How Pandemics Have Shaped History

Written by Ella Raphael.

In the wake of Coronavirus it is easy to feel an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and fear. Yet,  humans are unfortunately well acquainted with pandemics, from the Plague of Justinian in 541 AD to the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Disease outbreaks have changed politics, ended revolutions and, in some cases, have caused wars. They have destroyed economies and changed the demography of entire contents. Past responses to pandemics have demonstrated the remarkable power of humanity when we work together, however, some have revealed our ability to commit great evils.

Pandemics throughout history have served as mirrors to society. They have revealed immense racial, political and economic prejudices lurking beneath the surface. Author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Frank M. Snowden, has even said that the existence of infectious diseases has gone hand in hand with political oppression. For example, he argues that part of the reason behind the barbaric slaughter of Parisians after the 1848 Revolution in France was because the working classes were seen as a medical threat as well as a political threat. In these over-populated communities, there was the risk that they would spread diseases to the rest of society. He says this is the true reason behind the metaphor of ‘the dangerous classes’, and the real reason behind the brutality of the subsequent 1871 massacre. The Cholera outbreak Europe in the 1830s coincided with massive social upheaval. In Britain, popular opinion refused to believe that cholera was an unknown disease, by contrast it was thought that it was an attempt to reduce the working class population by poisoning them. Whether this was the case or not, pandemics make people question the powerful institutions and social structures that are in place, and they can also encourage conspiracy.

In light of this, outsiders have often been blamed for disease outbreaks. On the rare occasion- such as the case of U.N peacekeeping troops bringing cholera to Haiti in 2010- they have been right. Yet more often than not, scapegoating is used as a coping mechanism for dealing with the fear and desperation that pandemics can cause. The Jewish population of Strasbourg became the target of inhumane persecution and suffering as the Black Death started to ravage Europe. Local officials had declared that they were to blame for the pestilence, as they were accused of poisoning the wells. They were given an ultimatum, either convert or die. Around half chose the former. The rest of the Jewish population was publicly burnt to death or expelled from the city, making it one of the worst pogroms of the pre-modern world. This is a poignant example of the dangers of hysteria and fear mongering, which inevitably come attached to epidemic outbreaks. 

This hysteria and panic has been a fundamental part of the Coronavirus pandemic. In the United Kingdom there has been a surge of xenophobia and racism towards people of Asian descent. In the United States, Donald Trump and his advisers insist on calling Covid-19 the “Chinese Virus”, perpetuating the cycle of finger-pointing and scapegoating. Claire Jean Kim, a professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, warns that this language is dangerous because “we are being misled about what causes pandemics and how to possibly prevent them or reduce their severity in the future.” As seen above there is a unsettling history of leaders depicting outside groups as threatening. Our reactions to pandemics can  marginalise communities and legitimise hate crime. 

Nevertheless, perhaps pandemics are an unnerving but necessary reminder that humans are all the same: everyone is vulnerable. The plague of Justinian in 541, which spread across the Byzantine, Roman and Sasanian Empires, showed no class sympathies. It affected the powerful and powerless alike as even Justinian, the Eastern Roman emperor, contracted it. It must not be forgotten, however, that these outbreaks disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities, despite acting as a reminder that we are all facing the same problem. They can be an opportunity for international cooperation and compassion. 

Despite the mercilessness of pandemics, they have the ability to yield miraculous changes.  Snowden argues that one of the reasons the Haitian Revolution succeeded was because of yellow fever. The slave resistance led by Toussaint Louverture against Napoleon’s army was so successful because the slaves of African descent had the vital weapon of immunity that the Europeans did not have. The fever that was affecting Napoleon’s troops was a key reason behind his withdrawal from the island. Of course, this was not the only reason for the successful revolution, Louverture’s impressive strategy is thought to be the key factor, yet it is an example of how pandemics have altered the course of political history. They have indirectly contributed to freedom and liberty. Pandemics can also bring out the best in people. The Ebola virus outbreak was met with many inspiring responses and its mitigation was seen as a global effort. During the crisis, Doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres put their self interests aside to go to the front line with the sole goal of helping the most vulnerable in society.

As a response to the Coronavirus outbreak some have argued that we should attempt to dissolve our global connections to prevent future outbreaks. The problem with this argument is that epidemics are not modern phenomena, and neither is globalisation. Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, states that if we wanted to protect ourselves from pandemics by isolating ourselves, we would have to go all the way back to the Stone Age, as this was the last time that communities were truly separate. The true antidote to pandemics is not global segregation, it is information and collaboration.

Painting by Sarah Yuster –


Aratani, Lauren. “‘Coughing while Asian’: living in fear as racism feeds off coronavirus panic,” The Guardian, 2020.

Chotiner, Isaac. “How Pandemics Changed History,” The New Yorker, 2020.

Erdelyi, Matyas.  A history of the great influenza pandemics: death, panic and hysteria, 1830–1920, European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 22:3, 2006, p.508-509

 Evans, Richard J. “Epidemics and revolutions: cholera in nineteenth-century Europe.” Past & Present 120 (1988): 123-146.

Harari, Yuval N. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, 2016. 

Jordà, Òscar, Sanjay R. Singh, Alan M. Taylor. 2020. “Longer-Run Economic Consequences of Pandemics,” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Working Paper 2020-09.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Pandemics and The Shape of Human History”, The New Yorker, 2020. 

Lew, Linda. “Homo Deus author Yuval Harari shares pandemic lessons from past and warnings for future,” South China Morning Post, 2020. 

McKibbin, Warwick J. and Alexandra Sidorenko. Global macroeconomic consequences of pandemic influenza. Sydney, Australia: Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2006.

Snowden, Frank M. Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019

Dictatorship and Beyond: Rebellion and Refugees in Central America

Written by Jack Bennett.

With the rise of neoliberal globalisation from the 1970s, national boundaries are purportedly more fluid to allow for the greater movement of people and commodities. For economic and political refugees from Central America, however, these national borders have not been nearly as fluid. Growing inequalities in connectivity created uneven mobility of labour and capital. Against the backdrop of the Cold War in Latin America, continuous waves of refugees fleeing first the political violence of the counter-insurgency terror and then economic and social violence of neoliberal insecurity and the drug trade can be traced. By focusing on the El Salvador and Guatemala Civil Wars of the 1980s as definitive flashpoints for the Latin American Cold War, the scale of refugee crises mushroomed. Following the end of the Cold War and the ensuing Peace Processes in the wake of civil war, migration and asylum continued to remain a major issue throughout the Americas. 

Importantly, Latin America was a transformative ‘hot’ region in the global Cold War. Nevertheless, the roots of these ideological-military conflicts can be traced back to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. A conflict which raised fundamental questions regarding land ownership, political liberty and divisions of labour; through internal ideological struggle over home to overcome deep socio-economic inequalities and forge more inclusive nations. This marked the beginning of a century shaped by conflicts to forge more modern nations, and how to engender both national and international equality. Latin America critically became the ‘backyard’ of the United States in the broader, global conflict with the USSR. 

It was here in Latin America where the failure in electoral and democratic approach to produce this modernisation of sovereignty which prompted the eruption of armed conflict. This highlights the local dynamics in global contexts. For instance, Guatemala in 1954 saw a CIA-supported military coup overturn the previous decade of democratic reform in order to prevent the encroachment of communism. Contrastingly, in Cuba in 1959 the 26th July Movement overthrew the populist dictatorship, declaring a socialist revolution, pursuing the development of a more inclusive nation. Emerging from these conflicts was a paradigmatic change in the movement of people throughout the Americas as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. In 1967, the U.S. signed the United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was rebuffed in 1980, just as the Cold War was beginning to heat up in the region, through the Refugee Act. The status of ‘refugee’ was influenced by national security anxieties, public perceptions in the United States as well as gender. 

