If we look at the map of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, talking about decline seems logical. We can easily see that the Ottomans lost control of more than half their territory. On the eve of the First World War I, the Ottoman Empire had contracted to the area around Istanbul, Anatolia, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. At some point during the middle of the nineteenth century, European diplomats, believing that the Ottoman Empire was near its end, began calling the Ottoman Empire the “Sick Man of Europe.”
In thinking about this epithet, there are two important points. The first is that European diplomats using this phrase saw the Ottoman Empire as part of Europe. From our present day perspective, we tend to think about the Ottoman Empire as being in the Middle East. World history courses treat the Ottomans as an Islamic or Middle Eastern empire. In courses about the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire tends to be the most important state. While the Ottomans were undisputedly a Middle Eastern state, since the fifteenth century, the Ottomans were also a European state. Even if European diplomats believed that the Ottoman Empire was dying, they also believed it was a European state that was dying.
The second point to consider is how this popular epithet influences our understanding of the history of the Ottoman Empire in its final two centuries. It’s easy for students to hear this epithet and become focused on why the Ottoman Empire collapsed and what came after it. As a teacher, I know that I am often asking my students to explain why particular empires collapse. The issue with this teleological focus is that it can blind us to the significance of Ottoman reform and modernization during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In his A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire, M. Şükrü Hanioğlu argues:
the attempt to frame late Ottoman history in a narrative of imperial collapse to the relentless drumbeat of the march of progress — usually associated with Westernization, nationalism, and secularization — prevents a clear understanding of the developments in question.
In the rest of this post, I want to shift the focus away from Ottoman decline and toward the ways in which the Ottoman state evolved and adapted. These transformations allowed it not only to survive for so long, but also to assert greater control over the territory that it continued to rule over.
The Eighteenth Century Evolutionary Ottoman State
Having acknowledged that the Ottoman Empire contracted significantly during the nineteenth century, the question becomes what was still dynamic about the Empire. If we look at the state itself, we quickly see that while the Ottomans ruled over far fewer people, the state’s ability to rule over these people had increased substantially. In her Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective, Karen Barkey argues about the important changes of the eighteenth century:
The seeds of transition from empire to a different political formation were sown in the eighteenth century. The central and local structures of the empire began to take a different shape, connecting nodes and further decreasing peripheral segmentation.
After centuries of adaptive and flexible policies that had maintained the Ottoman Empire as a relatively decentralized empire, the rulers of the state began the process of transforming the Empire into a more centralized nation-state. Barkey focuses on a few key eighteenth century developments in the Ottoman Empire: the emergence of new movements of opposition to the state that began framing “a new state-society compact,” the commercialization of the Ottoman economy, and “the widespread growth of tax farming as a significant form of revenue collection.” These transformations, according to Barkey, highlight the ways in which the Ottoman Empire continued to evolve and adapt. She also emphasizes that these adaptations should be seen as “a sign of flexibility and pragmatism, not a sign of decline.” It’s also worth noting that the methods of reform adopted by the Ottomans sometimes reflected and sometimes diverged from European methods of political and economic reform. These reflections and divergences remind us that the European model of reform was not the only model; there were multiple ways that states modernized during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Nineteenth Century Evolutionary Ottoman State
The Ottomans’ transformation of the state continued into the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1839, Ottoman rulers implemented the Tanzimat, the a series of reforms that reshaped the nature of the Ottoman state. The Tanzimat included laws guaranteeing property rights, prohibiting bribery, replacing tax farming with a more consistent system of taxation, abolishing differential treatment of Muslims and non-Muslims and different ethnic groups, encouraging a more secular vision of the Empire, and establishing equitable universal conscription of males into the military. The Constitution of 1876 is often seen as the culmination of these reforms, since it formalized and codified nearly fourty years of legal changes. These changes not only highlight the ways in which the Ottomans were adapting elements of European states, but also indicate the increasing strength and centralization of the Ottoman state. Hanioğlu argues that the three individuals (Mustafa Reşid Pasha, Mehmed Emin Âlî Pasha, and Keçecizâde Mehmed Fu’ad Pasha.) responsible for these reforms also mark a shifting balance of power within imperial rule. Instead of competition between different factions within the state, “the bureaucratic cadres of the Sublime Porte [the name for the entrance gate to buildings housing the Ottoman bureaucracy ] oversaw the entire administration of the state, ruling the empire until 1871 with only trivial interference from the imperial palace or the ulema.” The Tanzimat also marked a reassertion of Istanbul’s power over the provinces of the Ottoman Empire. According to Hanioğlu, the leaders of the Tanzimat implemented “new regulations that would make local administration uniform throughout the empire.” After fourty years of the Tanzimat, there was a major shift in the governance of the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Sultan Abdul Hamid II seized control of the government and suspended the two-year old Constitution. While Abdul Hamid is known for suspending the Constitution of 1876 and promoting a more Islamic vision of the Empire, he also continued the centralization of the state and expanded the central government’s influence over the provinces. One way in which he combined these two trends is in his call to build the Hijaz railway. Ostensibly promoted as a way to link the major cities of the Empire to Mecca to facilitate the hajj, it was also a way to more easily move soldiers and officials across the Arab provinces. Abdul Hamid also reorganized and expanded the Ottoman bureaucracy in a way that made it increasingly dependent on him personally. Hanioğlu argues:
Abdülhamid II in fact envisioned efficient administration of the empire by a modern bureaucracy headed by a cadre of technocrats. Accordingly, bureaucratic reform picked up perceptible speed during his reign. At the sultan’s behest, a host of new bureaucratic schools were established, including the Royal Academy of Administration, which became a college.
Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire continued its long-standing practice of evolving and adapting its systems and practices for ruling over its vast territory. Whereas the early history of the Empire was characterized more by flexibility and localized practices, the last two centuries of the Empire increasingly became characterized by centralization and standardization.
The Effects of Centralization
This increased centralization, not surprisingly, was often resisted by peoples around the Empire. Hanioğlu shows how a wide range of peoples pushed back against the Ottoman imperial officials. Whether it was Christians in the Balkans, bedouins among the Arab nomadic populations, or Arabs in Mount Lebanon, there was an empire wide trend of resistance by formerly loosely-ruled peoples to the new, more invasive practices of the Ottoman government. In some regions of the empire, this resistance was successful. During the late nineteenth century, Christians in the Balkans successfully led nationalist independence movements in Bulgaria and Serbia.
