Hong Kong issues: Brief summary of how the UK ruled Hong Kong during the early 20th century


Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997. How it was actually run is rarely discussed, especially nowadays. Let’s look at four main features of the British administration in the early 20th century (1900 – 1941). 

The view from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. (Credit: China Highlights)

Executive-led government 

During the period, the whole government was mainly led by the executive branch, i.e. the Governor. The Governor was the president of councils and had the right to appoint and dismiss members of the legislative and executive council. Governor-led government secretaries make and propose all bills and policies. The councils played merely consultative and not binding roles. Ultimately, legislation was proposed, approved and passed by the executive branch. Then it was ‘rubber-stamped’ by the legislative council.

The executive branch also had enormous power spanning a vast range of areas. The Governor exercised tremendous judicial powers by having the power to dismiss and appoint judges and grant amnesty to prisoners. Being the Commander-in-chief of the British force in Hong Kong, the Governor was also in charge of military and foreign affairs. There was no separation of powers for smooth administration. It is fair to say that the government was led by the executive and was a ‘one branch band’.

Lacked legitimacy 

The legitimacy of a government refers to the approval by a majority of the population. During the period, the nature of the British colonial government led to its low legitimacy. At that time, 98% of the population were Chinese and only 2% were foreigners. Also, it was the early years of the British government officially taking over the whole administration. It is expected that local Chinese did not trust the British colonial government. What is more, the reason the British government occupied Hong Kong is that China lost a war against the British. In the minds of the Chinese in Hong Kong, the British were enemies that invaded their motherland; some Chinese in Hong Kong hated the British administration. 

The local Chinese did not feel that the Governor cared about them. The Letters patent, Royal instructions and Colonial Regulations guaranteed the Governor’s ruling power. This means that he was not empowered by the general public. The Governor was also nominated by, thus answerable to, the British Prime Minister, and not the people. It was simply impossible for a local Chinese to relate to or feel represented by the government. 

Nor were British administration willing to let locals participate in the governance in any meaningful sense. Elections were only held in one council, the Urban Council, and only for 2 of the 13 seats. It was also hard for local Chinese to actually be inside the administration, as shown by the lack of Chinese personnel. Local Chinese had no representation in the government who could voice their demands. Officials were usually British merchants. The civil service was also monopolised by British people with key positions all occupied by British people. 

Indirect rule featuring control and conciliation 

The low legitimacy of the British colonial administration led to riots and strikes in the early years. For example, there was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922 and the Guangdong Hong Kong General Strike in 1925. The British administration also suffered ineffective implementation of policies as the local Chinese simply did not support the policies. For instance, the local inhabitants in the New Territories firmly resisted the UK’s Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. In 1923, they strongly resisted the policy regulating the building of houses. All these incidents forced the British administration to come up with new measures to maintain peace and order. 

The first measure was indirect ruling featuring control. Western education was carried out and local Chinese had to learn English. The second measure was indirect ruling featuring conciliation. Small groups of influential Chinese elites and businessmen were allowed to participate in politics to smooth tensions regarding the lack of Chinese representatives. For instance, Mr Chow Shouson, an influential Chinese man, was a consultant and mediator for the government. The government also placed heavy emphasis on these people’s opinions as they understand the local culture better. The local Chinese’s resentment towards western officials was mitigated in this way. The government also set up channels to listen to the needs of the local Chinese. For example, in 1926, Heung Yee Kuk was set up to deal with affairs in the New Territories. The British colonial government hoped that the local Chinese would feel valued and their disobedience would reduce. Other conciliatory measures were implemented, with permission given for firecrackers to be set off in the New Territories during the Lunar New Year as one illustration of how the British administration would avoid meddling in the Chinese traditional lifestyle. In addition, all male indigenous residents were allowed to own a piece of land in the New Territories, another measure by the British administration to please the local Chinese. 

Discrimination against Chinese 

The last feature of the early British colonial administration is that most measures discriminated against local Chinese. Discrimination was serious within the government. As mentioned above, local Chinese had no representation in the government as officials were usually foreigners. In the civil service, British civil servants had higher salaries and better benefits compared to Chinese civil servants of the same rank. 

In socio-economic policies, discrimination was equally clear. For example, the Peak District Reservation Ordinance restricted local Chinese from living in the Peak District which had a cooler temperature and excellent views of the city. Clubs such as The Hong Kong Club and Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club only served whites. Perhaps most strikingly, English was the only official language and the legal system was all in English. As a result, local Chinese would be greatly disadvantaged in trials as they could not even understand the language. It is shown that most policies were highly discriminating against local Chinese. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

“It’s not the Virgin Mary. It’s a painting.” Whiteness’ politicised grip on Iconography explored around Ofili’s depiction of the Holy Virgin Mary.