The Guatemalan Revolution took place in 1954, and as previously mentioned, eroded the previous decades democratic developments. During this period, in a nation of 12 million people, experienced significant agrarian reform, despite being heavily reliant on the cash crop trade of bananas, coerced, indentured labour of indigenous groups was abolished. Then the coup took place, ending this democratic road to modernisation. In the aftermath, elite Guatemalans supported the United States and the little resistance experienced to external imposition of political order was swiftly suppressed. In response, the people of Guatemala were faced with the reality that bringing reformers to political power was fundamentally unworkable given the global geo-political climate. Young people capitalised upon this and took up arms, developing strategic military operations in rural areas in resistance. What emerged was the protracted and bloody Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), a conflict which can be divided into two discrete phases. Firstly between 1960 and 1972 in the eastern regions of the country, which is dominated by non-indigenous Ladino populations who rebelled, but ultimately failed despite large-scale funding from the U.S. Secondly in the western region from 1972 to 1996, the predominantly Maya indigenous ethnicity took up the cause of resistance to authoritarian military dictatorship. It was during this second phase, in 1980, when guerrilla fighters united under the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). The Guatemalan military launched a brutal, scorched-earth and genocidal counter-insurgency campaign from 1981 to 1982, characterising all indigenous populations as threatening subversives. Initially, the Guatemalan military received economic and military support from the U.S., however, with increasing domestic American opposition to the conflict, Israel was used as an intermediary of such support. Interestingly, Clinton later apologises for the actions of the US in Guatemala. The conflict once again transformed from 1985 with the transition towards democracy to its conclusion in 1996 through the signing of the Peace Accords. The war had taken the lives of 200,000 Guatemalans, while leaving a further 1 million as displaced refugees; the majority of which sought safety in the United States as ‘political refugees.’ 

During the 1970s El Salvador experienced a similar quashing of democratic movements through military intervention. Journeying back to 1932, the Peasant Uprising led by Farabundo Marti was ruthlessly suppressed by the state, preventing the emergence of a mass revolution, while also crippling any potential labour unionisation or activism as Marti became a martyr figure in its aftermath. By 1972, El Salvador was a country with a population of 7 million people with dense population clusters and extreme socio-economic divergence. The poorest members of society owned just 2% of all land, with the most productive regions held by the wealthiest so-called ‘Fourteen Families,’ and were heavily dependent on volatile cash crop economic foundations. With inflation at 60% and unemployment at 30%, a coalition of opposition parties under the Union of National Opposition (UNO) led by Jose Napoleon Duarte emerged to oppose the national oligarchic candidate. Significantly, Duarte won the 1972 election by 72,000 votes, however, the electoral commission overturned the results, despite a complete lack of evidence, declared the conservative candidate Colonel Arturo Armando Molina the victor by 100,000 votes. While Duarte was arrested, tortured and exiled to Venezuela where he remained until his return to El Salvador in the late 1970s. 

In the wake of this electoral fraud, violence and decapitation of the people’s democratic initiative, peasants and urban workers, with the support of the Catholic Church, began during the mid-1970s to become more politically organised. Protests were held in the search of democratic political alternatives. In direct retaliation to these political impulses, a series of high-profile assassinations were conducted by the El Salvador army, including Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24th 1980, while in the same year four U.S. religious aid workers were raped and murdered by the military. Then, in 1981, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was founded, uniting opposition into a popular front with a broad set of political principles. However, by the mid-1980s, in order to prevent the infiltration of communism in Latin America, the U.S. government provided approximately $200 million in military support to the El Salvadoran military dictatorship. Crucially, this culminated in a twelve-month blood bath from 1980-1, in which military ‘death squads’ murdered an estimated 30,000 civilians. 

This period of military violence, hunger and political repression catalysed the refugee and migrant crisis which engulfed El Salvador. Most migrants entered the US illegally; primarily settling in Los Angeles. For example, by the mid-1980s, an estimated 500,000 El Salvadorans had migrated to the United States. Furthermore, in 1984 the Department of Health reported that disease rates amongst these migrant communities was extremely high; along with mental health problems related to violent displacement from home territories. The crisis in El Salvador elicited a domestic American response, namely protests towards support for Latin American violent military dictatorships. 

Peace was brought to Guatemala in 1996 and El Salvador in 1992. In the former, the URNG was disarmed and the state was declared responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations, with only 1% of the over 200,000 deaths attributed to guerrilla actions. Likewise, in the latter, the FMLN was disarmed, the United States provided $4 billion in aid to support El Salvadoran recovery, who were equally criticised globally for their complicit involvement in the facilitation of such brutal military dictatorships. 

In post-Peace Central and Latin America, governments have pursued the promotion of free-trade economic zones, where transnational corporations can invest in order to instigate greater socio-economic development. However, there has been a heavy emphasis on textile production, with criticism levelled at these states for the emergence of exploitative conditions, along with the high mobility of capital, as well as rising levels of poverty, crime and corruption – not to mention the invigorated international drug trade and emergence of Narco-states such as Colombia and Mexico, dominated by cartels. These various factors have produced new waves of migration both to North America as well as globally in the decades since peace. 


Carothers, Thomas. In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years. University of California Press, 1993. 

Long, Tom. Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence. Cambridge University Press, 2015).

McClintock, Michael. The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in Guatemala. Zed Books, 1985. 

McClintock, Michael. Instruments of statecraft: U.S. guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency, and counter-terrorism, 1940–1990. Pantheon Books, 1992. 

Menjivar, Cecilia, and Nestor Rodriguez, eds. When States Kill: Latin America, the U.S., and Technologies of Terror. University of Texas Press, 2005.Palmer, David Scott. U.S. Relations with Latin America during the Clinton Years: Opportunities Lost or Opportunities Squandered?, 2006.

Civil War and United States Humanitarianism in Nigeria

Written by Jack Bennett.

Humanitarian intervention has become an accepted part of international relations, with global current affairs and news headlines from the Balkans in the 1990s to the current crisis in Syria and the Middle East. The origins of humanitarianism can be traced back to the Civil War which erupted in Nigeria in the decades following decolonisation and independence. 

During the 1960s, Nigeria was of huge importance to Africa. Population estimates suggest that 20% of the entire continent resided in the country. From the perspective of the United States and the Kennedy administration, Nigeria was seen as stable, moderate and in support of western ideological values in this Cold War geo-political climate. For instance, Edward Hamilton, who served in both Kennedy and Johnson’s administrations saw in Nigeria hope for Africa as a whole. However, underneath the surface of Nigeria, there were ethnic tensions which simmered throughout the 1960s, that boiled over in 1966 with two coups that rocked the country. Tensions were unresolved, leading to the secession of Biafra on May 30th 1967. Interestingly, this conflict seemingly fell under the radar of international politics, with Charles L. Sanders of the magazine Jet contemporaneously declaring it a war no one cared about. Nevertheless, Biafrans attempted to elicit international support for their cause through the global press and public relations initiatives, but to no avail. Even propagandistic journalism was endorsed to generate international attention for Biafra but this once again went unnoticed. For example, the British television journalist Allen Hart saw his own visit to Biafra as a waste of time, stating that we saw nothing worth seeing. Exhausted and frustrated, prior to departure back to Lisbon, the Irish Catholic priest Kevin Donaghy revealed to Hart the true extent of human tragedy gripping Nigeria. It was through this journey into the bush that Hart said: “it was through the holy ghost’s father that I was introduced to the reality and the horror and the nightmare of Biafra.” The scene that met Hart was one of starvation, malnutrition, disease and death – on an unprecedented scale, affecting millions during this time of conflict. 

The response of the United States to this humanitarian crisis came in the form of two levels. Firstly, that of the general population, with the formation of over two hundred organisations across the country, including: the actions of school students; and national initiatives such as the American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive – formed in New York City by ex-Peace Corps Volunteers and students. Secondly, the U.S. government under President Johnson’s administration maintained a position of non-involvement. This humanitarian crisis, however, was to change everything. In response to domestic pressure, the Johnson administration sold eight relief airplanes to humanitarian organisations in December 1968. Edward Hamilton, in fact, wrote to the then Secretary of State Dean Rusk declaring that, because of the humanitarian crisis the slate had been wiped clean, allowing for greater U.S. involvement. By January 1969, Richard Nixon became President who was seen as sympathetic to the Biafra cause, declaring it an act of genocide during his election campaign. Upon assuming office however, Nixon assumed the same strategy as Johnson, separating politics from relief and the war from humanitarianism. This was most clearly manifested through the appointment of Clarence Ferguson as a special coordinator for relief to civilian victims of the Nigerian Civil War, who came to represent the duality of public humanitarian support and U.S. foreign policy objectives. 

The impact of the United States on humanitarianism is an area of continual debate. With perspectives ranging from the critical, declaring it an act of neo-colonial interventionism, to the more optimistic view of actions pertaining to greater political, economic and social stability and security. During the Nigerian Civil War, the U.S. provided more aid than any other country, accounting for around 75% of the total in terms of funding and tonnage of food sent to Biafra. At the same time, the problem of sovereignty was raised, and the issue of providing humanitarian relief against the will of the Nigerian government and the Biafran government. This revealed that politics could not in fact be separated from relief but were intimately interwoven, a gordian knot which had to be dealt with simultaneously. Furthermore, events took over that further impeded efforts to unravel this complex situation. In early 1969, Ferguson felt he was making clear progress to resolving this problem, but in May of that year a Swedish Count conducted a bombing mission on Nigeria that fundamentally altered the humanitarian landscape in Nigeria. 

