Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Civil War Relic Thief Gets Time...Good.

A man in the US has been tried and convicted of damaging historical relics, after he had amassed a collection of thousands of artefacts from the Petersburg Battlefield in Virginia. This guy would use a metal detector, or a DOG to find objects, ranging from bullets to belt buckles. (come on seriously, a dog?!!) Randy Jones, from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, compared relic hunting to "ripping a page from a book" and as a result there is an incredible "the loss of historic information." Apparently he kept a journal of his "activities", and one entry states he found five buttons in one place, indicating he may have disturbed a soldier's remains. The popularity of relic hunting on TV shows has led to a rise in people basically wanting to go on a treasure hunt...without being clever and realising they're damaging historical objects, or worse, remains.


Monday, 26 March 2012

The Butterfly Project

In Houston, Texas, a museum is collecting 1.5 million hand-made butterflies to represent the children who died during the Holocaust. The exhibition, scheduled for 2014, is modelled on a poem written in 1942 chronicling the misery, hardship, starvation and death children faced at the camps. Many historians are against using 'objects' to represent the dead ( a school in rural Tennessee collected millions of paper clips to signify the victims and faced much criticism). I think it's a great way to show children in particular the sheer magnitude of the Holocaust. It's 'easy' to say millions died, but how do we comprehend that number? It's just a statistic, and we need to get past this - by having an individual representation of something small, whether it is a paper clip or a butterfly, we can remember an individual. Only when they are collected together can we understand the millions of lives lost. Behind every butterfly, there is a child. Anyone who has visited the Imperial War Museum and seen the hundreds of shoes packed tightly together will surely agree - for me, this was the toughest part of the exhibit. These 'every-day' objects help us to relate - behind one pair of shoes was a person, with a name, a family, a home - we will never know who those shoes belonged to, but that doesn't mean we should not remember them.

Great Gallery of Children's lives

Check out this gallery - link from the BBC History Magazine - about Children's lives, (Birmingham!)

Friday, 23 March 2012

Island of Hope, Island of Tears

I wrote a historical walking tour for Rama last year about the story of Ellis Island in New York. Having been there twice, it’s such a fascinating place to visit with so much history. Incredibly, nearly 50% of all Americans can trace their ancestry back through Ellis Island, however, not all the “huddled masses” of immigrants were welcomed…

Ellis Island was used as an immigration station from the early 1890's. From the very beginning however, some immigrants, for medical or frankly, racist, reasons were detained, and 2% of those who arrived at Ellis Island were sent home. In May 1882, the first Immigration Exclusion Act was passed to limit the number of Chinese immigrants travelling to the United States. This included skilled and unemployed men, and they would be heavily fined and most likely arrested if they were caught trying to enter the country. In 1892, the Geary Act upheld the Chinese exclusion law and stated that all Chinese citizens in the United States had to carry a licence proving their identity. These laws were not revoked until 1943.

In 1891, an act ensured that all passengers with contagious diseases, mental illness or a history of violent crime would not be allowed into America. The ability to speak English also became a prerequisite for naturalization. Thus by the early twentieth century, much legislation had been passed to exclude anarchists, prostitutes, beggars and ‘dependents’. Tensions over Eastern European immigration led President Calvin Coolidge to approve the Immigration Quota Act of 1921. The act, using records from 1910, reduced the number of immigrants to 3% of the population of that immigrant group within the United States. Between 1921 and 1922, the number of immigrants processed at Ellis Island was reduced by one half. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act further limited the number from 300,000 to 150,000 – based on the numbers of ethnic groups in 1890, 2% of that number would be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Unsurprisingly, immigrants from Britain and Western Europe did not face a reduction compared to Eastern Europeans since they were not recognised as a 'danger'. European immigrants could be 'Americanized' and posed no threat to society, as opposed to non-Europeans

For some, the island stayed true to its nickname of “Island of hope, island of tears”…

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

History as a political weapon...