16 December 1999. New York City. With his hands as his weapon of choice, Dennis Heiner waltzes into the Brooklyn museum with vengeance, walking purposefully to the corner of the Sensation exhibit in which his victim awaits. Dipped in white paint smuggled inside in a hand sanitizer bottle, Heiner’s hand meets its target, the “blasphemous’ depiction of the Virgin Mary painted by British artist Chris Ofili two years earlier. Failing to prevent the attack, guards protecting the painting reportedly state “it’s not the virgin Mary. It’s a painting”.

Iconographic imagery proliferates in Western art history. Whether in the form of paintings or sculptures, from Da Vinci’s The Last Supper to Duccio’s Madonna and Child, one theme is consistent throughout the canon: the whiteness of its figures. Ofili’s Black Virgin Mary embodies an attempt to broaden the canon in line with non-western expressions of religiosity, and Heiner’s vandalism embodies the Western canon’s resistance to change. Supposedly incensed to violence by Ofili’s use of pornographic cut-outs surrounding the Madonna, why then did Heiner smother her face rather than her surroundings with white paint? This was nothing short of a political, defensive and violent display of whiteness. Ultimately, Heiner’s smearing of white paint on the figure of the Black Madonna symbolises the whiteness which has historically been imposed onto Western understandings of Christianity and continues to mark both art-political and theological discourse, as is explored here.

The Ofili piece being vandalised. (Credit: Philip Jones Griffiths, Magnum Photos, accessed here)

Upon a yellow-gold background which harks back to medieval iconographic trends, Ofili’s Madonna features a breast moulded from elephant faeces and a beautiful blue outfit interwoven with the contours of her body. Inspired by his time in Zimbabwe and appreciation of artistic technique in the region, Ofili’s work mixes European and African tradition with an expert experimentalist hand. However, its beauty has often been overlooked. 

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) (Credit: MoMA

The controversy surrounding the painting was not limited to the violence of Heiner on that December afternoon. Upon its showcase in galleries lawsuits abounded, including from the Mayor’s office of New York in which Ofili’s use of pornographic clippings and elephant faeces was labelled ‘disgusting’ and ‘sick’. In  a seeming attempt to find a middle ground, some commentators have described the piece as a ‘juxatposition between the sacred and the profane’, but this is a misguided conclusion which reinforces the hegemony of whiteness’ grip on Iconography. Within Africa the piece was interpreted very differently. Nigerian Art historian Moyosore B. Okediji wrote that elephant dung was a material used in both art and architecture in Yorubaland, also commenting that in artistic depictions of indigenous deities called Orisha, the nude female form was commonplace. In specific relation to Western reactions to the piece, he exclaimed “the learned West always fails to understand Africa”.

Ultimately, the use of elephant dung was not an act of defamation but a display of Christian identity based in African tradition. Born in Britain and of Nigerian heritage, a country which now has a Christian population of around 102 million people, Ofili’s aim with this project  was to display anAfrican form of Christianity, rather than mount an anti-Christian attack. Whilst some commentators have described the sacred intentions of Ofili’s painting as ‘ironic’ in relation to the reaction it garnered, we must acknowledge that his use of images of the body and earthly materials is not objectively irreligious. In fact, there is nothing ‘ironic’ about a painting espousing a form of Afro-centric religiosity. Rather than conveying Ofili’s intentions, the label of ‘irony’ imposed onto his combination of African tradition and Christian ideas instead displays the extent to which whiteness has been defensively protected in Western Christian expression.

Therefore, it is vital that we acknowledge that the lawsuits and physical assaults inflicted on Ofili’s depiction of ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ are innately political and are the product of centuries of European Christian history in which whiteness was not just centred but expected when speaking of divinity. The piece being deemed ‘blasphemous’ by a plethora of white Americans, art commentators and religious leaders at the turn of the twenty-first century shows how Christianity’s global reach remains overlooked in favour of centring whiteness. Ultimately, it must be said that the security guards tasked with her protection stating “It’s not the Virgin Mary, it’s a painting” embodies a reluctance to associate holiness with anything other than white skin. 

By way of a conclusion, Ofili’s depiction of the Holy Virgin Mary is nothing short of an emblematic display of Afro-centric Christian theology. The reaction shown to the piece both within and without the art and theological worlds reveals the seemingly inextricable link between whiteness and holiness in Western thought. As Black theologians both in the west and throughout the world challenge these ideas and artists such as Ofili display the debate in the public eye, the politics of race and theology will no doubt continue to be a much-needed region of inquiry.

