Civilizations Syllabus

The Civilizations Series is the world history course your university never offered, because they couldn’t fit it all in a single course. The creation of an alliance between retired history teacher Dave Power and anti-imperialist writer Justin Podur, we cover everything covered in a Modern Western Civilization history class (around 1st year university level), but add in all the colonialism and imperialism that’s usually left out.

Some of the transcripts of these podcasts have been turned into books – Civ Books!


Here’s the syllabus and notes on sources, for this imagined 60-week course with lectures varying from 45-minutes to 3 hours!

Introduction to the Civilizations Series

Introducing the Civilizations Series. We’re going to go through the canon of a “Modern Western Civilizations” history course, but we’re going to fix it – we’re going to put the people’s, the east, and the global south in and re-center your civilizations history. This first episode is a short introduction to our plan. I’m joined by retired history teacher David Power.

Civilizations Series Episode 1: The World in 1492

A quick tour of the world around 1492 – Aztec, Inka, Ming China, Ottoman Turk, Mughal India, Kongo Kingdom, Haudenosonee Confederacy, and a breakdown of some European polities.

Civilizations Series Episode 2: The Absolute Monarchies of Europe

The transition of European kingdoms from feudalism to absolute monarchy, with Russia, Prussia, and of course France under Louis XIV as examples. We open with some discussion of state formation, mentioning Plato’s The Republic, Chanakya’s Arthasastra, and Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital and European States.

Civilizations Series Episode 3: Constitutional Monarchies and England’s Glorious Revolution

If the quintessential absolute monarchy was Louis XIV, the quintessential constitutional monarchy is England after the Glorious Revolution. We talk about King Charles losing his head and foreshadow (following Gerald Horne) the dire consequences of this for Africa and Africans as it enabled a massive expansion of the slave trade. For our anarchist listeners, we’ve also got Guy Fawkes, the gunpowder treason, the Diggers, and the Levelers. 

Civilizations Series Episode 4: The Enlightened Despots of Europe and Asia

Enlightened despots and the “greats”: Peter, Catherine, Frederick, Akbar, Abbas, Shivaji, Sejeong, as well as the Sikh Empire and the Ayuttaya Kingdom.

Civilizations Episode 5: The Bureaucracies of East Asia

Following Alexander Woodside’s book Lost Modernities, we talk about the Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese Mandarinates, the peculiarities and pitfalls of a system based on competitive examinations, the interplay of meritocracy and feudalism, and the relevance of it all to today’s debates about standardized testing and education more generally. 

Civilizations Episode 6: The 18th Century Global Economy, aka slavery, genocide, and colonialism

The global economy was forged in the 18th century under European empires that committed genocides in the Americas and Africa, instituted mass slavery, and colonialism. This is the story. 

Civilizations Series Episode 7: Religion – Tolerance – Intolerance, Mostly in England

The rise of Protestantism, focusing on the characters of Martin Luther (including his advice to Philip Landgrave of Hesse), and Henry VIII.

Civilizations Series Episode 8: Ideas – Scientific Revolution – Enlightenment

We talk about the scientific revolution – Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, Newton, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu and others; and take a tour of the Enlightenment as well, and the importance of Enlightenment ideas in the revolutions that would soon follow it.

Civilizations Series Episode 9: Three Centuries of Power Politics (16th-18th)

From the Habsburg marriage alliances to the War of Spanish Succession, to the War of Jenkins’ Ear and the Seven Years War; to the Anarchy in India after Aurangzeb’s death and the founding of Afghanistan by Ahmad Shah Durrani. Some glimpses of three centuries of power politics in world history.

Civilizations Series Episode 10: The American (Counter) Revolution

In world history, the American Revolution created a republic that continued slavery and expanded a continuous war against Indigenous nations in North America. We look at the British imperial geopolitics, the propaganda, and the history. Why wasn’t the American Revolution the inspiration that the French Revolution was? Special mention to sources: John Grenier, The First Way of War, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, and Gerald Horne, the Counter-Revolution of 1776.

Civilizations Series Episode 11a: French and Haitian Revolutions pt1

Chinese diplomat Zhou Enlai may or may not have said 200 years later that it’s too early to tell what the consequences of the French Revolution are, but we are dedicating five full episodes to it and doing it right, which means treating the French and Haitian revolutions together. In part 1 we go from the Storming of the Bastille to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and on, getting as far as 1792. Readings: Eric Hazan, A People’s History of the French Revolution, Laurent Dubois – Avengers of the New World, and the indispensable CLR James, The Black Jacobins

Civilizations Series Episode 11b: Haitian and French Revolutions pt2

The Haitian Revolution started with a well-planned conspiracy led by a slave named Boukman in 1791. The French Revolutionaries scrambled to figure out how to preserve the crown jewel of their colonies while accommodating their newfound principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In France, the revolution went from monarchy to Republic to the best-known symbol (sadly) of the revolution, the guillotine. Part 2 of our series on the Haitian and French Revolutions takes us from 1791-1794.

Civilizations Series Episode 11c: Haitian and French Revolutions pt3

This phase of the French and Haitian Revolutions was dominated by two very dominating figures: Toussaint L’Ouverture and Napoleon Bonaparte. We talk about their rise and how they surpassed their rivals and would end up facing one another.

Civilizations Series Episode 11d: Haiti wins Independence, Napoleon becomes Emperor. French and Haitian Revolutions pt4.

