How should historians consider Nelson Mandela?

Originally posted on the Imperial and Global Forum – the blog of the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the History Department, University of Exeter.

nelson-mandelaRichard Toye

The sad news of the death of Nelson Mandela has led many commentators to reflect on how he will be remembered. His reputation is now, and has been for many years, almost uniquely positive. So it should be, and let’s hope it will remain that way. Let this not, however, be at the expense of historical complexity. Here are some points which historians should bear in mind when reflecting on Mandela’s career and on his evolution from freedom fighter to world statesman.

  • He was a controversial figure. Obviously that was true within South Africa – that’s why they put him in prison – but it was also the case around the world. Whereas the system of Apartheid found few actual supporters outside of the land of its creation (and the South African regime was careful to emphasise that it did not intend it for export), there were plenty of people, from Winston Churchill to Ronald Reagan, who were chary of interfering in another state’s internal affairs. The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), then, was the object of considerable suspicion, not least to those international conglomerates to whose investments it posed a threat. In Britain in the 1980s, to propose naming a street after Mandela was a sure sign that you were a member of the ‘Loony Left’.

    Protestors outside the South African Embassy in London in August 1990. [Anti-Apartheid Movement/Bodleian Library]

  • He never renounced violence. He would have been let out of prison earlier had he done so. This is not to say that he believed violence offered a solution to South Africa’s problems. As he recalled in an interview in 2001 ‘When I was told, “You’ll be released as soon as you renounce violence,” I said, “You started violence – our violence is a defense. The methods of political action that oppressed people use are determined by the oppressor.” And I didn’t want to leave jail under conditions.’ Hence Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 description of the ANC as ‘a typical terrorist organisation’. And the USA did not get around to removing him from its terrorist watch list until 2008.
  • He was part of a wider struggle. When Mandela went into prison, Britain still had an empire — albeit one in the rapid process of being dismantled rhodesiaSellOut— as part of a wider process of European decolonization. Britain’s relationship with South Africa (which left the Commonwealth in 1961) was certainly problematic, but some other issues were arguably more pressing. For many years, for example, the Rhodesian question was a bigger headache for British politicians; at the same time we should not forget that, when it was finally resolved with Zimbabwean independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe was regarded by many as a hero for his success in bringing oppressive white rule to an end. With so much going on it is understandable that Mandela’s case did not always receive the attention that it undoubtedly deserved, in spite of the best efforts of the AAM and other pressure groups.

To understand Mandela fully, then, we must comprehend the times within which he lived. We will not do his memory justice unless we appreciate the strains and stresses under which he and his supporters operated. Nor, indeed, will we live up to his legacy unless we try to understand the motivations of his jailers and his opponents.

Talking Empire: The Gallagher-Robinson Controversy

Originally posted on the Imperial and Global Forum – the blog of the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the History Department, University of Exeter.

The Centre for Imperial and Global History is pleased to announce its new ‘Talking Empire’ podcast series. Hosted by Professor Richard Toye, Centre academics are developing a series of podcasts on controversies in global and imperial history, which are available to listen to for free on this page.

AfricaVictoriansWith this first installment, Centre Director Andrew Thompson discusses the longstanding debates surrounding the work of Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson. In their path-breaking 1953 Economic History Review article, ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’, Gallagher and Robinson suggested that the so-called ‘New Imperialism’ of the late nineteenth century was not new at all. They argued instead that imperial historians had previously missed Britain’s informal imperial expansion following its adoption of free trade policies c. 1850. The authors expanded further upon their informal imperial findings with Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism (1961).

Listen to the three installments of Andrew Thompson discussing the controversial legacy of Gallagher and Robinson:

Episode one: Jack Gallagher, Ronald Robinson and ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’ [Listen]

Richard Toye and Andrew Thompson discuss Robinson and Gallagher’s article ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’.

Episode two: ‘Africa and the Victorians’ [Listen]

Richard Toye and Andrew Thompson discuss the partition of Africa in the late nineteenth-century and the famous phrase ‘the official mind of British Imperialism’.

Episode three: The Vocabulary of Empire [Listen]

Richard Toye and Andrew Thompson discuss Robinson and Gallagher’s contribution to the vocabulary with which we think about empire today.

More to come soon, so keep checking back on our blog!

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum for historians

This post was originally posted on the blog for the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter.

Emily Vine

I’m currently researching items in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum collection which could be of particular use to historians. I’ve come across a wide range of material which extends far beyond what you might expect to find in a museum of cinema, and have tried to identify how such items could be relevant to a broader range of historical themes and approaches than may be immediately obvious.