George R. Evans, History in Politics’ Summer Writer

Wuhan and China: the Pandemic and its Past

China’s history presents an interesting counterpoint to the West, revealing as much about our prejudices as another’s past. Often presented, from a Western perspective, as a place with continuous history until Western intervention in the form of the Opium Wars and Communist ideology, it is intriguing to see how China presents its own history in political situations. Does it return to this supposed stability to prove its historic greatness, as Britain does with the World Wars? Or, instead, does it focus on the future, using its technological shifts to ignore aspects of the past, such as Mao’s famines, or the 1931 Central China Flood, unknown inside and outside China but the cause of over two million deaths? As Dr. Chris Courtney, who has researched the Flood, was keen to emphasise when answering these questions in our podcast Dead Current, it is often hard to gain access to these histories given the Communist Party’s policy of preventing historians’ archival access or the liberty to criticise. Dr. Courtney’s claim for the need to dismantle the monolithic historical narrative that the Party promotes feels relevant to all strands of history, but especially the construction of Wuhan during the pandemic. 

Aerial view of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. (Credit: sleepingpanda, via Shutterstock.)

Of course, we could not interview Dr. Courtney without relating his specialism of Wuhan to the current global pandemic. Wuhan is a vibrant city; an industrial and financial hub with a vast cultural heritage, serving briefly as China’s war-time capital in both 1927 and 1937. The Wuchang Uprising in 1911 – which catalysed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, starting the Xinhai Revolution – occurred in the Wuchang District of Wuhan. Yet, its spotlight on the global stage roots the pandemic in its wet markets.

Wet markets are not unique to Wuhan or China. Spread across much of Asia, the name comes from how perishable goods are sold, in contrast to dry markets’ electronics or clothes. Whilst the food in wet markets may not always resemble a local farmers’ market, they have more similarities to these than the health code violation they are presented as. When discussing this with Dr. Courtney, it was clear that there needs to be an acknowledgement that food practices in China are not perfect – the 2002 SARS outbreak began in Guandong’s food industry. However, as he emphasised, this should not allow a return to racist stereotypes. Passively accepting these concepts can lead to a reinforcement of racist stereotypes about China’s eating patterns from the twentieth century. 

Our food patterns reflect our history. For example, many in Britain find eating dogs abhorrent; biologically edible, their role as our ‘best friend’ means they are not, to use Poon’s term, ‘culturally edible’. Likewise, at the beginning of the twentieth century, few in China ate beef, as oxen played a central role in agriculture. Yet, as industry rose and agricultural techniques shifted, so that someone would not be spending all day with one animal, the taboo no longer exists and China’s beef consumption per capita has risen to rates equal to Britain or the USA. 

These shifting food patterns emphasise the mutability of what is deemed acceptable to eat, and how it is not a universal standard, but a reflection of personal history. Criticism can be made to the stalling in China’s post-SARS food reforms, but this should not be couched in racist rhetoric, which is a sign of ignorance that weakens the argument.

To hear more about how the Chinese Communist Party utilises history, how this compares to Britain, and how Covid-19 reflects and is changing this, listen to our new podcast with Dr. Chris Courtney, Durham University’s Assistant Professor in Modern Chinese History, available on Spotify on Dead Current.

Eleanor Williams-Brown, Senior Editor, History in Politics

How did the British rule Hong Kong?

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997. How it was actually run is rarely discussed, especially nowadays. Let’s look at some key features of the British administration in the early 20th century (1900 – 1941) before it was captured by the Japanese. 

The first point is that government in this period was mainly led by the executive branch, i.e. the Governor. The Governor was the president of councils and had the right to appoint and dismiss members of the legislative and executive council. Governor-led government secretaries made and proposed all bills and policies, while councils played merely consultative and not binding roles. Ultimately, legislation was proposed, approved and passed by the executive branch. Then it was ‘rubber-stamped’ by the legislative council.

The executive branch also had enormous power spanning a vast range of areas. The Governor exercised tremendous judicial powers by having the power to dismiss and appoint judges and grant amnesty to prisoners. Being the Commander-in-chief of the British force in Hong Kong, the Governor was also in charge of military and foreign affairs. There was no separation of powers for smooth administration. It is fair to say that the government was led by the executive and was a ‘one branch band’.

