Publication Date

May 1, 2017

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

Post Type

American Historical Review


  • World

The June issue of the American Historical Review has five articles covering a range of historical topics: rumors of slavery in the Caribbean, a fear of Roma people in the Habsburg Empire, China’s foreign policy, political surveillance in the United Kingdom and the United States, and global debates on the norms of cultural heritage.

The first article, “Rumors of Slavery: Defending Emancipation in a Hostile Caribbean,” by Anne Eller, deals not with slavery per se but rather with its specter. Eller notes that experiences of emancipation varied throughout the greater Caribbean, from the struggles of the formerly enslaved to carve out autonomy on small sugar islands to those on larger islands that had different modes of production. But everywhere the climate was highly charged with conflict. By the middle of the 19th century, the political consciousness of residents of the deeply rural Dominican Republic was infused with both aspirations and fears. These subaltern Caribbean residents were connected to regional news networks that brought not stories of liberation but tales of retrenchment, hostility, and dynamic imperial threats. Re-­enslavement warnings, glossed and dismissed by authorities as rumor, were both detailed and widespread; they fueled the new politics of defending emancipation and independence. When Spanish authorities reoccupied Dominican territory in 1861, Dominican rebels played upon these warnings, urging solidarity in the face of this threat. The subsequent erasure of these dynamics, in both local and hemispheric narratives, highlights not only how elites willfully sought to obfuscate the connections of emancipated peoples throughout the Caribbean but also the vigilant efforts to maintain these ties, even in largely subsistence spaces, far from any plantation.

An article by Tara Zahra takes us to the Habsburg Empire in the early years of the 20th century. In “‘Condemned to Rootlessness and Unable to Budge’: Roma, Migration Panics, and Internment in the Habsburg Empire,” Zahra traces state practices for governing Roma. In the years before World War I, the members of this ethnic group became troubling symbols of the limits of the Habsburg state’s sovereignty over its borders and people. In their alleged resistance to authority, they seemed to embody both the failures of the empire’s “civilizing” mission and its efforts to control mobility. A growing number of Austrian authorities began to call for the forcible internment of so-called Gypsies. This represented a shift from earlier strategies for governing Roma, which typically entailed policies of forcible “sedentarization” or deportation. This turn toward internment took place in the context of a broad panic over uncontrolled mobility, escalating border control, and the rise of a racialized understanding of the category “Gypsy.” Zahra notes that persecution of Roma in this period prefigured the treatment of refugees later in the 20th century and may shed light on the origins and dynamics of contemporary “migration panics.”

“The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-­Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations,” by Henrietta Harrison, begins in the late 18th century and jumps to the early 20th. Harrison first examines the famous letter in which the Qianlong emperor responded to the diplomatic mission to China led by Lord Macartney in 1793. The letter has often been interpreted as a symbol of the Qing dynasty’s ignorance and narrow-mindedness. Harrison argues that looking at a wider range of archival documents reveals that it does not reflect the Qianlong emperor’s response to the British embassy, which was primarily to see it as a security threat. Rather, she argues, it reflects 18th-century British concerns with protocol and their influence on Chinese and Western scholars in the early 20th century, when the letter first began to circulate widely. Harrison focuses on the scholars who edited the first volumes of published materials to emerge from the Qing archives, as well as others who used these materials to create a lasting narrative of the Qing. Looking at how the letter has been interpreted illustrates both the role of archivists as co-creators of history and the extent to which many of our ideas about Qing history are still shaped by the tumultuous politics of China’s early 20th century.

“Covert and Overt Operations: Interwar Political Policing in the United States and the United Kingdom,” by Jennifer Luff, uncovers an episode unknown to contemporaries and historians: Britain’s secret interwar bar on communists in government service. Thousands of unwitting industrial workers suspected of communist sympathies were investigated between 1927 and 1946, and many were fired or blacklisted from government employment. Contrary to popular and historical accounts, the interwar British security regime was considerably more stringent than the American one. Moreover, the two countries’ security regimes were enacted by their legislatures, not imposed by executive fiat, and thus reflect the peculiarities of their respective political cultures. Comparing interwar American and British surveillance and policing of communists, Luff shows that each state developed distinctive practices that varied along a covert/overt axis: both surveillance and policing could be surreptitious or conspicuous. In the United States, publicity alerted American civil libertarians, who left a record of noisy protest for historians; in the United Kingdom, secrecy concealed state repression from British citizens and the historical record. Luff’s article calls for more comparative research on modern political policing, which will enable historians to integrate the “secret state” into larger historical narratives and provide the empirical grist to revise theoretical accounts of state surveillance and social control by scholars such as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben.

The final article, “The Authenticity of Heritage: Global Norm-Making at the Crossroads of Cultures,” by Aurélie Elisa Gfeller, analyzes the global debate on the authenticity of cultural heritage. It is, Gfeller suggests, a lens through which to view the process of elaborating and reshaping global cultural norms. Drawing on interviews and mostly untapped archival records from several countries, she shows that the groundbreaking 1994 Nara Document on Authenticity, which promotes “the protection and enhancement of cultural and heritage diversity in our world . . . as an essential aspect of human development,” resulted from a surprising coalition of actors from across the Northern Hemisphere. At Nara, Canadians, Japanese, and Norwegians came together to challenge the prevailing Eurocentric definition of authenticity based on distinct yet partially overlapping interests. By illuminating these unexpected historical dynamics, this article suggests that global norms not only bear the imprint of geographically and temporally anchored values but also result from alliances straddling the traditional West/non-West or North/South divide.


Robert A. Schneider is professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington and interim editor of the American Historical Review.

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