RHS News

Peter Mandler’s Presidential Letter, RHS Newsletter October 2015

The death of our Executive Secretary in the 1970s and ‘80s and the election of my successor to 2020, both reported elsewhere in this newsletter, have naturally induced thoughts this season about the long-term trajectories of a learned society – our learned society – over what will soon be 150 years of its own history.  Some things have stayed the same; a lot has changed.  Actually there were features of the late Victorian historical profession that are eerily familiar today. As early as 1872 we can find one eminent Victorian (Edward Freeman) writing to another (Bishop Stubbs), complaining about a circular on the ‘“subsidy of research”, which I did not understand, and I see that it has grown into a meeting for the “organization of study”, which I don’t understand either.  If it means that they will give you and me … something, instead of wasting it on a parcel of idle youngsters in London, I shall not object.’ And already in the 1880s the Society was working with the British Museum and the Public Record Office to raise historical issues of public interest, such as the teaching of history in schools, just as we now work closely with their successors the British Library and the National Archives.  Of course we also continue to fulfil the functions that all learned societies seek to fulfil in all times and places:  that is, maintaining the infrastructure for scholarly publication, communication and debate, sponsoring public lectures and conferences, publishing primary sources and secondary works, seeking to pump-prime the future of the discipline by encouraging early-career historians with grants to do research and outlets through which to publish their research.  Just as we did 150 years ago, we publish our annual volume of Transactions – containing the best in new scholarship by leading figures of our discipline – and multiple volumes in the Camden series of original documents in British history (in the case of  Camden for more than 150 years, having inherited an older series from a defunct society).

The biggest change witnessed in the 20th century was the entry of the State into the funding and organization of higher education – hardly a whisper of this in evidence in 1868, and not much more in 1938, but by 1968 the State was responsible for nearly three-quarters of all university funding, and of course (despite the panoply of ‘arm’s length’ bodies designed to protect academic freedom) also demanding more say in how academic research was carried on and even in what directions. I think it is fair to say that the Society did not devote much of its time and energy in those postwar decades of the State’s rise to predominance in the world of higher education to following or seeking to influence government policy. It left that to the arm’s-length bodies, like the University Grants Committee, and although social and economic history was included in the remit of the new Social Science Research Council (later Economic and Social Research Council) from 1965, the Society, reasonably enough, continued to proceed on the assumption that the State had little interest in or impact on historical research. Much of that research was carried on by individuals, with little funding, a good deal of it outside universities altogether, and in some ways the Society became more inward-looking in those decades, carrying on its own scholarly activities with little reference to government, the general public, or indeed to anyone who wasn’t a historical scholar. Joy McCarthy’s reminiscences of the Society’s offices under Jean Chapman’s supervision in the 1970s and ‘80s gives a pungent and accurate flavour of the times – amiable, inertial, traditional, deeply immersed in the practice of history but rather oblivious of the wider cultural and political context.

That began to change, not when the State was increasing its role in the funding of academic research, but when it began to contract that role, during the ‘run-down’ of universities announced by Sir Keith Joseph in the 1980s. The Society didn’t respond quickly to the threats posed by the run-down, and a History at the Universities Defence Group (HUDG) was established in 1982 to lead a more public campaign in defence of historical teaching and research in a beleaguered university system. Nor did the Society respond quickly to the dramatic expansion of the higher-education system (and indeed of the numbers studying, teaching and researching history) that took off from the late 1980s. However, by the mid-1990s, under the leadership of a sequence of very sensitive and acute Presidents, the Society did begin to become much more responsive to the new breadth of activity in historical research and to the new tasks that should naturally have fallen to the country’s leading learned society in history.

Today Council is more fully representative of the range of historians from wherever they hail, new and old universities, museums, libraries and archives – we would like to see, too, independent scholars without institutional bases, who form a large and important part of our Fellowship, putting themselves forward for election to Council and answering our calls for self-nomination to officer positions that we circulate every year. This coming year, for example, we will be seeking a new Literary Director and a new Honorary Director of Communications, and I hope Fellows from all sectors will consider stepping forward and offering to take on these important jobs which, while voluntary, are the lifeblood of the Society’s work. I hope you don’t need me to recite the range of issues that the Society has taken up in the last twenty years in fulfilment of its new, wider brief – not only to service historical research, but to evangelize for it, and to ensure that the counsels of government, funding bodies, the universities and academic bodies across the full range of subjects are made constantly aware of the distinctive needs and flavour of the discipline of history.

In my own time as President we have made special efforts to influence the rewriting of the history curriculum in schools, to ensure that government plans for ‘Open Access’ to academic publications take a form that protects academic freedom and quality (which may be a quite different form for the humanities than for the sciences), and to defend the arm’s-length autonomy of the funding bodies from government’s attempts to impose its own short-term ‘strategic priorities’ on academic research.  We have reached out to ever-widening circles to build audiences for serious historical scholarship – putting all of our public lectures and symposia online for free access to the general public, sponsoring workshops and prizes in ‘public history’, and making our own publications ‘Open Access’ in more generous and appropriate forms than government mandates suggest.  And we have made renewed efforts to invest in the future of our discipline by extending our grants to early-career researchers (with help from our friends in the Economic History Society and at Past & Present), organizing workshops around the country with History Lab Plus, drafting (also with History Lab Plus) a code of practice for the employment of temporary teaching staff, and working to ensure gender equality in hiring and employment practices in academic institutions.