Carl Gustaf von Rosen was of aristocratic descent, he led efforts to support the Jews during the Second World War; and fought against the Italians in support of Ethiopia during the invasion of Abyssinia in the 1930s. But during the Nigerian Civil War in the 1960s he truly rose to prominence. First in support of humanitarian relief, von Rosen soon realised that this was not enough, instead he pursued actively supporting the creation of an independent Biafran state and it was this that led him to enact a bombing campaign of the Nigerian army in 1969. In response, Nigeria retaliated quickly, furiously and violently; not making any distinction between the militarised efforts of von Rosen and the relief initiatives of the Red Cross. One month after the attack, the Nigerian army shot down a Red Cross plane. This brought a major difficulty to the desk of Richard Nixon; as the United States principal partner in humanitarianism was the Red Cross. Concomitantly, the Red Cross was facing its own challenges at this time. Divided into two separate factions, with one supporting revolutionary humanitarianism – providing relief support regardless of the diplomatic position of the Nigerian government; and the other upholding the principles of the Red Cross in respecting state sovereignty. Nixon, therefore, was in a dual position of reconciliation, both between the Red Cross factions and with the Red Cross and Nigeria itself. The task fell to Ferguson to coordinate this agreement in order to allow humanitarian relief operations to continue. However, this was never accomplished, so from June 1969 through to the end of the war in January 1970, the Red Cross ceased operation, with the war concluding with an established agreement. 

The Nigerian Civil War and humanitarian intervention left important legacies for similar international actions during the remainder of the twentieth century. Humanitarianism is founded upon three central principles: impartiality, independence and neutrality. These founding tenants can be seen to have been manipulated and digressed throughout the history of global relief efforts. The very notion of independence from nation states is skewed by the reliance of these non-governmental organisations on diplomatic donations and economic support. In particular the clear inextricability of the U.S. government from the American Red Cross during this period. All three principles were challenged during the Nigerian Civil War, forcing humanitarian organisations into a process of self-assessment and respect for state sovereignty. During the Civil War, the Red Cross declared that it would not deliver aid to Biafra without an agreement with the Nigerian government which permitted such intervention. Prior to the Civil War, in a number of different relief episodes around the world, state sovereignty had been breached. However, the Nigerian Civil War spotlighted these potential transgressions more forcefully. Biafra brought interventionist humanitarianism into sharp focus, within the landscape of post-colonial politics, producing a greater consensus on the requirement for intervention in a time of crisis. Today’s humanitarian right to protect is an outgrowth of the controversy surrounding the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s. Similarly, this change in approach is demonstrated through the organisations which emerged in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War; in particular, the Médecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) in 1971. This organisation grew from the French doctors present in Biafra and the experiences they had, as well as further experiences in Bangladesh in 1971, becoming an entity which ignored all pretenses of neutrality, not recognising independence or impartiality at a time of crisis, rather bearing witness and speaking out on those who perpetrated such crises. 

The response of states to humanitarian action is of huge interest and assumed a number of facets in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War. The response of the United States illuminates the changing circumstances of the 1960s and the use of humanitarianism, under successive administrations. What is revealed is not an international project, but a domestic one. One in which humanitarianism was used not to fulfil international aims but to meet the domestic demands, pressures and movements. Additionally, secessionist movements and movements within developing countries and their utilisation of humanitarian aid is extremely enlightening. For example, Gourevitch explored how humanitarian crises became a way to legitimise struggles and the use of aid to then gain international support for these causes; something which most clearly took place during the Nigerian Civil War. Biafra, which failed to amass international support independently at the outset of the conflict, only achieved greater recognition after it was declared a humanitarian crisis by the international community. Therefore, humanitarianism, in the aftermath of Nigeria has since become a means of political legitimation.


Draper, Michael I. Shadows : Airlift and Airwar in Biafra and Nigeria 1967–1970.

Heerten, Lasse; Moses, A. Dirk (2014). “The Nigeria–Biafra war: postcolonial conflict and the question of genocide”. Journal of Genocide Research. 16 (2–3): 169–203.

O’Sullivan, Kevin (2014). “Humanitarian encounters: Biafra, NGOs and imaginings of the Third World in Britain and Ireland, 1967–70”. Journal of Genocide Research. 16 (2–3): 299–315.

Stevenson, John Allen. “Capitol Gains: How Foreign Military Intervention and the Elite Quest for International Recognition Cause Mass Killing in New States”. Political science PhD dissertation, accepted at University of Chicago, December 2014.

Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

Written by Tessa Rodrigues.

How We Disappeared is a profound tale told by Jing-Jing Lee which gives a voice to a forgotten generation of Singapore after the Second World War.

The narrative is split into three different focalisations: Wang Di in first person at the age of seventeen as Singapore surrenders to the Japanese in 1942; Wang Di in the year 2000, observed by a semi-omniscient narrator; and lastly eleven-year old Kevin who discovers an earth-shattering confession from his ailing grandmother the same year. Each story is interwoven into the other to showcase the deep scar left in Singapore following the Japanese Occupation, and the way in which so many were forgotten as the city developed into a bustling first-world metropolis. 

Wang Di’s story begins with an idyllic picture of kampong life in Singapore; however, we are additionally presented with the underlying patriarchal values that stifle her self-esteem. During the Fall of Singapore in 1942, she is stolen from her home and brought to a brothel where she lives for the remainder of the occupation. Her account of a Japanese ‘comfort house’ illustrates the atrocities the women captured experienced by the Japanese soldiers. Lee chooses to present this experience from a first-person point of view to truly reveal the pain, struggle, and subsequent humiliation thrust upon these women when they returned to a home that no longer welcomed them. Wang Di’s courage during her abuse is made clear to the readers, and we feel infuriated when her resilience is met with a silencing sense of shame from the family she yearned for. Her story resonates heavily with a modern-day audience, as #MeToo and other movements against sexual assault are becoming more prevalent. Lee provides a thought-provoking criticism of the way in which post-war Asian cultural norms silenced victims with humiliation and marginalisation, instead of demonstrating empathy towards the sexually abused.

This is made even clearer as we flash forward fifty-eight years later. Wang Di is now seventy-five years old and mourning her late husband. She is illiterate, quiet and slowly fading into the background as she has no family left to remember her. Her primary income comes from collecting old cardboard, a profession that her new neighbours turn their noses up at. Singapore has grown rapidly around her, and the stifling of her once vibrant personality her experiences during and following the war caused her to internalise her shame and humiliation. This leaves her with a lingering regret that she never let her late husband share about his own struggles during the war, and a longing to understand his hidden past. In an aged Wang Di, we are shown the struggles of the ‘Silent Generation’ of the elderly within society today as they begin to disappear into the shadows. We are called to take a step back and examine the way in which we treat not just the older generations within our families, but those who are a part of our collective community and Singapore’s national identity.

Alternatively, Kevin’s narrative serves as a representation of a younger but equally unseen generation. He is only eleven years old, but he is extremely perceptive of his father’s struggles with depression and his mother’s attempts to maintain the illusion that there is nothing to worry about. He manages to evade his parents’ infrequent gaze and investigates his Ah Ma’s secretive past. While his parents aren’t negligent, there is still a premature independence that is thrust upon Kevin as an only child in a household with two working parents. He is the new questioning generation in Singapore who pushes against the perceived norms to find the truth.

All in all, Jing-Jing Lee provides a stunning historical narrative that incorporates the heart-breaking, forgotten story of those who were forced to disappear; however, she also reveals the way in which modern society, not only in Singapore, must strive to remember a past we cannot escape. How We Disappeared pays tribute to those left behind and those who were not able to speak up, and in doing so brings them back to life.

The International Monetary Fund during the Cold War: Charitable Body or Neo-colonial Power?

Written by Ella Raphael.

When we think of colonialism, we tend to think about war, invasion and the suffering certain nations have inflicted onto others. We perhaps think less about the indirect, ideological or economic control countries have over one another. One of the main ways countries do this is by controlling systems of global governance and organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was established in 1945 as an attempt to regulate the global post war economy. The IMF comprises of 189 nations, but historically the United States has held a strong majority of the votes. It presents itself as an organisation designed to ‘foster global monetary cooperation, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth.’ However, its intervention in Asian and African nations in the late-twentieth century suggests otherwise. Strengthening a capitalist, neoliberal dogma seemed of higher importance than helping the struggling nations it vowed to support. This is not to say that the IMF is a sinister, corrupt organisation; however, it has been branded out of touch and insensitive. Whether it intended to or not, the IMF has a history of damaging countries it claims to help.