Secondly, and a result, the government chronically lacked legitimacy due to the nature of the British colonial government. At that time, 98% of the population were Chinese and only 2% were foreigners. Also, it was the early years of the British government officially taking over the whole administration. It is expected that local Chinese did not trust the British colonial government. What is more, the reason the British government occupied Hong Kong is that China lost a war against the British. In the minds of the Chinese in Hong Kong, the British were enemies that had invaded their motherland; simply put, some Chinese in Hong Kong hated the British administration. 

The local Chinese did not feel that the Governor cared about them. The Letters patent, Royal instructions and Colonial Regulations guaranteed the Governor’s ruling power. This means that he was not empowered by the general public. The Governor was also nominated by, thus answerable to, the British Prime Minister, and not the people. It was simply impossible for a local Chinese to relate to or feel represented by the government. 

Nor were British administration willing to let locals participate in the governance in any meaningful sense. Elections were only held in one council, the Urban Council, and only for 2 of the 13 seats. It was also hard for local Chinese to actually be inside the administration, as shown by the lack of Chinese personnel. Local Chinese had no representation in the government who could voice their demands. Officials were usually British merchants. The civil service was also monopolised by British people with key positions all occupied by British people. 

Front Street, Hong Kong, 1900. Credit: R. Y. Young

The low legitimacy of the British colonial administration led to riots and strikes in the early years. For example, there was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922 and the Guangdong Hong Kong General Strike in 1925. The British administration also suffered ineffective implementation of policies as the local Chinese simply did not support the policies. For instance, the local inhabitants in the New Territories firmly resisted the UK’s Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. In 1923, they strongly resisted the policy regulating the building of houses. All these incidents forced the British administration to come up with new measures to maintain peace and order. 

The first measure was indirect ruling featuring control. Western education was carried out and local Chinese had to learn English. The second measure was indirect ruling featuring conciliation. Small groups of influential Chinese elites and businessmen were allowed to participate in politics to smooth tensions regarding the lack of Chinese representatives. For instance, Mr Chow Shouson, an influential Chinese man, was a consultant and mediator for the government. The government also placed heavy emphasis on these people’s opinions as they understand the local culture better. The local Chinese’s resentment towards western officials was mitigated in this way. The government also set up channels to listen to the needs of the local Chinese. For example, in 1926, Heung Yee Kuk was set up to deal with affairs in the New Territories. The British colonial government hoped that the local Chinese would feel valued and their disobedience would reduce. Other conciliatory measures were implemented, with permission given for firecrackers to be set off in the New Territories during the Lunar New Year as one illustration of how the British administration would avoid meddling in the Chinese traditional lifestyle. In addition, all male indigenous residents were allowed to own a piece of land in the New Territories, another measure by the British administration to please the local Chinese. 

Hong Kong Waterfront c1910. Credit: Mee Fong Studio

One final and striking feature of the early British colonial administration is that most measures discriminated against local Chinese. Discrimination was serious within the government. As mentioned above, local Chinese had no representation in the government as officials were usually foreigners. In the civil service, British civil servants had higher salaries and better benefits compared to Chinese civil servants of the same rank. 

In socio-economic policies, discrimination was equally clear. For example, the Peak District Reservation Ordinance restricted local Chinese from living in the Peak District which had a cooler temperature and excellent views of the city. Clubs such as The Hong Kong Club and Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club only served whites. Perhaps most strikingly, English was the only official language and the legal system was all in English. As a result, local Chinese would be greatly disadvantaged in trials as they could not even understand the language. It is shown that most policies were highly discriminating against local Chinese. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena, History in Politics Writer

Mary I: The First Queen of England and the Legacy of Female Leadership

Whilst the first Queen of England’s reign is largely overshadowed in favour of the other Tudors, namely her father Henry VIII and half-sister Elizabeth I, the historiographical interpretations of Mary I illuminate interesting notions associated with female leadership. Mary I was the first woman to ascend to the throne of England, as the succession of Empress Matilda in the twelfth century never materialised due to the eruption of civil war. Only four centuries later do we witness the succession of a female monarch in England, and this was not without issues, as there had been earlier attempts to bar her from inheritance. Her gender, as well as her supposed illegitimacy, provided the grounds for such attempts as her younger half-brother was placed above her, when she was eventually restored to the line of succession.

Mary I’s reign is largely interpreted as one of hysteria and irrationality. Such a notion of hysteria is particularly of note as the term has long been associated with the assumption that women are unable to control their emotions and are thus unfit to rule. Shakespeare’s common depictions of a madwoman within his works have fostered this link of femininity with that concept of hysteria, particularly illustrated in Hamlet through Ophelia. Literary representations have certainly exacerbated the historical issues of female rule.