I do believe that the Society is in a stronger position today than it has been for many years – engaged in a wider range of activities, drawing in more direct participation from its members, using its resources more nimbly and effectively.  (And this is a good point to remind you that all donations to the Society continue to benefit from a matching grant from Dr Lisbet Rausing and Professor Peter Baldwin – please do consider making a donation online where every pound you give will be doubled.)   Of course new challenges await – not least the year- on-year reduction of the government’s share of higher education funding that we have endured for the last five years and will now endure for the next five. In these circumstances it is only learned societies like ours that can and will step up to defend scholarship. It is a great consolation to me to know that for four of those next five years the Society will be led by a wonderful scholar, someone exceptionally well-informed about the politics of higher education, and an agile and creative strategist. I shall do my best in my last year of office to keep the legacy of my predecessors intact so as to be able to hand over an organization in the best-possible shape to meet any new challenges as well as to continue our traditional role of maintaining infrastructural support for historical research as we head towards our 150th year.

Peter Mandler signature

 

 

New Look RHS Newsletter

The RHS Newsletter is now online with a beautiful new design, which is very easy to view and to navigate.

 

Contents of RHS Newsletter, October 2015:

  • Margot Finn

    Margot Finn, RHS President-elect

    Peter Mandler’s Presidential Letter

  • Introducing Margot Finn, RHS President-elect
  • In Memoriam – Jean Chapman 1934-2015 – RHS Executive Secretary 1977-1987
  • Archives Inspire – Matt Greenhall looks at the National Archives’ new strategic priorities
  • The Study of History and the Higher Education sector at the Imperial War Museum – Suzanne Bardgett
  • Reviewing Committee on the export of works of art and objects of cultural interest – Naomi Tadmor
  • Magna Carta and Decolonisation – Harshan Kumarasingham

PDF of October 2015 Newsletter

PDF of 2016 Card of Session

Students in a line (5 women)

Collaborative doctoral students at IWM

Comments on our newsletter and suggestions for future articles are actively welcomed. Please contact the Editor, Jo Fox: info@royalhistsoc.org

 

Lawrence Goldman commemorates David Cesarani

Lawrence GoldmanProfessor Lawrence Goldman, Director of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, remembers the exceptionally productive life of a colleague and a friend. 

David Cesarani, who died on 25 October 2015 aged 58, was the leading British historian of the modern Jewish experience. Equally at home in the history of the Anglo-Jewish community, of Zionism and of the Holocaust, he mixed scholarship with commentary in the press and writing on contemporary events. The balancing act was not easy, but Cesarani pulled it off because he neither suffered from the traditional reticence of the scholar nor let his journalism wander from scholarship and evidence.

Born in London in 1956 and educated at Latymer Upper School, David came from a relatively humble background and not an especially religious one, either: his father was a ladies’ hairdresser with a salon in Paddington. It was at Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate between 1976-79 at Queens’ College, that his interest in Jewish History developed, almost certainly as a consequence of a search for his own identity. He took courses in modern history – though his Special Subject, devised and taught by John Morrill, was on Oliver Cromwell – and on graduating with a first class degree went to Columbia University to study for a Masters in Jewish History with the then renowned rabbi and historian Arthur Hertzberg. As an undergraduate David had become active in student politics. This was the era, after the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when campus criticism of Israel began, and Cesarani was engaged in rebutting the accusation that ‘Zionism is Racism’ which was current at that stage, the mid and late 1970s. He came to see, gradually and incrementally, that as a historian he could play a part in the debate, dispelling mythology on all sides, correcting error, ensuring that public discourse was rational and based on the evidence. It is to his great credit that he remained trusted as a historian even while commentating so actively on Jewish life and history in Britain, Europe and Israel.

Ces Peace-Now-at-MigronAn early member of the organisation Peace Now, which stood for a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, Cesarani was every bit as critical of Israeli leaders and orthodox Jewish groups who rejected this compromise as he was of those who entered the debate knowing little history of the Middle East, or distorting what little they knew. His job was to enlighten on the basis of an accurate history, without fear or favour. Often involved in controversies – how could he not be when dealing with such subjects? – his greatest achievement was to retain the respect of his colleagues and peers as a historian. Many historians are understandably uncomfortable if asked to mix politics and history; Cesarani thrived on it, believing that the purpose of studying the past was to inform the present and future.

Later in his career, David knew professional success and stability, especially as a research professor in the History Department at Royal Holloway after 2004. Before that there were stints at the Wiener Library in London as Director of Research, and at Southampton as Professor of Jewish History between 2000-04. But like many, his early career in the 1980s had been disjointed and precarious. After Columbia he studied in Oxford, at St. Antony’s College, for a doctorate on the politics of the inter-war Jewish community in Britain, and there followed short-term posts at the University of Leeds and what was then Queen Mary College, London.