At the same time, the Ottomans also managed to reassert control over other parts of the Empire. In 1870, the Ottomans sent forces to Yemen and reestablished nominal control over much of the country. Also during the 1870s, the Ottomans reestablished control over Transjordan. They set up Salt as a regional capital, stationed soldiers in the region, and asserted control over the formerly independent Bedouin tribes. The Ottomans even began to encourage migration of Ciracassians and Palestinians to the region and linked Transjordan to the rest of the Arab provinces through the Hijaz railway.
What happened in Transjordan and Yemen also happened across much of Anatolia, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. Even as the Ottomans lost control of territory in the Balkans and North Africa, their ability to govern their remaining provinces increased.
The Ottomans as an Imperial Power
Another way to think about the increased power of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century is to consider its ability to project its influence beyond its borders. In an interview on the Ottoman History Podcast, Mostafa Minawi discuss “The Ottoman Scramble for Africa.” Chris Gratien, who interviewed Minawi, expands on his ideas in an article of the same name. As Europeans powers sought to expand their power into Africa, they also viewed the Ottomans as needing to be included in discussions at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. According to Gratien, the Ottomans participated in these meetings by:
closely following the legal terms of the conference in order to claim parts of Sub-Saharan Africa as the “hinterland” of their remaining North Africa provinces. Likewise, they tried to hold their European competitors in Africa, such as France and Britain, to these terms in order to stop the contraction of their empire. In this way, they used these new agreements to assert their sovereign position on the world stage.
Gratien also explains how:
Ottoman activities in Africa went beyond formal claims. They sought to establish telegraph lines and other political and cultural connections with the local Sanusi order in order to lay claim to a tangible presence on the ground. Here, Minawi notes the potential dangers of labeling the Ottomans as another colonial power, because their strategies differed markedly from those of some of their European contemporaries. Rather than asserting themselves as the rightful and hegemonic rules of a borderlands region, they represented themselves to their local interlocutors as alternative allies to the otherwise impeding arrival of European colonial rule.
Based on both their participation at the Berlin Conference and actions they took on their own, the characterization of the Ottomans as the “sick man” obscures our ability to see the ways in which the Empire was still a surprisingly strong state able to project its power into Africa right up until the end of the nineteenth century.
Over the course of this post and the previous post on the Ottomans, I have suggested that the tendency to view the Ottoman Empire after the death of Süleyman in 1566 as a long history of decline is problematic. Not only did the Empire last for nearly 450 years more, but in many ways the political power of the Empire was surprisingly quite strong. The Ottoman government developed multiple strategies over the years to rule over a large amount of territory. At times these strategies mirrored ones adopted by Europeans, but at other times the Ottomans adopted unique strategies. So often the challenge in world history is to escape the Eurocentric assumptions that shape our narratives. If we can use a few detours along the less traveled narrative roads of world history, hopefully our students will be better able to figure out how to navigate the world of world history on their own rather than continuing to rely on outdated Eurocentric maps.
In teaching world history, one of the main global economic themes we frequently discuss has been trade connections between different regions of the world. And if we focus on the period from 1750 to present, we see a recurring debate between those individuals, movements, and states that have advocated for economic protectionism and those that support free trade. For those teachers who want to connect current events to world history, the debate about American trade policies in the current presidential primaries offers some opportunities for some rich discussion. In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Jared Bernstein argues that American politicians after decades of support for free trade and free-trade agreements are now beginning to reject them:
For decades, free-trade agreements, called F.T.A.s, have been one of the most solid planks in the platform of economic elites and establishment politicians. True, the occasional political candidate like Ross Perot argued against one deal or another and even President Obama ran on “renegotiating” the North American Free Trade Agreement, but once elected, presidents of both parties sought and ratified trade deals with a wide variety of countries. Those days may well be over. What changed
Bernstein also believes this shift is a positive one, at least for American workers. I’m not going to engage Bernstein’s arguments about the merits of this shift. Instead I want to provide some historical context for this shift and think about how we might approach the issue in the classroom.
In looking at Bernstein’s initial claim about the recent popularity of free trade among economic elites, it depends on which regions of the world we look at. There’s no doubt that after World War II, First world states generally agreed on the virtues on free trade and economic liberalization. In 1944, fourty-four states agreed to what has become known as the Bretton Woods System. This system was a series of economic agreements designed to encourage trade, loosely regulate the global economy, and prevent the global economy from slipping back into a depression after the end of the War. The United States and its Western European allies during the Second World War supported a vision for the global economy based on free trade.
At the same time, not all economic elites supported this vision of free trade. The Soviet Union, which attended the Bretton Woods discussions but did not ratify the agreements, rejected the emphasis on free trade. In the following two decades, as dozens of former colonies gained their independence, many of them joined the Non-Aligned Movement and embraced a “third world vision” for themselves. In his The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, Vijay Prashad argues that many of the states in the Third World advocated for cartels to regulate the prices for raw materials to protect themselves against the free trade policies of the First World capitalist states. Prashad claims that “the Third World states worked to create cartels of primary commodities, so that the producer nations could band together to get good prices for their products.” Going back to Bernstein’s claims about “elites” supporting free trade, it might be useful to help students understand that it was primarily elites in First World countries that were ardent advocates of free trade.
The support for free trade definitely began to increase globally in the 1970s and the 1980s. Since then, a significant number of individuals in First World states, including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, have advocated for neoliberal economic policies. Support for neoliberalism spread globally during the 1990s and early 2000s. Manfred Steger and Ravi Roy have written a good short overview of neoliberalism and its spread. Bernstein’s argument about elites supporting free trade makes more sense only if we consider the last two decades. A good issue to consider in discussing this increasing popularity of free trade is why so many state leaders around the world adopted free trade after initially opposing it. Steger and Roy’s book is a good resource for this discussion.
The long-term effect of this political and ideological struggle over empire and economic globalization remains very much with us now. For example, much like in the late 19th century, free trade initiatives like the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership are increasingly coming under conspiratorial fire and are associated with US economic imperialism.
Palen’s arguments help us think about how we can push students to look at what is seemingly a “domestic” issue in the presidential primaries and consider how calls for protectionism are connected to shifting priorities in American foreign policy and the United States’ standing in the global economy.