Portrait of Mary I, Antonis Mor, 1554. (Credit: Public Domain)

Historians are critical of both Mary’s personal life, due to her failure to conceive, as well as her broader policies that saw the intense persecution of Protestant sympathisers, which led to her title of ‘Bloody Mary’. The issue of motherhood in politics is still prevalent in our times, as seen by the scrutiny Theresa May faced within the media and from other members of the Conservative Party due to her choice not to have children. With regard to Marian politics, the stabilisation of economic policy her reign is often underplayed and when acknowledged, is widely credited to her male councillors or the reforms laid by the Duke of Northumberland before her advent to the throne. Mary is thus painted as weak, feeble and ineffective. The first Queen of England is largely portrayed as conforming to the gendered anxieties that the elite ruling class had regarding the notion of female monarchy. Women were deemed as far more emotionally charged compared to their male counterparts and would be unable to conduct rational governance as a result.

In the 21st century, women still face significant opposition to reaching the highest positions of political power. Britain’s only popularly elected female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is often represented as contradicting feminist values. The US has never elected a woman to that highest position of President, and notably Hilary Clinton’s gender played a significant role in right-wing opposition to her election. Such ideas regarding female hysteria and heightened emotion have arguably laid a basis for the preference of male leadership and have correlated with deeming women unfit for positions of political power. The qualities associated with leadership are still often presented through characteristics which men are more likely to be socialised to have, therefore perpetuating the idea that women are not suited to power.

What we can draw from the accounts of Mary I’s governance and her later treatment in historical research is that female leadership is not often deemed a suitable option, nor do women find easy pathways into politics. These ideals surrounding female inferiority have

historical precedence in sixteenth-century England as illustrated by the analysis of early modern Queenship. These notions have not been undermined or significantly challenged by the twenty-first century. Mary I’s legacy illustrates how she has been utilised to highlight the perceived barriers to effective female governance. Arguably, this has set a precedent for the limited role that women play in politics within our modern era.

Ellie Brosnan

Who Won the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, heralding a new era of peace after the decades of violence that characterised the Troubles. But who benefitted the most from the signing of the Agreement, and is the answer different today than it was twenty years ago?

For unionists, represented most prominently by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Good Friday Agreement ultimately symbolised the enshrining of the status quo in law: Northern Ireland remained a part of the UK. In addition, the Republic of Ireland renounced articles two and three of its Constitution, which laid claim to the entire island of Ireland. It may seem, then, that unionism was the victor in 1998, but elements of the Good Friday Agreement have been responsible for tectonic shifts in the period since, arguably exposing it, ultimately, as a victory for nationalism.

While Irish republicans in the form of the Provisional IRA were required to put down their weapons and suspend the violent struggle for a united Ireland, there is a compelling argument that the Good Friday Agreement laid the platform for the growth of the movement and perhaps even the fulfilment of the goal of Irish unity. For one, it mandated power-sharing between the two sides of the Northern Irish divide: both unionists and nationalists must share the leadership of government. Since 1998, this has acted to legitimise the nationalist cause, rooting it as a political movement rather than an armed struggle. Sinn Féin, the leading nationalist party in the North, have moved from the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness to new, younger leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. Irish unity propaganda now emphasises the economic sense of a united Ireland, the need to counter the worst effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland and a sensible debate about the constitutional nature of a new country, rather than the adversarial anti-unionist simplicity of the Troubles. Here, nationalism did gain significantly from the Good Friday Agreement because it allowed this transition from the Armalite to the ballot box in return for legitimacy as a movement.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (right) signing the Good Friday Agreement. (Credit: PA, via BBC)

Most prominently for nationalists, however, is the fact that the Good Friday Agreement spells out the route to a united Ireland, explicitly stating that a ‘majority’ in a referendum would mandate Northern Ireland’s exit from the UK. While unclear on whether majorities would be required both in the Republic and Northern Ireland, as was sought for the Agreement itself in 1998, as well as what criteria would have to be met in order to hold a vote, this gives Irish nationalism a legal and binding route to its ultimate goal of Irish unity, arguably the most prominent victory of the peace process.

Since 1998, Northern Ireland has seen a huge amount of political tension, governmental gridlock and occasional outbreaks of violence, most recently witnessed in the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in 2019. However, the Good Friday Agreement has served crucially to preserve peace on a scale unimaginable in the most intense years of the Troubles. If Irish nationalism achieves its goal of uniting the island, it will come about through a democratic referendum, not through violence. The very existence of the Good Friday Agreement, particularly its survival for over 20 years, is testament to the deep will for peace across the communities of Northern Ireland, forged in decades of conflict; it is this desire being fulfilled, even as the parties squabble in Stormont and the political status of Northern Ireland remains in the balance, that continues to make the biggest difference in the daily lives of both unionists and nationalists.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

Women in Terrorism: An Invisible Threat?