Cesarani-Justic-DelayedBy this time – the late 1980s – he had discovered how to bring together past and present: how he might use Jewish History to illuminate and clarify contemporary debate and controversy. He became the lead researcher for the All-Party War Crimes Group in 1987 which investigated the presence in the United Kingdom of Nazi and other Second World War criminals. This research, and the public concern it engendered, led to the 1991 War Crimes Act which extended British jurisdiction to cover war crimes committed anywhere. Cesarani’s own version of this episode and the history behind it can be found in Justice Delayed: How Britain Became a Refuge for Nazi War Criminals (1992). The search for elderly war criminals and the change to the law were both controversial, though this was not the first controversy Cesarani had entered. Earlier, in 1987, he had taken a position in opposition to Jim Allen’s play Perdition, due to be staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London, though never performed there because of public criticism. The play focused on the infamous case of Rudolf Kastner who had negotiated with Adolf Eichmann in 1944 to save a trainload of Hungarian Jews, about 1600 in all, from the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Some of those saved eventually found their way to Israel. Kastner was damned by many for this truly Faustian bargain, and was eventually assassinated in Israel in 1957. It was a complex historical episode in the very worst of human contexts, and Cesarani used his knowledge and expertise to argue that Allen’s play had simplified and decontextualized the story in order to delegitimize Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel.

Cesarani EichmannHe returned to the subject of Eichmann in his later biography, Eichmann. His Life and Crimes (2005). Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), based on the Eichmann trial of 1962, had famously coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe a man she saw as a functionary of Nazi policy and bureaucracy. Cesarani took issue with an interpretation which had become almost routine in historical and public discourse over the next four decades, presenting Eichmann instead as a man with choices rather than an official following orders, and re-injecting the theme of personal, moral accountability into the history of Holocaust. He was not alone in this reinterpretation: his biography of Eichmann will stand with other more recent works of the 1990s and 2000s as part of a revisionist movement against overly structural interpretations of the Holocaust.

Ces Major Farrons HatCesarani published other books connected with the Holocaust. His study of Arthur Koestler. The Homeless Mind (1999) concerns the formidable and controversial public intellectual who managed to reach Britain in 1940 having published one of the most insightful exposes of Soviet communism, even if in fictional form, Darkness at Noon. In Major Farran’s Hat (2009) Cesarani used the murder of a young Zionist activist in a Jerusalem street in 1947 as a way of examining the end of the British mandate in Palestine. It was a work of history, for sure, but it also owed something to Cesarani’s penchant for thrillers. And there were several edited collections of essays as well, among them The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation (1994), all of them testament to Cesarani’s energy and activity in bringing together historians, often young historians, and giving them the opportunity to develop and publish their research. He was himself a willing servant of his subject as well as its master.

Ces Yad VashemBuilding a network of international contacts as he went – he spent periods of academic leave in Washington DC and at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem – Cesarani was well-placed to act as an interpreter and conduit for the new research into the Holocaust which became possible with the ‘fall of the wall’ and the end of the Soviet Union in 1989-91 as archives and collections in Eastern Europe became accessible to scholars, often for the first time. Conscious of his role, Cesarani became interested in the historiography of the Holocaust, especially in the absence of major research that marked the generation after the 1940s, and the result was one of his last edited collaborations (with Eric J. Sundquist), After the Holocaust. Challenging the Myth of Silence (2011).

His public services to Holocaust education were a corollary of this scholarly commitment. As a research fellow in the 1980s he had gone out to schools and community groups to talk about the Holocaust as a lecturer for the Spiro Institute for Jewish Education, based in north London. It was at this time that he developed his skills as a public speaker and lecturer. He worked with the Home Office unit responsible for establishing Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain, the 27th January, which was first observed in 2001.

Number10 Downing Street hosts a number of guests in preparation for the Holocaust memorial day. The Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to guests throughout the evening discussing the significance of Holocaust memorial day. The PM also made a speech to his guests commending them on their achievements for passing on the history and stories of the holocaust to a younger generation. Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year. It’s a time for everyone to pause to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. On HMD we can honour the survivors of these regimes and challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today. 27 January marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. - See more at: http://www.hmd.org.uk/page/why-mark-27-january-holocaust-memorial-day#sthash.Ukz3tmIk.dpufWhen David Cameron established the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission in 2014 to determine ‘what more Britain must do to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is preserved and that the lessons it teaches are never forgotten’, Cesarani was a member of its education committee. He was also a member of the advisory group that oversaw the creation of the remarkable permanent exhibition on the Holocaust in the upper floors of the Imperial War Museum in London. At the outset of the project Cesarani organised a number of seminars and teaching sessions for all the Museum staff involved, and though not solely responsible for its design, the exhibition bears evidence of his close involvement in its lack of sentiment, its commitment to historical detail, its careful focus on the massacre of one-and-a-half million Jews by the Einsatzgruppen before the Final Solution of the extermination camps was devised (ignorance of which Cesarani always lamented), and its use of survivors’ testimony.