Just before Christmas, the French government passed a law that made it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide committed by the Turks in 1915. Anyone caught breaking the law will be fined 45,000 euros and be sent to jail for a year. As a result, Turkey withdrew their ambassador to the French government, immediately cutting ties with officials and preventing some French military flights. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan then accused France of committing genocide in Algeria. He also stated that the law would stir up hatred towards Turkish Muslims. This is not the first time the law has caused controversy, back in 2006 similar legislation was debated in the French Parliament but it was forgotten in the wake of a Turkish backlash.

The conflict began when the Turks deported thousands of Armenians from Eastern Anatolia, and over one million died of starvation or disease. The Turks claim this number is exaggerated, the figure is more likely 300,000. (Which is still a HUGE number.) Over 20 countries have stated the conflict amounted to genocide. Genocide was defined in 1948 as acts intended "to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group". This could include physical or attempted acts of violence, as well as religious or cultural genocide in which one group was targeted because of their beliefs. Historians debate whether the deaths in Armenia were ‘intentional’, the crucial argument to refute the label of genocide. But another part of the genocide definition is creating the conditions in which genocide can occur, i.e., the Turks forced the Armenians into starvation and death. It is difficult to claim whether the Turks ordered a systematic killing of Armenians, but creating these conditions ultimately led to genocide.

In Turkey, Article 301 of the penal code states that punishment will be carried out to those who use the term genocide to describe the conflict against the Armenians. It states that anyone who violates this law would be “insulting Turkishness”. This is not a new campaign, indeed the war against recognising the genocide has been waged since the 1920’s. More than anything this shows us that history is not confined to the past, and its legacy can be dangerous. The Turkish example indicates that arguments about genocide challenge the very nature of Turkish identity – a nation does not want to admit to a horrific past, as it threatens the patriotism and honour of the country and the people within it.

The problem is free speech. It sickens me that people continue to deny the Holocaust, but should there be a law stating, as in France, that Holocaust deniers should be punished? Involving politics in historical memory is dangerous, because eventually, where do you draw the line? What about other massacres? What about atrocities committed by the French? Is it likely that the French government will issue a law making it illegal to deny genocide in Algeria? While the genocide should be admitted, it is ironic that the laws in both Turkey and France have the same outcome – they restrict free speech.

Using history as a political weapon is far from over, but this example shows we cannot hide from the past – otherwise, it can only haunt us, like a shadow.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Rockefeller vs Tarbell

In my last year of Uni, I took a course on Progressivism in the United States. I didn’t enjoy a lot of it, as most of it was heavily political with business history thrown in, but I loved the social side. The only ‘business’ side I enjoyed was the scandal of John Rockefeller and Ida Tarbell.

Tarbell was a talented journalist, dedicated to the exposure of political corruption and the increasing popularity of ‘muckraking’. But after her family lost their livelihoods to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil company, she decided to focus on his deceitful tactics and share them with the world. Tarbell discovered that Rockefeller forced smaller businessmen to join his company or be crushed; he was unethical, destroying free and fair trade and controlled most of the railroads that transported the oil to different states (non-Standard companies shipping from Cleveland and Pittsburgh paid $1.44 per barrel, Standard Oil paid 80 cents). Rockefeller also occasionally hired thugs to intimidate businessmen. Tarbell did admire his dedication, but Rockefeller’s company “had never played fair and that ruined their greatness for me.” Tarbell’s muckraking journalism caused the federal government to investigate the Standard Oil Company, and it was disbanded in the early twentieth century.

In 1913, Rockefeller was worth over $900 million, $13 billion in today’s money. He was the richest man in the world, and donated $500 million to universities, charities, churches and temperance societies. Tarbell is now of the most famous female journalists in American literature. 

Friday, 16 March 2012

Awesome Titanic Pictures!

2012 marks a hundred years since the Titanic sank, and being from Southampton, I'm eager to see how the city treats this anniversary (the new museum is looking good already). More than half of the 2,200 passengers died, and everyone in Southampton knew someone that had perished, an extraordinary statistic. In the last few weeks, sonar images of the wreckage have been released, giving an incredible and unique perspective on the ship. The Titanic was only discovered in 1985, and it stretches nearly five miles across the ocean floor. Apparently, in the area around the wreckage, nicknamed “hell’s kitchen”, broken china, cutlery and pots and pans remain there, almost frozen in time.