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Introducing "Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850: Narratives and Representations"

By Josh Allen - February 19, 2018 (0 comments)

by the Past & Present editorial team

In honour of the career of Prof. Paul Slack (Oxford), distinguished early modern British social historian and long serving Past & Present stalwart. Current Past & Present editorial board members Prof. Michael Braddick (Sheffield) and Prof. Joanna Innes (Oxford) were recently pleased to publish the edited collection Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850: Narratives and Representations. The festschrift was published in the second half of last year by Oxford University press and forms part of the wide ranging and ever expanding Past & Present book series.

Cover of

Book front cover. Cover copyright Oxford University Press, 2017 (all rights reserved)

Reflections Upon Sovereignty, Economy, and the Global History of Natural Resources

By Josh Allen - January 24, 2018 (0 comments)

By Natasha Pesaran (Columbia)

On 18 and 19 December 2017, Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge hosted a conference on “Sovereignty, Economy, and the Global Histories of Natural Resources.” Organized by Tehila Sasson of Emory University, winner of the 2017 International Research Awards in Global History, the conference brought together scholars from diverse fields to discuss the global history of natural resources from multiple vantage points. Rather than focusing on a single natural resource or geographic region, the conference aimed to take a holistic approach and the papers as a whole transcended the global north and south divide and drew upon a number of different methods, archives, and theoretical frameworks.

A central aim of the conference was to explore the ways in which a concern with natural resources might offer new ways of writing histories of empire and decolonization. This theme was taken up directly in Angelo Matteo Caglioti’s paper, which demonstrated how a focus on natural resources could lead to re-interpretation of the history of Italian colonialism. In particular, Caglioti argued that imperial competition between Britain and Italy over water resources, specifically the Lake Tana dam project, shed explanatory light on Italy’s decision to invade Ethiopia in 1935. Similarly weaving together diplomatic, environmental, and imperial history in his study of the Marcus Island incident in 1902, Paul Kreitman explored the competing US and Japanese attempts to assert sovereignty over the island and its ecology of albatrosses and guano. Finally, Megan Black shed light on the relationship between natural resources and imperialism in her study of the US Department of the Interior and its pursuit of an ever wider frontier overseas after the close of the American frontier. Her paper persuasively argued that minerals were not only an object of US expansionism but also offered a means of expansion, enabling America’s settler colonial bureaucracies to assert influence and claim expertise.

Turning to the role of natural resources in histories of the end of empire, Charlotte Lydia Riley explored Britain’s postwar efforts to control, harness, and develop agricultural raw materials through a study of two major colonial development schemes: the East African Groundnut Scheme and the Gambian Poultry Scheme. Moving from agricultural raw materials to the fertilizers necessary to produce them, Simon Jackson tracked the development of what he terms a “phosphate archipelago” in North Africa, beginning with French efforts in the interwar period and looking forward to postwar phosphate politics. Jackson examined the role of international institutions like the EEC and the World Phosphate Institute, as well as the legacies of the imperial relationship with France, on Morocco’s post-independence emergence as a swing producer of phosphorus products. Benjamin Siegel similarly explored a set of postcolonial transformations in the production of another commodity – opium. His paper traced the restructuring of the Indian opium regime from an illicit trade to one of regulated production and mapped the processes by which Indian opium became increasingly central to American pain management.

A number of papers addressed the nature of postcolonial sovereignty, often taking up this theme through a focus on international organizations, networks, and institutions. Cindy Ewing’s study of the Colombo Powers provided a political and diplomatic history of regional cooperation and its ramifications during the Cold War, while exploring how notions of solidarity and Asian unity were constructed. Mats Ingulstad considered how the UN came to be envisioned as the institution that would mange and govern mineral resources for the common good after World War Two through a study of debates over deep sea mining and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Taking the international conference as a site of inquiry, Chris Dietrich examined disagreements over the meaning of sovereignty over oil among a class of decolonized “oil elites”, placing these intellectual debates in the context of Libyan resource nationalism, the changing politics of the Cold War, and the global oil economy in the 1970s. A concern with regimes of knowledge production and expertise sharing was also taken up in Daniela Russ’s paper, which examined the calculative practices that enabled states and multinational institutions to treat energy as a system in the twentieth century.