It took Dessalines to complete the job of winning Haitian Independence, after Napoleon had Toussaint captured and imprisoned to die in France. Napoleon went on to make himself Emperor of France and start what seemed like an interminable series of wars. This takes us to the end of both revolutions.

Civilizations 11e: The Haitian and French Revolutions pt5: aftermath

Dessalines became Emperor of Haiti in 1804, marking the end of the Haitian Revolution. Napoleon’s crowning as Emperor was the end of the French one. We talk about Napoleon’s wars, compare Napoleon’s exile and imprisonment to Toussaint’s, and talk about the momentous consequences of these revolutions.

Civilizations BONUS EPISODE: The case against the statues

Civilizations Series Episode 12a: South American Independence pt1 – Miranda and Bolivar

The struggles for Independence against the Spanish Empire rocked the Western Hemisphere at the beginning of the 19th century and changed the world. We focus on Simon Bolivar to tell this story in two parts. In this part, the Precursor, Francisco de Miranda, and the first half of Simon Bolivar’s campaigns.

Civilizations 12b: Bolivar and Latin American Independence pt2

At the beginning we quickly tell the story of Mexico’s Wars of Independence – Hidalgo, Morelo, and Iturbide. Then we return to Simon Bolivar from the Angostura period to the liberation of Peru and an assessment of Bolivar’s politics and legacy. We conclude by quickly telling the story of Brazil’s Independence and discern some patterns in these liberations. 

Civilizations 13: The Industrial Revolution

We cover the Industrial Revolution in England, from a few angles. Justin inserts his usual colonial determinism notes, as well as some environmental history about fossil fuels and energy sources for imperialism; Dave takes us through the revolution and what it meant; we talk about the rise of the working class, reveal that the Luddites pretty much had it right, and conclude with the early socialists: Robert Owen, and Marx and Engels.

Civilizations 14: Early 19th Century Political Ideologies

Choosing our avatars carefully, we take you through the political ideologies of the 19th century. Conservatism (Burke, Metternich); Liberalism (Paine, Locke); Radicalism (Condorcet, Gregoire); Anarchism (Bakunin, Kropotkin); Communism (Marx & Engels); and we throw a few more in as well (nationalism, humanitarianism, romanticism). This episode will set you up nicely for the next round of revolutions – 1830, 1848, and 1870.

Civilizations 15: 1830-2 French Revolution, Algeria Colonization, Muhammad Ali of Egypt, and Slave Revolts in the Americas

Your Western Civilization course covers the French Revolution of 1830. But the Civilizations Series gives you that and Muhammad Ali of Egypt, France’s colonizing Algeria, and the slave rebellions of Denmark Vesey in South Carolina, Nat Turner in Virginia, and Sam Sharpe in Jamaica. 

Civilizations 16: Chartism, Reformism, Police Origins, Irish Famine

We investigate Britain around 1848. Why was there no revolution? We look at the Chartist and Reform movements in Britain and in Canada, Robert Peel and the origins of modern policing, Australia and the early debates about how to create misery in prisons, the Irish famines and their repercussions.

Civilizations 17: The 1848 Revolutions in Europe

There were many revolutions in Europe in 1848, with complex and contradictory results and lessons learned by all parties for future revolutionary rounds. We spend most of the time in France, a bit of time in Prussia, and do a quick tour of the rest.

Civilizations 18: The Mexican-American War 1846-8

This episode is about how the US became the territorial empire that it is. We cover the Mexican-American War 1846-8, as well as the repeat performance when France invaded under Louis Napoleon. We end talking about US expansionism and its many 19th century wars with Indigenous nations. Reading: Peter Guardino, The Dead March

Civilizations 19: The Crimean War

How did a military debacle lead to the abolition of serfdom in Russia? How did a disagreement over the nature of breakfast lead to a military loss? How bad was the Charge of the Light Brigade, really? Civilizations goes to the Crimean War, where Britain, France, and Turkey fought Russia from 1853-1856.

Civilizations 20a: 1857 – India’s War of Independence, pt1

1857 is up there with the other great revolutions of this time – 1848 or 1870 in Europe, or Bolivar’s campaigns in Latin America. Part 1 takes you from the antecedents and context through to the Delhi Liberated Zone under Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Civilizations 20b: India 1857 pt 2 – the Revolution Defeated

The Delhi Liberated Zone under Bahadur Shah Zafar falls; Tatia Tope and others fight on for another two years; the British kill perhaps 10 million Indian people (7% of the population); the 1857 has some victories even in defeat. But what does it all mean? We conclude our discussion with the concept of a point-of-view in history. I identify six different points of view (RSS, Congress, British imperialist, 1857 line, Subaltern Studies, and Marxist) and show how you end up having to pick one, and why I went with the “1857 line” on the event – for which the key source is Amaresh Mishra’s 2000 page book, War of Civilisations.

At the end of the episode, Dave and I discuss a table that I made about the different points of view I was able to identify in historical scholarship of 1857.

I take full responsibility for this table, which I made up. Here is what I’d say is a representative source for each point of view. You may disagree – and I’m declaring my point of view, after reading all these, is with Misra and the 1857 line.

BJP – Savarkar, The Indian War of Independence

1857 line – Amaresh Misra, War of Civilisations

Marxist – Marx, the Indian War of Independence

Subaltern Studies – Guha, Prose of Counterinsurgency

British Imperialist – Kim Wagner, The Great Fear

Congress- Surendranath Sen, 1857

Civilizations 21: Italian Unification

Two very different characters – Cavour and Garibaldi – were instrumental in orchestrating the unification of Italy in the 1860s. We talk unification and consequences, and give a mention to Garibaldi’s famous letters to Abraham Lincoln of 1861 and 1863. 