We can push this discussion with our students even further back in time and broaden our geographic scope. In an earlier post, I considered the Eurocentric tendency to depict East Asia as isolationist in the Early Modern period. In the conclusion to that post, I speculated about how our historical interpretations of China and Japan’s trade policies might relate to the debate about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It might be worth reminding our students that shifting attitudes in the United States about free trade don’t have to be seen in dramatic terms rejecting or supporting fundamental economic ideas. Bernstein’s claims about recent political debates marking “the end of the era of Free Trade Agreements” may encourage students to see this event as major shift or to make judgments about this shift. It might be helpful for students instead to think about the discussion of protectionism as just another historical transformation.
My main contention was that if we choose to include the Renaissance, we should be emphasizing the Asian influences on Europe and the wealth that Italian city-states, such as Venice, made from trade with Muslims of the eastern Mediterranean. It was this wealth that partially made the Renaissance possible. I had recently read John Hobson’s The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation and Jerry Brotton’s The Renaissance Bazaar. Hobson argues that eurocentric interpretations of Europe’s history downplayed the significance of “eastern,” and especially Islamic, influences on Europe as being of minor importance in leading to the development of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. He points to the influence of Muslims in contributing to the spread of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, Al-Khw¯arizm¯ı’s work on algebra, Islamic philosophical ideas about man as a rational agent, and Islamic ideas about astronomy. Brotton focuses more on tracing some of the specific ways in which Europeans’ encounters and exchanges with the Ottomans, Africans, and Southeast Asians influenced specific artistic productions that we now identify as “Renaissance.”
It was based on The Renaissance Bazaar that I developed the lesson about Hans Holbein’s 1533 painting The Ambassadors. This painting is often heralded as a prime example of Renaissance painting because of its use of perspective and sense of self-awareness. After having introduced the Renaissance to my class, I have students analyze the geographical origins of the objects on the table, the clothing worn by the ambassadors, and the geometric pattern on the floor. All these items originated in Asia or the Middle East. For example, the lute on the table is derived from the Turkish oud, and the silks being worn were originally produced in China. Students then discuss what the geographical origins of all these objects in a supposedly quintessential Renaissance painting suggests about the global context of the Renaissance.
Curriculum Choices and Revisiting the Renaissance
Ten years later, I’m still unconvinced that we must include the Renaissance in world history courses. I’m uncomfortable with including an event that is often presented as some uniquely European moment in a world history course. The Wikipedia page for the Renaissance describes it as “a period in Europe, from the 14th to the 17th century, considered the bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history.” There are always choices about what to include and what to exclude in world history courses. Some teachers approach this decision based on what topics they learned about in their history classes, which can sometimes end up perpetuating older, Eurocentric interpretations of world history. In making decisions about what to include, I tend to follow the global patterns (Key Concepts) in the AP World History Curriculum Framework. (For full disclosure, from 2010 to 2013 I was co-chair of the CollegeBoard committee that revised the curriculum framework for this course.) I think it’s more important to highlight global patterns rather than events in specific regions of the world. I then choose different examples from different regions of the world to illustrate those global patterns. I try to make my choices based on which examples truly highlight the global pattern, rather than on any sense of needing to cover different regions of the world. As a result, I don’t feel any need to include the Renaissance in my world history courses. To be clear, this decision doesn’t imply that I think we shouldn’t learn about the Renaissance; I just don’t feel that we need to cover it in a world history course.
During my sabbatical, I have been reconsidering many of the ways I teach world history. By chance, I came across Jerry Brotton’s recent book The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction, which is just a slightly modified and updated version of the earlier The Renaissance Bazaar. Having enjoyed that book so much ten years ago, I found myself quickly engaged in his arguments about a “global Renaissance.” Brotton argues that we shouldn’t think of the Renaissance as a European event or celebrate it because it supposedly highlights “the achievements of European civilization to the exclusion of all others.” Instead, he argues that we should see the Renaissance as a global event, in which cultural and technological influences from other regions of Afroeurasia influenced the development of the Renaissance and in which many aspects of the Renaissance in Europe influenced artistic production in other regions of Afroeurasia.
In thinking about Brotton’s argument, I find myself imagining how I can teach about the Renaissance as an example of a number of global patterns in the Early Modern era (c.1450 — c.1750). When I think about this period in world history, the main themes are the proliferation of empires and the strengthening of states around the world, new connections being formed between Afroeurasia and the Americas, the intensification of connections between Europe and the rest of Afroeurasia, and the subsequent cultural, economic, and biological exchanges between these regions. I try to present this period as a series of encounters and mutual exchanges between peoples around the world. In the rest of this post, I’ll outline how to teach the Renaissance as an example of some of these patterns using four paintings and Brotton’s arguments.
I would begin the lesson by showing students the Crash Course episode on the Renaissance. It helps to introduce the Renaissance, and some of the academic debate about it, to students and sets them up to consider why the Renaissance was a global event. As students are watching the video, they can take notes about what the Renaissance was, when did it happen, where did it occur, why did it happen, what was the role of the Muslim world, and why is it possible to argue that the Renaissance was not an actual event. John Green argues that the Muslim world helped start the Renaissance in multipple ways.
Having watched the video, I would next show students The Ambassadors. I would begin with a discussion of why this painting is considered a Renaissance painting. Brotton’s answer to this question is:
The Ambassadors portrays two elegantly dressed men, surrounded by the paraphernalia of 16th-century life. Holbein’s lovingly detailed, precise depiction of the world of these Renaissance men, who stare back at the viewer with a conﬁdent, but also questioning self-awareness, is an image that has arguably not been seen before in painting. Medieval art looks much more alien, as it lacks this powerfully self-conscious creation of individuality. Even if it is difﬁcult to grasp the motivation for the range of emotions expressed in paintings like Holbein’s, it is still possible to identify with these emotions as recognizably ‘modern’. In other words, when we look at paintings like The Ambassadors, we are seeing the emergence of modern identity and individuality.
I would then use the earlier questions about the geographical origins of the objects on the table, the clothing worn by the ambassadors, and the geometric pattern on the floor. After helping students to locate where these items originated, ask them how these items, which all originated in Asia or the Middle East, relate to the arguments in the Crash Course video. Students will hopefully see that the Muslim world didn’t just help to cause the Renaissance, but it also shaped the items that wealthy and prosperous Europeans at the time associated with the cultural trends of their day.