The status of natural resources in international law and the various definitions of sovereignty and legal histories that emerge when natural resources are placed at the forefront of historical narratives was a second important theme pursued at the conference. This was taken up in particular by Johanna Sackel who examined the impact of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the expansion of exclusive economic zones on conceptions and claims to sovereignty over fish in Germany and Mauritania. Evaleila Pesaran’s paper focused on the legal dispute between Iran and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (today, BP) that resulted from Iran’s cancellation of its oil concession in 1932. In particular, she used the oil dispute to shed light on the ways in which Iran’s sovereignty was constrained and to explore the ways in which oil provided both a motive and opportunity for the establishment of unequal authority relationships in the global international order.

The conference took a broad approach in its definition of natural resources and the question of what constitutes a natural resource was discussed by participants across the two days. Alongside panels focused on carbon, minerals, and water, papers were also presented which took more unusual kinds of resources, such as microbes and scientific knowledge, as their focus: Albert Wu examined the anti-BCG vaccination movements that emerged in the wake of the Lübeck disaster in the 1920s and 30s, and Eric Paglia considered the transformation of Ny-Ålesund from an Arctic coal mining settlement to scientific international research base in the late-1980s. In thinking through a definition of natural resources, Roland Wenzlhuemer suggested that perhaps a common defining criteria was their spatially fixed nature, while Paul Kreitman asked participants to consider the politics of classifying something as a natural resource and suggested that to talk about a natural resource is to rip it out of its context and to fetishize it. Bathsheba Demuth pointed out that the question of for whom nature is a resource, and the presumed answer – for humans – was often taken for granted. Indeed, many of the papers took approaches that focused on diplomatic competition over resources or on legal governance, institutions, and ideas about natural resources rather than the natural resources themselves. Demuth’s paper stood out in its attempt to give analytical weight to the non-human and the material. In her study of the Nome Gold Rush 1898-1905 she showed the way in which geology and the original state of non-human elements in the subterranean world mattered for how profits and labor came to be organized along the lines of a corporate vision of capitalism.

In her remarks in the roundtable discussion Vanessa Ogle similarly drew attention to the materiality of objects we study and the concepts linked to them, pointing to the ways in which, like other terminologies, the use of the term natural resources has its own history and has been framed in different ways across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In particular, she highlighted the ways in which a focus on natural resources would be useful in rendering visible the legal characteristics that accompany different capitalist regimes. Echoing Ogle’s comments on the connection between natural resources and the history of capitalism, Paul Wade called for a fuller consideration of the economy in analyses of natural resources and asked how sovereign control over natural resources matters to regional and global market processes. In addition, Brad Simpson suggested that in thinking about sovereign control over natural resources, scholars should also consider commodity flows and particularly the role of corporations, which are crucial to the organization of these flows. Finally, in his keynote speech, “Sovereign Nature”, Jedediah Purdy brought history into conversation with the present, offering some reflections on the politics of the anthropocene and the possibilities for the future of sovereignty and resources.

The conference provided an excellent starting point for consideration of these questions and enabled participants to reflect on the methods and the analytical tools required to write a global history of natural resources. Astrid M. Eckert’s comments were particularly useful in this regard and she put forward a number of possible approaches to enable historians to better capture the interdependent world of natural resources. These included using the global commons as a potential analytical tool; the concept of telcoupling as a way of studying the displacement effects of resources; and the study of social metabolism, an approach often used by environmental historians in order to shed light on the material flows of resources connecting economy and society with natural systems. As Eckert rightly pointed out, one size will not fit all, and historians must continue to refine the tools needed to connect multiple places and fields of history. However, as the papers presented at the conference made clear, the global history of natural resources offers a rich topic of study and there is much exciting work already underway.

Sovereignty, Economy, and the Global History of Natural Resources was sponsored by the Institute for European Global Studies at the University of Basel, the Department of History and the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” at Heidelberg University, and the Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney. Additional support was received from Past & Present and the Centre for History and Economics at the University of Cambridge.

Past & Present was pleased to support this event and supports others like it. Applications are welcomed from scholars of at all career stages working on all time periods.