Civilizations 22: German Unification and Otto von Bismarck

The name most associated with the unification of Germany is that of Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck was the great puppet master of Europe in the 1860s, but he may just have set things up for future conflagrations.

Civilizations 23a – American Civil War Part 1: Abolition and distant causes

Civilizations begins our study (at least four parts) of the American Civil War. We start with the abolitionist movement in the decades before the war, and the conflict between the British Empire and the United States over abolition. This episode relies on (among other sources) Kellie Carter Jackson’s book Force and Freedom, and Gerald Horne’s book Negro Comrades of the Crown.

Civilizations 23b: “This question is still to be settled”: John Brown and the Civil War pt2

John Brown routed 75 men with 14, defended Lawrence from raiders, wrote a manual for the Underground Railroad, and began the war that ended slavery.

Frederick Douglass, talking about Brown’s actions in Kansas, wrote that one could not read the history “without feeling that the man who in all this bewildering broil was least the puppet of circumstances – the man who most clearly saw the real crux of the conflict, most definitely knew his own convictions and was readiest at the crisis for decisive action, was a man whose leadership lay not in his office, wealth, or influence, but in the white flame of his utter devotion to an ideal.”

This episode of Civilizations is all about John Brown – relying on W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1909 biography

W.E.B. Du Bois’s maps of the Harper’s Ferry raid and John Brown’s Strategy (the Great Black Way).

Harper’s Ferry and the way up the mountain
The mountain chain is indicated; shaded areas are where 3 of America’s 4 million slaves were located.

Civilizations 23c: The American Civil War pt3 – the War

The American Civil War from Lincoln’s election in 1860 to the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomatox Court House. The major events, the commanders, and the decisive role of what Du Bois called the General Strike of the Black Worker. Part 3 of 4 on the US Civil War.

Civilizations 23d: American Civil War pt4 – the Rise and Fall of Reconstruction

We conclude our 4 part series on the American Civil War following WEB Du Bois’s book Black Reconstruction in America, talking about the brief, glorious moment of potential for genuine racial equality in the United States. In some ways, despite the gains made a century later, we still live with the consequences of the fall of Reconstruction. 

The sections of W.E.B. Du Bois’s bibliography for Black Reconstruction in America.


HISTORIANS (Fair or Indifferent to the Negro)

HISTORIANS (These historians have studied the history of Negroes and write sympathetically about them.)

MONOGRAPHS (These authors seek the facts in certain narrow definite fields and in most cases do not ignore the truth as to Negroes.)

ANSWERS (These are the answers of certain carpetbaggers and scalawags to their traducers.)

LIVES (These are lives of leaders who took part in Reconstruction and whose acts and thoughts

influenced Negro development.)

NEGRO HISTORIANS (These are the standard works of Negro historians, some judicial, some eager and even bitter in defense.) – Du Bois includes HIS OWN WORK in this section!

UNPUBLISHED THESES (These are researches by young Negro scholars.)


Civilizations 24: Jamaica 1865 – Morant Bay Uprising shakes the British Empire

In 1865, Paul Bogle led an uprising in Jamaica that was repressed with extreme violence by the British, led by Jamaica’s Governor Eyre. The reaction was disproportionate and the story was big news in Britain, leading to a committee questioning Eyre’s brutality and a counter-committee forming to defend him. Both committees have some big names from Britain’s past: Darwin and Mill on one side, Dickens and Tennyson on the other – and many more.

Civilizations 25: The 1870 Paris Commune, as told by Karl Marx

The Paris Commune was so much more than a short bloody two-month interlude in European politics. In this episode, the story of the Paris Commune as related by Karl Marx in his address to the International Workingmen’s Association. From passing debt relief programs to tearing down militarist statues, the Paris Commune was a real revolution, for a moment at least. With the usual asides and notes about what else was going on.

Civilizations 26a: Canada pt1 – Devolution, Confederation, and Immigration stories

Part 1 of at least 3 on Canada, this one sets up the story of Canadian colonialism with some required historical touchpoints about Canada’s devolution into independence from Britain, the story of Confederation as a series of business deals, and the role of racism in Canadian immigration policy. 

Civilizations 26b – Canada pt2: disease, extinctions, and colonialism up to the Riel Resistance

Along with colonialism, smallpox and the driving to extinction of the beaver and then the buffalo played an immense role in the creation of what is now Canada. We tell the story of these factors in the development of Canadian colonialism from the days of New France and the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Riel Resistance of 1870, in part 2 of our series on Canada (that will go at least to 3 and probably 4 parts).

Erratum. The author of No Surrender is Sheldon Krasowski, not Kowalski.

Some readings:


NO SURRENDER – Sheldon Krasowski


DARRYL LEROUX – Distorted Descent



RED SKIN, WHITE MASKS – Glen Coulthard

AS WE HAVE ALWAYS DONE – Leanne Betasamosake Simpson



Civilizations 26c: Canada pt3 – Canadian colonialism: reserves, pass system, residential schools

By 1885, the Indian Act was in place, most Indigenous people were forced onto reserves, and the nadir of Canadian colonialism (so far) was set. Part 3 of 3 our series on Canada takes us through the residential school system and the racialist ideologies openly expressed throughout this phase of Canadian history.