The second painting to show the students is Gentile and Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504–1507). I would begin to ask the students to look closely at the painting and tell me what they see. It shows Saint Mark, the founder of the Christian Church in Alexandria in the middle of the first century and the patron saint of Venice, on the left in a pulpit, and he is preaching to the people of Alexandria. I would explain a few key things about the people in the painting. The men behind Mark are a group of Venetian noblemen. In front of him are a group of women dressed in white and wearing white veils across their faces. Around the women are men of various backgrounds talking to each other. Some of these men are Europeans, while others are Egyptian Mamluks, North African “Moors,” Ottomans, Persians, Ethiopians, and Tartars. It’s possible to identify these different ethnicities by the use of standard European iconographic practices involving headgear, clothing, and skin color. In the background is the city of Alexandria. We can see the basilica, which mixes features of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Church of San Marco in Venice. There are Egyptian style buildings, with wooden grilles and rugs hanging from the windows. In the background are a number of minarets, an ancient Egyptian obelisk, and camels and giraffes.
Although Saint Mark preached in the first century, the Bellinis have placed him in a late fifteenth century context. This practice was common to many Renaissance era paintings. Having identified what is in the painting, I would ask students why these things have been included in a fifteenth century painting that is depicting an event over a thousand years earlier. One reason is that humans frequently depict past events in present day ways to make the past easier to understand. Students will be familiar with many movies about the ancient and medieval world that use present day English as the spoken language or fudge some of the historical details. Another question to ask the students is to remember what John Green argued about the causes of the Renaissance. He highlighted the connections between the Venetians the different Muslim peoples of the eastern Mediterranean as an important cause of the Renaissance. The painting doesn’t just link the late fifteenth century Venetians back to their first century patron saint, it also depicts those same fifteenth century Venetian traders surrounded by fifteenth century Muslim peoples with whom the Venetians regularly traded and in one of the main commercial centers of the eastern Mediterranean. The wealth derived from trade with the Muslim world wasn’t just a cause of the Renaissance; the Bellini’s painting reflects how the Renaissance was an ongoing process of adoption and adaptation of ideas and materials from the Muslim world by Europeans (or at least Italians).
Although The Ambassadors and Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria show us the extent to which the Muslim world influenced Europeans, we can also begin to see how the Renaissance was an ongoing, two-way exchange between Europeans and Middle Easterners. During the two centuries, the fifteenth and sixteenth, associated with the Renaissance, the Ottoman Empire was also expanding. At the same time the Ottomans were fighting the Venetians and the Habsburgs, there was also significant cultural exchange between Ottomans and Europeans. In 1453, the Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople. He restored the church of Hagia Sophia and transformed it into a mosque. He also hired Italian architects to assist in the construction of Topkapi Saray, a new imperial palace. Brotton makes clear how Topkapi came to symbolize the Renaissance:
The new international architectural idiom, drawing on classical, Islamic, and contemporary Italian styles, aimed to produce what one Ottoman commentator called ‘a palace that would outshine all and be more marvellous than all preceding palaces in looks, size, cost and gracefulness’. This international Renaissance style would also be recognizable to both Muslims and Christians alike, as conﬁrmed by the Venetian ambassador, who praised the Topkapi as ‘the most beautiful, the most convenient, and most miraculous [palace] in the world’. Like so many Renaissance buildings and artefacts, the Topkapi was both an original creative act and a highly political object. The two impulses were inseparable — a deﬁning feature of the Renaissance.
The third painting to show students is Costanzo da Moysis’ Seated Scribe from the late fifteenth century. (There is still some debate about the painter. Some art historians argue that Gentile Bellini painted it.) I would begin by asking the students what they notice about the painting. They may identify the man’s headdress or the Persian incscription in the upper right corner. I would then ask the students to make a guess about the background of the painter. Both Costanzo and Bellini were fifteenth century Italian painters who spent time at the Ottoman court. I would also tell the students that the painting’s design and detail reflect Chinese, Persian, and Ottoman artistic styles that were frequently found in miniature paintings that were common at this time in the Muslim world.
The final painting is Bihzâd’s Portrait of a Painter in Turkish Costume also from the late fifteenth century. I would show this painting next to Costanzo’s Seated Scribe. The similarities between the two paintings should be obvious to the students. I would ask them to guess about the painter. Students may assume that this painting was another painting produced by an Italian artist reflecting the influence of the Muslim world, but it was painted by a famous fifteenth century Persian painter who also spent time at the Ottoman court after Constanzo. I would then ask students to think about what this painting suggests about the exchange of ideas and artistic styles during the Renaissance. Hopefully they will be able to see how Bihzâd’s painting (as well as the Topkapi Saray) shows how European culture was also influencing the Muslim world in the fifteenth century. The aesthetic innovations of the Muslim world influenced Europeans, and the aesthetic innovations of Europe influenced Turks and Persians.
In thinking about these four paintings and Topkapi Saray, talking about the “West” or the “East” seems difficult. The idea of the Renaissance as some seminal European or Western event that marks the beginning of European modernity seems too narrow and too Eurocentric an interpretation. Going back to my original reluctance ten years ago to include the Renaissance in my world history course, I felt that way because the Renaissance was (and often continues to be) presented as an important European event. In reframing the Renaissance as a more global event which reflects the increasing exchange going on around the world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the increasing global support of art and architecture by the elites, the inclusion of the Renaissance in a world history course makes far more sense.
The stagnation and decline, Stephen Lee argues, was relentless after 1566, interrupted by a few short revivals or reform and recovery.
At least Stephen Lee acknowledges there were a few bright spots over the last 450 years of the Ottoman Empire. Looking at maps of “Ottoman Decline” on Google Images reveals hundreds of visualizations of when the Ottomans lost different portions of their territory. My personal favorite is this map:
Somehow the Ottoman Empire, which began in 1299, was declining before it even existed! It’s also mildly amusing that in 650 years of history, the Ottomans only lost that small green-colored territory. The funny thing about this obsession with Ottoman decline is that we’re talking about a period of 450 years. I suspect that many states in the world (maybe the less than 250 year old United States!) would be happy to be “declining” for over four centuries.
In many ways the myth of Ottoman decline is as pervasive in world history as the myth of East Asian isolation also because of Eurocentrism. As discussed in my earlier post, Eurocentrism is a way of viewing the historical events in Europe as a norm for global developments. We then take that Eurocentric norm and use it to analyze events in another part of the world. Any divergence from the European trajectory becomes the reason why something is not correct or something went wrong in that other region. It should be said that Ottoman historians have been problematizing the idea of Ottoman decline, but this reinterpretation hasn’t seem to influence world history. Instead of using Europe as our benchmark, I will look at Ottoman history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from a global perspective.