Ces IWM HolocaustThese were features that ran through Cesarani’s scholarly publications, too. But he was never bound by orthodoxy, and he would challenge convention in his public educational work just as much as in his revisionist scholarship. There is a story of a public lecture he once gave on the subject of ‘Auschwitz and the Allies’. David spent the first 20 minutes explaining to his audience why it was impossible for the Allies to have bombed the train lines to Auschwitz and the camp itself, with the deliberate intention of lulling them into the acceptance of an interpretation with which he very strongly differed, before turning the occasion into a seminar on all the opportunities which, in his opinion, were ignored or dismissed, and which, if taken, could have severely disrupted, even if they could not have ended, the Holocaust.

Cesarani was a formidable public debater as I found out myself on one occasion. Asked to contribute to Radio 4’s ‘The World Tonight’ on the problems of the secondary school History curriculum which has focused excessively on the Nazis and their crimes, I expected the easiest of victories. They did not tell me who I was up against, however, until I was placed in a sound-proofed box with moments to go. My arguments in favour of a curriculum that introduced students to the workings of stable government in plural societies, rather than focussing relentlessly, at all ages, on history’s most terrible events, were parried by David and swatted back. Afterwards we agreed that it had been a ‘score draw’ in soccer parlance; if I had more possession, he had more shots on target.

Ces JC book coverAgainst this background David’s continuing interest in the local travails of the Anglo-Jewish community might appear parochial or quaint. He was the author of the official history of the Jewish Chronicle, which has held the Anglo-Jewish community together since the 1840s, and which was published for its 150th anniversary: The Jewish Chronicle and Anglo-Jewry 1841-1991 (1994). There were many more essays and provocations from his desk on Jewish migration to the United Kingdom, Jewish communal organisation and the tensions between different groups and political positions in Anglo-Jewry. All of this work had an important point to make, however: that Jewish history in Britain was more vexed and more troubled than its first historians had suggested. David was one of several in his generation who took aim at the complacency of a whiggish history of the Jews which had been written to comply with a whiggish history of the English – a story in which the Jews had found common cause with English mores, politics and institutions and successfully adapted themselves to private and public life, enjoying notable professional advancement in a nation dedicated to tolerance and fair play. Cesarani recognised, of course, that Britain has been good for the Jews, but he and others were conscious that just as there were successive waves of Jewish migration to Britain, there were also different Jewish experiences. It was better to think of varied Jewish communities, differentiated by forms of religion, politics and attitudes to Israel, and often at odds with each other, than a single Anglo-Jewish identity. He himself identified strongly with Jewish causes, but he was not very observant and maintained a healthy disrespect for the excesses of religious orthodoxy. Indeed, there was something reliably unorthodox to David Cesarani; it was part of his personality and attractiveness as a companion and colleague that his opinions were always surprising and often the very opposite of what might have been expected.

Cesarani head shotIt is sad and poignant that Cesarani’s early death occurred just as two books that exemplified and united his career were going through the press, to be published early in 2016. His study of Disraeli. The Novel Politician looks again at Disraeli’s Jewish identity, but brings to that old question all David’s wisdom combined with impressive knowledge of British politics in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, The Fate of the Jews 1933-48 is a major synthesis which will sum up his work on the Holocaust over three decades. They will represent one side of David Cesarani’s great achievement. To appreciate the other side, go to the Imperial War Museum, or to a lecture on Holocaust Memorial Day, or talk to someone who attended one of his seminars, or heard him on Radio 4, or read one of his pieces in the newspapers. In a profession that sometimes talks airily and vaguely about ‘public historians’, David Cesarani was the real thing.

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Mandler – President

Giving to the RHS – an appeal by RHS President, Peter Mandler

As Fellows, Members and friends of the Royal Historical Society, I’m making an appeal to enable the RHS to take on new roles whilst continuing to maintain our traditions as a learned society.

Over the last decade we have had to adapt and grow in a new environment of online communication, reduced government funding for education, and a more atomised university system. In response we’ve taken on new roles – advocating for history with government and funding bodies, defending the academic career, representing the interests of historians of all kinds. We also spend more on our traditional roles as a publisher, a funder of postgraduate research and a body recognising excellence in the form of grants and prizes.

This appeal launches a special and concerted attempt to raise funds for the Society’s modest endowment so that we can support permanently these new and essential levels of activity. We have been fortunate with two immediate generous philanthropic donations. The Linbury Trust has donated £12,500 to support the Gladstone Prize for the next five years. And Professor Peter Baldwin and Dr Lisbet Rausing, Fellows of the Society, have made an exceptional donation of £25,000, plus another £25,000 in matching funds, if we can raise an equivalent amount from our supporters, which is why we need your help.

