Tag Archives: history

History textbooks still imply that Australians are white



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Who is portrayed as Australian? ‘Opening of the first parliament’ Tom Roberts c.1903.
Wikipedia

Robyn Moore, University of Tasmania

In this series, we’ll discuss whether progress is being made on Indigenous education, looking at various areas including policy, scholarships, school leadership, literacy and much more.


Despite improvements to their content over time, secondary school history textbooks still imply that Australians are white.

Textbook depictions of Australianness are not only relevant to experiences of national belonging or exclusion. Research has shown that students who aren’t represented in textbooks perform worse academically.

My PhD research analysed portrayals of Australianness in secondary school history textbooks from 1950 to 2010.

This time frame covers a period of significant social change in Australia, symbolised by the transition from the White Australia era of the 1950s and 1960s, to multiculturalism, which has existed since. Textbooks reflect these broad social changes.

1950s and 1960s – a celebratory narrative

Textbooks published in the White Australia era openly taught a celebratory version of history in which Aborigines were either absent or derided.

White people were portrayed as the developers of the nation. This can be seen in the following extract from the preface of A Junior History of Australia by A. L. Meston, published in 1950:

The object of this little book is to tell the wonderful story of our own country. Fewer than one hundred and fifty years ago no white man lived in our land. In so short a space of time by the pluck, hard work, and energy of our grandmothers and grandfathers, and of our mothers and fathers, a splendid heritage has been handed down to us.

This extract assumes the reader is white. Aboriginal students are overlooked. Similarly, Aboriginal contributions to each and every stage of national development are ignored.

Aborigines are only mentioned occasionally in textbooks from this era. When Aborigines are included, the portrayals are usually negative, as shown in the drawing below.

The caption from this image endorses the derisive perception of Aborigines reported by English explorer William Dampier, who first visited north-western Australia in the late 17th century.

This image from a textbook published in 1950 was titled ‘One of Dampier’s miserablest people’.
A Junior History by A L Meston

Has anything changed since the 1960s?

The White Australia Policy was replaced by multiculturalism in the 1970s.

Subsequent changes to textbooks reflected this broader social change: Aborigines and non-white immigrants featured more prominently and were portrayed more respectfully.

For example, most history textbooks published from the 1970s onwards have an initial chapter on pre- and/or post-colonial Aboriginal life and a later chapter on post-war immigrants.

Despite improvements such as these, history textbooks still imply that Australians are white. This occurs due to inconsistencies between what is written (the explicit content) and the underlying messages or meanings (the implicit content).

For example, initial chapters that discuss Aboriginal life prior to colonisation are followed by others on European “discovery” and “exploration”, which imply that the continent was vacant and unknown prior to the arrival of Europeans.

There are also inconsistencies in who is considered Australian. Aborigines are named as Australian in initial chapters on Aboriginal life. However, this description of Aborigines as Australian is contradicted by the exclusion of Aborigines from notions of Australianness in the remainder of the text.

The main narrative describes the experiences of white Australians in various eras such as the gold rushes, Federation, the Depression and the world wars. This implies that Australian history is white history and that Australians are white. By excluding Aborigines from these sections, whites are framed as normative or “real” Australians.

21st-century textbooks

Current textbooks show further, albeit, minor improvements compared to those published in the latter decades of the 20th century. For example, Europeans are portrayed as arriving in Australia, rather than “discovering” it.

Another improvement is that references to Aboriginality are no longer restricted to the initial “Aboriginal” chapter. However, Aborigines appear only momentarily in the main narrative. When contrasted with the detailed coverage of white experiences, the cursory treatment of Aborigines implies that Australian history is the story of white Australians.

This pattern is evident in chapters on the gold rushes. The painting below frequently appears in these chapters in textbooks published in the 2000s. This painting, which depicts white people searching for gold, represents the overall focus of these chapters on white people. Aborigines are absent.

‘An Australian gold diggings’ Edwin Stocqueler c.1855.
Wikipedia

Representations of Aboriginality in these chapters are limited to a throwaway line on the impact of the gold rushes on Aborigines, with no mention of Aboriginal responses.

Some 21st-century textbooks also include fleeting references to Aboriginality in chapters on national identity.

Descriptions of nationalism in these texts often include a section on late 19th-century Australian art. This section typically cover iconic artists such as Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin.

However, some textbooks published this century also include an example of Aboriginal art in this section, typically William Barak’s painting “Figures in possum skin cloaks”.

‘Figures in possum skin cloaks’ William Barak c.1898.
National Gallery of Victoria

The belated inclusion of Aborigines in chapters on Australian national identity is a welcome improvement. Nevertheless, this inclusion is momentary.

Who’s responsible for textbook content?

According to the Australian Constitution, responsibility for school education resides with the states rather than the federal government.

The first steps in the development of a national curriculum were taken in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the development of a national curriculum in 2013 that textbooks began to be marketed on the basis of meeting curriculum guidelines.

The cross-curricular priorities in the current version of the Australian curriculum state that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students should be able to see themselves, their identities and their cultures reflected in the curriculum. This is supported by research which shows that embedding Aboriginal perspectives within the curriculum improves educational outcomes.

The ConversationAustralian history textbooks have made considerable progress towards presenting more inclusive and balanced narratives. However, this progress has stalled. My research shows that Australian history textbooks continue to portray Australians as white. Further work is needed to ensure textbooks adequately represent all Australians.

Robyn Moore, Graduate reseach assistant, School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


A digital archive of slave voyages details the largest forced migration in history



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A slave fortress in Cape Coast, Ghana.
AP Photo/Clement N’Taye

Philip Misevich, St. John’s University; Daniel Domingues, University of Missouri-Columbia; David Eltis, Emory University; Nafees M. Khan, Clemson University , and Nicholas Radburn, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Between 1500 and 1866, slave traders forced 12.5 million Africans aboard transatlantic slave vessels. Before 1820, four enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic for every European, making Africa the demographic wellspring for the repopulation of the Americas after Columbus’ voyages. The slave trade pulled virtually every port that faced the Atlantic Ocean – from Copenhagen to Cape Town and Boston to Buenos Aires – into its orbit.

To document this enormous trade – the largest forced oceanic migration in human history – our team launched Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a freely available online resource that lets visitors search through and analyze information on nearly 36,000 slave voyages that occurred between 1514 and 1866.