Neo-colonialism can be loosely defined as the indirect political and economic control or influence of a nation-state, or a powerful institution extends over another nation. It has been a predominantly modern phenomenon, a new form of influence since the end of imperialism and the Second World War. Tukumbi Lumumba-Kasongo claims imperialism can also be ‘strong or destructive conditions of dependency of a nation-state [or institution] over another,’ which many scholars have argued matches the IMF’s relationship with many developing nations. In the process of receiving loans, struggling nations have been left indebted to the powerful organisation. The only way to escape this debt is to meet the IMF’s conditions. 

This approach has been vastly problematic in the past. Loans are only provided if the countries agree to undergo Structural Adjustment Programs, where the aim is to end protectionism switching to an agenda of privatisation. This has been a way for the IMF (which is dominated by the US) to export and enforce the political and economic ideology it deems desirable. John Hilary has argued that the conditions attached to the aid packages have undermined the passage of democracy in these nations. It prohibits governments from implementing development policies suitable to their national situations as they have to focus on repaying the loans. This weakens the economy further, perpetuating the cycle of dependency on bilateral monetary organisations. 

The US dominance of the fund during the Cold War did not help with its identification as a charitable organisation. This was at a time when these international bodies were promoted as being ‘above’ the affairs of the cold war. There was a clear ideological bias leaning towards capitalism, neoliberalism and privatisation. Between the 1960s and 1980s, it seemed as though the IMF was merely an extension of the US’s power. Teresa Hayter’s book Aid as Imperialism (1971) argues that aid has frequently been used as a political weapon. Nixon even said himself in 1968: ‘let us remember that the main purpose of aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves’. As the main contributor of aid within the IMF, this creates an unsavoury image. Loans had been disguised as aid, but they meant much more. They ultimately meant meddling with the self-determination and autonomy of the recipient nations. 

This was the experience of many African nations during the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps the most famous misstep was Ghana. The IMF forced parliament to override a critical governmental decision to raise import tariffs on poultry. Adherence to the funds conditions was suddenly of higher importance than addressing the pressing economic issues. Even the IMF itself has admitted since that its aggressive intervention in the 1980s was inappropriate. The organisation’s reliance on the neoliberal dogma – without assessing if it would work in the individual national frameworks – was an ‘insufficient basis for a constructive trade policy dialogue.’  Again, the IMF was not intentionally pursuing a self-sabotaging policy, however its agenda was out of touch with the nations it was helping. Its priorities leaned towards maintaining the stability of the world economy, and ultimately maintaining the power of the richest nations. 

The Philippines provides another example of the economic disarray caused by IMF intervention, which occurred between 1960 and 1990. Walden Bello argues the IMF and the World Bank were the sole architects of the turmoil the Philippines was left with for the latter part of the twentieth century. The Philippines is one of the few nations to be the subject of multiple IMF structural adjustment programmes. The 1962 devaluation imposed by the IMF forced 1,500 Filipino entrepreneurs into bankruptcy. To make matters worse, during the 1970s the IMF and the World Bank hurled the Philippines into a plan of export led growth. They were not helping to strengthen the domestic economy but were instead making it dependent on the exports of capitalist economies, reinforcing the current dependency paradigm. To many it was clear that the IMF was the engineer of this economic disaster, but it insisted the solution was a continued policy of liberalisation. As is often the case with colonial powers, the organisation took advantage of its power to control the Philippines and tried to morph it into an economy that would slot into the current capitalist order.

Although aid was not provided with malicious intent, the IMF implemented Structural Adjustment Programmes during the Cold War that were rendered out of touch with the national economies. As we have seen in Ghana and the Philippines, these programmes ended up sabotaging domestic growth in favour of maintaining the strength of the capitalist system. It ultimately boils down to a powerful entity forcing an external, unsuitable ideology onto another country under the guise of helping it. When this is the core objective of the fund, it is difficult to separate its ‘charitable’ projects from the quasi-colonial motives bubbling beneath the surface. 


Bello, Walden, Broad, Robin. The International Monetary Fund in the Philippines: In The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship and Resistance, 1982.

Gudikunst, Nicole, Briggs, Kristie, Clark, Terry, and Deskins, John. The Social Impact of the International Monetary Fund: Structural Adjustment Programs in Latin America from 1980–2000, 2010, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Hayter, Teresa. Aid as Imperialism. Pelican Books. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

Hilary, John. “Africa: Dead Aid and the Return of Neoliberalism.” Race & Class 52, no. 2 (2010): pp. 79-84.

Lumumba-Kasongo, Tukumbi. “China-Africa Relations: A Neo-Imperialism or a Neo-Colonialism? A Reflection.” African and Asian Studies 10, no. 2-3 (2011): pp. 234-66.Weisbrot, Mark. “The IMF is hurting countries it claims to help”, The Guardian, 2019.

Review: ‘The Five’

Written by Mhairi Ferrier.

The Five, by social historian Hallie Rubenhold, tells the untold stories of Jack the Ripper’s victims – the Canonical Five. Painstakingly researched, The Five provides the reader with a view into nineteenth-century society’s attitudes and norms. Traditionally the widely accepted narrative has been that Jack the Ripper, whoever he may have been, was a killer of prostitutes. Rubenhold distinguishes that only two of the victims, Elizabeth and Mary Jane, appeared to have engaged in sex work during their lives. Of Polly, Annie and Catherine, Rubenhold notes from her research that there is no evidence to say they ever undertook any form of sex work. As is suggested in the book, this narrative made such horrific murders more palatable for the public – the idea that they were just prostitutes, seemingly acted as a justification for such killings. What The Five reminds the reader is that these women had their own stories, which deserve to be told. These women had lives, they had families, they had anecdotes and adventures which deserve to be shared rather than the tales of their vicious murders. 

“It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents.” 

Jack the Ripper has developed into an industry in its own right. The name is so entrenched into popular culture, that few would be unfamiliar with the term. This industry has people flocking to Whitechapel to observe the murder sights, buying Ripper themed souvenirs, and so much more. This is done at the expense of the victims and, as Rubenhold points out, hints largely at the misogyny that exists in our society today. Barely a thought is given to the victims, when the public are engaging in this rather unsettling, and quite inappropriate, Ripper culture. One just has to look at the negative reviews of this work, to find that people are disappointed that the accounts of each of the women stops before recounting the details of the murders themselves. Or other reviewers who cannot accept that these women were simply “not just prostitutes,” disregarding the fact that this does not make such killings any less terrible or any more acceptable. Rather, it just highlights why a book of this type is still necessary in order to improve the accepted narratives and views of women. What The Five does so well is that it truly lets the reader engage with the lives of these women. We get an insight into the highs and the lows they faced before their untimely deaths. We gain an understanding of what led them to end up in Whitechapel in the first place. We understand the attitudes which led to them being branded prostitutes in newspaper report after newspaper report. What these women had to endure in their lives – deaths of their children, family suicides, illness, poverty, addiction – makes for heart-breaking, and at times somewhat difficult, reading. But what it does do well is reinsert the human aspect back into their stories. These women were grieved, they were mourned, and they should not be forgotten while the figure who murdered them has become so immortalised. “He” will never be forgotten, so why should they? It is likely to make you feel a mix of anger and sadness – but it truly is a worthwhile read which will hopefully encourage you to reassess your beliefs about Jack the Ripper and his victims. 

Rubenhold, H. The Five. London: Penguin, 2019.

The League Against Imperialism: Interwar Anti-Colonial Internationalism

Written by Lewis Twiby.

In 1955, 29 newly independent states in Asia and Africa met in Bandung, Indonesia in order to establish international solidarity between former colonies. The Bandung Conference was partially organised by Indonesian president Sukarno, who opened the Conference referencing a movement from around thirty years prior: 

I recall in this connection the Conference of the ‘League against Imperialism and Colonialism’ which was held in Brussels almost thirty years ago. At that Conference many distinguished Delegates who are here today met each other and found new strength in their fight for independence.

The League against Imperialism (LAI), which first met in Brussels in 1927, has often been overlooked in the history of internationalism and anti-colonialism – often it is regarded as a ‘failure’ or a front for the Comintern. The LAI was not the first international, anti-colonial movement – in 1900 the Pan-African Congress was held in London, and in 1924 and 1927 the Pan-Asian People’s Conferences were held in Nagasaki and Shanghai respectively – but it was the first attempt to create a global anti-colonial movement. Delegates met to discuss and build solidarity on a wide range of topics ranging from resisting the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, in 1935, to supporting campaigns against Jim Crow laws in the US South. Although often relegated to a footnote in history, the LAI set the stage for the internationalism of the post-war era.