We have three immediate goals:

  • to increase the sums we spend on grants to postgraduate researchers, for basic archival and travel expenses, as the funds available to them from their own institutions are cut back;
  • to invest in our publications so that they can be made open access without requiring authors to pay to publish;
  • to undertake more systematic research into issues facing the historical profession, following up our successful reports on early-career historians and on gender issues, to better inform our advocacy in the interests of history and historians.

I’m asking you to join me now in making a donation to help us reach our initial target of £25,000. If you are a UK tax payer you can increase the value of your gift by a further 25% at no extra cost to you. A donation from you of £40 with gift-aid and match funding will be worth £90 to the Society. Support the RHS by giving a gift securely online via credit or debit card or set up a regular donation through CAF Donate. Or download and complete our donation form and post it back to us.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your involvement and support as Fellows, Members and friends of the RHS, which we value greatly. Thank you too for considering making a donation. No matter the size, it will make a real difference to us and to our discipline.

Go to Support the RHS page

 

Ludmilla Jordanova, Public History Workshop, ‘A Provocation’

PHWLudmilla GR crop

Ludmilla Jordanova

Ludmilla Jordanova is Professor of History and Visual Cultures at Durham University. She is a Trustee of the Science Museum Group and chair of its collections and research committees. She is the author of History in Practice and The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice. 

She presented a paper entitled ‘A Provocation’ at the first Public History Workshop, held at the Institute of History Research on Thursday 29 October 2015.

She can be contacted at: ludmilla.jordanova@durham.ac.uk.


Jane-Smiley

Jane Smiley

The term ‘public history’ is distinctly tricky by virtue of its range of meanings and the diverse reactions it elicits. Everyone is familiar with E.P. Thompson’s phrase about rescuing the working-class from the condescension of posterity in his The Making of the English Working Class, 1963. Recent weeks have seen Niall Ferguson condescend to Jane Smiley, a historical novelist, on R4’s Start the Week, and her riposte in the Guardian on 15 October 2015. For him fiction cannot be history in any meaningful sense, for her it can. For him history is research intensive, but so is her work, she protested.

Christopher Clark

Christopher Clark

Condescension is common in the face of some forms of public history, as words such as ‘populariser’ can easily suggest, and so does the assumption that writing for wider audiences is somehow diluting not just the past but the scholarship of those who do so. There are some notable exceptions, of course, the books by and reactions to Christopher Clark and Adam Tooze, for example. So it would be worth examining these instances to see what sets them apart. But in the Ferguson/Smiley case, there is an all too familiar hierarchy of historical genres.

I consider historical fiction to be a major form of public history, hence this episode is of considerable interest for our discussions today. It would take far longer than I have this morning to disentangle the disagreements, the misunderstandings and the strong feelings involved. But I take the Ferguson/Smiley encounter as a telling example of some of the difficulties that arise in talking about ‘history’ in public. Whether we ‘like’ or sympathise with one or other side is hardly the point. I happen to feel that novelists can also be historians, if in ways we want to specify, case by case, book by book as we would with any historical genre. All genres, like the works within them, invite such careful analysis.

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson

There are three issues arising from Ferguson’s condescension to Smiley that we may want to consider today. The first and perhaps most obvious is the forms of paring down that may be involved in presenting accounts of the past to non-specialists. For example, accounts may be deemed simplified if they do not include footnotes and bibliographies, since readers are relying on a persuasive narrative without having the option to assess for themselves the kinds of mediation necessarily involved. Although some novels have footnotes, on the whole general readers do not want a massive scholarly apparatus. Many non-fiction trade books have a rather light supporting structure, often at the publisher’s request. The problem becomes more acute with forms of representation where the authority behind any claims may be unclear – exhibitions some websites, TV and Film, for instance. Jane Smiley doesn’t parade the depth of her research, so it is difficult to assess it in conventional ways.

The second issue concerns the role of the imagination: ‘I have to use my imagination to make connections, to evoke feelings, to show patterns, to build a logical structure’, Smiley insisted in her Guardian piece. She continues ‘But then, my historian colleague must do the same.’ It is unclear to me precisely what Ferguson’s position is on the role of imagination in historical practice, but it is evident that most forms of public history, however we define the term, involve not only the imagination but forms of imaginative collusion, that is, audiences actively participate in some way. It is worth reflecting on such collusions, no matter what kind of history one practices, or consumes.

The third issue revolves around the language we use to analyse historical practice. In the radio programme, Smiley characterized history in terms of ‘events’, which allowed Ferguson to come right back to her with a riposte: it’s about much more than this, he claimed. But, without defining their terms, and some philosophical discussion, what are broadcasters supposed to do? Smiley was reaching for a quick way of making a point, and the term used tripped her up, I think. ‘Truth’ is another such term, and so is ‘fact’, and indeed ‘history’. Smiley has a doctorate, is a Pulitzer Prize winner and has published non-fiction works, but she is not a historiographer, as it were. And would it be appropriate to go into these matters on Radio 4 or in the Guardian? Commonsense, and often quite reductionist, meanings of such terms do inhibit public discussion, channel debate into simplistic polarities. I am not sure what the solution is here, but one conclusion might be that it is the role of public history as a field to address the difficulty.