Inspired by the remarkable public response, we recently developed an animation feature that helps bring into clearer focus the horrifying scale and duration of the trade. The site also recently implemented a system for visitors to contribute new data. In the last year alone we have added more than a thousand new voyages and revised details on many others.

The data have revolutionized scholarship on the slave trade and provided the foundation for new insights into how enslaved people experienced and resisted their captivity. They have also further underscored the distinctive transatlantic connections that the trade fostered.

https://giphy.com/embed/3o7bubi6p8AiWkeK52

Records of unique slave voyages lie at the heart of the project. Clicking on individual voyages listed in the site opens their profiles, which comprise more than 70 distinct fields that collectively help tell that voyage’s story.

From which port did the voyage begin? To which places in Africa did it go? How many enslaved people perished during the Middle Passage? And where did those enslaved Africans end the oceanic portion of their enslavement and begin their lives as slaves in the Americas?

Working with complex data

Given the size and complexity of the slave trade, combining the sources that document slave ships’ activities into a single database has presented numerous challenges. Records are written in numerous languages and maintained in archives, libraries and private collections located in dozens of countries. Many of these are developing nations that lack the financial resources to invest in sustained systems of document preservation.

Even when they are relatively easy to access, documents on slave voyages provide uneven information. Ship logs comprehensively describe places of travel and list the numbers of enslaved people purchased and the captain and crew. By contrast, port-entry records in newspapers might merely produce the name of the vessel and the number of captives who survived the Middle Passage.

These varied sources can be hard to reconcile. The numbers of slaves loaded or removed from a particular vessel might vary widely. Or perhaps a vessel carried registration papers that aimed to mask its actual origins, especially after the legal abolition of the trade in 1808.

Compiling these data in a way that does justice to their complexity, while still keeping the site user-friendly, has remained an ongoing concern.

Volume and direction of the transatlantic slave trade from all African to all American regions.
David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New Haven, 2010), Author provided

Of course, not all slave voyages left surviving records. Gaps will consequently remain in coverage, even if they continue to narrow. Perhaps three out of every four slaving voyages are now documented in the database. Aiming to account for missing data, a separate assessment tool enables users to gain a clear understanding of the volume and structure of the slave trade and consider how it changed over time and across space.

Engagement with Voyages site

While gathering data on the slave trade is not new, using these data to compile comprehensive databases for the public has become feasible only in the internet age. Digital projects make it possible to reach a much larger audience with more diverse interests. We often hear from teachers and students who use the site in the classroom, from scholars whose research draws on material in the database and from individuals who consult the project to better understand their heritage.

Through a contribute function, site visitors can also submit new material on transatlantic slave voyages and help us identify errors in the data.

The real strength of the project – and of digital history more generally – is that it encourages visitors to interact with sources and materials that they might not otherwise be able to access. That turns users into historians, allowing them to contextualize a single slave voyage or analyze local, national and Atlantic-wide patterns. How did the survival rate among captives during the Middle Passage change over time? What was the typical ratio of male to female captives? How often did insurrections occur aboard slave ships? From which African port did most enslaved people sent to, say, Virginia originate?

H.M.S. ‘Rattler’ captures the slaver ‘Andorinha’ in August 1849.
The Illustrated London News (Dec. 29, 1849), vol. 15, p. 440, Author provided

Scholars have used Voyages to address these and many other questions and have in the process transformed our understanding of just about every aspect of the slave trade. We learned that shipboard revolts occurred most often among slaves who came from regions in Africa that supplied comparatively few slaves. Ports tended to send slave vessels to the same African regions in search of enslaved people and dispatch them to familiar places for sale in the Americas. Indeed, slave voyages followed a seasonal pattern that was conditioned at least in part by agricultural cycles on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The slave trade was both highly structured and carefully organized.

The website also continues to collect lesson plans that teachers have created for middle school, high school and college students. In one exercise, students must create a memorial to the captives who experienced the Middle Passage, using the site to inform their thinking. One recent college course situates students in late 18th-century Britain, turning them into collaborators in the abolition campaign who use Voyages to gather critical information on the slave trade’s operations.

Voyages has also provided a model for other projects, including a forthcoming database that documents slave ships that operated strictly within the Americas.

We also continue to work in parallel with the African Origins database. The project invites users to identify the likely backgrounds of nearly 100,000 Africans liberated from slave vessels based on their indigenous names. By combining those names with information from Voyages on liberated Africans’ ports of origin, the Origins website aims to better understand the homelands from which enslaved people came.

The ConversationThrough these endeavors, Voyages has become a digital memorial to the millions of enslaved Africans forcibly pulled into the slave trade and, until recently, nearly erased from the history of not only the trade itself, but also the history of the Atlantic world.

Philip Misevich, Assistant Professor of History, St. John’s University; Daniel Domingues, Assistant Professor of History, University of Missouri-Columbia; David Eltis, Professor Emeritus of History, Emory University; Nafees M. Khan, Lecturer in Social Studies Education, Clemson University , and Nicholas Radburn, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


From shouting it out to staying at home: a brief history of British voting


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Hogarth’s The Polling, from the Humours of an Election series.
Wikipedia

Malcolm Crook, Keele University and Tom Crook, Oxford Brookes University

Most of the voters who will be casting their ballots in the general election on Thursday June 8 will take their right to do so for granted, unaware of the contested history of this now familiar action. It’s actually less than 100 years since all adult males in the UK were awarded the franchise for parliamentary elections, in 1918, in the wake of World War I. That right wasn’t extended to all adult women for a further ten years after that.

Even today, it might be argued, the democratic principle of “one person, one vote” has not been fully implemented, since the royal family and members of the House of Lords are not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections. And even after the mass enfranchisement of the early 20th century, university graduates and owners of businesses retained a double vote, the former in their university constituencies as well as where they lived. These privileges were only abolished in 1948, in face of overwhelming Conservative opposition.

How Britain votes today is also a relatively late development in electoral history. Until 1872, parliamentary electors cast their votes orally, sometimes in front of a crowd, and these choices were then published in a poll book. Public voting was often a festive, even riotous affair. Problems of intimidation were widespread, and sanctions might be applied by landlords and employers if voters failed to follow their wishes, though this was widely accepted at the time as the “natural” state of affairs.

Open voting even had its defenders, notably the political radical John Stuart Mill, who regarded it as a manly mark of independence.

But as the franchise was partially extended in the 19th century, the campaign for secrecy grew. The method that was eventually adopted was borrowed from Australia, where the use of polling booths and uniform ballot papers marked with an “X” was pioneered in the 1850s.

