Research Seminar Review: Dr. Julia McClure’s ‘Poverty on the Move in the Spanish Empire’

Written by Carissa Chew

On 17 October, the Global and Transnational Group and Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies jointly welcomed Dr. Julia McClure from the University of Glasgow to present her latest research on ‘Poverty on the Move in the Spanish Empire’, a project that McClure framed as part of a broader challenge to the invisibility of poverty in the historiography of global history. In this seminar, McClure discussed ‘poverty’ as a socially constructed category in both Spain and the Americas in the early modern period, exploring its various social, cultural, economic, and legal definitions and functions as well as the importance of the related discourse on ‘charity’.

    Global history is a field that has often explored transnational interconnections by tracing conspicuous consumption and material exchanges across the globe. For example, McClure noted that the existence of a ‘web of Spanish silver’ from Europe to America to China is seen as indicative of Spain’s emergence as the world’s ‘first global empire’. Given this preoccupation with material commodities and macro-economics, global history has come to overlook those groups who lacked money and resources — the poor. Although the poor seem to represent ‘the historiographical antithesis to global history’ in this regard, McClure insisted that it is necessary for global historians to recover and re-centre the history of the poor, who in fact formed ‘the essential fabric of [the Spanish Empire’s] connectivities’. Ultimately, McClure proposed that in re-framing the Spanish poor as important actors in the process of world-making — as opposed to portraying them as victims who lacked agency and were caught up in larger processes such as indentured labour — we can begin to recover a bottom-up narrative of the Spanish Empire.

    Contrary to popular perception, the Spanish conquest of the Americas did not simply lead to an influx of wealth into Europe, but in fact resulted in increased inequality within Spain. In light of this problem of heightening economic disparity, the Spanish state attempted to rid themselves of poor populations by exporting them to the colonies. In the popular elite imagination, the poor were an undesirable, loathsome group who were not welcome on the Spanish mainland. In 1525, the Ypres Scheme of Poor Relief described ‘beggars everywhere. . . living at their pleasure without any labour, in sloth and idleness, like drones’, before ultimately concluding that ‘beggars should be banished from the realm’. In 1526, Juan Luis Vives concurred that ‘tremendous honour adheres in the state in which no beggar is seen’. To encourage the lower echelons of Spanish society to traverse the Atlantic Ocean, the voyage from Spain to New Spain was portrayed as a journey from poverty to riches. Moreover, when this promise of social mobility was not enough, the poor were bribed to leave the country.

    Those poor people who remained in Spain continued to face discrimination throughout the sixteenth century. In particular, they faced heightened oppression under Charles V (1516-1556), whose ‘poor laws’ banned begging without a license. According to this new legislation, offenders would be punished by galley service: first offenders faced four years; second-time offenders eight years; and third-time offenders faced a lifetime of service. McClure noted that it is difficult to determine the prosecution rates of these laws, but what this shows is that the poor were now being conceived of as a potential labour source. This is reinforced by the fact that in 1539 it was made compulsory for all male Romani between 20 and 30 years old to complete two years of service in the galleys. The galley industry soon came to be dominated by poor people, since those with wealth could use their resources to bargain for exile as a preferred punishment. Being forced into this nomadic way of life led to further oppression when galley slaves returned to society, however, since they were often refused licenses for begging and hence found it even more difficult to escape their vagrant lifestyles. When it comes to the poor in Spain, McClure added, we also witness the rise of biopolitics in this era with bodies of the poor, conceived of as inferior and contagious, becoming the subject of social policy.

    Moreover, few of those poor Spaniards who relocated to the colonies experienced the upward social mobility or the wealth they were promised. Some of the conquistadors and colonists did find fortune in the Americas, but McClure remarked that oppression generally followed the poor Spaniards across the Atlantic. The poor in the colonies legally had certain rights, for example, the legal system had an obligation to offer free resources to the poor. However, in reality, anybody could claim to be poor to access these resources, and they were not allocated to those most in need. McClure gave the example that a widow could avoid paying taxes on her slaves because she claimed to be ‘poor’. The presence of poverty among the Spaniards in the colonies was in fact conceived as a dangerous threat to the colonial social hierarchy, which was based on ideas of caste identity. Spanish colonists were anxious about the influence that the behaviour of poor Spaniards would have on the American Indian and black African populations. McClure explained that at the Archivo General de la Nación de México, there is extensive documentation regarding lawsuit cases against vagrancy, including petitions to different authorities stating that poor Spaniards were shameful as well as demands that they should be hidden from sight because they had a subversive influence on the American Indians. Moreover, given labour shortages in the colonies due to the Spanish not having a secure systematic supply of slave labour from Africa, poor people were also viewed as a potential economic resource in this context. The Franciscans, for example, would justify their appropriation of the poor as economic resources using the discourse of ‘charity’. Oppression was often labelled as ‘charity’, and McClure remarked that the language of charity became important in the justification of empire more broadly.

    In the colonial setting, we are faced with the overarching question surrounding the ways in which poverty interacted with race. McClure explained that she is still trying to grapple with the ways in which concepts of poverty were mapped onto an increasingly racialised colonial society. In some instances, we see that the Spanish classified the American Indians as ‘poor’ by labelling them as personas miserables. We also see that indigenous languages were sometimes referred to as ‘poor languages’ and that Franciscans wrote ‘poor bibles’ for the American Indians. But at the same time the American Indians could not access the rights promised to the poor in the colonies, since they had to appeal under the category of indos rather than that of the pobre (‘poor’). We see that poverty was a principle of governance used to order the world, yet the role that discourse on poverty played becomes even more complicated when we consider that it was not often used in regard to the condition of African slaves. McClure explained that in Spanish legal discourse slavery was distinguished from poverty, and that by excluding slaves from the category of the poor links to the wider project of dehumanizing slaves. Discourse on poverty, therefore, was also about defining the boundaries of the human.

Image: The “Realé” Returning to Port, anon., c.1694.

“How to tell the story of the slave trade without depicting bleeding dying Africans?”: A Question Posed by Lubaina Himid

Written by Scarlett Butler

Image: Lubaina Himid, Naming the Money (2004),, accessed 21 October 2018.

As Black History Month draws to a close, I am sure that many people are considering that phrase, ‘Black History Month’. Torn between the necessity of raising awareness of histories of the African-diaspora, and the discomfort that all we can do is one poultry and discrete month. I will argue that ‘Black History’ is not separable from any other form of history, and that the contributions of the black African diaspora in Europe are much older and more complex than is often presented. Here, I will discuss the presence of the free black African in the Renaissance period when the West African slave trade was expanding significantly.

The major story that Europe tells itself about western art is located in the ‘Renaissance’. It signals a series of giant leaps. One forwards into the great chain of artistic movements that would follow, and one backwards into the painted surface, given the emergence of realistic linear perspective. Before the Renaissance you can picture a medieval daub: flattened bodies, squashed faces, baby-Jesuses that look like 40-year-old divorcees. Here it is relevant to note that the height of the Renaissance around the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries coincided with the major expansion of the West African slave trade by Portuguese forces, often funded by Italian cash. The increased presence of black Africans in Western Europe, Italy and particularly the city of Venice was noted in the artwork of the time. Patrizia Battella further emphasises the significance of the convergence of the growing African slave trade with a significant period of elite white European self-definition, where the image of ‘blackness’ was often used as a foil to the positive qualities of supposedly civilised ‘whiteness’.

Although, as with every named historical period our concept of the Renaissance, its dates, and its very existence have been significantly questioned by revisionist historians. The Renaissance has been shattered into numerous fragments under the weight of postmodernist critique of overarching historical narratives. Here I would like to draw attention to one very notable shard; those images of black Africans without the distinctive markings of slavery, in particular the black African king who is displayed attending the birth of Christ and the black gondolier punters in Renaissance Venice.

In the medieval and early modern period, the King, or wise man, usually named Balthazar displayed a free and elite black African man in figurative art. This figure appears broadly across Western art, including in the Northern Renaissance. Sometimes he is shown with very dark skin, other times he is marked with a turban. This looseness of representation partly comes from the vague descriptive term ‘Moor’, the term used to describe this king and generally meaning African Muslim. Balthazar provides the final gift to Christ and tends to stand furthest from the Christ child. Many British school children are further informed of the gift the black African king brought, myrrh, in the hymn ‘We Three Kings’ written in 1857 by John H. Hopkins. One particular verse of this song is sung fearfully by school children around Britain without realising that it is specifically referencing Balthazar, who brought a gift of myrrh, symbolic of Christ’s future death. His verse demands to be read, if not sung in full to communicate it is particularly conspicuously sombre tone in an otherwise jolly song:

“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom; / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone cold tomb.”

