National Gallery: Jamaica

As with many countries that experienced the worst of western colonialism, a visual survey of Jamaica seems to reaffirm the cliché that history is not only written, but is also illustrated, by the ‘victors’ (the term used here ambiguously). Accordingly, much of the early history covered in this month’s picture essay hinges upon what is not shown: the annihilating impact of the Columbian Exchange on the island’s indigenous population; the cruel realities of the lives of those African people abducted and transported to Jamaica to work on European plantations. There is also, of course, the ruinous result of Jamaica’s sugar boom on the teeth and waistlines of its European consumers. In the post-colonial era, the small island has become something of a cultural powerhouse: it is now more famous for exporting reggae than sugar and bananas.

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Black Blood

Rhys Griffiths | Published 05 December 2017

Rhys Griffiths is Assistant Editor at History Today.

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Published in
Volume 67 Issue 12 December 2017

Tourist Trinkets: The Medieval Pilgrim Badge

What do holiday souvenirs have in common with pilgrim badges? The former are affordable to make and sell; they are eye-catching and showcase the unique characteristics of their destination through shape, text, colour and images; importantly, holiday souvenirs are nearly always portable. T-shirts, miniature models of buildings or statues, snow-globes, tea-towels, mugs, fabric patches, magnets or metal badges are the kinds of objects we like to bring home. Even if we all went to the same place and bought matching mementos – and the mass produced nature of such ‘tourist tat’ means that inevitably such items are far from unique – the feelings we project onto souvenirs are uniquely shaped by personal memories. In our possession, these objects take on new meanings that transcend their low material quality, or the fact that thousands of other people have got one just like it.

Amy Jeffs | Published 09 August 2017
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Censoring Indian History

Shivaji, a 17th-century Maratha king, is a hero of modern India. In Mumbai, both the airport and central railway station bear his name. Soon, he will greet those who arrive by sea to Mumbai as the world’s largest statue. A major political party calls itself the Shiv Sena, meaning ‘Shivaji’s army’, and often vehemently defends the hero – dead for more than 330 years – from insults and defamation.

Audrey Truschke | Published 27 July 2017
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Volume 67 Issue 8 August 2017

Imperial Designs: Cromwell's Conquest of Jamaica

Nautical chart of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, c.1639.
Nautical chart of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, c.1639.

A massive fleet set sail for Hispaniola in 1654 to conquer the Spanish Caribbean island for the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. Repulsed after three weeks by a much smaller and poorly armed force, the fleet limped away to Jamaica. Botching that conquest as well, the army hunkered down for what would prove a long guerilla war against a small but tenacious remnant of the island’s population. The fleet’s commanders scurried home, where Cromwell threw them in the Tower for abandoning their posts. It was not the Protector’s finest hour.  

Carla Gardina Pestana | Published 30 May 2017
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Volume 67 Issue 6 June 2017

Guernica: Black and White and Red All Over

Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937).

A flight of bombers from Nazi Germany’s Condor Legion and Italy’s Aviazione Legionaria pummelled the Basque town, Gernika for three hours on 26 April 1937. As incendiary bombs rained down on the defenceless settlement, civilians fled into the surrounding fields, where they were mercilessly strafed by the aircrafts’ machine guns. That night, the heartland of Basque identity crumbled in the ensuing firestorm.

Since the military uprising against the left-wing Popular Front government in July 1936, the Spanish Civil War had galvanised thousands worldwide. The Soviet Union marshalled the International Brigades to assist the Spanish Republic. Meanwhile, the fascist powers supported the Nationalists, a motley confederacy of Spain’s traditionalist groups, spearheaded by the army. Incensed by the Republic’s concessions to regional autonomy, Gernika’s fate brought the Nationalist ambition for Spain – ‘Una, Grande y Libre’ (‘One, Great and Free’) – into devastating relief. It marked a sea change not only in this war but of modern civilisation itself; a transformation Pablo Picasso captured in his painting, Guernica.

Danny Bird | Published 26 April 2017
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Predicting the Fall of Anne Boleyn

Fallen from grace: Anne Boleyn, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1533-36. (Bridgeman Images)
Fallen from grace: Anne Boleyn, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1533-36. (Bridgeman Images)

There can be few moments which have captured the imagination of historians, authors and the public like the fall of Anne Boleyn. The events which led to the arrest and execution of Henry VIII’s second wife, alongside her brother and a number of courtiers, in May 1536 have been seen very differently by historians. Perhaps the most enduring recent interpretation has presented Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, as having orchestrated an elaborate plot to remove Anne and her supporters from court. After all, Cromwell himself admitted to the Imperial Ambassador of Charles V, Eustace Chapuys, that he had ‘discovered and followed up the affair’. 

Andy Holroyde | Published 20 April 2017
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Volume 67 Issue 5 May 2017

Portrait of the Author as a Historian: Toni Morrison

The dead, white, male canon has not merely stifled African-American history so much as smothered it. One author has spent her career grappling with the problem of America’s whitewashed past, writes Alexander Lee.

Toni Morrison. Copyright Everett Collection/Alarmy
Toni Morrison. Copyright Everett Collection/Alarmy

In 1990 Toni Morrison delivered a series of lectures at Harvard University in which she drew attention to a major weakness of contemporary literary criticism. Until that point, she argued, it had commonly been thought that the ‘classic’ works of American literature had been ‘uninformed … and unshaped by the 400-year-old presence of … Africans and African-Americans in the United States’. Although African-Americans had ‘shaped the body politic, the Constitution and the entire … culture’ of the United States, the characteristics of American literature were believed to have emanated from a sense of ‘Americanness’ that was separate from – and indeed indifferent to – their existence. 

Pain behind the Pleasure: the Italian Social Republic

Salò was Mussolini’s German-backed experiment in ‘real Fascism’ and fine living. Italians find it hard to come to terms with its legacy.

The armistice between the Allies and Italy was made public on September 8th, 1943, five days after it was signed. It had a disastrous impact on Italians. Vengeful German forces, many already stationed in the peninsula, took over the northern two thirds of the country. At 5.10am on the 9th, Victor Emmanuel III, his son Umberto, other members of the Savoy dynasty, Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio and subordinate military ministers cravenly fled east from Rome to Pescara. Caring for their persons but not the people, they had ample funds (the king at least 13 million lire, Badoglio ten).  

Blades not Bullets: the Battle of Culloden

The Battle of Culloden, which vanquished for good Jacobite claims to the British throne, is a much mythologised and misunderstood event. Murray Pittock cuts through the fog of war to find out what really happened in April 1746.   

For two centuries, British historiography has defined Jacobitism as ‘primitive’: first, it was demeaned because of the very real threat it posed to the Hanoverian state; second, because of the role played by the Jacobite defeat in the creation myth of the British Empire. It is no coincidence that this approach began to founder in the 1970s, as the former imperial state, which grew to maturity in part as a consequence of the defeat of the Jacobites, took on a more fragmentary, modern and multicultural existence. Yet the popular image of the Jacobites, not least at the Battle of Culloden, fought on April 16th, 1746, remains. Though the Jacobite armies were well armed and decently led by officers familiar with the courts of Europe, both British ‘Whig history’ and Scottish patriot nostalgia relies on an image of them as dirty, poorly armed primitives sacrificing themselves with pointless nobility on the orders of an Italian princeling, ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie. That they are not remembered entirely with contempt is due to the fact that all agree that they were defending an ancient way of life.