Civilizations 27: Opium War 1, 1839-40

We reach back in time a little bit to start the Civilizations Series on 19th century China – now known as the century of humiliation. The Opium War was one of the moments that turbo-charged imperialism. We tell the story the way Civilizations does – going back and forth between the imperialists and the local forces that tried valiantly (and in the case of our protagonist this episode, Lin Zexu, honorably) to resist. The series will continue with Opium War 2, the Taiping Rebellion, the reforms, and the Boxer Rebellion – but first, Opium War 1. Reading: Chesneaux, Le Barbier, and Bergere, China

Civilizations 28a: The worst civil war in history – Taiping Rebellion pt1 1850-1856

The end of the first Opium War was just the beginning of the horrors China faced under imperialism. Beginning in 1850, China was rocked by a 10-year long civil war that took an estimated 20-30 million lives. You read that correctly. In the middle of that war, the imperialists attacked China again and fought a second opium war, which we’ll get to next. But first, the first part of the Taiping Rebellion, from 1850-56.

Civilizations 28b: Opium War 2, 1856-1860

In the midst of the most destructive war in China’s history, the imperialists decided it was time to sack and burn China a second time. In this episode, on the Second Opium War, we talk about the deepening imperialism, get you into the bizarre imperialist mind of Lord Elgin as he rationalizes the burning of the palace in Beijing, show you again how Marx was well ahead of his contemporaries writing about the Peiho stitchup, and talk about the strategies of Ye Mingchen and of Prince Seng.

Civilizations 28c: Taiping Rebellion pt3 – the fall of the rebels

Having burned the palace of the ruling Qing dynasty, the imperialists decided to take their side and help them defeat the Taiping. As Zeng Guofan’s encirclement strategy takes hold, the imperialists are running the Ever Victorious Army with figures like Garnet Wolesley (who fought Louis Riel in Canada) and Charles Gordon (who we’ll meet again in the Scramble for Africa). It ends with the fall of Nanjing, terrible massacres, and an accounting of the death toll and what was left of China at the end of the worst civil war in history.

Civilizations 29: Japan joins the imperialists, 1853

India had Plassey in 1757, China had Opium War 1 in 1839, and Japan had Commodore Perry’s visit in 1853. After centuries of keeping the imperialists at bay, Japan found them knocking down the gates. And in a series of events studied by everyone in Asia but never imitated, Japan went from having a brief colonial encounter to joining the imperialists within a few decades. We don’t know if anyone can tell you why it happened, but we can tell you what happened, on this episode of Civilizations.

Civilizations 30: Korea’s Dilemmas from Donghak Uprising to Sino-Japanese War 1894

By the 1860s it was Korea’s turn to face the dilemma of how to deal with the imperialists. Qing China and Meiji Japan had a lot to say about what they thought Korea should do. We talk about the attempts to reform, Donghak Uprising in Korea, and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5.

Civilizations 31: The first anti-imperialist uprising of the 20th century: Yi Ho Tuan, or Boxer Rebellion of 1900

By pure coincidence, we are publishing this episode on the day the world contrasted the the Alaska Summit – a US-China meeting in March 2021, in which China told the US to stop posturing, to the humiliations of the Boxer Protocol of 1901. In this episode, we talk about the terrible famines of 1876 and 1896 in China and India that killed tens of millions of people, the context of the Boxer Uprising of lightly armed but tenacious anti-imperialists, and the further humiliations inflicted on China by the imperialists at the nadir of China’s century of humiliation.

Civilizations 32: Still a bit Victorian, aren’t we?

Racism, imperialism, repression of sexuality, hypocrisy, pugilism, world fairs, parades, animals on display, worship of a royal family… we look at the Victorian era and the Queen herself. Good thing we’ve come so far since those days… right?

Civilizations 33a: Darwin and 19th century scientific advances

Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species was read by Lord Elgin before he burned down the palace in Beijing and by Marx, who was so excited he asked Darwin if he could dedicate a volume of Capital to him (Darwin politely declined, not wanting to offend religious sentiment). We talk Darwin and the debates he spawned, physics, Freud, and about the scientific advances and missteps of the late 19th century. Part 1 of a series on Science, Scientific Racism, and Racism in the 19th century.

Civilizations 33b: Scientific Racism

The old saying goes that Science ain’t an exact science, and nowhere is that more true than with the Scientific Racism of the 19th century. From its predecessors in the 18th century, we get into the unholy trinity of Pearson, Galton, and Fisher. We talk about craniometry, phrenology, IQ testing, “race development” (now called International Relations), and racism in all your favorite fields, from criminology to anthropology, to political science and economics, to sociology and statistical science itself. We talk about the history, so you can ponder the question: has science moved past all this racist baggage?

Civilizations 33c: 19th Century Racism in History and World Fairs

We talk about all the racist rewriting of history, the famous racist literature of imperialism, and the stunningly racist statements by public figures of the 19th century, from Kipling to Roosevelt and more.