This example is used to note the subtle – or not-so-subtle – coding with which these characters continue to display. Not all depictions of Balthazar and his message are so grim, however, the black African Christian convert is widely recognised as a key part of the Catholic church’s missionary aims on the African continent. The later convergence of Christian evangelism and brutal imperialism further complicates the legacy of such images.

Whilst the harrowing legacy of the slave trade ought to be more widely known, it is also important not to presume that all black Africans depicted in Renaissance art are slaves. These black gondoliers are ambiguous figures in the sense that we cannot be sure of their legal status. However, presuming their enslavement might be to repeat the totalising logic of the Renaissance European culture which repeatedly imagined – as Kate Lowe argues – that “all black Africans in Europe” were slaves, and that “by extension were only fit to be slaves.”

In this context, an image of a fashionably dressed, skilled and strong black African is certainly a relief from the chain of anonymous slave attendants, or pages, treated like ornaments and pets by elite Europeans. One such version of the free black African in the Renaissance is depicted in two paintings by Vittore Carpaccio, Hunting on the Lagoon, (1490-95) and Miracle of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto, (c.1496). These works feature stylishly dressed black African gondoliers in their depictions of late-fifteenth century Venice. Paul H. D. Kaplan notes that it was sometimes the custom for freed slaves to be given a gondola to provide a form of employment once they were released from service. This role is also mentioned in Marino Sanuto’s Guidebook to Venice (1493), which states that thousands of the city’s gondolas were propelled “by black Saracens, or by others who know how to row.” Kaplan also emphasises that black Africans were specifically meant to be very talented rowers and swimmers, which was recorded as fact by the Venetian aristocrat and traveller Alvise Ca’ da Mosto after his travels to what is now Gambia and Senegal. This might also help to explain the presence of a black African man about to jump into the lagoon water in the bottom right of Gentile Bellini’s painting Miracle at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, (1500).

This image of black Africans is still a product of an elite European male artist and the same was likely true of the buyer. Kate Lowe in particular emphasises the dangers of stereotyping which always bundles together a huge variety of people into one group. Even stereotypes which can initially seem positive function to further dehumanise that group. It is often difficult to untangle the mixture of negative and positive stereotypes that will always be linked together in their meaning and consequences. Often seemingly positive qualities described in African peoples, their athleticism or musical skills, were further utilised as signs of their ‘savage’ nature and their difference from civilised European nature. This process was at work in the Venice pictured by Gentile Bellini in his painting Miracle at the Bridge of San Lorenzo. In the foreground we see a black African man preparing to dive into the lagoon waters. This links to the stereotype of the strong swimmer and athletic African man. However, as Kaplan emphasises, the wooden Rialto bridge behind this figure was used in a ceremony enacted following the 1489 fugitive law in Venice which enshrined the punishment of slaves into law and immunity for anyone who killed a fugitive slave. The ceremony included the branding and beating of slaves who were “forced to run from Piazza San Marco to [the] Rialto” bridge, “as an example to the others.” It fuels the question – what would an Afro-Venetian of the period see in that picture? The modern connection between the white stereotyping of black individuals as athletic, strong and beautiful, and the deeply held racist assumptions about non-white people is laid out in a nuanced and chilling way in the recent horror film Get Out (2017), which I would highly recommend.

Some may have recognised a hypocrisy even in this well-meaning article with the use of the term ‘black African’. This term is patently too broad to even begin to cover the various experiences it is attempting to convey. As Rosalind Delmar stated about the word ‘woman’, the term is simply “too fragile to bear the weight of all the contents and meanings now ascribed to it.” One contemporary artist who is specifically grappling with historical depictions of the African diaspora in Western art is Lubaina Himid. Himid’s piece Naming the Money was first displayed in 2004 and was awarded the 2017 Turner Prize, a prestigious contemporary art award. This piece displays one hundred life-sized, beautifully illuminated, cut-out figures. Every person has a name and information about their life and their work. Each figure becomes humanised, individualised and works to counteract stereotypes of all kinds. Himid has said of her work in general that: “I need to do it because there are stories that need to be told. There are stories that aren’t being told. There are gaps in history that aren’t being filled.”

This approach is surely the right response. A response that goes beyond the broader narratives about the African diaspora to ensure history does not continue to dehumanise people whose role in society is so rich and entangled with the rest of the world. Himid asks “How to tell the story of the slave trade without depicting bleeding dying Africans?”, and her work answers.


  • Battella, Patrizia. “The Marked Body as Otherness in Renaissance Italian Culture.” In A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Renaissance, edited by Linda Kalof and William Bynum, 149-181. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
  • History Today. “Lubaina Himid: Naming the Un-named.” Last modified December 4, 2017.
  • Kaplan Paul H. D.. “Italy, 1490-1700.” In The Image of the Black in Western Art, vol 3, From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition, pt. 1, Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, edited by David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, 93-191. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Kaplan, Paul H. D. “Isabella d’Este and black African women.” In Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, 125-154. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Lowe, Kate. “The Stereotyping of black Africans in Renaissance Europe.” In Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, edited by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, 17-47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • McKee, Sally. “Domestic Slavery in Renaissance Italy.” Slavery and Abolition 29, no. 3 (2008): 305-326.
  • Noakes, Lucy. “British National Identity, Gender and the Second World War: An Introduction.” In War and the British: Gender, Memory and the National Identity, 1-22. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998.
  • Modern Oxford Art. “Re-Visit: Navigating Invisible Strategies – The Art of Lubaina Himid.” Last modified March 29, 2017.
  • Spike Island. “Lubaina Himid | ‘Naming the Money’ at Spike Island.” Accessed October 20, 2018.
  • Hull2017. “Lubaina Himid: Turner Prize 2017.” Accessed October 18, 2018.
  • Himid, Lubaina. “Naming the Money.” Accessed October 19, 2018.
  • Hopkins, John H. We Three Kings. Williamsport, PA: John H. Hopkins, 1857.



Cuba: Revolution on an Island

Written by Josh Newmark

Image: Marius Jovaiša’s  aerial photograph of Morro Castle and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, (Unseen Cuba / Marius Jovaisa),, accessed 21 October 2018.

Why revolutions happen, and why some succeed when others fail, have been topics of great interest to generations of historians. Cuba has been no exception, and has long been the subject of debates as to how an island 90 miles from the USA came to have an anti-American revolution, and how that revolution survived the Cold War intact. Here I will suggest that our understanding of the Cuban revolution would benefit from a nissological, that is, ‘island-studies’, lens.


    The first issue to consider is Cuba’s colonial experience. Cuba achieved independence from Spain long after continental Latin America, and subsequently became what Louis Perez refers to as America’s “obsessive compulsive disorder”. After intervening unnecessarily in Cuba’s independence struggle, the USA forced the republic to adopt the Platt Amendment in its new constitution. This gave Washington the right to intervene in Cuba to protect “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Cuba became what Luis Aguilar called “a protected Republic”; his old classmate Fidel Castro preferred the term “pseudo-republic”. The American media portrayed those hostile to this situation as ‘backwards’ little-islands, and themselves as “reluctant imperialists” who intervened magnanimously for their small island neighbours’ own good. All this constitutes a seemingly unique level of post-colonial foreign control. Yet Islanders around the world, from Ireland to the Falklands, will be familiar with the tendency of continental states to claim unwelcome ownership over them. As Grant McCall writes about how islanders have long been portrayed as “troublesome, close-minded, clannish… confounding the schemes concocted by more broad-minded continental dwellers who see the big picture, not the little photograph”. Obviously colonialism affected all kinds of territories, but Cuba’s case is distinctive for the Spanish reluctance to relinquish control, and American belief that Cuba was destined to be someone’s possession and might as well be theirs.