Running through all these points, however, are questions about hierarchies, especially of knowledge. All scholars can benefit from engaging with them. My main provocation consists of just this – public history, both the field and the range of practices – history in public, crystalizes many central issues of historical practice, and hence is relevant to all historians as well as to others, and should not be seen just as a new specialism and accordingly as only for a select new group of specialists, since this can easily tip into a sense that other people/historians don’t have to bother with it.

As historians, as citizens, public history touches us directly if in a multitude of intricate ways that are difficult to disentangle. Jane Smiley suggests that we think of genres not as a hierarchy but as ‘a flower bouquet, with different colours, scents and forms…’ It is a delightful simile: social and political realities, however, demand that we are thinking all the time about the quality of knowledge and the broad implications of historical claims, topics that must also be central to public history in so far as it claims to be an academic field.

I’d like to draw your attention to what I see as an irony here. On one reading, much public history is under-conceptualised; for instance, popular history may concentrate on lists of key facts, often surprising or piquant in some way – this is common in history magazines. Such formats reinforce common beliefs about facts and dates lying at the heart of history. I am bemoaning a separation of public history from other parts of the discipline, yet at the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, we have had another field emerging over the same period – variously referred to as history and theory, historiography, or historical theory. These two more or less simultaneous changes show how easy it is for the discipline of history to fragment, and for this to happen in ways that generally affirm rather than challenge existing intellectual hierarchies, which tend to rate refined theoretical perspectives more highly than assemblages of information. It is a further irony that many historical websites – a major form of public history and frequently connected to the sophisticated field of digital history – consist of and celebrate just such assemblages.

So I thought it would be useful to put, in the most direct way possible, some of the issues that ‘public history’ raises. Some further context may provide a fuller sense of my perspectives.

History in PracticeI first became aware of the phrase ‘public history’ in the 1990s, and when preparing the first edition of History in Practice (first edition, 2000, second edition,2006), I asked all the historians I interviewed in order to get a more rounded view of the discipline, what they understood by it. Most replied that did not know what it meant. I devoted a whole chapter to the topic because I cannot see how any practicing historian can responsibly ignore the ways in which their field is alive in the world beyond educational institutions and professional associations. This is why my main point today is that public history is about history in its broadest sense and that consequently there are costs to treating it as a specialist field more about ‘popularization’ than about ‘real’ history.

The vast majority of practicing historians do now have some idea of what public history refers to, even if there are many different ways of construing it. There are posts and courses, journals and textbooks. Hence we might assume that public history has arrived. However, this is only a partial account, and I suggest that we need to adopt a more critical perspective. In part this is precisely because, as I hope I have already shown, the meanings of public history are both unclear and contested. One obvious fissure here is between those who believe that it should be generated through grass roots activity, and those for whom it should be practiced by professionals. My Ferguson/Smiley example has not addressed the grass roots question, since novelists too tend to be ‘professionals’. As it happens, I do not see any obvious professional/amateur polarity. In any case, advocating forms of public history from below and stressing the need for trained historians to be involved are not wholly incompatible positions: a crowd sourced exhibition can nonetheless be curated by a museum professional. An exhibition in the Bankfield Museum, Halifax, For King and Country, is a good example, while authoritative websites are made possible by volunteers – the Clergy of the Church of England database, for instance.

For King and Country Bankfield

Nonetheless there are important political issues here: if we think about the activities at Ruskin College, Oxford as a case in point, these are more bottom up than many of the forms of public history in the USA and Canada, where the field is considerably more professionalized. And their emphasis is certainly a considered political position.

But why should ‘public history’ be a separate, delineated field at all? Perhaps a curious question, and there are two rather different ways of thinking about it. The first follows patterns of professionalization and of the deployment of historical expertise in public life, which, in a world that places great emphasis on structured occupations, formal qualifications, and the recognition of specialized knowledge is highly likely to result in a new field, with all the paraphernalia that goes with it. With ever more pressure on jobs related to history since the Second World War, these phenomena help people build careers, while institutions and organisations assist practitioners in their interactions with pre-existing structures, such as legal systems. This pattern is so common that it would be surprising to find any field, especially if it made claims to public value, not following it. Since historians study just such shifts, it is helpful if they are aware of them in their own lives and settings.

The second route is rather different. It recognizes that ‘public history’ refers to highly diverse phenomena, and that it is these phenomena with their complex ‘public’ status that invite our attention. Such complexities require skills, insights and knowledge that are ‘specialized’. This line of thought might be developed further to stress the activities that are involved with making history public, in which we might well be participants rather than observers. Many academic historians, for example, have little idea how museums work, and this leads to frustrations on the part of museum professionals when, largely because of the Impact agenda, they are expected to conjure up exhibitions for nothing in a short period of time. The point has implications for the practice of history, certainly for forms of education, which are now building relevant forms of training in, especially at doctoral level. Arguably, making and responding to public history has become or is becoming integral to our professional lives. But, as I have already suggested, public history is also central to our lives as citizens, and perhaps we can also use our roles as consumers of ‘public’ culture more fully. Having a domain called ‘public history’, then, should help us to think through these issues as well as to practise history more energetically, openly and in more diverse forms.