More recent reforms took place in 1969, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Party emblems were also allowed on the ballot paper for the first time that year. It’s this kind of paper that will be used on June 8.

Staying at home

What no one predicted, however, when these franchise and balloting reforms were first implemented, is that voters would simply not bother to turn out and that they would abstain in such considerable numbers.

To be sure, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, turnout for much of the 20th century at general elections remained high, even by European standards. The best turnout was secured in the 1950 general election, when some 84% of those eligible to do so voted. And the figure didn’t dip below 70% until 2001, when only 59% voted. Since then things have improved slightly. In 2010, turnout was 65%. In 2015, it was 66%. But the fact remains that, today, a massive one-third of those eligible to vote fail to do so, preferring instead to stay at home (and the situation in local elections is far worse).

Turnout over the years.
Author provided

What was a regular habit for a substantial majority of the electorate has now become a more intermittent practice. Among the young and marginalised, non-voting has become widely entrenched. Greater personal mobility and the decline of social solidarity has made the decision to vote a more individual choice, which may or may not be exercised according to specific circumstances, whereas in the past it was more of a duty to be fulfilled.

Voters rarely spoil their papers in the UK, whereas in France it is a traditional form of protest that has reached epidemic proportions: some 4m ballot papers were deliberately invalidated in the second round of the recent presidential election. Like the rise in abstention in both countries, it surely reflects disenchantment with the electoral process as well as disappointment with the political elite.

In these circumstances, the idea of compulsory voting has re-emerged, though in liberal Britain the idea of forcing people to the polling station has never exerted the same attraction as on the continent. The obligation to vote is a blunt instrument for tackling a complex political and social problem. When the interest of the electorate is fully engaged, as in the recent Scottish or EU referendums, then turnout can still reach the 75% to 80% mark.

The ConversationHowever, in the forthcoming parliamentary election, following hard on the heels of its predecessor in 2015, the EU vote and elections to regional assemblies in 2016, plus the local elections in May, voter fatigue may take a toll. It’s hard to envisage more than two-thirds of those entitled to do so casting their ballot on June 8. Given the relatively small cost involved in conducting this civic act, which is the product of so much historical endeavour, such disaffection must be a cause for significant concern.

Malcolm Crook, Emeritus Professor of French History, Keele University and Tom Crook, Senior Lecturer in Modern British History, Oxford Brookes University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


When it comes to disappearing ocean history, HMAS Perth is the tip of the iceberg



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Chinese ceramics recovered from the 9th century Belitung shipwreck in Indonesia, now held at the Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore)
ArtScience Museum Singapore, CC BY-SA

Natali Pearson, University of Sydney

This Thursday is World Oceans Day and so critical are the issues facing our oceans – including climate change and plastic pollution – that the United Nations has convened a high-level conference on their future. While its focus is ocean conservation, another aspect of our seas has been conspicuously neglected: the vast array of human history lying underwater.

HMAS Perth memorialised at Sydney’s Garden Island Naval Chapel.
Natali Pearson

Millions of shipwrecks and archaeological sites lie under the ocean, including most infamously the Titanic, resting almost four kilometres below the North Atlantic. These relics are just as important as terrestrial sites such as the Egyptian pyramids or the temples of Angkor, and preserve a history of our relationship to the seas. Just like marine ecosystems, this underwater cultural heritage is threatened by climate change, pollution, development, fishing and looting.

Indeed just this week, Australian and Indonesian maritime archaeologists reported that HMAS Perth, a World War II wreck lying in the Sunda Strait and the final resting place for hundreds of men, has suffered extensive and recent damage. There is now less than half of the ship left.

Stories from the sea

Humanity’s close relationship with the ocean stretches back thousands of years. Our oceans have provided food, connected civilisations, facilitated trade, travel and conquest, and also served as a sacred place of veneration. It’s estimated that three million ancient shipwrecks and sunken cities lie on the ocean floor.

These include a 9th century shipwreck discovered off Indonesia’s Belitung island in 1998. The ship originated in the Middle East, and its cargo was dominated by commercial quantities of Chinese ceramics. It represents some of the earliest evidence of maritime trade between Southeast Asia, the Chinese Tang dynasty and the Middle Eastern Abbasid Empire.

Nor are these vestiges of the past restricted to shipwrecks. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of sunken civilisations, buried under silt and sand for centuries. In Egypt, relics of the ancient city of Alexandria include temples, palaces, and the 130-metre Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Egyptian authorities now plan to construct an underwater museum to share these discoveries with a broader audience.

Sometimes, the smallest of objects discovered underwater can reveal as much as an entire city. Lost for centuries in waters off Crete, the 2000-year old Antikythera mechanism is known as the world’s first computer for its use of gears and dials to predict eclipses and track moon phases. The same site has also yielded human bones, from which scientists hope to be able to extract genetic information for insights into ancient shipwreck victims.

The Antikythera mechanism, the world’s first computer, found in waters off Crete.
Marsyas, CC BY-SA

Mother-of-pearl inlays – gathered by early breath hold divers and fashioned by artisans – found at a Mesopotamian site indicate that humans have been responding creatively to the ocean’s resources as far back as 4,500 BCE.

Underwater heritage is the legacy of these past activities, bearing witness to the development of both ancient and modern civilisations. But the significance of ocean artefacts extends beyond trade, travel and recreation. For example, the study of this heritage can show us the impact of rising sea levels on human life. Such information serves as a sobering reminder of the effects of climate change, and can also help us to develop solutions to the present environmental problems we are facing.

Ulrike Guérin from the UNESCO Secretariat of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage explains:

For 90% of human existence, sea levels have been lower than they are at present. As humans mainly lived close to the water, a large majority of humanity’s development took place on areas that are now submerged. It is only within the past decade that there has been recognition of how important the missing data on the submerged shelf is.

Underwater cultural heritage can also help to assess the impact of the ocean on human life, and assist in monitoring issues such as potential ocean pollution from oil and the threat of unexploded ammunition from WWII shipwrecks. Guérin argues that protecting and researching this heritage can lead to better conservation of coastal and marine areas, with increased economic benefits for small island developing states and least developed countries through tourism.

An ocean without history?

Like fish stocks and coral reefs, underwater cultural heritage faces destruction from climate change, marine pollution and over-development. Industrial activities like fishing are becoming a greater concern.