Atrocity on Film: Movie-making and Genocide

By Josh Allen - December 5, 2017 (0 comments)

by Michelle Tusan (University of Nevada at Las Vegas)

Filmmaking always has had a politics. Nowhere have the stakes been higher than in representing acts of atrocity, terror and genocide. It started with the dawn of film in the early twentieth century when the first atrocity film ever made and was released to transatlantic audiences in 1918. Ravished Armenia or Auction of Souls as it was known outside of the US told the story of the massacre of 1.5 million Armenian civilians during World War I (1914- 1918) by the Ottoman imperial government. It was followed by a host of other attempts to represent the massacres on film. This included MGM’s failure to turn Franz Werfel’s book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933) into a movie because of lobbying and interference from Turkey. More recently, director Atom Egoyan’s critically acclaimed film Ararat (2002) depicted the genocide through stories of remembrance and denial. The Promise (2017), the $100 million dollar MGM epic gave the movie studio another chance to tell the story. Intent to Destroy (2017), a documentary about the making of The Promise and its historical context, is the latest in a series of attempts to get the popular cultural representation of the Armenian genocide right.

The history and reception of these films suggests that film watching always has had a politics also. Films rely on audiences to lend meaning to representation. In the case of representing history, such responses have a utility in shaping understandings of the past. Politicians, humanitarian organizations, victims and international institutions all have a stake in how a particular event is represented in mass culture. They create, in Lilie Chouliaraki’s formulation “imaginations of solidarity” that produce their own narratives. The story of the reception of films about the Armenian genocide over the past hundred years or so reveal some unexpected truths about the high stakes involved in representing atrocity on film. In a moment when the line between fact and fiction seems ever so tenuously drawn in public discourse, the question of how to depict the horrors of genocide and ‘crimes against humanity’ to audiences in a meaningful and candid way has a new urgency. The uncanny parallels between the reception of the earliest and most recent films made about the Armenian genocide and separated by a century is as good a place to start to address this problem as any.

A mixture of praise and disappointment met the screening of Auction of Souls immediately after the war. Based on the true-life story of Aurora Mardiganian who escaped the Ottoman Empire as a teenager, this Hollywood feature-length silent film promised audiences an “enthralling and terrible” depiction of wartime massacres against the Armenians with an invented romantic love triangle which featured a heroic young Armenian adventurer who ultimately delivers Mardiganian and her beautiful missionary companion to safety. Critics heralded it as a film a “noble” purpose about an “important topic” whose romantic story had gotten in the way of meaningful engagement with a tragic historical event. Viewers who did not know the history of this event, however, were left perplexed by the dramatic retelling of an event mired in controversy. The mobilization of a significant and notable group of celebrities, public intellectuals and human rights activists who spoke out in support of the films’ historical truths and its warning against sanctioning state sponsored terror and mans’ inhumanity to man further fueled an increasingly nasty debate over the value of a film that few in the public yet had seen.

Though only a fragment of Ravished Armenia’s original 8,000 feet of film still exists, the controversy surrounding its release is well documented. The film premiered in invitation only venues in both the US and Britain, hosted by philanthropists and politicians who believed that the film would bring the massacres to the attention of the public on both sides of the Atlantic. There was another reason. The Allies had just won the war and the Ottoman War Crimes Trials were about to get underway in Turkey under pressure from Great Britain. Supporters of the film believed, wrongly as it turned out, that the dramatic portrayal of the massacres on screen would result in the prosecution of Turkish perpetrators of what was called ‘crimes against humanity’ against Armenian, Greek and Assyrian civilians during the war.

While American philanthropists, celebrities and politicians gathered at the Plaza in New York City in 1919 for a private screening of the film, a similar crowd of British viewers met in Soho in London. Worries over the shocking nature of some of the material prompted the initial invitation only events and provided a first glimpse of the film to the press. While critics widely praised it as a “superbly produced” and “vivid picture” of a “great tragedy,” raising the topic of the massacres in a mass popular forum started to make some nervous. In the US, Ravished Armenia initially was banned in Pennsylvania and taken to court. In Britain, the government allowed only a heavily edited version be shown for a limited engagement. Negative accusations against the film ranged from indecency to exacerbating Muslim/Christian tensions during wartime the peace negotiations. The Foreign Office made the distributor cut the crucifixion scene as well as any mention in the subtitles of the context of the violence which included eliminated references to religion, politics or ethnicity. The controversy made distribution of the film almost impossible and resulted in huge losses for the distributor. The edited version of the script which is held in the National Archives is a confusing mess and must have left many viewers scratching their heads after leaving the theater.