    Godfrey Baldacchino has explained how some smaller islands welcome semi-dependency on continental powers, and in Cuba some of the native bourgeoisie developed what Aguilar refers to as a “Plattist mentality”, supportive of the protectorate. But another way to think about the early republic’s experience of American neo-colonialism is Stephen Royle’s idea that islands experience “frustrated” decolonisation, and unwanted dependency. Indeed, mainland political and economic power was being used at the expense of islanders, as large American capitalists used Cuba’s liberal property laws to expropriate native landowners and capitalists – a growing foreign ownership disliked by natives as much as they had previously disliked the elite peninsulares from Spain. Compounding this, Cuba experienced a steady growth of vice, with imported prostitution and gambling industries turning Cuba into the “Las Vegas of the Caribbean” at the pleasure of US businessmen. Finally, US support for the 1952 coup and subsequent dictatorship of General Batista, a prototypical “gangster state”, which really exposed the mainland’s contempt for ordinary Cuban islanders. Did Cuba’s islandness contribute to this surfeit of contempt?

    Just as Cuba’s colonial and neo-colonial experience was likely intensified by its geographical islandness, this also shaped its anti-colonial revolution. Although often depicted as merely another totalitarian Communist state, revolutionary Cuba had a distinctly patriotic socialist revolution: it is independence hero and poet Jose Martí whose memorial towers above Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. Just as Castro did in the 50s, Martí had returned to the island by boat alongside other exiled comrades for the independence war, and this repeated image of the liberator returning to the island shore has greater popular currency in Cuban revolutionary memory than, for example, Lenin’s return to Petrograd on the sealed train ever had in the USSR. The revolutionary regime constantly propagates a rhetoric of fiery island defiance against the arrogant mainland. Islands everywhere have been sites of intense imagination, experimentation, and idealisation, and Cuba had an acutely utopian anti-colonial revolution, built on what Joseph Scarpaci and Armando Portela call an “intoxicating” island idealism. This distinctive sentimentality of Cuban communism, Castro’s use of a “mythical island geography”, might all be better understood through the prism of Thomas Eriksen’s concept of “cultural island phenomena”. As with biological diffusionism, continental cultural phenomena dispersed to islands take on peculiar island forms. Why not an islandised communism? Islanders everywhere have used their physical distance from the mainland as an engine for innovation in the political imagination – just think of the small body of water separating Britain from continental Europe, and its impact on British political culture.

    The aforementioned mainland covetousness towards islands, and island dependency on mainland protectors, helps us interpret the course of the Cuban revolution. Washington continued to hold Cuban sovereignty in an extraordinary level of contempt: outright state-sponsored terror has mercifully declined in recent years, but the longest continuous economic sanctions regime in modern history remains. Within two years of the revolution, under threat of an imminent US intervention (which eventually materialised in an abject failure at the Bay of Pigs) Castro proclaimed the revolution’s “socialist character” and praised Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. As Richard Gott puts it, “now it was the turn of the Russian Empire to assume the historic role of Cuba’s defender”. However, Castro simultaneously pursued a policy of independent internationalism, building relations within the non-aligned movement and supporting guerrilla struggles around the world, sometimes to Moscow’s chagrin. Most famously, Cuban troops fought in Angola’s independence struggle, fatally weakening apartheid South Africa. A small island thus became what Jorge Dominguez called an “unlikely ‘superpower’”.

    This internationalism could relate to the aforementioned island idealism – a desire for Cuba to be a vanguard island for the rest of the world. Alternatively, it and the Soviet realignment could be an extreme example of the “creative” political economy to which Baldacchino refers in discussing island adaptation – a survival strategy. For example, Cuba’s revolutionary status allowed it to benefit from positive terms of trade with the USSR and more recently Bolivarian Venezuela – effectively selling the geopolitical service of being an anti-American island off the American coast. As well as military assistance, Cuba has been able to export the surplus of medical and educational personnel generated by its socialist system, gaining economically and diplomatically: this “medical internationalism” continues in friendly Latin American countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela. Revolution, realignment, and internationalism therefore represented the ultimate island survival strategy. Since the fall of the Soviet bloc, Cuba has marketed its revolutionary heritage through a growing tourist industry.

    A final point that ought to be mentioned is migration. Emigration is a significant fact of islands everywhere (think of the enormous Irish diaspora, for example), with islanders romanticising metropolitan society just as mainlanders fantasise about island life; young Cubans dreamt of America long before the revolution. As well as the reality of a poor country on the doorstep of the USA, these are relevant facts when discussing the waves of emigration from Cuba. Moreover, in Cuba, emigration, or exile, has been a key part of revolutionary history. By 1966, the regime had effectively exported its political opponents and Cuba’s bourgeoisie through emigration. While this was in itself a violent act, the possibility for mass exile spared Cuba from experiencing a level of lethal terror and civil war comparable to that which has plagued most other revolutions – and the USA, uniquely, offers citizenship to Cubans who make it to their shores.

    Miguel Centeno contends that Cuba is “returning to Latin America” in a negative sense – transitioning from an island beacon of egalitarianism into just another place experiencing rising inequality and precariousness. Yet, arguably, Cuba has always been affected by global trends but able to deal with them in its own way – as with islands everywhere. For example, during the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cuba endured with much of its revolution intact. Nobody can predict the future, but if the argument of this essay is to be believed, the Cuban future, just like the Cuban past, will be marked by Cuba being an island, with national identity, international relations and other facets of politics shaped by the nation’s islandness. There is a duality of imagination when it comes to islands – they can be portrayed as a “utopia” of “cultural authenticity”, insulated from “decadent mainland cultures” (e.g. The Coral Island, 1857), but they can also be “a place of corruption and dislocation” and stagnation, backwards, stifling (e.g. Lord of the Flies, 1954). Indeed, Portes tells of a second-generation member of the Cuban exile community, visiting the island she had been taught was a wreck, was shocked by the “gorgeous” reality. Sumarliði Isleifsson teaches us, through the prism of discourses on Iceland and Greenland, that these contrasts are often “part of the international power dynamics of the time… a means of justifying which people had control over whom”. Who can deny that the island of Cuba has experienced a similar game of power?


Aguilar, L.E. (1993). Cuba, c.1860-c.1930. In Leslie Bethell (ed.) Cuba: a short history (21-55). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Baldacchino, G. (2006). Innovative development strategies from non-sovereign island jurisdictions? A global review of economic policy and governance practices. Island Studies Journal vol. 1(1), 852-867

Centeno, M.A. (2004). The return of Cuba to Latin America: the end of Cuban exceptionalism?. Bulletin of Latin American Research vol. 23(4), 403-413

Dominguez, J. (1993). Cuba since 1959. In Leslie Bethell (ed.) Cuba: a short history (95-148). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Eckstein, S.E. (2003). Back from the future: Cuba under Castro. New York: Routledge

Eriksen, T.H. (1993). In which sense do cultural islands exist?. Social Anthropology vol. 1(1b), 133-147

Fay, S. (2011). Liminal visitors to an island on the edge: Sartre and Ginsberg in revolutionary Cuba. Studies in Travel Writing vol. 15(4), 407-425

Gott, R. (2004). Cuba: a new history. New Haven: Yale University Press

Isleifsson, S.R. (2011). Islands on the edge. In Sumarlioi R. Isleifsson (ed.) Iceland and Images of the North (41-66). Québec: Presses de l’Université du Québec

McCall, G. (1996). Clearing confusion in a disembedded world: the case for Nissology. Geographische Zeitschrift vol. 84, 74-85

Perez Jnr.,  L.A. (1999). On becoming Cuban: identity, nationality and culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press

Perez Jnr., L.A. (2014). Cuba as an obsessive compulsive disorder. Located at – accessed 07/12/15)

Portes, A. (2007). The Cuban-American political machine: reflections on its origins and perpetuation. In Lawrence Whitehead and Bert Hoffmann (eds.) Debating Cuban exceptionalism (123-137). New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Royle, S.A., & Dodds, K. (2003). The historical geography of islands, introduction: rethinking islands. Journal of Historical Geography vol. 29(4), 487-498

Royle, S.A. (2010). Postcolonial culture on dependent island. Space and culture vol. 13(2), 203-215

Scarpaci, J.L., & Portela, A.H. (2009). Cuban landscapes: heritage, memory, and place. New York: The Guilford Press

Whitehead, L. (2007). On Cuban political exceptionalism. In Lawrence Whitehead and Bert Hoffmann (eds.)  Debating Cuban exceptionalism (1-26). New York: Palgrave Macmillan


The Use of History in the 2018 Labour Conference

Written by Chris Spencer

Image: Photograph of the 2018 Labour Conference,, accessed 21 October 2018.