Commercial deep-sea fishing trawlers destroy not only fishing stocks but also well-preserved wrecks. These bottom trawl nets act like ploughs, digging up the ocean bed and tearing archaeological sites apart. In the Baltic Sea, thousands of synthetic fishing nets are lost every year. These “ghost nets” get tangled in wrecks, trapping fish and seals in the process. In Southeast Asia, historic shipwrecks in both Malaysia and Thailand face destruction from “massive trawl nets that scour every metre of the seabed”.

Just as fishing stocks are targeted by illegal poachers, so too is underwater heritage threatened by illegal salvaging and looting. The recent unauthorized disturbance of three near-pristine Japanese shipwrecks in Malaysian waters has destroyed the thriving marine ecosystems that such wrecks support. The damage caused to these underwater museums has had a devastating impact on local diving companies and small-scale fishermen. In Indonesia, these illicit activities appear to be becoming increasingly sophisticated and audacious, including the most recent damage to HMAS Perth.

A thriving marine ecosystem in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Shipwrecks can provide a support for these ecosystems.
Graham Willis, Author provided

Heritage in the margins

Despite its importance, underwater cultural heritage remains a relatively new concept, and tends to be overshadowed by other legal and policy priorities. At this week’s UN oceans conference in New York, plenary meetings are focusing on reducing marine pollution, protecting marine and coastal ecosystems, and addressing ocean acidification. Underwater cultural heritage, meanwhile, was discussed in a side event held in the margins.

The bell of HMAS Perth is returned to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, in the mid-1970s.
Bob Morrison

The 2001 underwater heritage convention establishes basic principles for protecting these sites, but faces a number of challenges. Only 56 nations have signed or ratified the convention, and big maritime nations such as the US, China, and the UK have not. Australia has not ratified, but introduced new underwater cultural heritage legislation in November 2016 that brings this step closer. The heritage convention also faces the problem of perceived competition with the Law of the Sea, which sets the rules for how the oceans are shared and governed.

And what of HMAS Perth? In a strange twist of history, in the 1970s the Australian Embassy in Jakarta became aware that the bell of the ship had turned up in an Indonesian salvage yard. The embassy successfully negotiated the bell’s exchange, and it is now held in the Australian War Memorial: a small piece of history saved through cultural diplomacy.

The ConversationUnderwater cultural heritage is an essential part of our oceans and the way we relate to them. As important as it is to ensure a sustainable future for our oceans, it is also vital that we understand humanity’s historical relationship with them. Our future is invested in our oceans, and so is our past.

Natali Pearson, PhD Candidate, Museum and Heritage Studies, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Erasing history: why Islamic State is blowing up ancient artefacts


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Iraqi soldiers gather near the remains of wall panels and colossal statues of winged bulls that were destroyed by Islamic State militants in the Assyrian city of Nimrud, late last year.
Ari Jalal/Reuters

Benjamin Isakhan, Deakin University and Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona, Deakin University

One of the many tragedies that have unfolded in the wake of the Islamic State (IS) is their smashing of statues and the destruction of ancient archaeological sites. Indeed, the rapid and terrifying advance of the IS has proved fatal for much invaluable heritage.

They toppled priceless statues at the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq. They used sledgehammers and power tools to deface giant winged-bull statues at Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul. At Nimrud, IS detonated explosives, turning the site into a giant, brown, mushroom cloud. They used assault rifles and pickaxes to destroy invaluable carvings at Hatra; and at Palmyra in Syria they blew up the 2,000-year-old temples dedicated to the pagan gods Baal Shamin and Bel.

A damaged artefact at the Mosul museum, where Islamic State militants filmed themselves destroying priceless statues and sculptures in 2015.
Thaier Al-Sudani /Reuters

It’s difficult to interpret the unprecedented scale of this heritage destruction. The global media and politicians have tended to frame these events as random casualties of wanton terror or as moments of unrestrained barbarism.

UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director General Irina Bokova, for instance, reacted to the destruction of Nimrud by arguing that such attacks were underpinned by “propaganda and hatred”. There is, she said, “absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage”.

However, in an article published recently in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, we argue that the acts of heritage destruction undertaken by IS are much more than mere moments of propaganda devoid of political or religious justification.

We analysed two key IS media outlets: Dabiq, their glossy periodical online magazine, which is part manifesto, part call to arms, and part grisly newsletter; and the various slick propaganda films released by Al-Hayat.

We found that the heritage destruction wrought by IS was not only very deliberate and carefully staged, but underpinned by three specific and clearly articulated frameworks.

Theological

Firstly, the IS have gone to great theological (if selective) lengths to justify their iconoclasm. For example, an Al-Hayat film documenting the destruction at the Mosul Museum and Nineveh starts:

Oh Muslims, the remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of Allah. The Assyrians, Akkadians, and others took for themselves gods of rain, of agriculture, and of war, and worshipped them along with Allah, and tried to appease them with all kinds of sacrifices… Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey, and we do not care [what people think], even if they are worth billions of dollars.

Jounalists walk near the remains of the Monumental Arch in the historic Syrian city of Palmyra in April last year.
Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

The destruction at Palmyra features in a double-page spread with 14 colour photographs in Dabiq. In the French edition, Dar-al-Islam, the text states:

Baal is a false divinity for which people sacrificed their children as indicated in the book of Jeremiah (Old Testament). But by the Grace of Allah, soldiers of the Caliphate destroyed it.

Historical

Secondly, the IS make frequent reference to key historical figures to justify their iconoclasm. These include the Prophet Abraham’s destruction of idols and the Prophet Muhammad’s iconoclasm at the Ka’ba, the centrepiece of Mecca’s mosque.

Palmyra’s Monumental Arch in 2010.
Sandra Auger/Reuters

In an Al-Hayat film documenting the destruction at the Mosul Museum and Nineveh, one militant states:

The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own honourable hands when he conquered Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did later on, when they conquered lands.

Similar homage is also paid throughout the magazine Dabiq to other, more contemporary, moments of iconoclasm perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists. These include the destruction of untold numbers of heritage sites by the Wahhabi sect across the Arabian peninsula from the mid-18th century; the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001; and the destruction of the al-‘Askari mosque by al-Qa’eda in Iraq in 2006.

Political

Finally, and often overlooked, the IS have used political reasoning to justify the destruction. One Dabiq article states:

The kuffār [unbelievers] had unearthed these statues and ruins in recent generations and attempted to portray them as part of a cultural heritage and identity that the Muslims of Iraq should embrace and be proud of. Yet this opposes the guidance of Allah and His Messenger and only serves a nationalist agenda.