The Promise solicited a similar response. The film tells the story of what happened to Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire during WWI through the eyes of a medical student Michael (Oscar Issac), Associated Press reporter, Chris, (Christian Bale) and dancer, Ana, (Charlotte Le Bon) caught up in a romantic love triangle as war and massacres swirl around them. It is a beautifully rendered historical film with some unforgettable performances and scenes. The film was funded by the late billionaire, Kirk Kerkorian, whose family survived the 1915 Armenian genocide. Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) directed The Promise. Eric Esrailian and Survival Pictures, a production company founded by Kerkorian saw the film to its completion. This expensive and carefully crafted film was clearly a labor of love; a story that Kerkorian and those who supported his vision needed to tell. All proceeds will go to charity, including a $20 million donation to the University of California, Los Angeles to start a Human Rights Center.

The politics of acknowledging the massacres as a war crime perpetrated by the Ottoman government never was resolved, the trials held in 1919 ultimately failed, and has haunted popular depictions of the Armenian genocide ever since. Premiers of The Promise exposed this tension again. It started with the difficulty of getting a distributor. Despite positive reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, it had to wait for an eleventh-hour deal with Open Road to distribute the film in the US to over 2,250 theaters. Part of the problem was the politics of representing a genocide on screen that is still denied by the Turkish government and not official acknowledged by the American and British governments.

Invitations to a screening at MGM, a company which Kirk Kerkorian served as the former head, described the film as “a romance set in Eastern Europe.” No matter that the Ottoman Empire was not geographically part of Eastern Europe at this time or that the film was clearly about the Armenian massacres from almost the first frame. The film, one memo stated, was not about the Armenian genocide and could not be advertised as such or spoken about in these terms when the film was introduced at the event. But regardless of misleading and confused official directives, the film has drawn audiences interested in it precisely because it is about the Armenian genocide. In London, the premier was held in Soho right around the corner from where Auction of Souls was shown almost one hundred years ago. In attendance at this screening of The Promise was a group of philanthropists, distinguished members from the Armenian community and celebrity activists including George and Amal Clooney.

Critics who saw The Promise largely agreed that the central story of the genocide remains an important and underrepresented event. At the same time, some of these same reviewers complained that the vehicle of a love story as the central action of the film blurred the lines between fact and fiction and diminished the weight and importance of genocide itself. Then there were the internet trolls. After the Twitter-sphere came alive with pledges to “keep the promise” and included support from celebrities including Barbara Streisand, Andre Agassi and Kim Kardashian controversy erupted. Despite these endorsements, critically acclaimed performances and a big budget, The Promise was panned on movie review sites. It has been asserted that the number of negative reviews could not possibly come from people who had seen the film before its release. Many of these questionable reviews have been corrected and since then legitimate reviewers have weighed in on the film.

The reaction to films about the Armenian genocide has changed little over time- alternately seen as importantly provocative by one set of viewers and misguided by another. Yet, the need to make these films continues. The new film Intent to Destroy, directed by Joe Berlinger and released in the US last month, self-consciously upends the division between documentary and fiction to expose the narrative fault lines in making movies about history. Using historical footage, interviews with scholars and actors and photographs from archival collections from around the world, it explains what some audiences who never had heard of the Armenian genocide must have left the theater wondering about the events depicted in The Promise. At the same time, it documents the making of the film, giving the fictional story a history of its own. Audiences learn how the film was made and why it took the form that it did. It also questions Hollywood’s role in this process. By turning The Promise inside out it asks the viewer to see fiction as a vehicle for understanding historical truths.

Intent to Destroy gets at the heart of why film-makers keep making films about the Armenian genocide by changing what it means to document an event. Film from its earliest days offered the enticing promise that seeing is believing. Not unlike new technologies today, it claimed status as a radically transformative medium. At the movies, people would see events unfold on screen and be better equipped to engage their world. This utopian view of the unlimited possibilities of film to bring people together around issues that mattered informed the desire to represent events like the Armenian genocide as a ‘never again moment’ in the wake of the largest and most destructive war to date.

Rather than show and tell, films like Intent to Destroy seek to expose layers of meaning through contextualization and storytelling. The burden of depicting the reality of civilian as war victim, a relatively new phenomenon of the last century, takes on new meaning and needs new forms of representation where historical context matters. Without it, images whether on the small or large screen, loose their power. This failure to connect image, story and experience in a meaningful way has given birth to the belief that if people only knew what was happening they would do something help. But knowing does not easily produce solutions particularly in the face of large scale man-made disaster when the viewer can do little but watch.