Keynote speeches at this year’s Labour Party conference were especially notable for their use of history. Speeches were littered with anniversaries that, supposedly, socialists should celebrate. The centenary of female suffrage in Britain was an unsurprisingly consistent feature, but then there was John McDonnell’s vague allusion to the Parliamentarians of the seventeenth century as ‘our predecessors’, and Emily Thornberry’s recounting of the International Brigade’s plight in the Spanish Civil War, which she used to thread together her entire speech. Her point was to draw a parallel between the 1930s and our own time, conveying that again today there is a heroic cause against nationalism and fascism, a narrative that appeals to many left-wing activists. Socialist adherents have always blended strife in separate regions and periods into a linear, universal struggle which justifies socialism. However, we are seeing British Labour politicians implicate these ideas more fervently and conspicuously than at any recent time. History has an important role for any political party in articulating the experiences of the people it wants the support of. But is Labour getting its history right in accordance with who it needs to convince?

    History plays a pronounced role for Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in justifying his policies for Britain, particularly in the matter of nationalising utilities. At the conference, he reaffirmed his belief that Clause IV principles ‘are as relevant now as they were back then’ in 1918, when this clause committing Labour to collectivising industry was added to the Party’s constitution. Clause IV was removed in 1995. McDonnell’s historical parallel has a specific historical implication; it suggests the problems of that time are fundamentally the same as today, and that therefore the same solutions are warranted. The problem is that this is never true in history.

    By drawing a parallel to 1918, McDonnell avoids having to justify the policy by circumstances today and people’s standards. These are not the same as the standards of 1918. The manifestation of collectivisation then was largely a political manoeuvre to align Labour policy with its voter-base; unionised industrial workers who saw public ownership as a pathway to better wages and working conditions. Today, on the other hand, public ownership is largely proposed as a remedy to the high costs of living. Opinion polls suggest that nationalising utilities and the railway has significant support, but crucially, with the expectation that services should improve and prices go down, not nationalisation for its own sake. The cost and quality of services is the concern of people today, who are far more likely think as consumers than as industrial workers. The circumstances are different, which means the solutions to problems have to be too, especially as there is no assurance that bills will be cheaper if utilities are nationalised. This demonstrates the problem with McDonnell’s historical parallel. A policy which is justified by the reasons from a century ago risks being disconnected from what the public expects today.

    As is always the case with history, while the circumstances are never the same as the present, there is much that can be learned. The manifestation of Clause IV in 1918 was a reflection of Labour’s then engagement with the grievances of industrial workers whose support was essential in Labour’s bid for government. Again, Labour has to engage with the grievances and aspirations of people today in order to reach power. This is not just an issue of policy, it is an issue of narrative as well. Significantly, the public decides how to vote by listening to the kind of language which is spoken in politics. We are tuned most to the narratives which reflect how the world looks from where we are standing – how we live our lives, where we are from – this strongly arises from people’s conceptions and experiences of the past.

    Labour’s fundamental problem has arisen from this; recent debates in our politics have conditioned Labour in such a way that, you could say, its narrative transmitter has altered position. As a consequence, many people have found that they have been ‘tuned out’ of the language Labour speaks. Others have ‘tuned in’ as well – younger, more cosmopolitan elements of society who place value on higher degrees of openness socially and politically – however, the 2017 election and polling since has shown their support is not enough to decisively beat the Conservatives, even when that party is politically weak.

    The matter is highly associated with location. Research shows that Labour dominates in the big cities and its support in wealthier smaller towns and rural areas in England has grown. But in medium-sized and larger towns across Britain, Labour’s message isn’t getting through. Speeches at Labour Conference skirted around this issue, but a Labour Party Political Broadcast (PPB) released on the final day showed the first signs of Labour dealing with this problem. The PPB features scenes from the town of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire – a former Labour stronghold which Labour conceded to the Conservatives in 2017 – a town where 71 percent backed Brexit. It features little detail of Labour policy, but captures a tangible sense of loss in Mansfield and towns like it, stirringly stating ‘these streets were once full of spirits and held a proud community’. It is populist, yet it does powerfully reflect the sense of marginalisation that exists in the kinds of towns where Labour has been struggling. Crucially, it also reflects the strong place-based perceptions of community and identity that exists in much of Britain. It is probably not something which the wealthier cosmopolitan cohort of Labour supporters would identity with – for whom identity with place tends to be more fluid – but nothing is expressed in a way which would obviously discomfort those supporters.

    This expression of marginalisation and loss in place-based communities is important. In the EU referendum, that sense of marginalisation was imputed onto Britain as a nation, and Brexit became a way of bringing community back. In 2014, in Scotland’s less affluent urban areas, a similar sense endured to produce a higher impetus behind Scottish independence. Labour was not aligned with these sentiments in either debate.

    If Labour is going to win an election, it’s narrative needs to follow this trend and involve the stories of the kinds of communities it has lost the ear of. This should prompt Labour politicians in the kind of historical language they use. It must relate to communities and their perceptions of how over time politics and economics have affected them to produce the kinds of experiences people have now – in jobs, housing or family life. It may be edifying to draw parallels between yourself and ‘heroic’ plights of the past, but ultimately people will not see the ideological battle-lines of the Spanish Civil War or the English Civil War reflected in their communities. Secondly, Labour has to prioritise the policies most likely to bring tangible benefits that the public can relate to. What will not be acceptable to these voters and communities, are policies which pour money into solutions justified by twentieth century socialist history, but bring only theoretical benefits to people today.

The Armenian Genocide: Revisiting Turkish Denial

Written by Martha Stutchbury

Image: Rita Willaert’s 2008 photograph of the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan., accessed 21 October 2018.

On 10 October 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged and condemned the Armenian Genocide during a speech delivered at the Yerevan Memorial, continuing France’s longstanding policy of officially recognising the disaster. However, global acknowledgement of the genocide remains unachieved. This article re-examines the mass slaughter of Armenians in 1915, and explores the refusal of the Turkish government to acknowledge that any deliberately genocidal policies were undertaken during this period, with government officials instead choosing to defend Ottoman rulers against the notion of a genocide ‘as if they were still alive’.

    At the beginning of the fourth century, the Armenians became the first nation in the world to confirm Christianity as its official religion. The country was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century – an expansive state dominated in population and leadership by Sunni Muslims. By the twentieth century, with the Empire having been under the control of the Young Turks from 1908, Armenians were a disproportionately prosperous group within the region, understood to have developed a ‘distinct and separate culture’ to their Ottoman neighbours, and were consequently branded by the de facto government as ‘saboteurs’. The religious and cultural differences of the Armenians generated an atmosphere of resentment amongst the Sunni population, somewhat mirroring the growing hostility towards the Jewish community in Germany at the time. The Empire’s failures in the early stages of WWI increased this anti-Armenian sentiment, which arguably resulted in the targeting of Ottoman-Armenians as a group towards whom anger and frustration at the decline of the Empire could be directed. It is in this political climate that genocide against the Armenian population took place.

    In 2018, any country’s use of the term ‘genocide’ to describe these postwar events damages its diplomatic relations with Turkey, whose government and population deny any deliberate genocidal policy, but it remains the case that the Armenian population endured a dramatic reduction after 1915, from approximately 2 million just prior to the First World War, to fewer than 400,000 by 1922, though numerical reports vary significantly. Surviving Armenians and their descendants campaign continuously for universal recognition of their tragedy.

    For those who acknowledge the genocide as a deliberate policy of extermination by the government, its start date is commonly assigned to 24 April 1915. On this day in Constantinople, directives were issued by Talaat Pasha and enforced by provincial Ottoman leaders, notably Governor Mehmed Reshid of Diyarbakir, to gather Armenian intellectuals and political leaders for deportation. It is argued by many Armenians that the intent behind the deportation, and eventual execution, of the majority of these individuals was to leave the Armenian population ‘leaderless’ before beginning the process of general Armenian displacement.

    What followed was a policy of ‘relocation’ of the Armenians, sanctioned by the passing of the Tehcir Law in the following month. This legislation authorised the deportation, as well as property confiscation, of the Ottoman-Armenian population, on the grounds of increased militancy and violence against citizens of the Empire: ‘the Armenian riots and massacres… are a threat to national security’. The ethnically fuelled hostility that motivated this legislation is further highlighted by Talaat Pasha, one of the three CUP (Committee of Union and Progress) leaders that ruled the Ottoman Empire during the First World War: ‘we will not have the Armenians anywhere in Anatolia. They can live in the desert but nowhere else’.