We can see two dimensions of the IS’s political iconoclasm here. First, it is an attack on “the kuffār”. These are presumably Westerners who, as part of the colonial period, drew the modern borders and created the contemporary states of the Middle East. They also excavated Mesopotamian archaeological sites and placed relics in public museums to be admired.

Second, the attacks on sites inscribed on UNESCOs World Heritage List (such as Hatra and Palmyra) are also an attack on the values such institutions promote: secular, liberal, humanist values that promote a recognition of the shared heritage of human civilization. This is in stark contrast to the IS who seek to create religious, historical and political homogeneity under the rule of a strict caliphate.

In March 2015 UNESCO’s Bokova issued a statement referring to the destruction of heritage sites at the hands of the IS as a “war crime”.

Hatra in 2002, before the carnage.
Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Knowing that UNESCO was powerless to stop them, the following month the IS released an Al-Hayat video filmed at the ancient city of Hatra. The film shows militants using sledgehammers and assault rifles to destroy priceless reliefs engraved into the walls of the fortress city. It also features a bold repost to Bokova:

Some of the infidel organisations say the destruction of these alleged artefacts is a war crime. We will destroy your artefacts and idols anywhere and Islamic State will rule your lands.

Such brash assertions made by IS clearly demonstrate that their heritage destruction cannot be dismissed as being simple propaganda.

Instead, as we have shown, the heritage destruction undertaken by the IS are not only very carefully planned and executed, but also couched within a broader religious, historical and political framework that seeks to justify their violent iconoclasm.

The ConversationUnderstanding the complex layers that drive such iconoclasm are a step towards developing better responses to the destruction of our shared cultural heritage.

Benjamin Isakhan, Associate Professor of Politics and Policy, Deakin University and Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona, Associate Research Fellow, Heritage Destruction Specialist, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Friday essay: power, perils and rites of passage – the history of the female tattoo



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For thousands of years, women’s tattoos have been permanent records of female power over adversity.
Shutterstock

Emily Poelina-Hunter, RMIT University

Almost a quarter of Australian women now have tattoos – a trend some attribute to the influence of feminism. What I find interesting is that the mainstreaming of female tattooing in the west has finally caught up with a practice that is thousands of years old.

Ancient Egyptian female mummies have been found with tattoos. Thracian women were depicted with “sleeve” tattoos on their arms in Greek vases from the 5th century BCE. In traditional Maori culture, the eldest daughter in elite families was tattooed as part of a sacred ceremony.

I have also been researching abstract painted motifs on nude female Cycladic sculptures, which I argue are evidence that women were tattooed in the Cycladic islands in Greece in the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3000-2000 BCE).

Portrait of a Maori woman, Mrs Rabone.
Google Art Project/Wikimedia Commons

My interest in tattooing stems from my upbringing. Living in Aotearoa, from roughly the ages of eight to 28, meant that I was exposed to Maori and Pacific Islands tattooing attitudes. In Pacific cultures, where the tattooist has traditionally been (and usually continues to be) male, ancient stories say that the ancestral gods originally wanted women to safeguard the practice and be the primary recipients of tattoos. Nevertheless, both men and women were tattooed in Maori society prior to British colonisation in the 19th century.

But the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 criminalised tattooing as one of the teachings and practices of Tohunga (Maori experts or priests). In 1962, the Maori Welfare Act was introduced in Aotearoa, repealing this act. Since then, there has been a resurgence in tattooing among both men and women there.

My first seven tattoos

I grew up with friends who appreciated the significance of tattoos. As soon I turned 18, in 2000, I was off to a local parlour to embrace legal adulthood and get a small tattoo. I had drawn it myself, using elements of my zodiac sign.

My second tattoo was my first mermaid design. The motif was a larger version of a charm my father had given me. I wanted to be like that mermaid – able to live in different environments (above the sea and below it). I had moved out of home and was making my own way in a new city and attending university.

The author’s first seven tattoos.
Author provided

My next five designs (“Are You Experienced”; “Electric Lady”; and “Axis Bold as Love”, and two large mermaids on each side of my back) were done by a Maori tattooist, Manu Edwin. I listened to a lot of Hendrix when I was dealing with depression as an undergraduate student, especially the three albums recorded by The Experience.

Edwin shared my philosophy that tattooing is a transformative process. He would play each album loudly in the studio as he was tattooing me – just as music and singing were traditionally used to drown out the “tap-tap” of tattoos being carved into the skin with hand held tools in the Pacific region.

I find that the physical pain of being tattooed puts emotional and mental pain into perspective. I love that the raw tattoo must be cared for gently in the following weeks after the procedure, and that the result is permanent. My tattoos turn something ugly from my past into something beautiful for my present and future.

Before I describe my eighth and most recent tattoo, let’s look at four ancient cultures that tattooed their women.

Maori (ca.1250 CE)

A Maori woman of high rank photographed circa 1908.
Internet Book archive/Flickr

Elsdon Best was an ethnographer who gathered detailed information from the Tuhoe tribe (from the North Island of Aotearoa) in the very early 1900s. He recounts in his book, The Uhi-Maori (1904), that elite families tattooed the younger sisters prior to the tattooing of the eldest one, who was the most tapu (sacred).

The tattooing of the lips and chin of the first-born daughter of a chief was extremely tapu, and the rite was called ahi ta ngutu (sacred fire). During the tattooing, others from the tribe would surround the patient and sing specific whakatangitangi (repetitive songs) to ease the painful and highly sacred process, the song for women being the whakawai taanga ngutu.

The motifs of the tattoo would be determined by an individual’s genealogy, and the placement of tattoos on the body was significant. People without tattoos were papatea (unmarked, and thus of lower status), and to be tattooed was a sign of attractiveness and high status in the community.

Thracian (ca.500 BCE)

Thrace of the Greco-Roman world existed in what we now call east Macedonia, southeast Bulgaria and parts of Turkey. Pictorial representations of Thracian women with tattoos appear on Greek red-figure vases such as the one pictured here, with a Thracian woman attacking Orpheus.

Thracian woman attacking Orpheus.
Date: Classical, 475–425 BCE. Dimensions: Unknown. Provenance: South Italy. Current collection: Munich. Antikensammlung inv. number 2330

Luc Renaut, an art historian, suggests that in Thrace, tattooing added beauty, and therefore value, to women in a society where they were bought for marriage (that is, they incurred a bride price). This was in contrast to the Classical Greek and Roman systems in which the bride’s family gave payments (a dowry) to the groom’s family.

