wide divergence in their political opinions, both came to not incompatible conclusions about the nature of the global order before the First World War, and both understood the two-tier nature of the global political economy. The major difference in approach was that Mahan supported the imperial status-quo, while Brailsford opposed it. Continue reading

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.