The End of Expansion and the Obsession with Growth
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a number of European states were beginning to emerge as important powers in the world. Spain was establishing a global empire linking scattered territories in Europe under Habsburg rule to colonies in the Americas and the Philippines. Portugal established its extensive network of trading posts around the Indian Ocean and Brazil. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch, English, and French joined in this process of global maritime expansion. Robert Marks, in The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Environmental Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century, argues that England (later Britain) and France combined this territorial expansion with internal political changes to develop centralized nation-states that were effective at harnessing resources for economic and political growth. Based on this quick outline, the story of Europe in these centuries is one of growth, dynamism, centralization, and the origins of modern nation-states.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire also went through a series of changes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Since its foundation in 1299, the Ottomans had been able to expand the Empire until the middle of the sixteenth century. After the death of the Emperor Süleyman in 1566, expansion slowed down. Only a small amount of territory was added to the empire over the course of the next century. Historians, seemingly influenced by comparisons to Europe, have pointed to a number of moments during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as to when Ottoman decline began. The quotation at the beginning of this post suggests 1566, which was the death of Emperor Süleyman, as the first date. Some historians have pointed to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Roger Crowley, in a recent popular history, goes as far to suggest the decisive nature of the European victory at Lepanto in tipping the balance of power between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Other historians have pointed to the Ottoman failure to capture Vienna in 1683 as the tipping point. Andrew Wheatcroft, in The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe views the failed siege not only as a turning point for the Ottomans, but for Europe as a whole. In addition to these potential political tipping points, beginning in the late sixteenth century, Northern European merchants from Britain, France, and the Netherlands began to sign trade agreements with the Ottoman Empire that made it far easier for these European traders to operate within the Ottoman Empire than it had been two centuries earlier.
Given all these changes, it shouldn’t seem surprising that many historians have viewed these centuries as a period of decline. The Ottoman Empire had stopped expanding, it was no longer winning as many military encounters against Europeans as it had previously, and its economic relationship with Europe was changing. Instead of viewing these changes as the onset of decline, I encourage us to present them in our classes as more of a transformation of the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire was always a far larger state than any of its European rivals. It was also more ethnically and religiously diverse. Given these realities, it was unlikely that the Ottomans could have adopted the same centralizing policies that were being implemented in Britain and France, even if they had wanted. In his The Ottoman Empire and early modern Europe, Daniel Goffman analyzes the first few centuries of the Ottoman Empire in relationship to Europe. He frequently mentions the Empire’s “flexibility” and “adaptability.” He argues that it was “Ottoman elasticity” that allowed the Ottomans to overcome their military setbacks and become an established part of “the European world of the sixteenth and seventeenth century” (231). He goes further to suggest that unlike the contemporary centralizing trend of Western Europe, “in the late sixteenth century, the Ottoman state simultaneously became more bureaucratized and less centralized.”
If we consider this Ottoman tendency to decentralization in light of European states’ tendency to centralization, it would be easy to see why this period looks to be one of Ottoman decline. The seventeenth century in Europe is marked by rulers such as France’s Louis XIV and his policies of centralization. But if we consider the changes in Ottoman governance from the perspective of the Ottomans themselves, a different image emerges. In his article, “Decline of A ‘Myth’: Perspectives on the Ottoman ‘Decline,’” M. Faith Çalişir examines the idea of decline in Ottoman historiography. He interprets this decision not to centralize as an active choice designed to maintain a degree of Ottoman rule over a large territory and reflecting previously established Ottoman traditions. He argues:
the Ottoman rulers did not impose ideological pressure or implement a strict rule in these particular territories [the Ottoman frontiers]. To maintain the sultan’s rule, the Ottoman capital used whatever means available including a wide use of of the local elites, maintaining the pre-Ottoman local customs and regulations. According to this practice, which is known as istimalet (lit. “to lean” or “incline in the direction of”) a classical Ottoman policy that aimed to gain the support of people through reconciliation and protection, the Ottomans paid significant attention to seek non-military and long-lasting solutions to disturbances in the newly conquered places. Thanks to this policy, the Ottomans, from the beginning of their empire, could establish centuries-long rule in non-Turkish and non-Muslim lands.
During the second half of the seventeenth century, the Köprülü family were the Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire. Following the established istimalet policy, they implemented a series of reforms (lowering tax rates and use of local languages) to the Ottoman bureaucracy and military that strengthened the Ottoman state. Çalişir argues:
the political, economic, and military achievements of the grand viziers from Köprülü family in the second half of the seventeenth century stand out as a significant gap in the unsatisfactory narrative of the “Ottomans’ inevitable decline.”
Despite no longer expanding territorially and even losing some battles, the Ottomans were not beginning to decline in the seventeenth century. Instead the Ottomans were focused on transforming their government based on established traditions. They sought to maintain control over their extensive empire through a flexible system of governance that was nothing like what Louis XIV was doing in France. It would seem that historians looking at these centuries as the onset of Ottoman decline have not only been influenced by Eurocentrism, but also by present-day market analysts who see anything other than economic growth as a sign of decline. Our obsession with growth leads us to think that if a country’s GDP is not increasing or a company’s profits are not growing, there is something wrong. Analysts worry that because the United States’ GDP is not growing as fast as China’s, we must be starting to decline. The Ottoman Empire was one of the world’s largest empires in 1600. It was no longer growing, but it also wasn’t declining.
The Ottomans and Other Muslim Empires
Another way to see the success of these more flexible and less centralized Ottoman policies is to compare the Ottomans to the two other Muslim empires that existed at the same time. By 1700, three large Muslim empires ruled most of the territory from the western end of North Africa to the east of India. The Safavids ruled over Persia, while the Mughals ruled over greater India. All three Muslim empires had gone through long periods of expansion, but only the Ottomans were able to survive and adapt after that expansion ended.
By 1800, the map of the Muslim world looked quite different. The Safavids no longer existed, and the Mughals existed in name only. The Safavid Empire had collapsed in 1722. For much of the eighteenth century, Persia was governed by competing warlords, until the Qajar Dynasty took over nominal control of Persia at the end of century. In India, the Mughals were first challenged by a number of local dynasties, and then the British began establishing control over parts of India in the middle of the eighteenth century. Meanwhile, the Ottomans, despite being in “decline,” somehow managed to maintain control over most of their territory.