Depictions of women on Classical vases (ca. 500 BCE), show Thracian women with geometric and figurative tattoos. The tattoos reinforce the Thracian-ness of the woman in the scene. And indicate that she is not your run-of-the-mill Athenian lass who can’t stand the lyre.

Greek vase painting gives a visual account of the geometric and figurative motifs on Thracian women: zigzags, dots, lines, meanders, checkerboard patterns, spirals, ladder patterns, “stick-figure” animals, half-moons, rayed suns, and rosettes.

Tattoos were placed on the arms, legs, ankles, chest, neck, and chin. Sometimes entire arms or legs were covered with bands of designs, row upon row.

Egyptian (Eleventh Dynasty: 2040-1991 BCE)

Much older artistic (and direct) evidence of female tattooing comes from Egypt. Egyptian tattoos from the late third to early second millennium survive on female mummies and were replicated on female figurines.

A pair of Eleventh Dynasty female Egyptian mummies excavated at Deir el-Bahari is the strongest evidence that in the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian women were tattooed.


Alastair Pharo, after Hendrix 2003., Author provided

The preserved “dotted diamond” tattoo motif is clearly visible on the arm of one of the mummies. The same motif can be seen on Egyptian potency figurines from the same site and period.

Dancing girl Egyptian potency figurine.
By Alastair Pharo, after Winlock 1923, Fig. 15.

The striking similarity between the painted motifs on the figurine and the preserved tattoos on the female mummy are compelling evidence that cultures that tattooed their women produced female figures with tattoos painted on their bodies.

Egyptian tattooing kits consisted of three items found in the archaeological record. These are razors, needles or pins, and small containers of dried carbon based black pigment. All of these elements of the basic tattooing kit (not just in Egypt but around the world) are multifunctional items. They could be useful for non-permanent body modification: shaping eyebrows, using black eyeliner. Needles and pins could be used to sew clothing, pop pimples, or remove splinters.

Ancient people were very resourceful, and tattooing is very basic. At the core of the procedure is pricking the skin and getting some pigment into the wound. The process of prick-tattooing by hand is reflected by the representation of the diamond pattern on both the mummified tattoo and on the potency figurine shown here.

Today the cluster of needles on an electric tattooing machine are so small that you can’t differentiate the dots: a mechanism moves the needles up and down extremely quickly. But in 2000 BCE, tattooing in Egypt was done with singular pointed implements or a few pins bound together held in the hand of the tattooist, using their wrist strength to repeatedly poke a motif into the skin.

The points may have been dipped into an ink beforehand and it is likely that afterwards the whole area would be rubbed with more ink for good measure to try and get a clear, dark final result.

Cycladic (ca.2500 BCE)

The Cycladic people (ca. 3000-2000 BCE) colonised the Cycladic Islands. They were the first major Aegean civilisation to flourish in the Early Bronze Age, until the Minoans of Crete rose to prominence with their maritime prowess in the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 2000-1500 BCE). The mortuary practices of Cycladic people (burial, sometimes multiple burials) and the climatic conditions of the islands, means that there are no preserved tattooed skin remains to support my argument that their women were tattooed.

However, like their southern Mediterranean Egyptian neighbours, they produced nude female figures with geometric designs across the face and body. This is where the iconographic evidence of the “tattooed” Cycladic figurines aligns with Egyptian female tattooing evidence.

Furthermore, I have identified objects in the Cycladic archaeological repertoire which are present in the Egyptian tattooing kits – small containers of preserved pigment, obsidian blades to shave the skin, and needles and pins made of bone and metal.

Tattooed Cycladic figure.
By Alastair Pharo, after Hendrix

These items are also useful beyond the body modification sphere too – butchering, cooking, crafting, espionage – I could go on. But my point (pun intended) is that people should include tattooing in the list of possible uses for these items.

The painted Cycladic figurines and statues that constitute my artistic evidence are probably the most well known artefacts of this culture. However, their abstract painted decoration was not fully realised until art conservator Elizabeth Hendrix’s research in the 1990s and early 2000s. Under special photographic conditions, she found faint traces of red, blue, and black pigment (sometimes noticeable with the naked eye) were revealed to be the remains of a colourful array of abstract painted motifs. These include: dots, zigzags, stripes, eyes, and possibly linear representations of the Egyptian deity, Bes.

To me, the most enigmatic Cycladic tattoo motif is the eye. Blue evil eye charms are still a potent good luck symbol in the Mediterranean and Near East. You can see it on the neck of the example shown here.

Cycladic culture was an oral one that did not create it own script and leave any written clues per se. Instead their cultural ideas are inscribed on the sculptures. I read their designs as tattoos, which identified their bearers as women who had accomplished a certain status in Cycladic society.

My eighth tattoo

I chose a blue evil eye as my eighth, and most recent tattoo motif – to pay homage to the eye painted on Cycladic female sculptures. It was done by a female tattooist in Athens on my last research trip to Greece in 2014.

The power of female fertility and perils of prehistoric childbirth in ancient societies probably meant that tattoos on women conveyed certain messages. They were indicative of the passage from girlhood to womanhood, of female power and female beauty.

Author’s eighth tattoo – a blue evil eye.
Author provided

If I see my tattoos as permanent records of rites of passage and power over adversity, ancient women and their societies may have been doing the same – but with a more restricted range of motif options. The limited range of motifs would have been due to both social conventions, the skill of the tattooist, and the tools used to create the tattoo.

The ConversationNext time you see a piece written about female tattooing today, I hope you will wonder at how feminism, globalisation and tattooing have taken so long to come full circle. Once again, women are now the primary recipients of this ancient, permanent body modification practice.

Emily Poelina-Hunter, Lecturer in the Indigenous Studies Unit, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


History of Tea



African history is a discipline on the rise — and one that raises many questions


Image 20170322 31194 1q2rqtl
Afrocentric history emerged strongly during the post-colonial 1960s.
Shutterstock

Glen Ncube, University of Pretoria

African history has gone through many incarnations as an academic discipline. The Conversation

Most recently, there’s been a global turn in African historiography. This shift has been prompted by a greater awareness of the powerful forces of globalisation and the need to provide an African historical perspective on this phenomenon. This has helped to place the continent at the centre of global – and human – history.

