The Sunday Post for October 6, 2019

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights just a few things we loved reading and want to share with you. Settle in with a cup of coffee, or tea, if that's your pleasure — we saved you a seat! Read an essay or an article online that you loved? Let us know at Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.

I’m back this week! And of course, with me comes my cunning plan to force-feed into this venerable column as much aimless history-related content as I can. Unfortunately, my attention span is as atrophied as ever. So today I present a jaunt through Western history in 4 (somewhat) recent Twitter threads. Lots of European history, 140 characters or less at a time.

History is a trip, y’all.

Disclaimer: I did not fact-check how accurate these threads are, so read them with a grain of salt. Or instead, simply enjoy the stories we still manage to tell in this strange new Internet form.

Why we should all hate Vasco da Gama

First up, a fascinating, detailed thread by amateur historian and engineer Aditya Mukerjee about Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama — doing what Twitter is best at doing: spluttering with outrage.

Vasco da Gama is best known for being the first European to reach India by sea. What Portuguese monuments failed to mention were the immoral, greedy escapades of da Gama as he tried to swindle Indian merchants, evade taxes, and colonize India while also trying to colonize a tiny Portuguese village at the same time. Even his contemporaries apparently hated him. His crew bailed on him in Cape Verde; the “Shakespeare of Portugal" called his actions in India “reprehensible." Whatta guy.

A medical historian’s favorite objects

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian and author shares her favorite objects from prehistory to now. And it’s exactly as morbid as you’d expect from the author who wrote a book called The Butchering Art. This thread takes you on a wild ride through bog men, ancient Egyptian prosthetics, memento mori, preserved whale hearts, and royal hair lockets.

My favorite thing about this thread is how utterly, remarkably weird all of this stuff is. Often the way we conceive of the past, especially the Western past, is as an inexorable march toward the present. “Here," we point to a straight and narrow timeline, “is where democracy began."

– Here, the Magna Carta, the foundation of individual freedom from despotism!
– Here, Enlightenment philosophy, reason!
– The Industrial Revolution! Trains! Medical advancements! Vaccines! Hygiene!

The pace of progress multiplies, speeding faster and faster toward our world today.

But this timeline misses some of the best and wackiest stuff that might tell you more about the people who lived through those times. If we simply focus on what historical people had in common with us, we fail to understand them as fundamentally different than we are. Even when it doesn’t seem that long ago, or that far away:

Victorians, you know – the ones who invented the steam engine and the subway, they also used to mummify cats and tuck them under their floorboards to bring luck to their houses. If you’re British, that’s like, 6 generations ago. Yikes.

Non-Western historians frequently contend with the issue of othering and foreignness. Maybe one way to balance the scales is not to show what makes the different familiar, but to show how the familiar is otherworldly, too.

Misunderstood symbolism in Flemish still lifes

Ever read way too much into something? You may be more well-adjusted person than me so you don’t, but chances are, you probably have. We-ell, it turns out Flemish art is the perfect place to do so. So put away those text messages from your ex-lover, and read through cartoonist C. Spike Trotman’s sassy, lively thread about these dramatic Northern European still lifes.

Still lifes weren’t just decorative, they were intellectual. The symbolism was strictly codified. The wealthy kept them in their libraries, not their dining rooms. And even so, as civil wars tore apart Europe in the seventeenth century, these artists used still lifes to ridicule earthly wealth and power.

After you get through this thread, digitally explore the Rijksmuseum’s still life catalogue to see what you can read way, way, way too much into.

British tourism, Brexit, and the end of empiret

A few weeks ago, the British travel agency Thomas Cook collapsed overnight, leaving 150,000 (!) customers stranded in their holiday destinations. Here’s a thread from Middle Eastern history doctoral student @afzaque about its auspicious early beginnings as a tour guide vendor in 1869, as Britain expanded its interests in the Middle East. The company grew with British power, capitalizing on the opening of the Suez Canal, attempting to infiltrate pilgrimage travel to Mecca in British India. Wherever the British army went, British tourists soon followed.

It’s no coincidence that the collapse of a travel company also lead to the UK’s largest repatriation operation in peacetime. The ease of travel that blesses British passports also means a lot of travelers at any one time. The longest lasting effects of British imperialism are in the privileges of global movement and citizenship. The power inequalities, wins, and losses of previous centuries remain in the power of modern-day passports. Which citizens can enter without a costly visa? Who gets the right to a long-term working holiday? Why are some residents expatriates, but others immigrants?

Critics of Brexit have argued that leaving the EU in favor of the freedom to forge stronger ties to other countries the US and India is just a new imperialist fantasy. Britain, once again, trying to reclaim the empire it relinquished after the Second World War. But in reality, I suspect Brexit will see the whimpering end of the last remnants of the British empire. It has already sped the end of the Thomas Cook Group.

If they actually manage to leave at the end of this month, UK citizens will likely see the power of their passports curtailed, and with it, one of the most durable signals of it historical significance.

You’ll note that not all of these threads are from professional historians — and all the better for it. We need more amateur historians in the world.

Finally, a big thank you to Alp Çoker and Orion Montoya for sharing some of these threads with me. This Twitterific Sunday Post would not exist without people who are better at navigating Twitter than I am.