The latest episode of Season 2 of Crash Course History examined the history and historiography of ‘the West,’ which readers will likely be familiar with as one of the more fundamental paradigms of historical self-understanding of those of us who speak European languages and live in the Americas, Australasia, and those portions of the European subcontinent that lie west of Ukraine. The more specific question under discussion is the ‘rise’ of the West: that is, how did it come about that the West dominates (for now…duh duh duh…ominous music) the rest of the world. Host John Green doesn’t attempt to answer the question, thankfully, but rather discusses various answers that have been proposed by historians other authors. I would like to propose a fairly simple answer: it does not. How so? Well, for the same reason that neither unicorns nor elves dominate the earth: ‘the West’ is not a coherent concept and its dominance or lack thereof is not a coherent proposition.
What, I ask you, is the West?
To watch the Crash Course video, read on, and comment, click here: Problematic concepts
This weekend, instead of working on that book review I keep promising, I found myself at The Burn, a former great house (I won’t even attempt to write the name of the former propieters of this country house because it has a [ʃ] sound in it and, this being Scotland, they probably spell that with a ‘y,’ or a consonant cluster, or the number 4, or something), now retreat centre for educational events, off in the Scottish countryside, nestled on the border of Aberdeenshire and Angus, in the charming little town of Edzell, very near the Highland Fault, for a conference. I’d been brought there on a training program on conference chairing, where the conference organisers paid to have some of Aberdeen’s history PhDs chair panels, to gain some experience in a more structured way than there is usually opportunity for, in this important-but-underplayed part of academic life. I chaired the very first panel, nominally on law but including a paper on early modern Genevans’ (before Geneva became a canton of the Swiss Federation) attitudes to the notion of union in light of commercial society, as well as papers on Polish-Lithuanian legal culture and the Scottish courts during the Cromwellian commonwealth. My more senior colleagues presenting papers all praised my performance but I think my favourite comment received was that my chairing was “disciplined,” since this was simultaneously the most honest and most euphemistic praise I think I’ve ever received.
The conference, as you can likely guess from the title of the post and my own research activities, was on the culture of early modern political unions…
Continued at The Molinist.
Warning: This piece contains mild spoilers for both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire and the trilogies The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor. I’ve tried to restrict them to world-building and characters but plot spoiliers may have slipped through my net.
Fantasy, of course, is all about white people. The proper fantasy subject matter, we all know, is mighty lords in stout keeps with absurdly-large swords and fantastically unlikely social structures, encased in medieval stasis. The natural sort of people for this setting are Brits, Vikings, maybe Spaniards (no one actually knows what a Spaniard looks like). Also popular are Brits coated in a thin pastiche of medieval Frenchness, based primarily on WWII-era stereotypes and a general sense that there is a book called The Romaun of the Rose and also chivalry. After all, who is Ursula K. Le Guin, even? But in this age of political correctness and reasonably interesting human drama, it’s probably best to include some black people.
But how can you convincingly add black people to what is, after all, essentially medieval Europe? Black people hadn’t been invented yet. They can’t just be running around, looking different, that obviously never happened and it would seriously strain any reasonable suspension of disbelief. Sure, your fantasy has immortal, subterranean elf-dwarf people; eugenicist Kantian horned giants; and talking tree people but black people?! A bridge too far. They’ll have to come from somewhere: a single country that can also provide some sexy exoticness when needed. And so was born The Country of Black People…
Continued on The Molinist.
I’ve been known to overuse the word ‘magisterial,’ mostly because I like the sound of it, but this work comes closer than perhaps any I have ever read to deserving the title. This expansive study of Castilian (Blackburn refers to the Spanish but, of course, he meant Castilian), Portugese, Dutch, British, and French colonial imperialism and slavery in the New World, from the early days of the encomienda system in Castilian colonies like New Hispania to the rise and apex of the plantation economy to the Industrial Revolution and Anglo-French Wars of 1793-1815, is a thorough, multi-faceted exploration of the contexts and development of colonial slavery in the Americas.
Structurally, The Making of New World Slavery proceeds chronologically as well as geographically: each chapter moves forward in time, more or less, while also focussing on a particular European colonial state. Some back and forth is, of course, necessary to provide the proper context in each successive chapter but the overall thrust of the book is easy to follow. Blackburn divides his narrative into two broad sections, ‘The Selection of New World Slavery,’ where he explores how and why slavery on the plantation scale came to development, and ‘Slavery and Accumulation,’ where explores the economic engline of colonial slavery and its relationship to the metropole. Part one opens with the ‘Old World’ (that is, pre-colonial) history of European slavery, then moving into Portugal in Africa and the Atlantic, Castile in America, the momentous rise of Brazilian sugar, the Dutch West India Company’s war for Brazil, English colonialism, and French colonialism, closing with a discussion of the emergence of specifically racial slavery and the plantation system which it sustained. This first section, which is the longer of the two, has something of a feel of a survey course to it: Blackburn runs through a vast amount of social, economic, and intellectual history in the course of only a few hundred pages, though without feeling rushed or condensed. Section two, ‘Slavery and Accumulation,’ is the more technical of the two, where The Making of New World Slavery becomes more explicitly a work of economic history. Here chapters on the place of colonial slavery in the 18th century boom, the sugar islands, slavery on the South and Central American mainland, and slavery as primitive accumulation explore the role of slave in the emerging economies of the European colonial powers and what role it played in the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. Despite the heavy focus on the economics of slavery, divergences are also made into social and intellectual considerations…
Continued at The Molinist.