It’s important to explain the role of Africa in the world’s global past. This helps assert its position in the gradual making of global affairs. As an approach, it’s a radical departure from colonial views of Africa. It also complements the radical post-colonial histories that appeared from the 1950s and 1960s. And it may offer another framework for thinking through the curriculum reform and decolonisation debate that’s emerged in South Africa’s universities over the past few years.

The history of African history

Afrocentric history emerged strongly during the 1950s and 1960s, in tandem with Africa’s emergence from colonial rule. Newly emerging histories served as an antidote to the pernicious views of imperial and colonial historiography. These had dismissed Africa as a dark continent without history.

But demonstrating that Africa has a long, complex history was only one step in an intellectual journey with many successes, frustrations and failures.

The long 20th century ended. A new one beckoned. It brought new sets of challenges. South Africa euphorically defeated apartheid. The decolonisation project that started during the 1950s in west and north Africa was completed. These achievements were overshadowed by a horrific post-colonial genocide in Rwanda. Another genocide loomed in the Sudan. Coups, civil wars and human rights abuses stained the canvas on which a new Africa was gradually being painted.

Africa’s woes were deepened by the emerging HIV/AIDS pandemic. State-driven, pro-poor policies and programmes founded during the early post-colonial period atrophied. This decay was driven by hegemonic global neoliberal economic policies.

And the study of history on the continent took a knock. Student numbers declined as post-colonial governments shifted their priorities. Global funding bodies focused their attention on applied social sciences and science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Nearly two decades into the new century there’s been another shift. The subject of history, alongside other humanities disciplines, is attracting growing attention aimed at averting their further decline. This can be explained in part by the subject’s own residual internal resilience and innovative research in newer areas of historical curiosity. There’s an emerging interest in history as a complementary discipline. Students of law, education, and political science are taking history as an additional option.

In South Africa in particular, history cannot be easily ignored, although it is contested. The country is still redefining itself and charting its new course after decades of apartheid and colonialism. However, a great deal of newer interest in history as a subject can be ascribed to university student movements. These movements have garnered greater public attention for ongoing debates about decoloniality and decolonised curricula.

Decoloniality is a radical concept. Its main aim is to degrade the coloniality of knowledge. In South Africa, the decolonisation movement has been tied to bread and butter issues: tuition fees and access to higher education. Decoloniality affords both the language and the reason for seeking to dismantle what are regarded as western and colonial systems and structures of knowledge production and dissemination.

Rethinking decolonisation

But while decolonisation is riding a wave of academic interest, the histories of precolonial Africa are receding as an area of primary research focus. The histories of resistance to colonialism continue to resonate with current struggles for transformation and decolonisation. They have long been popular among historians in and of Africa. Indeed, several social and political movements have used decolonial interpretations of African history as their currency.

However, questions continue to be asked about the kind of history curriculum that should be studied at university level at this moment. And what are the purposes of such curricula? Is an African history module a necessarily transformed one? What new conceptual and methodological tools should be deployed to describe and explain colonial encounters from a decolonial lens? What modes of ethics should inform such approaches?

The challenges go beyond the conceptual aspects of decolonisation in the domain of African history. There are historical structural formations, hierarchies and tendencies within academia that are rooted in coloniality. These make it a huge challenge to articulate newer forms of knowledge. At the same time, decoloniality should operate through other forms and frameworks. This will allow it to find application beyond its own self-defined frames.

In addition, new approaches should challenge received wisdom and develop new kinds of curiosity. Newer curriculum should, for instance, grapple with the fact that there is no single Africa. A unitary model of Africa is a colonial invention. Ordinary people’s identities form and evolve via multiple networks and knowledge forms. An Africa approached from its diverse histories and identities could help forge new, purposeful solidarities and futures.

Author’s note: These were some of the issues discussed during a postgraduate seminar I convened in the Themes in African History module offered by the University of Pretoria’s Department of Historical & Heritage Studies. The insights offered here are my students’: Jane Mampane, Kudzai Mhere, Nobungcwele Mbem, Genis Stephanus Gabriel Du Toit, Laura Sophie Schnieders, Nicole Sithole and Tanyaradzwa Muranda.

Glen Ncube, Lecturer: History; Humanities, University of Pretoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The long history, and short future, of the password



File 20170502 17254 a4r7yq
An artist’s depiction of the ‘shibboleth incident.’
Detail from art by H. de Blois, from The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 3, edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer, 1908

Brian Lennon, Pennsylvania State University

In Western history, the concept of the password can be traced as far back as the so-called “shibboleth incident” in the 12th chapter of the biblical Book of Judges. In the chaos of battle between the tribes of Gilead and Ephraim, Gileadite soldiers used the word “shibboleth” to detect their enemies, knowing that the Ephraimites pronounced it slightly differently in their dialect. The stakes were life and death, we’re told, in a confrontation between Gileadites and a possible Ephraimite fugitive: The Conversation

“Then said they unto him, ‘Say now Shibboleth’; and he said ‘Sibboleth’; for he could not frame to pronounce it right; then they laid hold on him, and slew him at the fords of the Jordan.”

The literary history of the password also includes the classic tale “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” invented in the 18th century by the French Orientalist Antoine Galland. Used in the tale to open a magically sealed cave, the invocation “Open, Sesame!” enjoys broad currency as a catchphrase today, not only in other literary, cinematic and television adaptations of the tale itself, but in many other contexts as well.

Ali Baba uses a fictional password.

Password security was introduced to computing in the Compatible Time-Sharing System and Unics (Unix) systems developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bell Laboratories in the 1960s. Today we use passwords to restrict access to our personal computers and computing devices, and to access remote computing services of all kinds. But a password is not a physical barrier or obstacle, like a lock on a gate. Rather, it is a unit of text: that is to say, written language. As an important part of the linguistic history of computers, password security links my research in the history of writing to my interest in the early history of computing. But it is an episode in that history that may now be coming to an end.

In the earliest civilizations, writing was used to record financial and other administrative transactions, ensuring that records could be consulted in the case of disputes over debt, land ownership or taxation. Soon, there was another use for writing: what we now call mail. Writing made it possible to communicate without being physically present, because a written message could stand in the writer’s place.

When I use a password, it also stands in my place. The password represents me within a virtual or nonphysical system, regardless of whether I am physically present, entering a passcode on a smartphone or a PIN code at an ATM, or physically absent, connecting remotely to my bank with a web browser. Anyone else who knows my password can also use it this way.

