Colonial history

The complexities of our colonial legacy

It happened by accident. In 1829 the naturalist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was trying to hatch a moth pupa. He placed it in a sealed glass container, along with some soil and dried leaves, and set it aside. Sometime later he was surprised to find that a fern and some grass had taken root in the soil, despite having no water. As Sathnam Sanghera writes in Empireworld, the discovery ‘revolutionised the logistics of international plant transportation’. Suddenly there was a means of securely transporting seeds and seedlings across vast distances. Empireworld is a sequel to Sanghera’s wildly successful Empireland. Where the latter examined the legacies of empire in Britain, this book

Britain’s recent darkest hour: the betrayal of the Chagos Islands

Philippe Sands’s compelling new book opens in 2018 at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Liseby Elysé – ‘a distinctive lady dressed in black’, who can neither read nor write – is making a video statement before 14 judges. In Creole, she describes how, in 1973, she and the last of her 1,500 fellow islanders from Peros Banhos (part of the Chagos archipelago, south of the Maldives) were forcibly deported to Mauritius. They were herded in the dark onto a boat for a four-day passage, with neither notice nor explanation given, restricted to one wooden trunk of possessions apiece, homes abandoned and all their pets rounded up

Abolishing slavery was no cause for smugness

When the 13 colonies of the United States declared independence in 1776, the first country to recognise the new nation was France. Other leading European powers, such as Britain and Spain, acknowledged its arrival at the Treaty of Paris, two years after a decisive victory by American forces. Yet when Haiti asserted independence in 1804, it was ostracised by Britain, France, Spain and the US. During its first fragile years as a fledgling state, that self-declared guru of liberty Thomas Jefferson even imposed a rigid blockade while president. Washington then took more than half a century to recognise its Caribbean neighbour. The reason for such contrasting attitudes towards the first

The problem of the Benin Bronzes will never go away

A book about the looted African art known as the Benin Bronzes begins by clarifying that most of them are not actually bronze, and none of them comes from the country of Benin. Yet as this gripping work of live history makes clear, such name ambiguity feels entirely appropriate for art so sophisticated in creation yet so controversial in acquisition. Little about the Benin Bronzes is black and white. The exact age is unknown for the cache of carved ivory, coral and metal plaques, heads, statuary, swords and other ceremonial objects, the best guess emphasising the circa in ‘circa 16th century’. Who the heads represent is also not settled —

The British Empire is now the subject on which the sun never sets

Wrestling with the history of the British Empire is the unfinished and unfinishable project of our history. Time’s Monster takes a meta-approach to this. Its author Priya Satia has read widely, and has written essentially a cultural history of the Empire from the early modern period to today, of the way Britain’s colonial expansion has been interwoven with the culture. Many of the connections she draws are intriguing and her narrative is nuanced enough to be sympathetic to both pro- and anti-imperial arguments past and present. But overlaying this is a discussion of how historians themselves have shaped the perception of the Empire, acting as boosters, or at least as

Toussaint Louverture: the true hero of Haiti

In Haiti you have to be careful which founding father you admire. The average Haitian will think first of Toussaint Louverture when talking about their island’s revolt against France in the late 18th century, and about the original idea of a full-fledged Black republic: Toussaint the stable, the intense, the military genius, courageous, careful. But for others, the real hero of the revolution is Jean-Jacques Dessalines, or Papa Dessalines, who is said to have connived with the French to remove Toussaint from power. Once France had exiled Toussaint, Dessalines turned on the French, rejecting their ‘peace’ and authority. He prosecuted the revolution to its bloody end, but without the restraint