When Trade is not just about Economics
The Ottoman Empire’s changing economic relationship with Europe is another way in which the Empire is sometimes seen as being in decline. During the Ottoman Empire’s formative years, it used its powerful navy to confront the Venetians and establish the Ottoman state as the major power of the eastern Mediterranean. Despite going to war on a few occasions, the Ottomans also signed commercial agreements with the Venetians that gave them access to Ottoman ports and regulated tariffs.
In the second half of the sixteenth century, commercial arrangements between the Ottomans and Europeans began to change. The Ottomans signed new treaties with Northern European states, such as England, France, and the Netherlands. These new treaties are frequently referred to as capitulations. Northern European states had gained access to Ottoman markets and gained certain protections for their merchants in the Ottoman Empire. From a European perspective, these treaties seem to suggest a weakening Ottoman state that was ceding a share of international commerce to potential European rivals. The treaties are seen only from the economic perspective of how Europeans viewed trade. For them, trade was a sort of zero-sum game in which any expansion of European involvement in international commerce meant that some other region was losing out.
Instead of viewing these treaties from a Eurocentric perspective, Goffman suggests that the Ottomans signed these treaties for political reasons. They were less concerned with maintaining a certain share of global commerce and more concerned with gaining increased access to strategically important items that Europeans traded. In other words, the Ottomans wanted to regulate access to English silver and gunpowder and were willing to give the English greater trading rights in exchange. Given that the Ottoman Empire would continue to exist for another 300 years, this bargain seems like a good deal!
By looking at the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from the perspective of its earlier history and in comparison to contemporary Muslim states, a surprisingly different image of the Ottoman Empire emerges. The Empire in the seventeenth century was no longer the powerful military machine that had conquered parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe during the thirteenth through mid-sixteenth centuries. At the same time, it was not losing territory. It was transforming from a state based on conquest to one focused on maintaining power and control over a large region through a series of flexible policies. Maybe a closer examination of the Ottomans’ transformation and subsequent success at preserving the state will help some Americans to worry a little less about the United States losing out to China and encourage us to think more about how our economy is simply transforming.
Stay tuned for the second half of this post on the Ottomans, decline, and the nineteenth century: “Healing the Sick Man of Europe.”
I remember listening to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” on the night of 24 November 2014 when the grand jury chose not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Her frustration and outrage at the murder of Medgar Evers resonated with me. It shocked me that Wilson was not indicted, and we needed to express our outrage at the injustice of the grand jury verdict. Yet, the teacher in me also wondered how I could address this issue in the classroom. This past summer I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Coates’ story resonated with me given that I’m only a year older than him. I recalled many of the same cultural experiences. At the same time, I’m a middle-class, white male, and I didn’t share many of Coates’ emotions and reactions. I completely agreed with his views about race and racism in the United States, but I was unbelievably frustrated with his views about nonviolence as expressed in the book and in an article about the role of nonviolence in the Baltimore protests to the killing of Freddie Gray. I’m aware that as a white, male American, I’m in a privileged position when it comes to thinking about nonviolence. I don’t regularly suffer violence against me because of my race or gender. I don’t feel that the country is set up to maintain this violence. Yet, I believe strongly in the power of nonviolence and education as a tool for bringing about justice in this world. In thinking about these two reactions and my belief in the role of history, I wanted to share some relevant articles and ideas about how we can teach world history in an era of Black Lives Matter. According to the movement’s guiding principles:
If Black Lives Matter is about affirming the contributions and the humanity of black peoples and teaching history should be a tool for justice, how we address and teach black subjects is crucial. I also believe it is important for me to engage my African-American students in my history classes. I don’t want to present a white or Eurocentric view of world history in which the experiences of Blacks are only marginally important. I want to present material and pose questions in a way that engages these students in my classes and encourages them also to see history as tool for justice. As a white man, I have also benefitted from an American society which is rigged in my favor. I need to be an advocate and an ally for all peoples in the way that Teju Cole talked about men being an ally for women. I need to speak out simply because of how much I have benefitted. At the same time I want to avoid presenting myself as part of the “white-savior industrial complex.” I’m here to help all students understand history in a nuanced and complex way that is honest about past injustices, incorporates the stories of all peoples, and helps empower students to see themselves as agents of change in the world.
A Note on Language
Before I go any further, I want to say a few words about the terminology in this post. In using both “Blacks” and “African-Americans,” I’m distinguishing between racial and ethnic categorizations. Blacks refer to a racial category that while socially constructed is very much real for billions of people around the world. It’s the same for Whites, although my racial category has been constructed from a position of dominance. African-Americans refers an ethnic categorization that reflects the African heritage of black Americans. In the context of world history courses, we are frequently teaching and learning about the experiences of black peoples around the world. African-Americans only refers to those black people who live in the United States. I’m also switching between Blacks (with an upper-case B) and black (with a lower-case b) to distinguish between the racial group and the adjective used in association with that group. Much has been written about this issue of capitalization, and I’m open to changing my practice. For now, I’m following the lead of many news publications while also trying to reflect the concerns of the people involved. Another important distinction relates to the topic of slavery. Instead of dehumanizing millions of peoples as “slaves,” I will talk about “enslaved peoples” or “enslaved Africans.” It seems a relatively small difference, but it is important step in restoring people’s identity. We are trying to honor the guiding principles of Black Lives Matter.
Incorporating the Histories of African Peoples
As the map makes clear, Africa is not a small region. Think about how much time we devote in our world history classes to the histories of China, Europe, and the United States compared to the time and treatment of the history of Africa. As teachers we need to be aware of these choices we are making. Boston University’s African Studies Center offers some excellent lessons about our perceptions and projections of Africa. Given the sheer size of Africa, it is important that we don’t talk about the diverse peoples of Africa as a single, homogenous group. We need to talk about Africa’s diversity and its histories. We also want to be mindful of the language we use in the classroom to describe Africa and Africans. Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa” is a satirical essay about the tendencies of many writers to exoticize and caricature Africans. One of the easiest ways to incorporate African histories into our world history classes is the history of West Africa. Well before Europeans arrived in Africa, three large and important kingdoms arose in West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Most textbooks cover this topic. These kingdoms were closely involved in the Afro-Eurasian economy before 1450 and were important centers of learning. In addition to the resources found in most textbooks, there is the Michigan State University module exploring these kingdoms and the Crash Course World History episode on them.
