Archive for the 'history' Category

anti-racism, capitalism, colonialism, history, racism, society, travel

Happy Waitangi Day: The Shadow of a Land

Today is Waitangi Day, New Zealand’s national holiday. This day in 1840 marked the beginning of the end of New Zealand as a Maori Polynesian island, and its takeover as an arm of the white British empire. So, obviously a big cause for celebration.

The Treaty of Waitangi is given various interpretations, and the official and popular position today is that Waitangi day celebrates New Zealand and emphasises unity between Polynesian Maori and Pakeha (white New Zealanders). Many Kiwis see it simply, I suspect, as “a nice day off”. But Waitangi day – and specifically the 1840 Treaty – have also historically attracted a great deal of protest. And not within due cause.
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capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, Panama, racism, society, travel, USA

The Panama Canal – the great globaliser

As part of my journey round the world, leaving the American continents and crossing the Pacific ocean I took a container ship, in order to minimise my personal carbon emissions, and because I thought it would be an interesting way to travel. The  ship passed through the Panama Canal and shortly afterwards I recorded this account of the history of the Canal, the effect it had on Panama throughout the 20th century, and its role in placing the world in the straight-jacket of economic globalisation.

capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, Panama, racism, slavery, society, travel

Independence Day

Panama City. Friday night. The old town, the Casco Viejo, the historical centre of the city. It is raining. In fact it’s pouring. The weather forecast shows 32 or 33 degrees with torrential thunderstorms for the next six days.

I sit in the white brightly-lit bandstand in the centre of the central square, the Plaza de la Independencia. This is where Panamá declared its “independence” from Colombia in 1903. At that time all of Panama City was contained within the Casco Viejo. Within a few years the Canal was creating a boom and the city expanded. Today this area is barely more than an urban slum with the trappings of past wealth, not alike the centre of Havana, Cuba. Tonight, the plaza is practically deserted.

My photo set “Panama City Contrasts” on flickr

Below, still guarding their jewellery stall in the twilight are two indigenous Kuna people, the woman immediately recognisable with her colourful blouse, gold piercings and naked tightly-beaded calves. Above in the bandstand with me squat two gringos around their laptops, taking advantage of the bandstand’s power outlets. I think they live in the large van I saw on the corner. Something tells me they’re running Linux. Two dogs join us, one belonging to the gringos. A middle-aged Panamanian asks the gringos what their dog is called. She misunderstands him and gives him her name. I think she is Australian. He is shaving his face, very slowly and without a mirror. He has two different razors, as if he fears one might not do the job. It is unclear to me whether he has any water, or soap. He picks slowly to remove hairs from the blade. I think he might be also charging his phone. I presume he has a home, but his shoes are held together with neat loops of string. For all I know everything he owns could be in the carrier bag beside him. Continue Reading »

colonialism, history, Latin America, travel, USA

“A Tale of Two Revolutions: Guatemala & Cuba” or… “Sandwiches with Roberto Pérez”

On my travels in 2010, two of the countries I got to know the best are Guatemala & Cuba. Both had revolutions (Guatemala in 1944, Cuba in 1953) whose effects resonate through history. Both revolutions had similar causes and relationships. But ultimately very very different outcomes.

Guatemalan seller

Today Cuba is practically unique in the world. A socialist economy, largely centrally-planned and state-run, but one that boasts developed-world levels of health, life expectancy, literacy, and, dare I say, equality. Let me say right now that Cuba has problems – big problems. But on many indicators they are doing surprisingly well, especially given their handicaps, which still include being under a trade embargo by the United States.

By contrast, Guatemala is poorer in both absolute and per capita terms, much more unequal, and has a very low ranking on the UN Human Development Index, even worse so when accounting for its inequality.

More noticeable when I was there is the way that indigenous people sometimes turn their heads to look down or look away from you. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were killed by their own government, well into the 1980s.

Yet I found Cubans to be outgoing, passionate, care-free and confident. It pains me to say it: you could never call Guatemalans care-free. Half of them live in absolute poverty. Continue Reading »

capitalism, colonialism, history, Latin America, politics, racism, society, travel

Machu Picchu: “100 years of prostitution of Andean culture”

This month saw the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu. Its discovery by the West, that is: it was in July 1911 that Hiram Bingham, a Yale historian, was led to the already 400-year old site by a local shepherd boy, and announced the presence of the Machu Picchu estate to the world.

Machu Picchu, morning mist

I visited Machu Picchu a couple of days before its anniversary; it was glorious. A sublime city in a sublime location; the hundreds of tourists walking around could not detract from its wonderfulness. I was back in nearby Cusco, “the heart of America” for Che Guevara, and capital of the Inca empire, for the anniversary itself. To celebrate, Cusco’s main plaza saw parades, a stage with big screens, and a Peruvian folk/rock band in the evening. It also saw low-key protests, including one banner that particularly caught my eye: “100 años de la prostitución de la cultura andina”.

Elsewhere on the streets, the Incas’ conquered descendants mainly went about their business; selling chewing gum and proffering beautiful and often hand-made gloves and ch’ullus (traditional hats made from alpaca wool) to the hoards of foreign tourists, at knock down prices. Continue Reading »


The span of a life. How long ago is history?

Queen VictoriaThe Second World War ended 66 years ago. Seems like a long time? It’s really not. In fact, I was born at the midpoint between then and now. There is only as much time separating me now from my birth as separates my birth from the death of Hitler… the Nazi regime, the deaths of millions of people in the Holocaust. It really wasn’t that long ago. 33 years between then and my birth. And another 33 years between my birth and now. Being on a slow riverboat through the Peruvian Amazon is giving me a long time to think, and it’s occurred to me that as I get older this span will grow – both ways. By the time I’m in my mid-40s, you could flip my life around as if I were living it backwards in time, and connect with Hitler’s conspiracy of burning the Reichstag and taking power in 1933. Before I’m 50 I’ll have grown back to have been present at the Wall Street Crash. And only 60 years (of age) separate my birth and the killing fields of Ypres, Verdun and the Somme. This is an upsetting thought. Because if all that can happen in the span of one lifetime, what more could happen in the future in my lifetime? Continue Reading »