Civilizations 34: Islam & Imperialism 1 – Western Civilization’s Ottoman Foil

We talk about the Ottoman Empire, show that the history is a little bit more complicated than a story of “decline”, and focus on the elite’s struggles to reform and modernize in the face of the growing ambitions of Western imperialists. Reading: Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream

Civilizations 35: Islam and Imperialism pt2 – Persia’s wars with Russia

Part 2 of our series on Islam and Imperialism in the 19th century: the Persian Empire’s struggles with the imperialists. In this period Persia was dominated by the Qajjars. We talk about their rise, the multiple wars with Russia, the attempts to modernize, the unequal treaties. We tell the story of Griboyedev’s demise from both sides, and talk about one of the biggest Victorian famines you never heard about – the Persian famine of 1869-1872. Reading: Abbas Amanat, The Pivot of the Universe, and Mohammad Gholi Majd, Victorian Holocaust – Iran in the Great Famine of 1869-1873

Civilizations 36a: Islam & Imperialism pt3 – The First Anglo Afghan War aka the Invasion of Afghanistan

The British imperialists made much of the bad experiences they had invading and pillaging Afghanistan beginning in 1839, coining terms like the “Graveyard of Empires” and inspiring racist poets like Kipling. We tell the story straight – a bloody imperialist aggression designed to set back Afghan society. Still, the story has some unforgettable characters – from Shah Shuja to Dost Mohamed, from McNaghten and Burnes to Mohan Lal Kashmiri. The crimes, the atrocities, the massacres, the racism and the foolishness of the imperialists and the calculations on the Afghan side, in this long instalment in the Islam & Imperialism series of Civilizations. Reading: Farrukh Husain, Afghanistan in the Age of Empires and Priya Atwal, Royals and Rebels

Civilizations 36b: Islam & Imperialism 3b – the rest of the Anglo-Afghan Wars

We conclude the Islam & Imperialism segment of Civilizations with the Anglo-Afghan wars starting with the Army of Revenge in 1842 and going down to the fixing of the Durand Line. What could go wrong?

Civilizations 37a: Yankee Imperialism pt1 – the Robber Barons

At the end of the 19th century the US acquired a substantial overseas empire – Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, as well as imperialist relations all around the world. In this miniseries we look at this Yankee Imperialism, focusing on the Spanish-American War. But first, the post-Reconstruction domestic situation in the US – the robber barons, the violent strikes, and the racial apartheid that fueled the American system. We use two books that are two sides of the same people’s history coin: Dave reads from Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States; Justin from J Sakai’s Settlers.

Civilizations 37b: Yankee Imperialism pt2 – Regime Change 1893: The US overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in Hawaii

Starting in earnest in the early 1880s the US embarked on a prototypical regime change operation: propaganda demonizing the targeted regime, financial control of the targeted state, suborning of key government officials, deactivation and destruction of the sovereign military force from within, a coup, followed by an invasion disavowing any US ambition or interest, and finally the swallowing of the country in to the US Empire. After the subjugation of the Indigenous Nations after the Mexican-American War covered in a previous episode, this was one of the first regime changes, and it set the tone for the century-plus of regime changes to follow. We also tell the story of how from King Kalakaua to Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaiian leaders (and people) tried to protect their sovereignty. Reading: Julia Flynn Siler, Lost Kingdom

Civilizations 37c – Yankee Imperialism pt3 – Cuban Independence vs the US Empire

We tell the story of Cuba’s movement for independence from Spain following the remarkable career of Jose Marti from his teenage years to his unlucky demise. We pick up the story of the Spanish American War in Cuba from the USS Maine incident (“To Hell With Spain! Remember the Maine!”) and the possibility that it was faked. Part 3 of our series on Yankee Imperialism. Reading: Jon Sterngass, Jose Marti

Civilizations 37d: Yankee Imperialism pt4 – Puerto Rico’s thwarted autonomy

Through their own efforts, Puerto Rican revolutionaries won a charter of autonomy from Spain and were on their way to winning independence. Then Spain handed its colony over to the US, and the US has colonized it ever since. We talk about how the US invented the concept of “odious debt” to avoid paying Spain’s colonial debt, then promptly saddled Puerto Rico with an odious debt of its own. Reading: Jorge Duany, Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know. And Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, “Puerto Rico’s Odious Debt: The Economic Crisis of Colonialism”.

Civilizations 37e: Yankee Imperialism pt5 – the theft of Panama out of Colombia

A complex multinational megaproject with layers of government corruption and massive government funds. A separatist movement created and sponsored by the US. A chunk of territory carved out of an existing country for imperialist use. Workers exploited to death. And a shining imperialist possession at the end. We talk about the creation of Panama and the Panama Canal, another prototypical imperialist operation that offers many warnings for the next 120 years.

Civilizations 37f – Yankee Imperialism pt6 – “The more you burn and kill the more it will please me”: The US assault on the Philippines

General Jacob Smith was reprimanded for his order to commit atrocities in the war against the Philippine Republic, but he was not alone in giving such orders. The US war in the Philippines set the stage for more than a century of counterinsurgency, atrocities, and pretexts like the civilizing mission and the responsibility to protect. Using Renato Constantino’s work, also talk about some of the amazing characters on the Filipino side, like Bonifacio and Aguinaldo. Reading: Renato Constantino, A Past Revisited

Civilizations 38: What we learned from doing this podcast

A year and a half ago I approached my high school history teacher with the idea of launching a podcast with a massively expanded version of the content of the “Modern Western Civilization” course he taught me in high school in the 1990s, to include the whole world and the people’s histories.

We’re just about to reach the 20th century so we thought we would debrief and go over some of what we’ve learned. We read things like EH Carr’s What is History?; Dave discusses the limitations of podcasting and of high school teaching; we talk about where the history we do fits into current debates about Critical Race Theory; and we set up for the next two series to come – the Scramble for Africa, and the Three World Wars (WWI, WWII, and the Cold War). 

The Scramble for Africa

As we reached the end of the 19th Century, Dave Power and I came to the conclusion that the Scramble for Africa, as the momentous event bridging the 19th and 20th centuries, deserved its own series. We’d imagined it as being 5 parts, but by the end it turned out to be about 29 episodes!