The idea for an anti-colonial international came from two communists based in Berlin, Willi Muzenburg and Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (Chatto). In the early-1920s, inspired by Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism, the Third International, later known simply as the Comintern, adopted an anti-imperialist line. The Kuomintang (KMT) from China, although not a communist party, was brought into the Comintern with it being the main anti-imperialist party – this was quickly reversed when Chiang Kai-Shek massacred the party’s communist members. Muzenburg and Chatto wished to build an international movement to support anti-colonialism independent from the Comintern, something which would prove beneficial for the LAI after Stalin’s seizure of power in 1928. According the Vijad Prashad, the name ‘League against Imperialism and Colonialism’ was chosen to specifically attack the League of Nations. The disintegration of the German and Ottoman Empires following the First World War meant that their former possessions outside of Europe were handed to the victorious powers under the euphemistically named ‘mandate system’. Woodrow Wilson’s call for national ‘self-determination’ was only applied to Europeans, not the colonised.

  Meanwhile, the LAI needed to hold their conference somewhere, and here we see the paradox in pre-war internationalism. While post-war international conferences were held in the former colonised world – Bandung (1955), Accra (1957), Dar es Salaam (1974) etc. – the majority of anti-colonial conferences were held in the metropoles. This is reflected in the three cities shortlisted for the first LAI conference – Berlin, Paris, and Brussels. A key factor in why conferences were held in Europe, Japan, or the US was merely a practical one. As described by Sukarno in 1955, ‘It was not assembled there by choice, but by necessity’. Draconian restrictions of movement in the colonies limited the ability of nationalists to travel and build solidarity movements, but these limitations were not as strict within the metropole. Furthermore, many nationalists were in the metropole for education, or missions to raise awareness of the plight of the colonised. Jawaharlal Nehru of the Indian National Congress, and the future first prime minister of India, became one of the founders of the LAI as he coincidentally was in Europe raising support for Indian independence.

One of the key flaws of the LAI was its reliance on European support. Berlin and Paris both barred the LAI’s first conference being held – for Berlin due to Muzenburg’s links to the Comintern and Paris fearing that it could inspire revolt among its colonies. Several delegates from Britain were even detained upon arrival in Belgium, so much was the LAI at the whim of Europeans. Nevertheless, an international delegation managed to arrive in Brussels in February 1927. Prashad has shown why Brussels was chosen – the brutal exploitation of the Congo under Leopold II had highlighted the violence of colonial rule, and had sparked an international movement against Leopold’s personal fiefdom. Delegates came from across the world including Nehru (India), Albert Einstein, Rosamond Soong Ching-ling, the widow of revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (China), Sukarno (Indonesia), Lamine Senghor (Senegal), Independent Labour Party MP Fenner Brockway, and Frida Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera (Mexico). Although closely aligned to the Comintern, and many communists did attend, non-socialist nationalists did attend – such as the African National Congress from South Africa, a still fairly elite party in the 1920s.

Such a wide range of delegates meant that the LAI covered many issues facing colonised peoples across the world, some of which had largely been ignored by anti-imperialist movements. For example, Latin American delegates, inspired by the words of Argentina’s Bautista Justo denouncing his country being ‘reduced to the status of a British colony’ in 1896, managed to get the LAI to support Latin America’s resistance to British and American exploitation. As Latin America had won its independence in the early-nineteenth century, it had largely been disregarded in solidarity for this reason. Most famously, the LAI threw its support behind those accused in the Meerut Conspiracy Case, with its intersection of labour and colonial rights it symbolised the Leagues raison d’être. In 1929 several trade unionists in Meerut were arrested by British authorities under the charges that they were working with the Soviet Union to overthrow British rule in a socialist revolution. Through the LAI protestors campaigned for their acquittal in Britain, and built ties with the Communist Party of India and Indian lawyers in order to defend the accused. The case lasted until 1933, and the accused were initially found guilty, but the convictions were later overturned.

However, the LAI was constantly dogged by controversies. Centre-left parties, including in an ironic twist of history Karl Marx’s grandson, denounced the League as a front for the Comintern. The significant presence of communists meant that the LAI was tied to the Comintern, but the accusation of it being a front, which still is present in the historiography, ignores the agency of those who took part in the LAI. Furthermore, this further ignores the deep divide between the LAI and Comintern during the 1930s. With the rise of fascism, and Stalin’s paranoia, creating a distinct shift in policy. Communist parties in Europe were told to doggedly adhere to Soviet demands as Stalin aggressively implemented his ‘socialism in one country’ policy. Many communists would be murdered upon visiting, or living in, Moscow as Stalin wanted firm commitment to protecting the Soviet Union – any sign of independence was met with expulsion from the Comintern, which happened to Muzenburg, or execution, which happened to Chatto. Priyamvada Gopal has highlighted how Stalin shifted the Comintern’s policy of anti-imperialism to only focus on the ‘fascist empires’ of Italy and Japan, and to ignore ‘democratic empires’ like Britain and France. The LAI naturally loathed this policy – Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore pointed out how the USSR allowed ‘colonial fascism’ as it did not directly threaten Stalin’s power.

The 1930s would spell the end of the LAI, although it managed to last until 1936. Due to power imbalances the LAI was reliant on organising in Europe, and this severely limited the League’s ability to operate. Britain, France, and the Netherlands, in particular, were particularly keen to curb the League’s ability to run within their borders, due to the number of delegates which came from their colonies. Ties to anti-colonial movements within the metropole were further seen as a Bolshevik plot – colonised peoples, and their allies, were seen as being unable to operate without orders from Moscow. Consequently, Muzenburg and Chatto largely based the League in Germany, but the rise of the Nazis wiped out the German Left by 1934. Muzenburg fled to France and Chatto to Moscow, and died in 1937. Muzenburg would also be expelled by the Comintern, and would be found dead during the German invasion of France. Furthermore, two major events firmly undermined the League’s ability to construct anti-colonial solidarity. Chiang Kai-shek’s destruction of the Canton Commune in December 1927 caused the KMT to be expelled, but, without a major Chinese ally, the LAI was unable to build support against Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Palestine would also hurt the League. Arab nationalists, the labour Zionist group Poale Zion, and the Communist Party of Palestine (PCP) bickered over the Palestinian mandate – nationalists opposed Zionism, Zionists wanted a Jewish homeland, and the PCP, under Daniel Averbach, saw nationalism and Zionism as tools for Britain to divide the people. The LAI eventually voted to eject Poale Zion, but as a consequence was unable to prevent the sectarian violence which tore apart Palestine throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

The decline of the LAI after only a decade has often led to it being called an abject failure. While the LAI did not have a tangible impact on anti-colonial internationalism, its existence was what made it important. It was a first attempt at creating solidarity across continents – LAI supporters in London in 1931 took over Trafalgar Square in solidarity with those accused in the Meerut Case. This is keenly shown with those who attended. Lamine Senghor said that the existence of the League spoke louder than anything else, ‘But beware, Europe! Those who have slept long will not go back to sleep when they wake!’ The seeds of post-war internationalism had their roots with the League against Imperialism.


Belogurova, A., ‘Networks, Parties, and the “Oppressed Nations”: The Comintern and Chinese Communists Overseas, 1926–1935’, Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, 24, (2017), 61-82.

Gopal, P., Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, (London: 2019). 

‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’, in Lenin, V., Selected Works, (Moscow: 1963), 667-766.

Louro, M., ‘“National Revolutionary Ends and Communist Begins”: The League against Imperialism and the Meerut Conspiracy Case’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 33:3, (2013), 331-344.

Petersson, F., ‘Hub of the Anti-Imperialist Movement: The League against Imperialism and Berlin, 1927-1933’, International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 16:1, (2013), 49-71.Prashad, V., The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, (New York: 2008).


Protection of the White Continent: The Antarctic Treaty System of 1959

Written by Jack Bennett.

In the depths of the Cold War in 1959, the ice-covered landmass became a focus of international diplomacy with the three nuclear-weapon states of the USA, USSR and Britain establishing a model to ensure the nuclear-free, peaceful scientific cooperation and protection of Antarctica. This produced a new, globalised governance regime through the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). Threatened by commercial fishing and resource exploitation due to improved scientific knowledge and more advanced equipment gaining greater access to Antarctica, the global diplomatic community aimed to ensure its sustainable, demilitarised and collaborative governance. Space was not the only frontier in which an international race was sparked: science became a collaborative enterprise with Antarctica the experimental station of Cold War scientific diplomacy. 