    This mass relocation resulted in the displacement and forced migration of Armenian families through the Mesopotamian desert, with deliberate withholding of life-sustaining provisions by the soldiers that had removed them from their homes. First-hand Armenian accounts of this journey recall orders to strip naked in the desert heat, and cite memories of their weak or struggling neighbours being shot by Talaat’s soldiers. Throughout 1915 to 1916, the persecution of the Armenian peoples continued through the activities of Tteskilat i-Mahsusa, or ‘Special Organisation’, founded by Enver Pasha in November 1913, which employed tactics against the Armenians including mass burnings and drownings, such as through the deliberate capsizing of cohorts in the Black Sea.

The Turkish government places the number of deaths during this period at approximately 300,000, whilst always simultaneously highlighting the plight of ethnic Turks during this period of upheaval, whereas many historians place the number at closer to 1.5 million. When asked to explain this loss of life without acknowledgment of any official Turkish policies of ‘extermination’, Dr Yusuf Halaçoglu, President of the Turkish Historical Society, claims that the deaths of such large numbers, including women and children, was made inevitable by ‘problems with large scale relocation’. In other words, the deaths of at least 300,000 Armenians can be attributed to practical or logistical issues involved in the deportation. The modern Turkish government maintains that there were no calculated genocidal policies aimed towards the Armenians.

    Some of the most convincing evidence for the Turkish government’s involvement in the genocide comes from the literature of American ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr, whose official document United States Official Records on the Armenian Genocide contrasts, through its very name, America’s complex attitudes over whether to acknowledge the genocide. For example, President Clinton and Bush both failed to acknowledge Armenian suffering, despite campaign promises to do so by both of these leaders. The ambassador provides accounts of his personal interactions with the Pashas and other government officials involved in the massacre of Armenians, claiming that: ‘When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race’.

    According to a popular Armenian phrase, to have their genocide denied is to ‘die twice’ – making continued assessment and publicity of the tragedy – which must be universally regarded as the first genocide of the twentieth century, pressingly relevant to the present day.


Public Lecture Review: Janet Philp’s The Anatomy of Pirates

Written by Carissa Chew

Image: Sketch of Jacque Alexander Tardy’s skull, front view

Coinciding with ‘International Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day’, on 19 September 2018, Janet Philp delivered a compelling lecture that inquired into the University of Edinburgh Anatomical Museum’s collection of pirate skull casts. Philp set out to answer the two key questions on her audience’s mind: who were these so-called ‘pirates’ and how did casts of their skulls find their way to Edinburgh? At the front of the lecture hall, there were five skulls on display, four of which represented a single group of pirates who had met their collective demise in 1827. This group, comprised of Jose Murando (‘Courro’), Jose Hilario Casares (‘Pepe’) and Felix Barbeito, was headed by the infamous Jacque Alexander Tardy – and it was Tardy’s story that was the central focus of Philp’s lecture.

    In introducing Tardy, Philp pointed to the first row of the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, where a life-size model of Tardy was seated, holding a pen in its hand as if ready to take notes. Philp explained that this mannequin had been carefully produced by Amy Thorton at the University of Dundee. The process of facial reconstruction involved the laser scanning of his skull cast, followed by the digital rendering of his mandible (which is missing from the cast), and the 3D printing of the life-size, complete skull. Thorton then added facial ‘muscles’ according to the average facial muscle thickness of men of Tardy’s ethnic background, before placing a silicon ‘skin’ over the top. Whilst some features, such as nose shape, can be accurately reconstructed from the skull, other features, such as ears, cannot. This model, therefore, reflects Thorton’s own artistic interpretation to some degree, but Philp remarked that its appearance closely matches court descriptions of Tardy’s exterior. After describing this interesting instance of interdisciplinary collaboration between forensic art, science, and the humanities, Philp began the peculiar story of Tardy’s life and his unusual – and perhaps underwhelming – pirate activities.

Jacque Alexander Tardy

Jacque Alexander Tardy (1767-1827) was born into a wealthy household in France in 1767. At the age of 19, his family fled from the French Revolution and relocated to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), which was under French colonial rule at the time. There, his family settled as plantation owners, before fleeing from the anti-colonial and anti-slavery Haitian Revolution that broke out in 1791. After the family moved to Philadelphia, Tardy went on to travel around America, working as a tin smith.

    Tardy’s criminal or ‘pirate’ behaviour did not emerge until late in his life, beginning in 1812 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 45. Whilst serving, it was discovered that he had been stealing his Captain’s belongings and selling them to other officers, and he was flogged on board the ship as punishment. Tardy served his full term, however, and was officially dismissed on 8 March 1814. Back onshore, Tardy’s shifty behaviour continued. He impersonated a Frenchman in an attempt to retrieve property; his incessant interest in poison whilst training as a dentist aroused suspicion, and he was caught red-handed with a notebook that he had stolen from Captain George Washington Balch. For this latter crime, in which the sensitive contents of the notebook are not known, he was sentenced to three days in solitary confinement, followed by three years of hard labour at Charleston State Prison. Tardy had descended into a life of crime, and from this point onward he would be in and out of prison on multiple occasions.

    Following his release from Charleston in December 1816, Tardy boarded the Maria. Tardy poisoned eight people aboard the ship, having laced their breakfasts with arsenic. He then claimed to be a medical doctor, prescribing his victims castor oil and warning them to refrain from drinking water. One of the passengers, a man from North Carolina, however, died before they could reach the shore. Tardy framed the ship’s cook, a black man named John Gibson, who was subsequently tried and hanged for the crime, despite protesting his innocence.

    In June that same year, Tardy gained entry on board another ship, the Regulator, which was heading from Boston to Philadelphia. He entertained himself once again by poisoning the passengers and crew, this time spiking the sugar with arsenic. After drinking the poison in their morning coffee, the victims were prescribed another oil by Tardy, who was continuing to pose as a trained doctor. This time, Tardy’s mischief resulted in the death of a German citizen named Godfrey Daniel Lehman. Tardy again attempted to frame the black cook on board the ship, but aroused suspicion when he insisted that Lehman had left him his possessions. The Captain, who trusted the cook whom he had worked with for many years, refused to hand over the dead man’s possessions to Tardy. Once they reached the shore Tardy was taken to court, but due to lack of testimony, he was only convicted on the grounds of conspiracy to poison the crew of a vessel. He was sentenced to seven years of hard labour at Walnut Street Prison.

    Undeterred, Tardy attempted to board yet another ship following his release in November 1825. His identity was recognised, however, and he was refused entry. He then briefly settled in Charleston, where he advertised himself as a dentist, but by November he was back to his old tricks and was caught trying to steal a boat docked in Charleston, the Cora. Tardy had conspired with two of the ship’s crew members, but he was caught red-handed when Cora’s owners ambushed him. Tardy found himself back in prison, where he served two years at Old Charleston Jail.

Tardy and the 1827 pirate ambush of the Crawford

After serving yet more jail time, Tardy travelled to Cuba where he met his co-conspirators, ‘Courro’, ‘Pepe’, and Barbieto. Together, they plotted to steal a ship and flee to Africa, where they could get rich from the Atlantic slave trade.

    Posing as a doctor yet again, Tardy prescribed Captain Henry Brightman some asthma medicine. The medicine was effective, and so Tardy, having gained the Captain’s trust, was invited along with his men on board the Crawford. After postponing their plan to take over the ship for a short time due to seasickness, Tardy began his attempts to poison the breakfast. Each morning, he would put his ‘spices’ on the eggs, but the cook refused to serve the food that Tardy had contaminated. When the Captain suddenly fell ill, however, Tardy decided to purposefully spill the hot chocolate, and poisoned the drink when he went to refill it. Within a few hours, everyone on board the ship fell ill, with one of the worst suffering victims being the ship’s First Mate, Edmond Dobson. Tardy’s activities aroused the suspicion of one of the men on board the ship, however, and this man, Norman Robson, warned Dobson not to take the medicine that Tardy had prescribed him.

    In the early hours of the morning on 1 June 1827, the pirates put into action their violent plan to take over the ship. Joseph Doliver, who was at the helm at the time, was approached by Tardy who pretended to ask about the ship’s course before ambushing him and slitting his throat. Doliver survived these injuries and managed to escape to the highest mast. Tardy, however, gave a clapping signal to his co-conspirators to awaken the other passengers below deck, and chaos ensued. Upon hearing the screams of the pirates, the passengers and crew members who were below deck ran up the stairs to see what the commotion was, only to be attacked by Courro, Pepe, and Barbieto, who were armed with axes. The pirates killed most of their targets in this brawl; amidst the chaos, however, Robson and one other passenger had jumped overboard, whilst Dobson, Doliver, and one other man, Oliver Potter, had escaped to the highest mast.