In 1849 the world met its first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell. Years later in 1903, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie, did so for her outstanding contributions to Physics. How, with many more remarkable achievements behind women, does society continue to hold limited expectations of them? Why does the concept of a female terrorist seem so improbable to the vast majority of the Western world? 

While this perhaps appears a perverse logic; almost rendering terrorism a positive milestone for women, that is certainly not the intention. Instead, I hope to enlighten the reader to the gendered dimensions of terrorism, and to highlight the escalating need to perceive women as potentially equal vessels of terror. 

The BBC series Bodyguard focuses on Police Sergeant David Budd’s protection of Home Secretary Julie Montague in a fast-paced drama. The plot twist in the season finale centres on a Muslim women, who is revealed as the architect and bomb-maker behind the attack. Although some have found this portrayal as troublesome, displaying Islamophobic overtones, Anijli Mohindra, the actress, explains that the role was actually “empowering”. Regardless of these perceptions, it is clear that the ‘surprise’ element manifests itself in the female gender. This sentiment presides outside of the media too, highlighting the potential threat posed by gender limitations. 

Anjli Mohindra playing terrorist Nadia in BBC One’s Bodyguard. (Credit: BBC)

There is an undeniable, and widespread assumption that terrorists are always male. While this assumption could be ascribed to the smaller numbers of women involved in terrorism, it is more likely attributable to embedded gender stereotypes. Such stereotypes perceiving women as maternal and nurturing, but also helpless and passive, are irreconcilable with that of an individual committing acts which knowingly cause death and disruption. In 2015 when women such as Shemima Begum and Kadiza Sultana left East London for the Islamic State, they were depicted as archetypal ‘jihadi bride[s]’ in the media: meek, manipulated and denied of any agency in their decision. Yet, an accurate representation of women in terrorism needs to transcend the constraints of traditional gender constructs.  Although we may be aware of female stereotypes, why do they continue to permeate our understanding of women in terrorism, when we claim to be an equal society. 

The reality of women in terror is quite the contrary of the aforementioned stereotype. In January 2002, Wafa Idris became the first female suicide bomber. Since this date, women have represented over 50% of successful suicide bombings in the conflicts of Turkey, Sri Lanka and Chechnya. In more recent years, the Global Extremism Monitor recorded 100 distinct suicide attacks conducted by female militants in 2017, constituting 11% of the total incidents occurring that year. Moreover, Boko Haram’s female members have been so effective in their role as suicide bombers, that women now comprise close to two-thirds of the group’s suicide-attackers.  

It is perhaps the dominant nature of presiding stereotypes regarding women, which enables them to be so successful in their attacks – presenting terrorist organisations with a strategic advantage. This is illustrated by the astonishing figures proving female suicide attacks more lethal on average than those conducted by their male counterparts. According to one study, attacks carried out by women had an average of 8.4 victims, compared to 5.3 for those attacks carried out by men. Weaponizing the female body is proving successful as society continues to assume women lack credibility as terrorist actors. Needless to say, remaining shackled to entrenched gender preconceptions will undoubtedly continue to place society at risk of unanticipated terror attacks from women.

Emily Glynn, History in Politics President

Why Does History Help Explain Geo-Political Conflicts?

The construction of historical narratives and the pedagogic authority they hold has been vital in cultivating a sense of legitimacy with those engaged in violent practices in a geo-political conflict. In fact, these narratives are part of violence itself. Although media and education systems usually hold a significant grip on the dissemination of the teaching and learning of history, displaced and diasporic families have offered important resistance to otherwise dominant versions of history. History becomes the defining factor of national consciousness and therefore legitimacy for that nation state to dominate, kill, plunder and extract.

I believe it important to note that both the dominant imperialist and colonialist nations dominated the education systems where they ruled. The significance of this cannot be understated. Imperialists and colonisers quite clearly wanted more than land and natural resources; they want hegemony. In Ireland, the Irish language was almost completely eradicated by mandatory English-speaking schools. The attempt to integrate colonised peoples into a British identity was not only about dominance but control. In fact, jailed Irish republicans used Irish to communicate covertly. Knowledge of one’s own national history and culture has long been a weapon of the oppressed.