Scramble for Africa 1: Pre-Scramble Africa – the Slave Trade and the Gold Coast

A new Civilizations series on the Scramble for Africa. We begin our series on this decisive event in world history with a multi-episode survey of pre-colonial Africa. In this episode we talk about the devastation wrought by the European slave trade and focus on Africa’s West Coast (then known as the Gold Coast) before the scramble. There’s also a bit of debating Afrocentrism (you can imagine who takes which side of the debate).

Scramble for Africa 2: Africa resists the slave trade

Take a tour with us of a few of the African kingdoms that tried to resist the slave trade – before, in some cases, giving in. King Affonse of Kongo, Queen Nzinga of Matamba, Agaja of Dahomey (and others from that kingdom), the Asante in the west, and then east we have Abyssinia, the Bachwezi, and in the south we talk about Shaka Zulu and about the Merina kingdom in Madagascar. A short debate about the European and Arab slave trades, and then some notes about nutrition in Africa before colonialism (spoiler: Africans ate much better before the Europeans colonized them, which involved stealing their food).

Scramble for Africa 3: Theories of Imperialism

Our third instalment before we really dig into the actual scramble for Africa is to give you a flavor for how we’re interpreting what we read. Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism as an explanation for WWI, but much of what he wrote was about Africa; WEB Du Bois wrote an essay with the same intent and a similar argument, called The African Roots of the War; and of course Walter Rodney returns to our discussion to prepare us to get into the history. Dave makes some critiques of Lenin (and Hobson) citing Fieldhouse, and concludes the episode with his own multicausal interpretation for the scramble, which was how he taught it in high school.

Scramble for Africa 4: Britain Takes Egypt with Finance (and War), 1882

In 1882 at the battle of Tel el Kabir, Garnet Wolesley (who had suppressed the Riel Resistance in 1870) defeated the Egyptian nationalists led by al-Arabi. This was the final blow in a long imperialist campaign to take Egypt from the ambitious modernizers that had ruled it from the 1820s. The epic financial swindle involved are far too little known, but luckily they were chronicled in amazing detail by Theodore Rothstein, in a 1910 book called Egypt’s Ruin, with an introduction by Wilfred Scawen Blunt. Rothstein and Blunt are interesting characters themselves, but the story they tell has many resonances and should be carefully attended to by anyone who’s ever wondered what the IMF, World Bank, and US military are up to today… our 4th instalment in the Scramble for Africa series.

Scramble for Africa 5: How Menelik Kept Ethiopia Independent at the Battle of Adwa, 1896

Fifth instalment in our Scramble for Africa series is the story of Abyssinia (aka Ethiopia), which managed to maintain its independence during the Scramble for Africa despite all the efforts of the would-be Italian colonizers (who would be back in the 20th century, but not during the Scramble). We focus on the rulers of Abyssinia but we get into the colonizer’s intrigues too, concluding with the decisive battle of Adwa, at which an African victory threw off European racial science so badly that Europe had to “whiten” the Ethiopian King Menelik II and the Ethiopians in their race theories.

Scramble for Africa 6: Sudan – the fall of Gordon and the rise and fall of the Mahdi

The British imperialists take Sudan. First, they send Gordon, acting in the name of the Khedive of Egypt. That doesn’t go so well. The next expedition culminates in the brutal battle of Omdurman in 1898, the quintessential colonial military mismatch and the demonstration for the colonial use of the machine gun. We tell Gordon’s story in detail, and tell the story of the Mahdi and his successor the Khalifa, also in some detail, trying to get at least a little bit beyond what his British enemies (and captives) said about him.

Scramble for Africa 7: The Continent Carved Up at the Berlin Conference 1884

After six episodes of preparation we are ready to talk about the famous Berlin Conference of 1884 where Africa was actually carved up. Along the way you meet some of the most legendary villains – Stanley and Leopold (though you still haven’t met Rhodes), also Livingstone and Brazza. We end in Berlin itself and at the Berlin Conference 1884. 

Scramble for Africa 8: Belgium Steals Congo

This one is about the precolonial African powers in the Congo – Zanzibar’s representative Tippu Tip, Msiri of Katanga, and a few others (but mainly these two). We talk about their rise in the context of growing European power, and their eventual fall to Belgium – although as you’ll see it wasn’t exactly Belgium, but Leopold II and his British and German allies that made the theft of Congo possible. Another key piece – the centre of the board – falls in the Scramble for Africa.

Scramble for Africa 9a: South Africa pt1 – Frontier Wars and Settler-Colonialism

The wealthiest and most powerful state in Africa is South Africa, and its fate has been pivotal to the whole continent. This was no less true during the Scramble for Africa, which is why this series will have multiple episodes on South Africa. In this one, the so called “frontier wars” between the Europeans and the Xhosa; the Cattle Killing Movement; how the Cape Colony fell into British hands, the Boers and the British Empire, the Dutch East India Company, Canada and other analogies…

The main reference for the five episodes of Scramble for South Africa is Bernard Magubane. 1991. The Making of a Racist State: British Imperialism and the Union of South Africa 1875-1910. Africa World Press. We also use Pakenham (The Scramble for Africa) and of course Rodney (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa).

