National Gallery: Melanesia

A geographical concept based on outdated European ideas of race – does 'Melanesia' exist?

The concept of ‘Melanesia’ begins with an 18th-century European theory: that the indigenous populations of the Pacific islands, now called Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Fiji, had darker skin and were thus a different race than the inhabitants of the islands grouped as Micronesia (‘small islands’) and Polynesia (‘many islands’). The anthropologist Paul Sillitoe describes Melanesia (‘black islands’) as a ‘historical category’ which, though subject to arbitrary boundaries (Australia is sometimes included, Fiji is sometimes not), has become legitimised by use. The Papuan philosopher and member of the Melanesian Alliance Party, Bernard Narokobi, wrote that, though Melanesian history lacks ‘the binding effect of the written word’ or ‘the naked power of the gun’ (a reference to centuries of foreign intervention reflected in the western gaze of many of the following images), a ‘common cultural and spiritual community’ does exist.


Stone axes with wooden handles, Papua New Guinea, 19th century.

France, from Gaul to de Gaulle

Desmond Seward | Published 10 July 2018
John Julius Norwich’s history of France was his final tribute to a country that he loved throughout his long life, ‘living in everything from the grandeur of the British Embassy to a humble Strasbourg bedsitter’. As the title indicates, the reader is taken for a cheerful gallop, Norwich covering everything from Vercingetorix, Caesar’s heroic, doomed opponent, to the end of the Second World War. He brings to life Clovis, King of the Franks, the Emperor Charlemagne, Count Robert of Paris, St Louis and the disastrous Crusades, the end of the Templars whose last Grand Master was burned at the stake...Read more »
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The Curious Creatures of Victorian Taxidermy

The organisers of the Indian displays at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 had a problem: they urgently required a taxidermy elephant. They needed the elephant as a frame on which to display a lavish Indian howdah (an elaborate carriage used as a platform for transportation and game hunting by the Indian and British elites), which had recently been presented to Queen Victoria by the Nawab of Moorshedabad in the Indian state of West Bengal. Fortunately, an old female specimen was eventually found close to home at the Saffron Walden Museum.

Alice Would | Published 04 July 2018

Rewriting the Classics

Aeneas Introducing Cupid Dressed as Ascanius to Dido, by Giambattista Tiepolo, 1757.

‘Historically, men translated the Odyssey. Here’s what happened when a woman took the job.’ So begins one of many recent articles on Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey, the first in English published by a woman. In the wake of Wilson’s groundbreaking translation, there has been much buzz about how women have been making the Greek and Roman classics their own in recent years. This scholarly and creative outburst includes translations by Susanna Braund, Diane Arnson Svarlien and Sarah Ruden, as well as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (2005) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia (2008), adaptations of Homer and Virgil centred around feminine protagonists and perspectives. These works are part of a rich tradition of reworkings of the classics by women, which includes Hélisenne de Crenne’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

In the 16th century, Marguerite Briet translated the first four books (out of 12) of the Aeneid into French prose under her pseudonym, Hélisenne de Crenne.

Jesse Weiner | Published 03 July 2018
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Published in
Volume 68 Issue 7 July 2018

The Grapes of Roth

From the heart of Europe to the world: Philip Roth (and Franz Kafka), 1968.

Much has been written about the life and work of the American novelist Philip Roth since his death on 22 May. Like many great artists (Shakespeare, Beethoven, Rembrandt), he had a vigorous, uncompromising ‘late’ period, during which his writing took on an unmistakable style and inimitable humour that was often excruciatingly funny. Yet there is a side to Roth that has been somewhat neglected by the obituarists.

During the mid-1970s, when both the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall seemed immovable fixtures in our lives, Roth became editor of an ambitious publishing project, ‘Writers from the Other Europe’. Published in the UK by Penguin, the series began with the Polish author Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman. A collection of stories from a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, it set a familiar theme for the series: of atrocious crimes becoming an unremarkable part of a daily routine.

Paul Lay | Published 02 July 2018

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today. He is the author of a book on the late Protectorate.

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Published in
Volume 68 Issue 7 July 2018

Who Were The Phoenicians?

Mark Woolmer | Published 29 June 2018
The people known to history as the Phoenicians occupied a narrow tract of land along the coast of modern Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel. They are famed for their commercial and maritime prowess and are recognised as having established harbours, trading posts and settlements throughout the Mediterranean basin. However, the Phoenicians’ lack of recognisable territory, homogeneous language or shared cultural heritage means that, despite being one of the most influential Mediterranean peoples of the first millennium BC, their identity has long remained shrouded in mystery. In Search of the Phoenicians takes the reader on an exhilarating quest to reveal more...Read more »
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Point of No Return? Britain and the Elgin Marbles

Since they were first ‘acquired’ in 1816, Britain has never seriously considered returning the sculptures collectively known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’ to their place of origin. Successive governments have argued that they are better preserved and more accessible in the British Museum, their current home; that their return would constitute a precedent to be regretted later; or, especially in the past, that the Greeks were unable to preserve their heritage and that Athens offered less security than the capital of a more stable power.

Ioannis Stefanidis | Published 27 June 2018

Making a Monster

Here be monsters: a centaur, or homodubius, from Wonders of the East in the Nowell Codex, c.1000.

Whether they were being feared, marvelled at or tirelessly debated by theologians, monsters were real and present to the Anglo-Saxon mind. Nowhere can this be better seen than in the Nowell Codex (c.1000), a manuscript whose texts have been shown by Professor Andy Orchard to have been brought together because of the monsters they shared.

Tim Flight | Published 26 June 2018
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Published in
Volume 68 Issue 7 July 2018

Ferdinand Columbus, Bibliophile

Lisa Barber | Published 19 June 2018
Ferdinand Columbus. Christopher Columbus brought the riches of the New World to Spain; his son, Ferdinand, collected the riches coming from the new technology of the printing press and brought them to Seville, where he founded the most astonishing library. Ferdinand (or Hernando) also wrote the biography of his father, which is our main – and often only – source for the great explorer’s life and voyages. Until now, however, no full biography of Ferdinand has existed: a void amply filled by Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books. He places Ferdinand firmly within the intellectual, social and political milieu...Read more »
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The Battle of Rorke’s Drift

Celebrated memory: The Defence of Rorke’s Drift, by Alphonse Marie de Neuville, 1880.

The battle of Rorke’s Drift was refought this year when a London Underground employee wrote an account of the siege on Dollis Hill Tube station’s notice board to mark its 139th anniversary. Within hours, however, the message had been erased with apologies following complaints that it was celebrating colonialism – a decision which was itself condemned in some media outlets as ‘rewriting history’. It was a brief controversy, but a resonant one for considering how Britain remembers and forgets its Empire and how these memories are shaped by an inheritance of imperial narratives and images. Thanks to the 1964 film Zulu, Rorke’s Drift has become in the modern imagination the prototypical Victorian colonial battle. Brief, heroic and apparently uncomplicated, it stands as a memorial proxy for a wider, more complex and troubling imperial history – and this has a longer tradition than we might think.

Brian Wallace | Published 14 June 2018
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Published in
Volume 68 Issue 6 June 2018