    Tardy persuaded the First Mate Dobson to come down and join them, promising that they would not harm him. The pirates then talked Doliver into descending from the mast, but Courro stabbed him at the first opportunity. Witnessing this, Potter then refused to come down, but he soon died from his severe stomach wounds and fell into the sea. The only survivors in addition to the four pirates were Dobson, who was needed to steer the ship; a French passenger, whom Tardy did not want to kill out of fear of being outnumbered by the Spaniards; and the black cook, who they relied on for food. Realising that they did not have a sufficient crew nor necessary resources to enter the Atlantic slave trade yet, the pirates decided to head towards shore at Norfolk, where they hoped Tardy would not be recognised.

    When Tardy asked Dobson to prepare an oar boat and lower it into the sea, however, Dobson took the opportunity to escape. Reaching land, Dobson convinced the officers at Fort Monroe to go after the pirates and arrest them. To avoid capture, Tardy committed suicide by slitting his own throat in the captain’s quarters of the Crawford. Courro, Pepe, and Barbieto attempted to escape overboard in a rowing boat. They were soon tracked down, however, and arrested by local U.S. soldiers.

    The three pirates faced trial in 1827, and it is from the proceedings of this court case, Philp explained, where we get most of our information regarding the events on board the ship. The French passenger and Edmond Dobson were called to testify as witnesses, and even though they spoke different languages (and thus could not communicate with one another), their testimonies were found to be almost identical. The jury deemed the three men guilty, and they were sentenced to be hanged. Thousands of civilians came to see the pirates paraded around the town of Richmond before being executed, and hundreds gasped with horror as two of the ropes broke and the men had to be re-hanged.

Galvinism, Phrenology, and Pirate Anatomy

The burial of the pirates did not mark the end of their tale, however. Given the popularity of the theory of galvanism at this time, most famously explored in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1918), the U.S. military demanded that the bodies of Tardy, Courro, Pepe, and Barbieto be exhumed and experimented upon. The corpses of the pirates were treated with electricity in an attempt to bring them back to life.

    Following the failure to revive the pirates in this way, the Washington Phrenological Society contacted the U.S. military, requesting the skulls of the four men. Phrenology was another popular pseudo-science in this era, and these pirate skulls seemed to offer phrenologists an opportunity to investigate the relationship between head shape and criminality. The skulls were subsequently prepared and sent to Washington, where three plaster casts were made of each skull. These casts were sent to the phrenological societies in London, Liverpool, and Edinburgh.

    As is well-documented in the Anatomical Museum collections of death masks, life masks, and busts, the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, founded in 1820 by George Combe, was a major force in the development of the field of phrenology in Britain. The ‘science’ of phrenology, however, came under scrutiny, and one of its main opponents in Edinburgh was Thomas Stone, who argued that phrenological readings were inadequate. Using the skull of serial killer William Burke (also on display at the Anatomical Museum), for example, he had pointed out that, according to phrenology, Burke had a large area of benevolence and a small area of destructiveness. This, of course, failed to account for Burke’s murderous activities. In Edinburgh, the pirate skulls came to be used as evidence in the debate over the legitimacy of phrenology as a ‘science’, with Stone and Combe bitterly disagreeing over their readings for the skull of Pepe. However, it eventually came to light that Stone was in fact analysing the skull of a different pirate who was also known as ‘Pepe’.

    Thus, we finally arrive at the fifth skull in the collection. This final skull belonged to a pirate leader who resided in Cuba. He was perceived as the nemesis of Captain Graham from the British Navy, who had been sent to Cuba to rid the island of piracy. Graham had lost many men in this battle with the pirates, and he was relieved to have one day discovered the dead body of their leader, the revered and apparently highly intellectual Pepe. Pepe had supposedly injured himself when his gun backfired, and then died of his injuries when trying to flee. The skull of this allegedly spectacular criminal was sent back to Britain, and was donated to the to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society by Graham’s brother in the 1820s.

    All in all, Philp’s discussion of these five pirate skulls offered a fascinating insight into various different aspects of the early nineteenth-century world – including revolutionary politics, (pseudo)scientific debates, and criminal law. These skulls are emblematic of the beginnings of a transnational world in which families sailed from the metropole to the colonies; in which French, American, German, and Spanish men boarded the same ships; in which slaves were transported across the Atlantic; and in which human remains found their way from Washington and Cuba to Edinburgh. Perhaps the most poignant thing I noticed about these pirate stories, however, is that they reveal that piracy was merely one violent aspect in a broader, violent world of revolution, colonialism, war, slavery, capital punishment, and racism (which was itself legitimised by pseudosciences such as phrenology).


Jodhaa-Akbar: Bollywood’s historical farce or romantic epic?

Written by Laila Ghaffar

Image: Still from Jodhaa-Akbar (2008),, accessed 21 October 2018

While browsing Netflix the other day, I noticed a new addition to my ‘suggested’ list. The thumbnail displayed two well defined side profiles of two of Bollywood’s biggest stars: Hrithik Roshan clad in silver armour, and Aishwariya Rai in an ornate gown. Above their heads, the title: ‘Jodhaa Akbar’ is scrawled in golden cursive. A swift click on the image revealed that the film is a re-telling of the famed story of the marriage between the Mughal Emperor Akbar and his Hindu Rajput Princess Jodhaa. There are few things I love more than a romantic historical film, especially when it is a full-blown Bollywood extravaganza, so naturally I had to press play.

    The film more than delivers on its promise of opulence. Every frame is visually stunning. Every man and woman is dripping in jewels and dressed in impossibly intricate embroidered costume.  Director Ashutosh Gorwariker spares no thrill – every detail from the immense Mughal architecture to the elephants and dancing peacocks is provided for in abundance. There are, needless to say, unnecessarily long song and dance sequences which are characteristic of Bollywood films, but I was prepared to overlook them.

    What I was not prepared to overlook, however, was the relative ease with which the story plays out. The film’s essential plot is quite basic: the Muslim Emperor marries the Hindu princess after her father forms an alliance with him. She then lives in his court based in Agra, from where the Mughals controlled their vast empire including modern-day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This marriage seems to have produced a fairly limited backlash – in fact the most threatening opponent is Akbar’s elderly and malicious governess. The protagonists fall in love, and their story conforms to a very basic ‘boy meets girl’ narrative archetype. They take leisurely strolls together and frolic in rose gardens. In our contemporary world, there is still a great deal of taboo surrounding the marriage between a Hindu and a Muslim in the Subcontinent. However, this film suggests that back in the sixteenth century, this marriage – between two members of royalty no less – was considered normal.

    So I decided to do a bit of research. And what I found is that what the film dilutes is not necessarily a compelling romance, but the story of Akbar, an exceptional man and ruler. Akbar’s tolerance for different religions was remarkable. Whereas his predecessors attempted to persecute religious minorities in order to strengthen their own authority as Muslim rulers, Akbar largely promoted tolerance and peace.  Before his succession, it had been common practice to heavily tax Hindus going on pilgrimages. Akbar did not just get rid of the tax, but actively encouraged open discussion and debate pertaining to religion. This interest in theology and spirituality lead the Emperor to promote the mystic notion of ‘Suhl-i-kul,’ meaning ‘peace with all’ in Arabic. This philosophy enabled him to energetically promote the participation of Hindus and other minority groups in forming legislation and participating in his court. Although Akbar himself personally adhered closely to the principles of Islam, he did not insist on its dominance over other religions, and put an end to the forced conversion of prisoners of war. During a time where the Mughals were still perceived as foreign invaders, Akbar’s decision to encourage religious diversity in society rather than simply consolidate his own political power gave rise to a unique cultural identity across the empire.