Scramble for Africa 9b: South Africa pt2 – The Zulus from Shaka to Cetshwayo

Part 2 of our series on the Scramble in South Africa takes us back to the Zulu modernizer, Shaka, in the early 19th century, all the way to the end of the Anglo-Zulu War between the British imperialists and the Zulus ruled by Cetshwayo. The land theft and swindling you’ve come to expect from the Scramble for Africa combine here with some sharpening of white supremacist ideology, a lot of which it turns out was developed specifically to find a theory of how and why the British Empire should settle and rule South Africa.

Scramble for Africa 9c: South Africa pt3 – The Boers before the War

Continuing the history of the Scramble for South Africa, we talk about the Boers, the Dutch settlers and their attacks on the Africans and then on the British conflicts with them, up to the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley that might just be the event that set off the entire scramble. South Africa’s unbelievable mineral wealth and what it did to British imperial minds; who’s responsible for apartheid; and more, in this episode.

Scramble for Africa 9d: South Africa pt4 – The Hubris of Cecil Rhodes

The Scramble for Africa cannot be encapsulated in the career of any single imperialist, but if it could, that imperialist would be Cecil Rhodes. From the Rhodes Scholarship to the falling statues, Rhodes’s impact is still ubiquitous today. We look at the words and deeds of the exemplar of the Scramble, from his beginnings to the Jameson Raid which made the Boer War inevitable.

Scramble for Africa 9e: South Africa pt5 – The Boer War 1899-1902

Our fifth and concluding episode on the Scramble in South Africa is on the (Second) Boer War from 1899-1902. We talk about how it started and why, the military details, the concentration camps, the struggle to keep it a “White Man’s War” for fear of a Lincoln showing up, and the implications (it’s clear who won the war, but who won the peace?) As for who lost the peace, the answer is clear – the Africans. How it all happened, in this episode.

Scramble for Africa 10: Saving souls and stealing cattle – the British take Uganda and Kenya

From the Imperial British East Africa Company to the British East Africa Protectorate, we trace the missionary mischief that led to the British taking Uganda and the many wars (called “expeditions”) that led to the British taking Kenya. In the process you’ll meet Mwanga of Buganda, Kabarega of Bunyoro, and the treacherously assassinated Arap Samoei of the Nandi.


Kenneth Ingham. 1968. A History of East Africa. Longman’s.

A.T. Matson. 1972. Nandi Resistance to British Rule 1890-1906. East African Publishing House.

Robert M. Maxon. 1989. Conflict and Accommodation in Western Kenya: The Gusii and the British, 1907-1963. Associated University Presses.

H.S.K. Mwaniki. 1973. The Living History of Embu and Mbeere to 1906.

Henry A. Mwanzi. 1977. A History of the Kipsigis. East African Literature Bureau.

Bethwell Ogot, ed. 1974. Zamani: A Survey of East African History. East African Publishing House.

UPCOMING: West Africa, France’s Scramble, Germany’s Scramble, Portugal/Italy/Spain in the Scramble, and the Conclusion which sets up WWI…

And we continue our world history in the 2oth century courses: World War Civ, covering World War 1, World War 2, and the Cold War.

Scramble for Africa 11: Theodore Herzl, the Uganda Plan, and the Zionist Scramble for East Africa

At the first Zionist Congress in 1897, delegates agreed to pursue the colonization of Palestine. But at the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, Theodor Herzl presented a proposal for a colony in East Africa – he presented it as a mere stepping stone to Zion, but it caused bitter divisions among the delegates. We tell the little-known story of the British negotiations with the Zionist movement for a colony in Africa, centering on the founder himself, Theodore Herzl (not to be confused with a contemporary Viennese colonialist utopian named Theodore Hertzka, whose novel also became the basis for a failed African colonization scheme…). Our last stop in the British Scramble for East Africa (West Africa’s next).

Main Readings:

Robert Weisbord, 1968. African Zion: the attempt to establish a Jewish colony in the East Africa Protectorate, 1903-1905.

Jacques Kornberg, 1993. Theodore Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism.

Scramble for Africa 12: The British Scramble for West Africa

We start this episode with a few minutes of reading reviews – from fans and not-fans! Perhaps this will inspire you to review us too. Then we’re on to the British Scrambling for West Africa. Some of the Africans who fought back, of course, notably Bai Bureh and Yaa Asentewaa. Lord Lugard’s ideas of the Dual Mandate and the debate on indirect rule. The trickery and wars that led to the consolidation of Nigeria into a British colony. Some tales near the end of the incredible missing imperial records — too many to be coincidental.

Scramble for Africa 12b: The British Sack Benin in 1897

Using Dan Hicks’s 2020 book The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, Justin tells the story of how the British destroyed Benin, stole their stuff, and put it in museums. It’s part of the story of the British Scramble for West Africa, but we give it its own episode to show you Hicks’s research. 

Scramble for Africa 13: France in the Scramble – the Algeria Precedent and Abdelkader’s Resistance

We talked about France’s colonization of Algeria back in Civilizations Episode 15 (in August 2020). We revisit it now, as France’s entry point into the Scramble for Africa. Algeria was France’s template for colonizing Africa and many of the dynamics of France’s African colonial crimes can be seen developing in Algeria. We end up focusing quite a bit on Abd el Kader’s Resistance to colonization. And the depopulation of Algeria under colonialism: between 1830-1872, the country’s population went from 3 milion to 2.125 million, by one estimate. 

Among others, we’re using Olivier le Cour Grandmaison, Coloniser, Exterminer: Sur le Guerre et l’Etat Colonial.