A drawing depicting men and women captured to be sold as slaves. (Credit: WELLCOME IMAGES via. WIKI)

Similarly, history is weaponised in the study of archaeology in Palestine. The discipline has been used as a tool to legitimate colonisation through a history explicitly based on ethnonationalism. The enmeshing of religious history from thousands of years ago with a modern-day nation state’s claim to land is a perfect example of Benedict Anderson’s argument that nationalism is an “imitation of simultaneity across homogenous, empty time”. This claim, however, is overshadowed by the history of the Palestinians who have been dispossessed of their land and of which they have emotional and practical ties to within living memory. These personal histories will be passed down orally through families and will be the spark for resistance to the colonisation process for generations to come.

History can seem like a dry academic investigation of a static past; however, the stage is set for the morality play of history in the mainstream media often. Britain seems to be obsessed with an overly simplistic version its history. When representations are narrow and limited to mostly excavations of world war two, a rare occasion in which Britain made a positive impact through contributing to the defeat of German fascism, it is easy to see how the identity of ‘Britons’ on the world stage can appear as a trans historic moral force to some. This is important to understand how people in the army understand their role as a historical agent and can believe they are doing their duty to a higher moral power, their civic religion: nationalism. It is for this reason that people can participate in imperialist wars such as the invasion of Iraq and keep a personal sense of morality and justice.

Although a new generation is questioning the authority of these narratives. This nationalism is outdated for a country that is home to people from previous colonies of Britain. Eric Williams argues that “the British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery for the satisfaction of abolishing it”. In fact, the cultural homogeneity that supports history as national morality play is swiftly broken by the curiosity, doubt and challenge of a new generation. The petition to teach the empirical truth of colonialism has garnered massive support and shows that a new generation will attempt at establishing their own history. The question that lingers is: will this be based on a new kind nationalism?

Finlay Purcell

‘You Can Get Rid of the Mines, But You Can’t Get Rid of the Miners’: Industrial Legacy and Contemporary Identity in Durham

Durham’s coal mines closed throughout the 1980s, despite dissent from local communities and mining unions. This was not an anomaly – under Conservative rule, mines were shut throughout the nation, yet these were largely concentrated in the North. As a result, a significant regional divide in unemployment, poverty, and general desolation was created. And yet, although the mines are most certainly shut, the culture and the identity of the miners, and of a mining region lives on. In Durham, mining is deeply tied up in local identity, and a celebration of this shared history occurs every year through the Miners’ Gala. This consists of a loud and proud parade through the city, in which each mining village sends a colliery band, and banners. Upon finishing the city parade, all the mining lodges meet on the cricket field for a large party for all ages. Despite the closure of the mines, the economic hardship and proud history continues to be entwined with present day understandings and contemporary identity; a common phrase heard at the gala is ‘You can get rid of the mines, but you can’t get rid of the miners’. 

The 135th Durham Miners’ Gala, 2019. (Credit: The Northern Echo)

The first Durham Miners’ Gala was organised by the Durham Miners’ Association in 1871 and was held on the outskirts of the city in Wharton Park. Despite the demise of the mining industry, the gala has survived, and continues to be integral to local identity. The gala is no longer an example of political mass assembly, but as Jack Lawson, a Durham miner, later Labour MP and minister in the Atlee government, said of the gala, it was less political demonstration, and more “the spontaneous expression of their [the miners’] communal life”. The gala is an example of intangible cultural heritage, and an identity which occurs in a specific place. Some have dubbed occasions like the gala as simply reminiscence – journalist James Bloodworth, who visited in 2016, saw the Durham Miners’ Gala as a “carnival of nostalgia”, and “something like a historical re-enactment society”. However, it is much, much more. It is a living history, a continued solidarity with the working class and the loss of jobs caused by a deep deindustrialisation which continues today in the loss, if not disappearance, of heavy manufacturing industries such as ship building. 

Labour’s Green New Deal appears to draw upon this history and empathise with the loss of industry and employment in the North. The deal sets out to rebuild industry, jobs, and pride in the towns, with more “rewarding, well-paid jobs, lower energy bills”, and “whole new industries to revive parts of our country that have been neglected for too long”. As the Industrial Revolution brought jobs and pride to the North, the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, hopes to provide funding to restore this. Furthermore, the Labour Party recognises that for some ‘industrial transition’ has become a “byword for devastation”, and blames successive Conservative governments for this continued ignorance of whole industries and communities. The Green Industrial Revolution manifesto states that, “Tories wasted a decade serving the interests of big polluters”, echoing the sentiment of many speakers at the Durham Miners’ Gala. For example, in 2017, one speaker exclaimed that they should draw upon the lesson of the 1984-5 strikes today: that if “on the verge of achieving real change to working class people, the establishment will try to crush you”. Labour’s plans for a Green New Deal show not only the impact of economics on identity, but also, highlights the scars of neglect at the hands of a Tory government.