Adam Tooze

Adam Tooze

It’s important to accept that there cannot be stability when it comes to what is meant by ‘public’. Its generative qualities come from its richness – it is better to embrace this rather than bemoan ambiguity. When I told a colleague that I was interested in public history, he responded, ‘I didn’t know there was any other kind’. I was initially flummoxed by the comment, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting it became. What would ‘private’ history look like, if we take a term commonly thought to be the opposite of ‘public’? When we publish, we enter a public realm. And can there really be watertight distinctions between history by and for the public and the history produced in and for academic settings? Here again the writings of Tooze and Clark are relevant. Nonetheless the heterogeneity of what falls under at least some definitions of public history should give us pause for thought. There are many significant differences between, say, war memorials that were designed to remind future generations of the conflict in question, of those who lost their lives, and to provide a focus for survivors, and an exhibition designed to provide visitors with historical understanding of that very same war.

One possible way of tackling this is to consider the level of historical focus involved. Buildings, squares, street names and so on are largely out of focus, brought sharply in when threatened in some way, or changed in a controversial manner. A paying exhibition, by contrast, will be in focus for visitors, who have chosen to engage with it, although what they may ‘learn’ in the process is likely to be highly variable. Another way is to take what we might think of as boundary cases: costume drama, historical fiction, art exhibitions, for example. Let us take all ‘historical’ forms seriously, precisely because they help us attend to questions such as the nature of historical imagination, the representation of moral complexities in the past, and forms of identification with people, places, and processes in earlier times. All these are themes that concern scholars with a theoretical bent.

To conclude: public history in all its senses stands for the ways in which the past is mediated and for the continual need to reflect critically on those ways. Accordingly it is central to the discipline and to citizenship. It must not be condescended to. Yet to engage with it fully, it is necessary to have a certain tool kit, which brings together sympathy, knowledge, experience and reflection. As a field public history can help to assemble, refine and refresh these tools. I have argued that the ranking mentality is unhelpful, perhaps it is even pernicious. But in saying this, I am not inviting a thousand flowers to bloom; on the contrary I am suggesting we get out there and engage with the diverse practices of public history – there is much to engage with, some of it deeply worrying – the ways in which some popular history magazines sensationalise past violence is a case in point. Public history in its fullest sense enjoins us all to think and practice history more openly and thoughtfully.

Download a PDF of the paper

Go to Public History Workshop report

 

 

 

 

RHS Public History Workshop report

The RHS Public History Workshop was held in the Wolfson suite at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) on Thursday 29th October 2015. It was organized by Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, Professor Jo Fox and Dr Alix Green in partnership with the IHR’s Public History seminar.

RHS Research and Communications officer, Dr Jane Gerson, reports:


MainAward_Logo smallThe Public History workshop is part of a new initiative to promote and recognise this developing field alongside the new biennial RHS Public History Prize. It was the first of what we hope will be an annual event to profile public history and assess its importance, impact and role in contemporary historical studies.

The RHS is excited to be supporting such an innovative approach to the work of historians, which enhances public understanding of the place of the past in today’s social, political and cultural life. But what is public history exactly and why is it important?  The workshop aimed to explore these questions from a number of perspectives as well as focusing on the work of upcoming early career researchers and postgraduates.  The programme for the day interwove keynote addresses by three well-known historians, Pam Cox, Ludmilla Jordanova and Justin Champion, with four presentations by historians starting out on their careers, Daniel Johnson, Mike Mantin, Alexander Hutton and Claire Hayward.

Lawrence Goldman

Lawrence Goldman

The event was opened by IHR Director Lawrence Goldman who paid poignant tribute to the historian of modern Jewish history, David Cesarani, whose death had just been announced. Goldman drew attention to the way Cesarani’s work intersected with pressing educational, political and cultural issues. In a personal reminiscence, especially commissioned by the RHS, Goldman writes, “In a profession that sometimes talks airily and vaguely about ‘public historians’, David Cesarani was the real thing.” One of the aims of the workshop was to dispel any ‘airy’ and ‘vague’ talk and bring a precise focus to what public history is and what it can achieve.

Pam Cox

The first keynote address was given by Pam Cox, Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. She is perhaps best-known for her outstanding series for the BBC – Shopgirls: the True Story Behind the Counter and Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs, both of which provide intimate insights into the daily lives of ordinary working people in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.  She gave a scintillating presentation drawing on the promotional materials produced by the BBC to trail and publicise the series, showing how skilful editing of images and speech can reach audiences unfamiliar with the traditional approaches of academic historians. She explained how her producer urged her not only to encourage her audience to ‘learn’ these histories but also to ‘feel’ them.  Initial reserve about adopting the strategies of broadcasters, which can seem at odds with the methodologies of the historical profession, gave way to excitement at the possibilities opened up by new ways of communicating the past and reaching new audiences.