Scramble for Africa 14: France saves Sadok Bey of Tunis from a nonexistent threat and steals the country 1881

After a bit of comparing and contrasting French colonialism with the British type, Dave tells us about the French Foreign Legion; Then we’re on to a key piece in France’s Scramble for Africa, the theft of Tunis from the Bey, Muhammad Sadok. In the process, the French colonizers insisted they were saving Sadok Bey from a threat from local tribes. He insisted he didn’t need the help, but in the end, Tunisia became a French protectorate.

Scramble for Africa 15: France Seizes West Africa

In this episode France seizes the territories of the Tukolors (overthrowing Sultan Ahmadu), battles Samori Toure, and fights a long war with King Benanzin of Dahomey. Some observations about the differences between France’s notions of colonialism and those of the British, in whose footsteps the French colonizers hoped to follow. Among other things, we’re reading Pigaud and Samba Sylla, Africa’s Last Colonial Currency.

Scramble for Africa 16: Female Caligula DESTROYS Madagascar!

Clickbait title aside, this episode continues to follow the French as they Scramble for Africa. In this case, how France managed to steal the enormous island of Madagascar from its powerful African rulers. We of necessity do tell the story of Queen Ranavalona, but also the outrageous deeds of the French military, the dastardly things they said, and some of the rebellions of the Malagasy that started straight away and continued until independence, including the menelamba movement aka the Rising of the Red Shawls.



Stephen Ellis. 1985. The Rising of the Red Shawls: A Revolt in Madagascar 1895-1899.

Scramble 17: Brazza, Fashoda, and Cesaire’s Discours – France in the Scramble concluded

We start with a quick history of France’s theft of Congo-Brazzaville, centering on Brazza himself and ending with the Toque-Gaud Trial. Then on to the nearly early start of WWI – the Fashoda Crisis between Britain and France. Finally, we give the floor to Aime Cesaire to give us some commentary on what French colonialism in Africa meant and how to understand the specifics of France’s colonial crimes.

Readings: A bit of Thomas Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa and a whole lot of Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism.

Scramble for Africa 18: Germany in the Scramble pt1 – from Karl Peters to the war on Mkwawa and the Wahehe

We begin the story of Germany in the Scramble for Africa with the question: was Germany really as bad as their enemies say they were? (spoiler: worse) We talk about Bismarck’s reluctance to own colonies, about why he started to change his mind as Germany caught a growing colonial fever; we talk about the harrowing career of Karl Peters, and then talk about the Germans in East Africa – the war on Mkwawa and the Hehe; the Maji Maji rebellion; and some short notes on Rwanda and Burundi under German control. The Herero and Nama genocides in Namibia will follow in the next episodes.

Main reading for Germany in the Scramble is Kaiser’s Holocaust – 2011 book by Casper Erichsen and David Olusoga

Scramble for Africa 19: Germany (pt2) genocides the Herero, 1904

The devastating story of the Herero genocide, complete with von Trotha’s extermination order, Samuel Maharero’s resistance, the battle at the Waterberg, and the concentration camps at Swakopmund and elsewhere. We’re using Erichsen and Olusoga 2011, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism.

Scramble for Africa 20: Germany (pt3) genocides the Nama, 1908

In September 1904 several Nama scouts slipped away from the Germans after the battle of Waterberg and the genocide of the Herero, to warn their leader, Hendrik Witbooi, of what the Germans were capable of. Hendrik Witbooi then called all the Nama leaders to war, a war where they used guerrilla tactics to confound the Germans and drive the German leader, von Trotha, home in defeat. But while they exhausted the German colonizers, they exhausted themselves as well and German missionaries were able to draw the survivors to surrender on false promises of good treatment, after which they were sent first to concentration camps and then to – perhaps – the world’s first death camp, on Shark Island. Our concluding episode on the Germans in the Scramble – on the Nama genocide.

Scramble for Africa 21: mini-scramblers Portugal, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark…

The biggest player in the Scramble for Africa was England. Second place to France, third to Germany. But there were many other European powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884 and the plunder of Africa was shared among even the smallest of European countries. Who and how, in this episode of the Scramble for Africa.

Some reading: Lauesen, Riding the Wave: Sweden’s Integration into the Imperialist World System (2021). E.D. Morel, Red Rubber; Mark Twain, King Leopold’s Soliloquy; Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost.

Scramble for Oceania 1: The theft of Australia

At the same time that the European empires were scrambling for Africa, they held a scramble in the Pacific. For the British Empire the base was Australia, and we begin with the scramble for Australia, the story of the theft of (another) continent beginning in 1788. Always was, always will be, aboriginal land.

Sources – Robert Hughes, the Fatal Shore; Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth; Pascoe, Dark Emu.

Scramble for Oceania 2: The Land Wars of New Zealand

We take advantage of some new scholarship of New Zealand history (Keenan, Wars Without End; Belch, New Zealand Wars; Simons, Soldiers, Scouts and Spies) to give you a hopefully fresh look at the 19th century scramble for colonies in New Zealand, which took the form of British wars against the Maori. Also featured – comparisons between New Zealand and Canada, and the idea that Parihaka may be considered a failure of nonviolence.

Scramble for Oceania 3: Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia

At the peak of global colonialism no island however small was exempted from European greed. We conclude our Scramble for Oceania series with the scrambles for the many islands in the Pacific. Many of these are still colonies today, given names like “special overseas territory” to hide the fact. ALSO: I’m trying to do loudness normalization so hopefully the listening experience is improved.

World War Civ

The Scramble for Africa leads us to World War Civ, our ongoing series that does WWI, the Interwar period, WWII, and the aftermath.