By the 1940s, the claimant club grew as Argentina and Chile joined two other European states; France and Norway. The USA and the Soviet Union did not recognise the legitimacy of any of these territorial claims. After the Second World War there emerged a new era of rising territorial and resource competition: in particular, the strategic importance of certain minerals created conflict arising from contested sovereignty. The issue of sovereignty over Antarctica was resolved in December, 1959 when 12 nations (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the USA and USSR) signed up to the Antarctic Treaty. This formalised and guaranteed free access and research rights so that all countries could work together for the common cause of scientific research and exchange of ideas. However, claimant states such as Australia and Argentina struggled to reconcile their own concerns about the future role of the superpowers. The treaty, which applies to the area south of 60degrees south-latitude, is surprisingly short but remarkably effective. The New York Herald Tribune reported that the treaty was a cause for ‘enduring hope’. The treaty system ensures the use of the continent strictly for peaceful purposes and promotes international cooperation to ensure the protection and sustainability of Antarctica. 

Permanent stations were established during the 1950s to commence the first substantial multi-nation research program during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58. Territorial positions were also asserted, though not agreed, creating a tension that threatened future scientific co-operation and potential conflict. The USSR showed off its polar prowess when it set up several bases, including one at the magnetic south pole and another at the most difficult spot to reach on the continent, the so-called ‘Pole of Inaccessibility’. With the IGY set to expire at the end of the year, Washington worried that Moscow would carve out a menacing military presence in Antarctica. As a consequence of disputes over ownership, the Antarctic Treaty agreement was signed by the nations that had been active on the continent during the IGY in order to avoid disagreements and conflicts, resolve disputes over ownership and mining rights and establish guidelines limiting development on the continent. Critically, the treaty occurred in a brief thaw in East-West tensions that had emerged during Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the USA in September 1959.

The treaty acknowledged that the demilitarisation and denuclearisation of Antarctica could forge a precedent for future international relations. Argentina and Chile played critical roles in the treaty as it also served as a precedent for agreements in other contested areas, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and seven other zones free of atomic weapons. It is difficult to estimate how important the ban on nuclear weapons was alongside the prohibition on military activity. Cold War historiography demonstrates the catalytic power of science and scientific co-operation: it was the arms control element of the Antarctic Treaty that really underpinned peaceful governance. In part, the USA hoped to use the treaty to score a Cold War propaganda victory, keep Soviet missiles out of Antarctica and block communist China from gaining an unregulated foothold in the continent. However, the agreement still allowed for the peaceful uses of nuclear power, and from 1962 to 1972 the USA operated a defective nuclear reactor at McMurdo Station that contaminated over 12 thousand tons of soil. 

From the 1960s onwards the treaty confronted resource-related questions. Conventions on sealing, fishing, environmental protections and, controversially, mining were developed, with large acceptance from the international community. The proposal for a mining regulation was publicly rejected by Australia and France in the late 1980s in favour of a protocol on environmental protection. Mining was banned and priority was placed on developing an effective regime of environmental conservation. Tension was high in the 1980s as new players such as China and India began to make their presence felt in Antarctica and environmental groups such as Greenpeace demanded an end to whaling and a permanent ban on mining. This culminated in the 1991 Madrid protocol, which prohibited mining and made all continental activities subject to an environmental assessment.

Since coming into force on 23 June 1961, the treaty has been recognised as one of the most successful international agreements and a vehicle of cooperation of Cold War-era detente. Problematic differences over territorial claims have been effectively set aside and as a disarmament regime it has been outstandingly successful. Since then, the initial 12 signatories have risen to over 50, and the continent has remained largely free of military activity and has endured as a nuclear-free zone. But, the future of the ‘white continent’ remains contentious: continuing geo-political tensions, disputes over ownership and pressures from climate change all threaten it.

Bitter Weed: Tea, Empire and Everyday Luxury

Written by Jack Bennett.

Unprecedented unrest erupted in Boston on December 16, 1773 when the Sons of Liberty protested the increasing British taxes by disposing of 342 tea chests with a value of $1 million into the harbour. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 became a pivotal event in the history of a nation and an empire, reverberating across the globe. At the centre of these transformative changes was a humble commodity: tea. John Adams described the act of rebellion which sparked the American Revolutionary war as: ‘the most magnificent Movement of all…This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an Epocha in History.’ This reveals a fluidity and development of national identity, through American conspicuous non-consumption as a political and mercantilist protest. The global production, trade and consumption of tea funded wars, fuelled colonisation, instigated political rebellion and defined cultural refinement – the effects of which are with us even today.

Tea was both a product and driver of global connections. Economic profitability determined British imperial expansionism and the manipulation of ecological space, social hierarchies and labour systems. Cultural cartographies of conquest developed alongside the practice of mapping of exoticism. The Canton system (1757-1834) in China imposed strict regulations on foreign trade, which catalysed British colonisation in order to gain a hegemony on the global trade of tea. This was conducted through the British East India Company, which ruthlessly extended its military-economic influence into India with a vengeance. This private company control of India provided the ideal landscape for the implementation of plantation agriculture using native, indentured labour, producing both a socially and ecologically exploitative economic system. Cultures of discovery, success and signification emerged with tea acquiring new layers of cultural, political and economic characteristics in local contexts. 

During the 1880s, there emerged a proto-mass consumer society throughout the British Empire, Europe and the United States related to advertisement for tea. These advertisements conveyed British imperial nationalism and the ‘orientalism’ of Indian plantation labour, emphasising the British Raj as ‘our Asia’ through reducing the exoticism of tea and domesticating tea from the Empire.  This happened while erasing the origins of tea creating a national identity through the process of naturalisation. This marked a significant shift in the representation of tea production, shifting from Chinese origins to Indian, informed by racial hierarchies which emphasised Indian purity and Chinese inferiority. Importantly, advertisements expressed individual corporations, conflict of interests and commercial imperial prosperity in the developing proto-consumer societies and rapidly globalising economic market, dominated by imperial powers in the nineteenth century. 

Tea became a symbol of civilisation and domesticity. As the moral anti-tea indignation of the eighteenth century gave way moving into the nineteenth, and Britain’s global economic ascendancy, tea suffused social structures, becoming synonymous with progress and order; civility and industriousness. Markman argues that there was a transition from “oriental exoticism to Victorian domestication” regarding tea production and consumption. Demand for tea began to cross into the middle and urban working classes from the eighteenth through to the nineteenth centuries. Critically, this reveals a simultaneous reinforcement between the cultural economics of consumption and the impetus for creating and expanding mercantile and administrative impetus for Indian colonialism. Consequently, tea determined the very concept of luxury in everyday life in Europe as it experienced proto-globalisation, as imports and production increased under British imperial control the accessibility of tea within the lower classes flourished. Class anxieties surrounding tea, however, became prolific, as the personal sphere became progressively interconnected with the public and political. This incorporation of tea in the quotidian created a delineation of labour and leisure, domesticating exotic wildness. Tea, therefore, reveals a fluidity across class boundaries, a developing social universality as a vehicle of national character and apparatus of social routinisation. 

Rituals of tea consumption vitalised emerging conceptualisations of femininity and leisure. Crucially, a private sphere of female influence emerged defined by Chatterjee as ‘new interior worlds.’ Gendering tea as a consumptive feminine product brings into question the integrity of domestic and family life in early modern Europe, the United States and across Empires. Intriguingly in tea’s geography of origin, China, the commodity was ironically an agent of male elite sociability, compared to the female-orientation and fashionability of the commodity in Europe and the United States. Nevertheless, the associated ceramics with tea contributed to the defining of social status, reinforcing the femininity of tea. For instance, this was manifested in the literary and popular cultural ‘scandal around the tea table,’ something inherently negative during the eighteenth century. Meanwhile in Japan the tea ceremony was reinvigorated after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and became culturally valued, encapsulating the spirit and tradition of Japan in a nationalised, modernising project and global imperial assimilation. By foregrounding the interconnection between gender and tea, women assume an intrinsic role in the development and fluctuations of imperial trajectories. Fundamentally, tea encapsulated increasing modern consuming pleasures of discovery. 