The other region of Africa that I always make a point to cover is the East African Swahili Coast. During the period from 600 C.E. to 1450, the cities of the Swahili Coast prospered as important trade centers in the Indian Ocean network of exchange. The Swahili people also were involved in significant cultural exchange with other peoples around the Indian Ocean and with the peoples from the interior of Africa. Dave Eaton, of the On Top of the World: A World History Podcast, recently published some excellent ideas about teaching the Swahili Coast. By incorporating the multiple histories of African peoples prior to the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century, Africans are not relegated to a secondary role whose importance only seems to matter after Europeans arrived on the scene.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery in the Americas
The transition from thinking about the history of Africans to the history of African-Americans begins with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery. This topic is one that is usually included in most world history classes, but how we frame and approach the topic is central to honoring the guiding principles of Black Lives Matter. There are a number of ways that we can approach the slave trade, especially given that it lasted nearly 400 years. It’s also important to keep in mind that the slave trade was a global phenomenon. It also occurred within the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The obvious starting point is the trade itself and how we present the nature of the exchange. Instead of presenting the trade from a European perspective, we want to teach about the slave trade as a process of negotiation involving multiple groups of Africans and Europeans. When Europeans first began to trade for African slaves, most Europeans were at a competitive disadvantage. They were far from home, had relatively few items that Africans wanted, and frequently had to adapt to demands of African traders. One of the key sources for looking at the slave trade is the journal kept by Captain Thomas Phillips’ during the voyage of the Hannibal in 1693. In his journal, Phillips is surprisingly frank about how much he was at a disadvantage. He describes being unable to resist the ruler of Whydaw’s “request” that the English traders attend him that night. He also describes the way in which the ruler was able to insist that his own lot of enslaved Africans had to first be purchased by Phillips at inflated prices. The actual negotiations between Phillips and the African slavers shows again that Africans tended to have the upper hand in these exchanges. African traders attempted to hide enslaved people’s advanced age or physical ailments. And when it came time to pay for the slaves, the African traders could also insist on being paid in cowry shells from the Indian Ocean, their preferred form of currency, rather than European goods. It quickly becomes clear that Africans played more than just active roles in the selling of African slaves; African traders shaped the patterns of exchange. Another important lesson from looking at this source is how it shows a variety of Africans involved in the slave trade. Some Africans are rulers, some are traders, some are enslaved. There is not just a mass of homogenous Africans. The second issue to consider in our teaching of the slave trade is the Middle Passage itself. It goes without saying that we must be honest about the violence and brutality of the voyages and how enslaved Africans were treated. Phillips’ own journal is open about the harsh conditions on the ship, the willingness of slavers to use violence to maintain order, and the numbers of Africans who died en route. We can pair these descriptions with similar ones from the journal of Olaudah Equiano, a former enslaved African, to present an African voice about the Middle Passage. Even with the frank and disturbing language about the violence and horrors of the Middle Passage, we can also show choices of Europeans made the experience even more hellish and dehumanizing for Africans. In a recent post, Antoine Vanner describes the sinking of the slave ship Phoenix in 1762. It’s not a pleasant story, but its honesty makes clear how brutal the slave trade was for enslaved Africans. We need to be open and honest about the ways that Europeans participated in the slave trade and not gloss over the disturbing aspects.
I believe a similar approach should also be followed when teaching about the experience of slavery in the Americas. Although the conditions of slavery varied in different parts of the Americas, we can make some generalizations about the ways in which chattel slavery (the type of slavery practiced in the Americas that differed from many earlier forms of slavery) functioned. Instead of presenting an idealized or partial view of the experiences of enslaved Africans, we should present the full and complete story, as many historical sites related to slavery are beginning to do:
Bringing the history of slavery and oppression alive, though, can be uncomfortable for some visitors, and a challenge for interpreters, he noted. “It’s a very hard subject to present,” he said. Guides must strike an appropriate balance between hospitality, enthusiasm, seriousness and respect. And visitors must be willing to open their minds to entertain not only the horrors of slavery but the institution’s many nuances: the fact that the North was complicit, for example, or that some slaves actually enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy and esteem.
No historical site does a better job of presenting the truth about slavery than the recently opened Whitney Plantation outside New Orleans. While it’s impossible for everyone to visit this site, its rich website provides a wealth of material about the conditions on the plantation and all the peoples involved.
Just as we want to be honest about the experience of slavery, we need to also be open and honest about the ways that many people, especially Europeans, profited from owning and trading enslaved Africans. Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery was one of the first historians to argue about the economic benefits derived from slavery and how it contributed to British industrialization. More recently, Edward Baptist, in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism has expanded on Williams’ work to show the extent to which the present day economic system in the United States has been shaped by slavery. Sven Beckert, in Empire of Cotton: A Global History has also recently looked at the effects of cotton, much of which was grown on slave plantations. All three books help us to understand the ways in which the labor of enslaved Africans has benefitted white Europeans and the American and British economies. Not only do we present a more accurate picture of history, we do so in a way that at least acknowledges the crucial contributions of enslaved Africans to these economies.
The last aspect of the slave trade and slavery that I want to consider is how we present the abolition of these horrific institutions. The story of abolition can sometimes be told in a way that allows Britons and Americans to feel better about their involvement in slavery and the slave trade. In a recent podcast about her work, Katie Donington talks about her research into the records of reparations that the British government paid to the owners of slaves. Some of her key arguments are the surprising extent of how many Britons owned slaves and how much they were compensated to give up those slaves. Even in abolishing the institution of slavery, many Britons benefitted financially. Meanwhile, the formerly enslaved Africans rarely received any compensation. And now fourteen Caribbean states are suing Britain for reparations from slavery. Teaching the story of abolition is a complex one in which we again need to be mindful of who did and didn’t benefit financially. Another important aspect of the story of abolition is including the actions of enslaved Africans themselves. No where is this involvement more obvious than in the Haitian Revolution.
“Where negritude rose to its feet for the first time and said it believed in its own humanity.”