I began by looking at the collection of stereoscope cards; cards with two slightly different photographs printed next to each other, which when viewed through a stereoscope create a 3D image. Although they are held in the museum for their association with the development of the moving image, the pictures themselves comprise a wide range of subjects and have historical value beyond cinema or cultural history. I’ve been particularly focusing on a set of stereo cards depicting colonial life in India in the early 1900s, and also several sets which depict scenes from the First World War. The images of India are interesting because they were produced by a British company to demonstrate the ‘positive’ impact of colonial rule, and portray an extremely generalised and condescending view of Indian people. The images of the First World War were also intended to be viewed by the British public and consequently present a nationalistic view of the achievements of the British army; glorifying the events of the trenches and emphasising the bravery and camaraderie of the soldiers.
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I then moved on to look through a large number of nineteenth century guidebooks, social histories and periodicals which provide invaluable insights into Victorian life. They are part of the collection because they make reference to popular culture through the mention of cinemas, music halls or peep shows, but they contain a wealth of other information which would be very useful primary source material for social historians. Henry Mayhew’s four volume work London Labour and the London Poor proved to be an extremely valuable source of both statistical and anecdotal information about the lives of the working classes, with particular emphasis upon the ‘underworld’: the criminals, prostitutes, and street beggars upon which much of our conceptions of the ‘bleak’ Victorian age are based. The collection of London guidebooks proved to be equally as informative; providing a wealth of information about popular tourist sites, admission prices, public transport, popular recreation and leisure activities, and important public buildings and institutions, as well as maps of London as it once looked.

Those unfamiliar with the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum may be surprised at the extensive amount of pre-cinema material within the collection. Amongst much else there are numerous maps of Exeter and London from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, satirical / political cartoons, ephemera relating to panoramas, and a large number of eighteenth century prints, including my personal favourite, a print of a Hogarth engraving of Southwark fair.
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The appeal of these items extends far beyond their original association with the development of the moving image; they are artefacts which would be of great interest to social, cultural, political and even military historians.
Film magazines such as The Pictures and The Picturegoer are extremely useful for providing an insight into popular culture, leisure activities and social aspiration in the twentieth century. They demonstrate what a key role film played in the lives of ordinary people; both how film reflected social concerns and current affairs, and also how people reacted to film and aspired to have or be what was depicted on the big screen. They are invaluable resources for social or cultural historians, and those looking at concepts of gender, class, consumerism and leisure. The adverts in these magazines are particularly interesting; they are often targeted at particular ideals of masculinity and femininity which tells us much about societal norms. From a modern perspective it’s interesting to note how little celebrity magazines have progressed in a hundred years; when looking through the oldest film magazines of 1911 you can still recognise the early obsession with the beauty of film stars, and tips on how readers can look or behave like their idols.

Other interesting periodicals in the collection include Cassell’s Popular Educator and Living London. Cassell’s Popular Educator is a periodical containing miscellaneous articles of general knowledge; it was created in 1852 to allow the working classes, and those with limited access to formal education, to instruct themselves on a range of subjects, and consequently better themselves. It contains articles on English, History, Philosophy, Languages, Business and Commerce, Art, Music, Science, Mathematics, and was called by one commentator “a school, a library and a university.” Living London is an illustrated periodical with miscellaneous articles and stories about life in London at the turn of the century; giving an invaluable insight into a diverse range of social and cultural practices.
I found it interesting looking through the large collection of publicity programmes for documentary film showings and lantern slide lectures. They demonstrate how cinema and the moving image were used to inform as well as entertain, particularly by presenting to the audience images of a place or event they would otherwise never have access to. The subject matters of these documentary films and lantern slide lectures vary greatly, but they are often concerned with ‘exotic’ countries, far corners of the British Empire, the royal family or the First World War. The way in which these subjects were presented to the British public, or were considered worthy of widespread public attention, tells us much about conceptions of national identity, and attitudes towards racial or cultural difference.

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This project has emphasised that the usefulness and interest of the collection extends far beyond its primary purpose as a centre for the history of cinema. My research has focused upon items which would be particularly useful to history students, but the artefacts in the collection are relevant to a wide range of subjects and approaches. As part of this project I’ve updated many descriptions in the museum’s online catalogue athttp://billdouglas.ex.ac.uk/eve/search.asp , so that many items should be more easily searchable through the use of broader keywords such as “British Empire” or “First World War”. The full list of items I’ve identified and made notes on should be distributed around the history department, and also be made accessible to history students via ELE. This list includes items which are directly relevant to a number of undergraduate history modules, as well as items which could be valuable primary sources for research projects such as Doing History or dissertations. I hope that this will make more students aware of the wide range of resources available to them at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum and also make it easier for them to search and access the collection.