    As for his famed marriage to Jodhaa, the story is not as clear-cut as the movie would have us believe. Firstly, there are no records of anybody named ‘Jodhaa’ in either primary sources by eyewitnesses, nor in the Akbarnama, a chronicle of Akbar’s life commissioned by the Emperor himself.  There are, however, mentions of a wife called Mariam-uz-Zamani. It was not uncommon for royal wives to change names upon entering their husband’s court. However, the lack of any concrete evidence regarding Jodhaa’s background casts doubt as to whether she truly was the daughter of a powerful Rajput king. Jodhaa’s alleged background is even less likely given the fact that the union between her and Akbar resulted in the birth of Jahangir, the heir to the Mughal throne – as this surely would have been exploited as a propaganda device to strengthen the alliance between Rajputs and Mughals. Many historians have tried to provide a narrative to fill the gaps in our understanding of Jodhaa, and their suggestions range from plausible to plainly ridiculous. One historian who fits under the latter category is Luis de Assis Correia, who claims in his book Portuguese India and Mughal Relations 1510-1735 that Jodha was in-fact a Portuguese prisoner named Dona Maria Mascarenhas. According to Correia, when the eighteen-year-old Dona was presented to the Emperor as a gift, he fell in love with her and married her. Correia suggests that the shame of a foreign Catholic bearing the heir to the Mughal empire is the reason why her narrative has been deliberately omitted by the records. However romantic this notion is, it is rooted in very little, unconvincing evidence.

    The film also suggests that the marriage was a loving one – Jodhaa is depicted to be the only wife in Akbar’s court. In reality, she was one of the many wives of Akbar. The emperor married strategically rather than for love, and the exact number of his wives has been debated among historians. Some estimate that it was around thirty in total. But the number of women present in the royal court greatly outnumbers this figure. The historian Alex von Tunzelmann claims that the emperor harboured several thousand concubines in his royal harem. So as much as we would like to believe otherwise, if Akbar loved Jodha, she was only one in a long line of loves. Furthermore, it is very possible that she was not his only Hindu wife – it is estimated that the Emperor had at least three other Hindu wives who he allowed to practice their religion freely, even joining in on some of their rituals and rites.

    So, while Bollywood may have lulled us into a fantasy world of love and longing, the film falls short on conveying the magnitude of Akbar’s achievements. I would still watch it for the visual treat that it is, but just take heed of the warning at the beginning of the film: ‘this is just one version of historical events. There could be other versions and viewpoints to it.’

Ancient Invisible Cities by Dr. Michael Scott: Istanbul

Written by Toby Gay

Image: Photograph of Dr. Michael Scott as promo for BBC series, Ancient Invisible Cities

Dr. Michael Scott concludes his three-part series Ancient Invisible Cities with its strongest episode: Istanbul. Combining his typically smooth enthusiasm with the latest 3D scanning technology, Scott allows the visuals to do most of the work in revealing the stunning archaeological and architectural treasures of this multifaceted and secretive metropolis.

    Unfortunately, this more passive role means that the presenter sometimes neglects his role of describing the outstanding and dramatic history of the city, especially of the early Byzantine period. Instead of explaining the significant role the city played in the rise of the Silk Road (as the excellent Dr. Sam Willis did two years ago), and its vital, unique geography with the Golden Horn harbour, Scott heads straight for the jugular: the Hagia Sophia, which was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years.

    This is understandable, however, as the Hagia Sophia is such an incredible building that it was worth cutting all the customary preamble to focus on it. The 3D scanning, while awkwardly presented (‘You can’t do that in real life!’), is truly fascinating in how it uncovers the engineering masterstrokes it took to build the huge dome. The exquisite angels on the pendentive, now plastered over, are shown to be holding up this now very fragile and ‘bumpy’ centrepiece – quite literally holding up heaven. Even if he fails to tell the story of Constantine, and his reshaping of Byzantium into the Romanesque Constantinople (renamed as Istanbul in 1928), Scott does a wonderful job of bringing to life the character of Emperor Justinian – who built the cathedral.

    Sadly, Scott only discusses the Muslim amendments to the former cathedral after a 40-minute hiatus, by which time the audience, filled with information about beautifully preserved Christian mosaics and Roman aqueducts and forgotten colossal hippodromes and city walls, is unable to understand the complex architectural history of this World Heritage Site. The presenter makes up for this by exploring the city in virtual reality, a genuinely funny but also fascinating gimmick. However, Scott surely cannot be forgiven for spending so little time on the modern, Muslim history of the city, which started in 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II conquered it with the use of gunpowder – the first time the substance had been used in Western history. Despite indulging in a little of the local street food as a premise for exploring the remarkable success of multiculturalism in early-twentieth century Istanbul, Scott times this programme quite poorly, spending little time on the wonderful Muslim architecture and artefacts of the Sultan Ahmed mosque, and even less on the culturally-diverse domestic lives of the İstanbullu which are still influenced by the long history of the city.

    All in all, this is a programme well worth watching; the narrative succeeds in drawing a line between the ancient past and the current day, unlike its predecessors on Athens and Cairo. Although it is a little torn between history and archaeology, Muslim and Christian architecture, this can be put down to the magnitude of this great city’s heritage. At a time when the West and the East are threatening to pull Turkey apart over the Syrian crisis, along with the furore over the recent death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it is reassuring to remember that this country and its cultural capital have endured it all over the last 1800 hundred years.

Gods of Euripides

Written by Lisa Doyle

Image: Bust of Euripides. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from c. 330 BC.

There are many manifestations of divinity in the work of Euripides, the fifth century BC Athenian tragedian. For example, in his plays we see numerous depictions of the Olympian gods, the appearance of other minor deities, and mortal characters in pursuit of divine status. I believe it would be beneficial to survey the conduct of these divine characters in Euripides’ plays, focusing on just a few examples, and assess the implications of their behaviour.

Although Euripides manipulates the behaviour and characteristics of the gods, he does so within the constraints of a literary and mythological tradition in order to ensure that his plays are credible and intelligible to the audience. Firstly, the presence of the gods reaffirms the ultimate divide between mortal and divine. Many characters in Euripidean tragedy try to transcend this divide, such as the titular character of Hippolytus, who rejects human norms of sexual conduct in his divine devotion to Artemis, and of course Medea, from the eponymous play, who receives support and assistance from the gods as her actions appear to be vindicated by divinity. As Hippolytus and Medea attempt respectively to transcend the divide between mortal and divine, both characters seem to lose sight of human values. We need only take one notable example to see this, the concept of sophrosyne. Typically interpreted as meaning ‘self-control’, sophrosyne was a central Greek value in antiquity, informing the behaviour of men and women in many different ways. For example, it instructs men to exercise restraint in political affairs, and both men and women to control their desires. Another important facet of sophrosyne is that it requires humility towards the gods.


Although Euripides allows this transcendence for certain characters, who seems to reach the unique moral plane of the divine, we are quickly reminded of the consequences on a human level. That Euripides’ depiction of the gods in his plays is a device by which the humanity of his mortal characters can be explored is a common notion in Euripidean scholarship. This focus on humanity is evident throughout his work and is especially prominent in Hippolytus. Although he revises his previous misunderstanding of sophrosyne at the end of the play, the distance between mortals and deities is confirmed as Hippolytus appears to be deserted by Artemis on his deathbed. The polarity between divine and human is therefore reaffirmed.

By analysing the actions of the gods and the motivations of their behaviour, we can assess if they are subject to the same ethical constraints as mortals. The divine world is ultimately characterised by an infinite cycle of revenge, and this represents the disconnect between the human recognition of virtue and the extreme nature of divine behaviour. The concepts of revenge and justice are key motives of the behaviour of deities.  Indeed, it is one of many divine qualities illustrated by Medea. As she acquires what seems to be semi-divine status, or simply by acquiring divine support for her cause, Medea illustrates a divine quality as she regards the manifestation of sophrosyne which requires honour and respect towards the gods. Similar to other divine figures, she is concerned not with how sophrosyne should inform her own behaviour but with how it should inform the behaviour of those who owe her respect.  

There are many examples of the infinite cycle of revenge which characterises the divine world. We see examples of the gods’ punishment of mortals being out of proportion to the offence committed by the mortal in the first place. These acts of revenge display no moderation. This is exemplified in Andromache by Apollo’s harsh punishment of Neoptolemus, who demonstrated his sophrosyne to Apollo as he wished to pay respect for previously demanding satisfaction for his father’s death. Apollo’s violent response in assisting in the brutal murder of Neoptolemus displayed no moderation and is denounced repeatedly in the play by characters such as Thetis. A similar conflict may be found in Bacchae as Pentheus displays no humility towards Dionysus and is subsequently subject to Dionysus’ violent revenge. These plays imply that humans must engage only in humility and respect towards the gods, as sophrosyne requires.