This is part three of a three part series.
Perhaps ironically, perhaps inevitably, the conflict between slave economics and rights becomes perhaps most acute in the very man credited with giving birth to the modern language of rights: Hugo Grotius. The Dutch Jurist Hugo Grotius is often considered the most important figure in 17th century intellectual history: the seculariser of natural law, father of social contract theory, originator of modern ideas of rights. While these ideas are wildly overstated, they certainly reflect the profound influence with Grotius had and continues to have. Grotius’s though in slavery was likewise influence, not present a coherent theory on the topic, as it is never a topic which he explores explicitly or at length. Rather, in true humanistic style, Grotius, adorned with more citations and references than any reasonable human being could possibly deem necessary, or helpful, flits lightly between Roman war slavery, Aristotelian natural slavery, and Molinist voluntary slavery, alighting on each as it suits his rhetorical end at the moment…
Continued at The Molinist
Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for X-Men: Days of Future Past.
If, like me, you saw the previews for X-Men: Days of Future Past and were absolutely thrilled to see Blink, Bishop, and Warpath  heavily (and exceedingly ominously) featured, then actually saw the movie, you may well share my frustration with the very skilled bait-and-switch which the filmmakers ran. Though featured every bit as heavily as previously front- and second-line characters like Storm, Iceman, and Kitty Pride, these interesting (and largely unknown to fans who only come to these characters through the movies) mutants are barely in the film. Oh sure, they have some long, very visually strong, very dramatic action sequences where they make heavy use of their powers for stakes-setting and -raising purposes (the movie is about time travel so your mileage may very on how dramatic they actually are, and that’s before we get into the excessive use of slow-motion) but not only are they completely absent from the main plot, their entire secondary plot function is to faciliate the white people saving the day.
Assuming you’ve seen the previews (and understand the degree to which the First Class line of the films is the only one with an ounce of non-Wolverine-dependant goodwill remaining) you’re probably aware that most of the action takes place in the past  of X-Men: First Class, which, you may recall, had a total of two characters of colour, Darwin and Angel, one of whom (Darwin) died in the second-act stakes-raising encounter with the Hellfire Club and one of whom (Angel) turns evil at the same time. By the point at which Days of Future Past takes place, Angel is dead too, and it’s left to Wolverine (God I’m so tired of Wolverine), Professor X, Beast, and Magneto to save the die (with a little help from Quicksilver, which is profoundly confusing but we needn’t get into that). Mystique is going to doom them all, you see, and she must be stopped before her angry hysterics cross the moral event horizon (yeah, ‘a team of men trying to stop a woman from doing something foolish’ is a decent summation of the primary storyline). The people of colour, including Storm (don’t even get me started on the degree to which these movies have mistreated Storm, anyone’s thoughts on Halle Berry’s performances aside), are relegated to standing around in a drab setting and doing drama…
Continued at The Molinist: Mutants of Colour.
This is part two of a three-part series.
Neither of the traditional intellectual frameworks for slavery allow for modern concepts of rights. Indeed, both predate the notion of ‘rights’ by some centuries and, I would propose, obviated the need for theories of rights as we understand them. But both were about to receive a crippling blow, the elite intellectual response to which would fundamentally tie slavery and rights together. This wound to the older foundations of the American slave system, called the encomienda system, for the plantation-style operations which typified it, was the Valladolid Controversy, a debate between Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas and Castilian humanist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. Taking place in the Castilian city of Valladolid from 1550-51, the controversy brough an end to the official and learned acceptability of the aforementioned intellectual frameworks for colonial slavery. Sepúlveda argued from a fusion of Roman war slavery and Aristotelian natural slavery that the Americans were irrational barbarians, possibly less then human, justly conquered by the Castilians in a just war and justly enslaved by rational men for their own good: the salvation of their souls and the tutelage of their minds. Cases, whose victory in the Controversy has earned the sobriquet ‘Defender of the Indians,’ argued that the treatment of the Americans, which was famously heinous, though this heinousness has been exaggerated by the so-called ‘Black Legend,’ anti-Castilian propaganda spread by the English to justify their own colonial enterprises in the Americas, was so extreme that nothing could justify it and the Americans should be freed from slavery. De las Casas also employed the arguments of fellow Dominican Francisco de Vitoria more directly against Sepúlvedas claims…
Continued at The Molinist.