Europeans adopted, appropriated, and altered Asian tea culture in order to construct an expansive consumer demand for tea in Britain and other modernising global economies, along with an intensive plantation system of agriculture and labour in Asian and African colonial territories. Development of class power structures in relation to tea consumption were distinctive, with new fashionability embroiled in discourse regarding the exploitative nature of empire. From international advertising to political lobbying, the historical emergence of tea as a commodity of global connections underpins modern frameworks of political, public and international economic interconnection. Tea is ultimately a complex social and cultural commodity, reflective of particular contexts yet interwoven with global flows; informing conflicts and national imperial identity. 


Image: Nathaniel Currier, The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor (1846). 

Chatterjee, Piya.  A Time for Tea: Women, Labour and Post-colonial politics on an Indian Plantation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001. 

Ellis, Richard Coulton & Matthew Mauger, Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World. London: Reaktion, 2015. 

Ramamurthy, Anandi. Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. 

Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, and Women’s Power in Sudan

Written by Lewis Twiby.

In 2019, when protests sparked across Sudan, the world seemed perplexed about the level of women’s activism during the protests. Alaa Salah, dubbed the ‘Woman in White’, became world renowned, and the iconic photo of her has been likened to the iconic photo of Che Guevara, Guerrillo Heroico. However, this ignores literal millennia of women’s resistance in the area comprising contemporary Sudan – from Mandy Ajbna carrying the severed head of her father to unite Sudanese communities against the British in the 1800s, to the Kandaka of Meroe defeating the forces of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Just two years before the outbreak of the protests one of Sudan’s most resilient and important feminists passed away, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim. Fatima’s life shows the resistance to oppression regardless of the odds, and serves to inspire countless other women.

     Born in Omdurman in 1933, Fatima grew up in a political family – her grandfather was dismissed from the judiciary for opposing British colonialism, her mother was the first Sudanese woman to learn English, and her father was denied a teaching post for resisting the imposition of English in schools. Consequently, she inherited a legacy of resistance, and, at the age of fourteen, set up the Intellectual Women’s Association while at school to demand Sudanese liberation, and to oppose Britain’s support for conservative forces. She even co-founded a school paper called Elra’edda, under the pseudonym of ‘Daughter of Light’, focusing on women’s rights, anti-colonialism, and democracy. At just the age of eighteen she helped organise Sudan’s first women’s strike; Sylvia Clark, the head of the Omdurman High Secondary School, dropped subjects like science, so Fatima and others organised the strike. The strike ended up a success, by misogyny dashed her hopes – her father barred her from attending university. Seeking a new path, she became a teacher, and then Sudan’s leading feminist.

     The 1950s was a revolutionary time for Sudan. Across the colonised world liberation movements were throwing off colonialism, and this inspired the new young generation wanting a more equal society. Especially important for Sudan was the 1952 Egyptian coup which deposed the British-aligned monarchy and brought to power a reformist group, soon to be led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Naturally, this would inspire the young Fatima, fresh off of her protests at school. In 1952 Fatima was one of several influential feminists who formed the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU), which still remains one of Sudan’s major feminist organisations. Quickly, Fatima became involved with radical politics. When her brother, Salah, joined the Communist Party in 1954 she did as it was the first party to allow women entry. Due to this, Fatima and the SWU would offer radical analysis of women’s place in Sudan, and would especially focus on women’s rights in the workplace. This is further seen in the SWU’s publication, formed 1955, Sawt al-Mara, Women’s Voice, and, despite its first publication being repeatedly banned, it allowed women to present themselves as the subjects, not the objects of discussion. Among the articles discussed were the rights of working women, the rights of rural women, FGM, marriage, childcare, and feminism internationally. In 1956, the same year that Sudan became independent, she became the SWU’s president, but the honeymoon of women’s activism soon came to an end.

     In 1958, General Ibrahim Abboud came to power via a military coup, toppling the multi-party council which, albeit poorly, governed the country. Aligning Sudan with the United States against Nasserism and socialism, Abboud cracked down on worker’s and women’s rights. Sudan’s post-independence history saw periods of democratic rule followed by tyrannical military rule, which undertook genocide in the Darfur and south. Despite being banned by Abboud, the SWU continued campaigning and publishing Sawat al-Mara underground, and, just like in 2019, women like Fatima provided the backbone which resulted in the 1964 October Revolution. With Abboud toppled, progressives seized the new opportunity and women won the vote, something which allowed Fatima to become the first woman MP in Sudan, the Middle East, and Africa. Her position in parliament allowed her to use the state to bring women’s rights to the forefront of society demanding equal employment, equal pay, and equal access to higher education. However, there were limits to progressive politics. In order to be respected Fatima was forced into presenting herself as family-oriented and traditional. Then, a second coup happened.

     In 1969 Jafaar Nimeiri seized power and started reversing many of the progressive reforms enacted by the October Revolution. For publicly denouncing Nimeiri she was incarcerated for two years, and her husband, who was also a trade unionist, was murdered. Women were expelled from the administration, barred from traveling, and colourful clothing was banned. After her house arrest, Fatima continued advocating for human rights with the, now clandestine, SWU, and was repeatedly arrested for doing so. A revolt in 1985 deposed Nimeiri, but in 1989 Omar al-Bashir, who ruled until 2019, seized power with the National Islamic Front. As al-Bashir used Islam to justify his rule, proclaiming Sudan an ‘Islamic state’, he feared the influence of Fatima. She used Islam to undermine his rule proclaiming that ‘In the Qu’ran, God tells the Prophet “You have no power over people…”. And if the Prophet has received no power over people, what over Muslim could claim the right?’. Arrested again, Amnesty International intervened allowing her to form a new branch of the SWU in exile.

     Abroad, Fatima became one of many exiled and proud women who fought for the rights of the oppressed. In 1991, she was elected president of the Women’s International Democratic Federation speaking at conferences across the world, and her high standing allowed her to return to Sudan becoming a deputy in parliament in 2005. Her legacy lives on. Just as in 1956, 1964, and 1985 women were at the forefront of the protests of 2019. Western media often depicts the Islamic world as leaving women utterly crushed, requiring foreign intervention to ‘rescue’ them from men. However, Fatima’s life shows the resilience and resistance of women worldwide.

Netflix’s ‘Troy: Fall of a City’

Written by Justin Biggi.

Released in 2018, the BBC-Netflix adaptation of Homer’s Iliad was met with mixed reviews, both from Classicists and internet trolls alike. The former had gripes with the characterisations, plot inconsistencies and (unsurprising) historical inaccuracies, while the latter were mostly angry that David Gyasi and Lemogang Tsipa, two black actors, had been cast in the roles of Achilles and Patroclus, respectively, and that they were shown as having an explicit sexual relationship on screen.

But there are things, despite the criticisms, that Troy: Fall of a City does differently and arguably better than other Iliad adaptations. In addition to a solid “colorblind” cast, which, alongside Gyasi and Tsipa, includes Alfie Enoch as Aeneas and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as Zeus, Fall of a City attempts to bring to the forefront not just the complexities of human interactions, but the inherent awe and terror that the gods carry in the epic.

This isn’t to say, however, that, in its attempts at complexity, the show doesn’t encounter a number of pitfalls. The show misunderstands who the true protagonists of the Iliad are, and more generally speaking, does not trust that the plot, characters, and events portrayed in the Iliad, and the surrounding corpus, will be enough to captivate a modern audience, often inventing plotlines or dramatically changing characters. 

The show casts Paris as its entry-point character: a poor pig farmer, he is taunted by the princes of Troy and goaded into participating in a contest of strength, where he is recognised as the lost son of Priam and Hecuba by a birthmark. His elevation to prince is what leads to his meeting of Helen while on a diplomatic mission. The rest, of course, is history. 

Unfortunately, Paris’ plotline in the show is, by far, the least interesting, and the show’s insistence on having him as the protagonist doesn’t do it any favours. The goddess he is seen interacting with the most is Aphrodite, who is portrayed as entirely benign – a far cry from the capricious goddess of the Iliad

During a conversation between Paris and his adoptive father, Aphrodite and Zeus stand aside, unseen, and discuss what’s happening. Aphrodite asks Zeus to leave Paris alone, as the boy has “suffered enough.” Zeus refuses, claiming that “forgiveness isn’t [their] way.” This is not the only instance where Aphrodite is portrayed as overwhelmingly positive towards Paris, her protégé. She weeps when he dies. She often tries to intervene in his favour, speaking to gods and mortals to help him.

In the epic, Helen attempts to refuse Aphrodite’s order to go and sleep with Paris, whom the goddess has just spirited away from a fight he would have otherwise lost. Enraged, the goddess drags her there by force, berating and threatening her: “Don’t provoke me: as much as I love you, I can hate you just as much, and leave you to your fate”. The relationship shown between the two is far from the smooth sailing of Paris and Aphrodite’s’ in the show, and, in good hands, may have made the show interesting, giving Helen a complexity that most adaptations do not allow her. Perhaps, she could have even been the protagonist. 