This line from Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land makes clear how important the Haitian Revolution was. It not only showed us the active role that Blacks, both enslaved and free, played in ending slavery on the French colony of Saint-Domingue, but it also compliments the stories we tell about the American Revolution and marks a radical challenge to white Europeans’ ideas about their colonies in the Americas. There are many ways to approach the teaching of the Haitian Revolution, but I believe we must give at least equal coverage of the event as we do for the other Atlantic Revolutions (North American, French, and Spanish American) in our world history courses. Choosing to emphasize the North American or French Revolutions more sends a subtle message but about lesser importance of the event. One way I became aware of this problem in my own classes was after reading about Julia Gaffield’s rediscovery of an original copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence. I realized that while I had students read the American Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and Simon Bolivar’s “Jamaica Letter,” I didn’t include a foundational document for the Haitian Revolution that allowed the revolutionaries to speak for themselves. The full text of the Haitian Declaration is available online, so there’s no reason not to incorporate into our classes. Another approach to teaching the Haitian Revolution in a more meaningful way is examining the broader significance of the event. Discussions about the significance of the North American Revolution are familiar topics in almost any history class in the United States. Brandon Byrd has written a short post about the significance of the Haitian Revolution for African-Americans in the United States. Byrd shows how both free and enslaved African-Americans in the nineteenth century understood and made sense of the Haitian Revolution. Another way to consider the significance of Haiti is to explore what it meant in other plantation colonies around the Caribbean. In a recent book, Ada Ferrer examines the effect of the Haitian Revolution on nearby Cuba and its transformation into a more intensive plantation colony. Samuel Farber has published a shorter review of Ferrer’s Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution that could easily be used in the classroom. Exploring the Haitian Revolution more in our world history classes is one of the key ways that we can honor those guiding principles of Black Lives Matter. We not only show the truly radical nature of the Revolution, but we also humanize the Blacks of Haiti and show their valuable contributions to the Atlantic World at the same time as the North American and French Revolutions.
Imperialism in Africa and the Black Atlantic
Another common topic in world history courses is late nineteenth and early twentieth century imperialism. It’s easy for us as teachers to think about how we frame the topic and what we are doing in our classes to make the topic meaningful to African-American students. I’m guessing that I’m similar to many other teachers in that I begin my coverage of imperialism by having students examine the motives and methods of European and American imperialism before looking at the processes by which Europeans and Americans began to conquer and assert control over peoples around the world. One of the activities that I have frequently encountered is the “Scramble for Africa” simulation. A quick search on Google will reveal hundreds of links to this activity that has students recreate the Congress of Berlin (sometimes called the Berlin Conference) of 1884–1885. Students are divided into groups representing the major European powers at the Congress. (On a side note, most versions of this activity seem to leave out the United States and the Ottoman Empire, both of whom were also participants.) The students then take turns “claiming” parts of Africa and dividing up the continent. Some of the descriptions of this activity then mention the need for debriefing and discussion about the effects of this process on the peoples of Africa. Putting aside the question of the validity of historical simulations themselves, I have always cringed when reading about this activity. In February 2015, I shared some of my thoughts about this activity on a private Facebook group devoted to Advanced Placement World History, and it produced an extensive conversation. Without going over the whole incident again, I want to highlight some of my concerns with this activity. I worry about activities like the “Scramble for Africa” simulation that turn historical events into games. This activity focuses exclusively on the role of Europeans and marginalizes the peoples of Africa. And unless we make sure to have a substantive debriefing process, I worry about the possibility of omitting any discussion of the effects of the partition of Africa. One way to reframe how we teach the partition of Africa is to discuss openly who was involved in the process and what the effects of it were. In this contemporary German illustration of the conference proceedings, we can see who was at the conference.
Another aspect of imperialism to consider is the process of decolonization. Instead of focusing too much on the reasons that Europeans chose to let go of their colonies in Africa, we can focus the discussion on how Africans fought for their independence. The two key figures I include in these discussions are Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba. Nkrumah’s speeches are a useful source for showing the ways in which Africans worked to gain independence and the idea of pan-Africanism. His “I Speak of Freedom” speech is a good example of these issues. Patrice Lumumba also discussed these issues in his 1958 “Speech at Accra” and his 1959 “African Unity and National Independence” speech. Part of the reason that I include Lumumba and Nkrumah is to show how even as African leaders had played active roles in fighting for independence, Europeans and Americans ended up also killing or helping to overthrow many of these same leaders. By highlighting the violent ways that Americans and Europeans continued to be involved in the affairs of Africa after most countries had gained their independence, we help students to understand part of the reasons that many African countries continue to suffer from political instability. We can also connect this topic to the Americas as well in looking at the United States’ continued involvement in Haiti after the end of its occupation in 1934. Laurent Dubois’ short article on the Duvalier years in Haiti makes clear that the United States supported the brutal regimes of Jean-Claude and François Duvalier in the belief that they prevented the spread of communism to Haiti. In looking at the broad topic of imperialism, it may seem that I have chosen to simply emphasize the brutal and violent practices of Americans and Europeans, while highlighting the ways in which Blacks fought for independence or resisted Western imperialism. There are obviously many examples I could provide as a counterpoint to this pattern (the Duvaliers in Haiti definitely brutally exploited the Haitian people). In thinking about the guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have wanted to focus more on the oppression and the ways people resisted that oppression.
The last topic I want to consider is one that is less frequently taught, but I think it is most relevant to how we teach world history given the principles of Black Lives Matter. In his The World: A History Felipe Fernández-Armesto discusses the radical social changes, especially those related to related to ethnicity and race, of the twentieth century. At the beginning of the century, European ideas about racial hierarchies based on scientific racism were common around the world. Because of imperialism, Europeans controlled much of the world, and they promoted these racial hierarchies. Over the course of the twentieth century, many racial and ethnic groups challenged these hierarchies and characterizations of their groups as inferior to white Europeans. Black peoples in both Africa and the Americas presented an entirely new and more positive depiction of peoples of African descent. Some of the more well known individuals and groups include Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and Negritude, Pan-Africanism, Malcom X and the Nation of Islam, and the Rastafarian movement. By linking these people and groups together, we are able to show how black peoples in the twentieth century not only challenged European ideas about their racial inferiority, but they also presented a new, more positive image of Blacks. Connecting African-Americans from the United States to individuals from the Caribbean and Africa also highlights the interconnected nature of the history of Blacks. The stories and experiences of African-Americans from the United States become interwoven with the experiences of black peoples around the world in the twentieth century. One of the key resources I like to use in teaching this topic is the previous mentioned Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land. In this poem, Césaire himself links the experiences of black peoples throughout history and around the world.
In surveying these six topics, I hope I have provided some guidance and suggestions about how we can rethink some of the standard topics that we already teach in our world history courses. By consciously choosing to incorporate more stories about black peoples, we not only address the guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement, but we also present a more accurate version of history and begin to address the injustices in this world in a nonviolent manner. And maybe we can begin to construct a society based on the principles of nonviolence that also appeals to Coates.