However, the function of divine characters in Euripides’ plays is not to imply that the ethical conduct of the gods themselves must be imitated. We can confirm this by looking at the example of Peleus who is deified at the end of Andromache. His awareness of sophrosyne, and ability to point out that it was a virtue that was lacking in other characters in the play, seems to be justified and rewarded by Thetis. Now that he has acquired godlike status, perhaps we can infer that other divine figures do, in fact, understand the requirements of human moral conduct but their superiority in knowledge and power enables them to disregard even those who show humility towards them. Furthermore, we can surmise that the desire for revenge which characterises divine behaviour simply does not correlate with a civilised society such as Athens in the fifth century BC. In fact, divine characters demonstrate only an understanding and awareness of ethical concepts – but not a mastery over them. Moreover, divine conduct is not regulated by the same civil demands as human conduct.

As we have demonstrated, divine characters in Euripidean tragedy serve to tell us more about human action and how misjudgements in moral conduct have consequences for mortals. It has been established that the gods themselves are not expected to possess sophrosyne and other values, but rather a comprehension of the concepts so as to enforce their relevance on a human level. Ultimately, what we see in these plays is that the behaviour of the gods is not exemplary nor worthy of imitation.



Blomqvist, J. (1982) ‘Human and Divine Action in Euripides’ Hippolytus’. Hermes 110.4: 398-414.

Goff, B.E. (1990) The Noose of Words: Readings of Desire, Violence and Language in Euripides’ Hippolytos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Knox, B.M.W. (1983) ‘The Medea of Euripides’. In: Segal, E. (ed.) Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 272-293.

Luschnig, C.A.E. (2007) Granddaughter of the Sun: A Study of Euripides’ Medea. Leiden: Brill.

Mastronarde, D. (2008) ‘The Gods’. In: Gregory, J. (ed.) A Companion to Greek Tragedy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 321-332.

Parker, R. (1997) ‘Gods Cruel and Kind: Tragic and Civic Theology’. In: Pelling, C. (ed.) Greek Tragedy and the Historian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 143-160.

Rademaker, A. (2005) Sophrosyne and the Rhetoric of Self-restraint: Polysemy & Persuasive Use of an Ancient Greek Value Term. Leiden: Brill.

Stevens, P.T. (ed.) (1971) Euripides: Andromache. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Alfred Dreyfus and France: A Crisis of Identity

Written by Luke Neill

Image: Devil’s Island, Encyclopaedia Britannica,, accessed: 21 October 2018.

On the 14 April 1895, Alfred Dreyfus arrived on the Devil’s Island, a French penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He had been sent there for life imprisonment as its sole prisoner. Bound in chains in a small stone hut for most of the day, his only solace was the infrequent and strongly censored communication with his wife Lucie. In the months preceding his imprisonment, Dreyfus had been convicted of treason for exchanging secret information about the French military with the German Embassy in Paris. He was publicly stripped of his rank as Major in front of a baying crowd. But in 1906, after almost ten years of imprisonment, he was exonerated of all charges.

    Far from being a badly handled mistake on behalf of the French authorities, the Dreyfus Affair is important because it constituted one of the most influential miscarriages of justice in modern history, the implications of which were felt not just by Dreyfus in his brutal confinement, but across the whole spectrum of French society at the time.

    The details of Dreyfus’s story, however, are complicated. When evidence emerged that information about French artillery positions was transferred with the Germans, the French secret police looked for suspects in the French military. Dreyfus, a Jew, was immediately singled out and accused. When new evidence emerged that there was a much more credible suspect – a Major, Walsin-Esterhazy, who had serious debts and a history in counterintelligence – it was immediately silenced. When public outcry forced the trial of Esterhazy, he was very quickly acquitted. More evidence was produced through the work of Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picqaurt, which led to another trial of Dreyfus at which he was again convicted of treason, largely because of documents that had been fabricated by the military’s General Staff. After the trials of several other men, the splitting of France into two separate camps and immense pressure placed on the French government, the Supreme Court finally reversed the verdict over 10 years after the initial conviction. The reasons why such an injustice happened can be put down to a clash in two separate identities: that of Dreyfus, and that of the French governing class.

    France at the time was in the throes of a transformation of its identity. Defeat of the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 and the consequent loss of Alsace and the Moselle was still a source of humiliation for many at the time of the Affair. Moreover, at a time when British imperial hegemony and economic expansion in the United States was starting to take off, it would have been increasingly hard to reconcile the triumphant republican values espoused by the Revolution with the military defeats, economic woes, and internal divisions of what was now the Third French Republic. The alliance in 1894 between France and Russia was evidence enough of this – France did not have the strength nor the resources to face Prussia and was forced to settle on an alliance with a Tsarist autocracy to level the field.

    This made the nature of the secret information leaked to the Germans especially important. Knowledge of collusion between the French military and the German Embassy soured relations between countries that were already strained. This left gaping insecurities within the French military, which, knowing that it was one of their own who must have traded the information, took the first opportunity they could to arrest any potential conspirator, avoiding any accusation that they had not dealt swiftly with the problem. Public opinion was equally important. The banishment of the prime suspect to a desolate rock in South America was supposed to be symbolic of the military’s resolution in the matter, but in fact exemplified the vulnerability of the military to any sort of threat. Dreyfus therefore involuntarily found himself at the behest of a deeply insecure state, which needed to find a convenient scapegoat for the scandal.

    However, this explanation only explains half of the story. Dreyfus was an affluent Alsatian Jew. As the Affair progressed, it became more and more obvious that the conviction and imprisonment of Dreyfus was not a question of innocence or guilt, but was more the need to convict someone in order to seem in control. The fact that this person was a Jew was a calculated effort, for it was assumed that no one would care enough to come to his defence. These beliefs reflected wider trends of anti-Semitism amongst the French military elite, which was distinct as a group in its largely Catholic and anti-republican views. Part of this stemmed from the suspicion that Jews were reaching increasingly higher ranks and in greater numbers, despite the fact that only 300 Jews out of 40,000 had been promoted to Officers, which shows how far suspicion of Jews had gone. Very soon two separate factions developed: the Dreyfusards, the group led by prominent intellectuals like Emile Zola who defended Dreyfus’s innocence; and the anti-Dreyfusards, who comprised the military classes and were supported vehemently by anti-Semitic newspapers such as La Libre Parole. This dichotomy divided the country, with anti-Semitism at the forefront of the debate.

    Calling the Dreyfus Affair ‘a crisis of identities’ could perhaps be seen as an arbitrary and unhelpful classification, but it is a useful way of conveying the conflicts in French society at the time. On one side, there were the traditional, largely Catholic military classes who resented the laicisation of society and remained embittered by France’s standing and the humiliation of the 1870s; and on the other side, the progressive, intellectual wing who stood up for France’s republican past and promoted the onset of a more tolerant society. In its simplest form it reflected the age-old dispute between the New and the Old orders – would the liberal thinkers who rallied so passionately behind a mere Jew, trump the traditional hierarchy that tried so hard to falsely convict one for the sake of their own reputation? As questions of France’s uneasy standing in European politics arose, this traditional wing risked further discredit as the ones who had led France to economic and military defeat. The ideological conflict that this produced found its outlet in Dreyfus.

    But this was also a crisis in the Jewish identity itself. For Dreyfus, his assumption of guilt rested on him being a Jew. France had a burgeoning problem of anti-Semitism, with the establishment of the Anti-Semitic League of France in 1890 and widely held Catholic suspicions catalysing the proliferation of similar beliefs across French society. Even after the dismissal of the charges, when Dreyfus was reinstated into the military and eventually became the Minister of War, the impact of the Affair on the Jewish population was irreversible. The wanton disregard for the rights of Dreyfus as a Jew, therefore, provided an uneasy precursor to anti-Semitism more generally in the twentieth century. But the idea that ethnic, cultural or religious identities can foster some form of collective culpability that manifests itself in one individual, is very much relevant to the modern day too. Xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism all rest on the basic assumption that the individual is representative of a wider and often inaccurate ‘group’ identity. Whether or not you relate this phenomenon to Dreyfus or identity politics in the modern day, the dangers of misrepresentation cannot be overstated. For any kind of different ‘groups’ to co-exist, the cult of collective identity must be reconciled with the individual. Dreyfus, more than most, provides the clearest example of the failure of this process.


Harris, Ruth, The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the affair that divided France (London: Penguin 2010).

Cohn-Sherlock, Dan, Anti-Semitism: A History (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2002).

Lindemann, Albert S., Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2000).