Conversely, the show is at its strongest when it chooses to portray mortal and divine relationships which are already in the book and surrounding mythos. Arguably the most intense, gut-wrenching scene in the show is when Agamemnon, aided by Odysseus, tricks his wife Clytaemnestra and his daughter Iphigenia into believing the girl is to marry Achilles. Instead, the goddess Artemis has decreed Iphigenia must be sacrificed in order for the Achean fleet to reach the city of Troy. 

The episode features some of the best acting on the show, mostly thanks to Johnny Harris’ performance as the Greek king and general, transformed into a grieving father when placed face-to-face with the cruelty of his gods. Once his daughter is dead, killed by his own hand, he howls, asking the wind that has just risen and, it is implied, the gods, if this was enough. Artemis, of course, does not answer. 

Had Fall of a City been written and directed by braver minds, the potential of a largely unimpressive show may have been fully realised, delivering a modern, intelligent retelling of the epic, more aware of the strengths of its source material. 

Red Dawn Rising: Global Communism, Anti-Colonialism and Freedom in India

Written by Jack Bennett.

The twentieth century in the shadow of the 1917 Russian Revolution became a century of communist revolution, conflict and collapse. From the formation of Communist China in 1949 under Mao Zedong, following a long conflict with nationalist forces; Castro taking control of Cuba in 1959, providing communism with a foothold in the western hemisphere; to the fall of Saigon in 1975 marking the high-tide mark for communism globally. By focusing on the emergence of communism in India, in relation to anti-colonial independence movements during the first half of the twentieth century, both indigenous and global currents are revealed which produced international conservations and deep engagement across state structure, operating in transnational networks.   

The common cause and solidarity between subordinated groups fighting for self-determination and independence from dominant international powers reveals the correlation between international communism and transcolonial anti-colonialism. Kris Manjapra argues that this highlights the ecumenicalism of communism during this period. Traditionally, historiography regards Indian communism as intrinsically related to the USSR’s economic and intellectual support. Manjapra, rather, posits that communism provided a collection of symbols for interpretation, creating a global intellectual melting pot. This effectively breaks down the dichotomy between global and local political and social revolutionary impulses. 

The Communist Party of India was established in 1925, having been initially composed in exile in 1918 under M.N. Roy, influenced by Communism experienced in Mexico in 1917. M.N. Roy advocated the international universalism of working-class struggles rather than national concerns. Alonso analyses Roy’s political work in Mexico from 1918 to 1920, arguing that the intellectual revolutionary climate of Mexico not only saw Roy become a communist, but he and his colleagues, concerned with the universal struggle of the working class, dismissed ideas about national identity brewing during the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath.  Attending the second Congress of the Third International in Moscow in 1919, Roy came into conflict with Lenin over the attitude that the Communists should have to the Indian National Congress. This left Indian Communism in disarray during the 1920s, revealed by the ability of the British to conduct a show-trial, the Kanpur Conspiracy Case in 1924. It was not until the 1930s, with the dissolution of Gandhi’s campaign of civil disobedience that Communism truly took hold and became a political force in India. From its inception, the nucleus of communism in India was incapable of exploiting the currents of revolutionary sentiment and the crisis that enveloped India following the First World War. 

International communism during the 1920s, it is important to emphasise, was not in fact a single monolith, but composed of greater fracture and controversy, that influenced global colonial politics. This provides a cosmopolitan vision of South Asia moving beyond geographic borders. International communism fundamentally becomes a transnational intellectual concept, but one focused less on universalism than on the spaces between ideas that operate on local, national and global scales. Manjapra sees in Roy’s work a form of cosmopolitanism that sought both ‘autonomy and solidarity’. In 1922, Roy penned India in Transition, bridging and amalgamating Russian, German and Bengali discourses about temporal progression and eruptive change within a global context of post-war avant-gardism. Illuminating Roy’s belief in a ‘radical notion of solidarity that aimed at radical identification – not just affiliation – with other liberation projects worldwide’. Roy did not see a contradiction in championing independence and interdependence, swaraj and solidarity within a larger global community. 

Between 1919 and 1925, WES in Berlin provided a de-centralised, metropole upheld by Soviet communicative and organisational infrastructure, providing political legitimation, and becoming a laboratory for anti-colonial, revolutionary experimentation and coalescence of independent movements. For example, 400 Indians utilised the network from 1921 to 1923; the League Against Imperialism and the Indian Independence League were established in 1928, while Indian communist envoys were sent to China during the Civil War in 1927. In response to this developing Indian communist revolutionary landscape, Britain launched a global campaign of counter-insurgency in order to eliminate anti-colonial radicalism. However, as the USSR dissolved international involvement under Stalinist authoritarianism from 1928, with global meetings banned in 1935, there was a reconfiguration and new direction towards both Indian communism and anti-colonial internationalism, in a process of sustained recognition, negotiation and competition with state nationalism. 

Revolutionary activist undercurrents existed in India before the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Swadeshi movement from 1905 had roots in Bengal but extended overseas where communities of Indian radicals attempted to court German support during the First World War. In the United States, a group of Indian expatriates, predominantly labourers and students raised funds and organized in support of the Ghadar movement. At this time the nationalist movement was on the upswing, starting from a campaign against a British decision in 1905 to partition the province of Bengal. This was seen as a move to break up a strong centre of opposition to British rule, as the new province of East Bengal would be dominated by the collaborationist Muslim aristocracy. The movement was soon extended into the Swadeshi campaign, which was a campaign to boycott British goods in favour of Indian ones. This generated Indian capitalist support for the National Congress. Nevertheless, this became the first moment of many in which Indian workers demonstrated large-scale, collective action. Strikes occurred on the railways and in the Punjab and in the textile mills in Bombay, as well as in many small workplaces. These were determined by self-organisation rather than union powers. However, this movement collapsed in the face of factional splits inside the Congress and British imperial repression. 

Imposed British control after 1908 was undermined by the First World War. The tussle between imperial powers encouraged nationalist organisation, this time through the Home Rule League, inspired by Irish nationalism. The reactive constitutional reform introduced by the British in 1917 failed to fulfil the Indian demand for self-governance, illustrating the shortcomings of imperial powers in upholding the vision of self-determination. This coincided with the rise of the working class within India. In 1918 and 1919 there were strikes in almost all the Bombay textile mills, the heart of Indian industry at that time. In the first six months of 1921 a series of strikes against the Rowlatt Act, a new piece of oppressive legislation introduced by the British, involved over 1.5 million workers, leading to the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in October 1920. Despite these advances, the demoralisation and defeat of the Ahmedabad textile workers strike of 1919 demonstrates the limited impact of the Russian Revolution in India, due to the dominance of the labour movement with bourgeois nationalists from the Indian National Congress. This reveals the disjunct between ideals and reality: the Russian Revolution’s democratic pursuit of dismantling autocracy and freedom; came into conflict with Indian commitments to capitalism. For example, Gandhi, with his non-violent reactionary religious fanaticism and anti-industrialist stance, ensured worker and peasant support for nationalism while maintaining the Indian bourgeoise, in order to prevent a socialist movement. Thus, indigenous influences of anti-colonialism, prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917, provided the foundations for the transplantation of communism. 

Communism would indeed gain a foothold in India. Producing distinctive leaders, labour unions and mobilisation and political parties. But revolution of the oppressed did not rise in India, communism was not the determinant in the dissolution of British imperial power. It became a movement of internal factionalism and nationalist domination. Freedom was defined by struggle against imperialism, indigenous dissatisfaction with Gandhism and global revolutionary currents, but the internal authorities of Indian remained unwilling to completely rid the country of imperial, industrial and economic systems in the pursuit of independence. 


Barry Pavier, ‘India and the Russian Revolution’ International Socialism 103 (November 1977): 24-26. 

Isabel Huacuja Alonso (2017) M.N. Roy and the Mexican Revolution: How a Militant Indian Nationalist Became an International Communist 

Kris Manjapra, M.N.Roy: Marxism and Colonial Cosmopolitanism (Delhi: Routledge India, 2010), chapter 2, pp. 31-62.

Kris Manjapra, ‘Communist Internationalism and Transcolonial Recognition’ in Cosmopolitan Thought Zones: South Asia and the Global Circulation of Ideas, ed. Sugata Bose and Kris Manjapra (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 159-77

Image of Indian communist, Manabendra Nath Roy with Lenin, Moscow 1920.