James Bloodworth also exclaimed in his somewhat scathing review of the Durham Miners’ Gala, that “when the past becomes an obsession, it can act as a dead weight on meaningful action in the present”. Is Labour’s Green New Deal an example of being too preoccupied with the past? Or should we be looking to it? Is an eye to the past not necessarily a bad thing, as Bloodworth states, but instead a chance to rectify past mistakes? 

Emily Glynn


Bibliography

Bloodworth, James, ‘Labour is becoming a historical re-enactment society’, International Business Times, 11 July 2017, https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/jeremy-corbyns-labour-tribute-act-socialism-trade-unions-back-nostalgic-leader-1570061 

Lawson, Jack, Peter Lee, (1949: London)

Labour Party ‘A Green Industrial Revolution’ Manifesto 2020

Will Britain’s History Ever Transcend Empire?

In recent months, racism in Britain has been widely discussed in the light of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other people worldwide. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained poignancy, with many supporters risking their lives to protest against systemic racism during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When discussing this issue with peers, one comment often made was, ‘I don’t understand why they’re protesting here, that’s all happening in America?’. On the surface this might seem true, however comments like these fail to address Britain’s horrifically racist past, and the continual microaggressions and discrimination people of colour face today as a result of this. And this begs the question – if we’re ‘better’ than America in this respect, can any country ever completely transcend its corrupt past? 

A propaganda poster for the British Empire, centred around George VI. (CreditL Snowgoose, via Pinterest.)

The verb ‘transcend’ is broadly defined as the action of going beyond the limits of something, so in order to make a sound judgement on history’s ability to transcend a period of mass exploitation, we must first discover what ‘limits’ empire placed on Britain’s History. Back in school, you might remember History lessons telling you of a time when Britain ‘owned’ almost half the world – the British Empire, reaping massive economic benefits for Britain. The crimes of the British Empire need to be discussed in greater depth.

The British Empire imposed Western ideas of civilisation onto foreign cultures, and colonists committed heinous crimes. An ideological ‘them and us’ binary was instigated by the Empire; British colonists used this dehumanisation to justify horrific acts of violence and oppression against native people, alongside the stealing of land and imposition of culture. All this is delivered to British people today under the guise of either neutrality or a jubilant narrative which ignores and diminishes the atrocities of the Empire, and the lasting effects this ‘them and us’ mentality has had on the lives of BAME people in Britain. 

So, while it’s understandable to hope for a History detached from Empire in today’s more progressive society, it’s integral to understand that the global devastation caused by Imperialism cannot simply be forgotten. Remember that it was only in 2015 that the British taxpayer had paid off compensation paid to families of slave owners for their loss of ‘business assets’ after it was abolished in 1833. Imperialism arguably catalysed racism, and years of Black Lives Matter protests have shown that there is no quick fix. To hope for a transcendent utopia away from this is naïve. In many ways, ‘moving on’ from Empire minimises the experiences and culture of those adversely affected by it; derailing discussion and progression in a way which mirrors using the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ as a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’. 

One method which gained huge amounts of public backing was a change to Britain’s school curriculum, in which education about the realities of Empire and colonisation are made mandatory. Many of us will remember, and have signed, the government petition for this which gained over 250,000 signatures. However, after first responding to this in July, saying that colonial education is already part of the key stage 3 curriculum (ages 11 to 14), they have now agreed to host a debate on the subject; the date for which will take over 80 days to decide. 

One organisation who advocate for education on Black History in schools is The Black Curriculum. In their open letter to the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, they stated their aim to embed, ‘Black History in England’s National Curriculum more explicitly’, to counteract the whitewashed version of History children are taught. This would be an important step to take in tackling racism and inclusivity in schools; the founder Lavinya Stennet and her team have developed an extensive multimedia curriculum to teach Black History in an accessible way. If you’d like to support this cause, you can download their email templates to send to your MP, or donate through the link on their website. 

So sadly, there’s no way for Britain’s History to transcend Empire, as this would ignore the experiences of those continuing to be affected by racism, stereotypes and the microaggressions brought about by it. Being able to see past the effects of Empire is a privilege, and one which unfortunately isn’t a reality for many British citizens, despite more information becoming available via social media to help inform everyone of changes that can be made.

Sarah Matthews