This characteristic of password security, which has its roots in writing’s (necessary and useful) dissociation from the writer’s physical presence, is also the root of its problems. Poorly chosen and repeatedly used passwords are easy to guess, either through computational techniques (such as the “dictionary attack,” which might test all known words and word combinations in a particular language) or so-called social engineering (that is, tricking someone into disclosing a password).

Once it has been guessed, there isn’t much to prevent a password from being used for unauthorized purposes, at least until the theft is discovered. But even the strongest password, a sequence of alphanumeric and punctuation characters utterly devoid of linguistic meaning and long enough to defeat automated password guessing by software running on the fastest processor hardware available to a professional criminal (these days, that means international organized crime), can be used anywhere and at any time once it has been separated from its assigned user.

It is for this reason that both security professionals and knowledgeable users have been calling for the abandonment of password security altogether.

Looking to introduce new methods of authentication, device manufacturers are moving toward biometrics, from the fingerprint sensors on any recent smartphone to Android 4.0’s Face Unlock feature, iris or retina scanning and others. It seems unlikely that password security will last anywhere near another half-century.

Brian Lennon, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature; Director, Digital Culture and Media Initiative, Pennsylvania State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


A short history of anaesthesia: from unspeakable agony to unlocking consciousness



File 20170421 20054 iqgbuw
General anaesthesia has come a long way since its first public demonstration in the 19th century, depicted here.
Wellcome Library, London/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

David Liley, Swinburne University of Technology

We expect to feel no pain during surgery or at least to have no memory of the procedure. But it wasn’t always so. The Conversation

Until the discovery of general anaesthesia in the middle of the 19th century, surgery was performed only as a last and desperate resort. Conscious and without pain relief, it was beset with unimaginable terror, unspeakable agony and considerable risk.

Not surprisingly, few chose to write about their experience in case it reawakened suppressed memories of a necessary torture.

One of the most well-known and vivid records of this “terror that surpasses all description” was by Fanny Burney, a popular English novelist, who on the morning of September 30, 1811 eventually submitted to having a mastectomy:

When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast … I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittently during the whole time of the incision … so excruciating was the agony … I then felt the Knife [rack]ling against the breast bone – scraping it.

But it wasn’t only the patient who suffered. Surgeons too had to endure considerable anxiety and distress.

John Abernethy, a surgeon at London’s St Bartholomew’s Hospital at the turn of the 19th century, described walking to the operating room as like “going to a hanging” and was sometimes known to shed tears and vomit after a particularly gruesome operation.

Discovery of anaesthesia

It was against this background that general anaesthesia was discovered.

A young US dentist named William Morton, spurred on by the business opportunities afforded by technical advances in artificial teeth, doggedly searched for a surefire way to relieve pain and boost dental profits.

His efforts were soon rewarded. He discovered when he or small animals inhaled sulfuric ether (now known as ethyl ether or simply ether) they passed out and became unresponsive.

A few months after this discovery, on October 16, 1846 and with much showmanship, Morton anaesthetised a young male patient in a public demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The hospital’s chief surgeon then removed a tumour on the left side of the jaw. This occurred without the patient apparently moving or complaining, much to the surgeon’s and audience’s great surprise.

So began the story of general anaesthesia, which for good reason is now widely regarded as one of the greatest discoveries of all time.

Anaesthesia used routinely

News of ether’s remarkable properties spread rapidly across the Atlantic to Britain, ultimately stimulating the discovery of chloroform, a volatile general anaesthetic.

According to its discoverer, James Simpson, it had none of ether’s “inconveniences and objections” – a pungent odour, irritation of throat and nasal passages and a perplexing initial phase of physical agitation instead of the more desirable suppression of all behaviour.

This chloroform inhaler was the type John Snow used on Queen Victoria to ease the pain of childbirth. Chloroform vapours were delivered down a tube via the brass and velvet face mask.
Science Museum, London/Wellcome Images/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Chloroform subsequently became the most commonly used general anaesthetic in British surgical and dental anaesthetic practice, mainly due to the founding father of scientific anaesthesia John Snow, but remained non-essential to the practice of most doctors.

This changed after Snow gave Queen Victoria chloroform during the birth of her eighth child, Prince Leopold. The publicity that followed made anaesthesia more acceptable and demand increased, whether during childbirth or for other reasons.

By the end of the 19th century, anaesthesia was commonplace, arguably becoming the first example in which medical practice was backed by emerging scientific developments.

Anaesthesia is safe

Today, sulfuric ether and chloroform have been replaced by much safer and more effective agents such as sevoflurane and isoflurane.

Ether was highly flammable so could not be used with electrocautery (which involves an electrical current being passed through a probe to stem blood flow or cut tissue) or when monitoring patients electronically. And chloroform was associated with an unacceptably high rate of deaths, mainly due to cardiac arrest (when the heart stops beating).

The practice of general anaesthesia has now evolved to the point that it is among the safest of all major routine medical procedures. For around 300,000 fit and healthy people having elective medical procedures, one person dies due to anaesthesia.

Despite the increasing clinical effectiveness with which anaesthesia has been administered for over the past 170 years, and its scientific and technical foundations, we still have only the vaguest idea about how anaesthetics produce a state of unconsciousness.

Anaesthesia remains a mystery

General anaesthesia needs patients to be immobile, pain free and unconscious. Of these, unconsciousness is the most difficult to define and measure.

For example, not responding to, or then not remembering, some event (such as the voice of the anaesthetist or the moment of surgical incision), while clinically useful, is not enough to decisively determine whether someone is or was unconscious.

We need some other way to define consciousness and to understand its disruption by the biological actions of general anaesthetics.

Early in the 20th century, we thought anaesthetics worked by dissolving into the fatty parts of the outside of brain cells (the cell membrane) and interfering with the way they worked.

But we now know anaesthetics directly affect the behaviour of a wide variety of proteins necessary to support the activity of neurones (nerve cells) and their coordinated behaviour.

For this reason the only way to develop an integrated understanding of the effects of these multiple, and individually insufficient, neuronal protein targets is by developing testable, mathematically formulated theories.

These theories need to not only describe how consciousness emerges from brain activity but to also explain how this brain activity is affected by the multiple targets of anaesthetic action.

Despite the tremendous advances in the science of anaesthesia, after almost 200 years we are still waiting for such a theory.

Until then we are still looking for the missing link between the physical substance of our brain and the subjective content of our minds.

David Liley, Professor, Centre for Human Psychopharmacology, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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