The Search for Beauty: Italian Women on Screen

This post was originally posted on the blog for the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter.

Grazia Guila Gigante, Emily King, Isabel Davies and Sophie Adams

Whilst studying an Italian film module which focused on the representation of beauty in contemporary cinema, we developed a personal interest in the culture and history behind popular Italian film stars. We relished the opportunity to explore this further through the research and compilation of our exhibition at the Bill Douglas Centre, focusing our research on the glamourous era of the 1950s and 60s.  Whilst our module had given us an excellent introduction to Italian contemporary film, researching at The Bill Douglas Centre provided us with a unique opportunity to discover primary sources firsthand. We had access to an extensive selection of extra-textual material, ranging from artists’ sketches to popular magazines of the time, with a vast array of material showcasing both the on-screen and off-screen personas of famous film stars of this era.

In an interview with Barbara Walters Sophia Loren affirms:  ‘I’m not Italian, I’m Neapolitan! it’s another thing’. The question of national and regional and class identity is particularly interesting when analysing the ‘maggiorata’ phenomenon from an Italian point of view. The bodies of Sophia Loren and Lollobrigida are not only stereotypically Italian they are ‘napoletani’ and ‘romani’.  Sophia Loren and Lollobrigida both played roles that enhanced these regional characteristics, emphasizing not only their physicality but also their accents. Their pin up bodies were regularly placed and shot in agricultural environments, around fields and rivers, as were other Italian female stars of the period.  During our research in the Bill Douglas centre we have seen how this was the case, as seen in this iconic image from “Bitter Rice”.

Milky Way Group Women

Their social upbringings are also significant; most of the beloved 1950s actresses came from a poorer background, usually rural. Audiences experienced a glamorizing portrayal of the lower classes. A great number of people now saw, with these women, a representation of their values and customs on screen. The depiction of the lower classes interested the Neo-realism movement too, but with a different focus, with contrasting aims. Films starring these beautiful women were usually comedies, comedies that did not have an explicit primary interest in social comment and critique.  But it would be wrong to think that Italian actresses of the 1950s engaged only with light comedy roles.  In La Ciociara Sophia Loren demonstrates that she was also an established actress.

Milky Way Single Woman_1We also focused on the film industry’s heightened fascination on the female body and its sexualisation. As we have seen in films of this period that we watched as part of our module, there was a very conscious effort from directors and the stars themselves to draw attention to the ever popular ‘maggiorata fisica’ and this in itself drew large audiences. This refers to the exaggerated female shape with voluptuous curves that was the common throughout the film stars of this period. From the fetishistic stockings of Silvana Mangano in ‘Riso Amaro’ to the corseted costumes of Sophia Loren in ‘La Bella Mugnaia’, the female shape started to take a starring role in Italian cinema and this was apparent in most of the sources we found as the media exploited these women’s shapes and rarely printed an image without a hint of Loren or Lollobridgida’s famous busts.

We also explored the cultivation of Loren’s image as a film star and her transition from sex symbol to maternal figure. In the 1950’s and 60’s the notion of paparazzi was still a relatively new phenomenon, and thus the film stars could still control more easily the image of themselves that was portrayed in the mass media.

Looking more closely at Sophia Loren, her exuberance and vitality were positive aspects for which she was admired but she also developed a maternal appeal over the course of her career as we discovered through several interviews with her in magazines of the time. As she already strongly embodied femininity with her overtly feminine physique, being a mother was another form of femininity which she could portray.

The transition of her image from sex symbol to an actress of substance and a maternal figure can be largely attributed to her aforementioned role as Cesira in Two Women or ‘La Ciociara’  in 1960. It was interesting to put the images next to each other in the exhibition and see the juxtaposition between her well put-together beauty of many of the star portraits and the more dishevelled portrayal of her in the film.

Two Women Loren

This role greatly contributed to the cultivation of a more robust image of Loren which ensured that she would be remembered not just for her beauty but for her skills as an actress too.

Overall, this experience was extremely rewarding as it gave us the chance to build upon our knowledge of the films that we have studied through the use of invaluable artefacts contemporary to the era. The Bill Douglas centre gave us the opportunity to access relevant sources that allowed us to delve deeper into the personal lives of these Italian film stars and their representation in English and American press. This provided us with an alternative viewpoint to that which we had already explored in class, and a more extensive grasp of this dynamic topic, which we felt lent itself excellently to a visual exhibition.