Daniel Johnson (left) and Jo Fox

The theme of ‘feeling’ as well as ‘thinking’ as a means to understand history and connect with audiences recurred throughout the day. It emerged as one of the central defining features to help us understand what makes public history – or indeed what makes history public. These ideas were further explored in the next session which addressed the theme of public engagement with museums.  Daniel Johnson, a public history MA student at the University of York, talked about his involvement with the Blackpool Museum Project. This is a large-scale development, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which aims to build a museum that captures the spirit and character of Blackpool. Blackpool Council envisages the museum will be “immersive, participatory and inclusive”. Johnson has acted as a volunteer for the project, collecting oral histories and working on cultural events to promote its work. Given Blackpool’s long association with popular entertainment, his talk stressed the interactive, playful approach the museum intends to adopt to engage its audience.

Mike Mantin

Mike Mantin, research fellow at Swansea University for the Wellcome Trust project ‘Disability and Industrial Society’, also addressed approaches to engaging local audiences in their histories. Mantin was co-curator of the exhibition ‘From Pithead to Sick Bed: Disability and the South Welsh Coal industry’ which ran at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea from June to October this year. His paper focused on their attempts to link the historical material with contemporary societal issues through talks, events, podcasts, blogposts and working with local disability groups. He described this as adding “a much-needed conversation on representation, of both disability and labour history in museums.” It was also a plea for academic historians to lead this public conversation themselves.

Ludmilla Jordanova

The second keynote address by Ludmilla Jordanova, Professor of History and Visual Cultures at Durham University and author of the essential text, History in Practice, challenged habitual thinking, not just about public history, but history per se.  After all, she asked, can’t all history be described as being in some sense ‘public’? Titled ‘a provocation’, her talk probed the qualities of public history, defending its importance, for example in historical fiction as practised by the author Jane Smiley, whose recent bruising encounter with Niall Ferguson on BBC R4’s Start the Week, exposed the attitudes some established historians hold about ‘fiction’ as a pathway to historical understanding. But Jordanova also cautioned against the dangers of reductive populism as evidenced in the numerous Top 10 history ‘fact’ lists now so prevalent in some publications. Public history, she made clear, is not the same as ‘selling’ history. Read Jordanova’s  paper in full.

Alexander Hutton square

Alexander Hutton

The afternoon commenced with two thoughtful presentations on what might be termed ‘outsider’ history; that is history conducted by unorthodox practitioners about individuals and groups marginalised in society. Alexander Hutton, a post-doctoral researcher at King’s College London, proposed an alternative model to our ideas about public history.  His doctoral research revealed that well-known historians of the Industrial Revolution developed their ideas through intense interaction with non-historians associated with interest groups such as the adult education movement. For these people history was not “the passive consumption of material produced by experts” we so often assume it to be. It was rather a dynamic, interactive process between professional historians and interested publics, which suggests new ways to engage with the historiography of the Industrial Revolution, as well as other histories.

PHW Claire + Alix square

Claire Hayward (left) and Alix Green

Claire Hayward, a final year PhD student at Kingston University who is working on representations of same-sex love in public history, also looked at individuals and groups who have been omitted from conventional histories and heritage practices, in this case with respect to LGBTQ communities. While there are some high-profile figures such as Oscar Wilde, and more recently Alan Turing, who are commemorated, this masks the vast number of LGBTQ men and women who are eradicated from public memory. She also discussed the gendering of memorialisation, with the history of same-sex love between women even less acknowledged than that between men. The UK, in particular, lags behind both Europe and America in its representation of LGBTQ communities. The talk ended with ideas for the future of commemoration that could represent the existence of past, present and future acts of same-sex love and LGBTQ communities in the UK.

PHW Justin sq. 2

Justin Chamption

The workshop broke into groups to discuss how to advocate public history before Justin Champion gave the final keynote speech of the day. Champion, who is Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London, and President of the Historical Association, gave what was probably the most overtly political address of the workshop in a talk entitled ‘ “Making public, making a difference” – designing research questions with a public purpose.’ He made a powerful case for public history to return to the idea of ‘making a difference’, attacking top-down intervention by government that determined the kinds of research historians should be conducting, particularly in exercises such as the REF which assess funding on the basis of prescribed definitions of ‘impact’. He contrasted this with the more authentic, grass roots evolution of research projects by historians genuinely engaged with their communities and research topics. He made a plea to enquire into why people become historians and have more understanding as to what motivated their choice of research. Respect and latitude to allow these involvements to develop without political pressure was important to achieve the best standards of historical research as well as the highest levels of reciprocal public engagement. Champion wrapped up his talk by asking “is public history by definition a political act?” In a day of some excellent live tweeting this assertion gained the highest number of retweets!

The speech closed a fascinating and stimulating day that left many avenues still to explore.

The RHS and Public History steering committee actively welcome comments about the workshop and ideas for its future as an annual event.  Please send these to RHS Honorary Director of Communications, Jo Fox at info@royalhistsoc.org

Many thanks to the Public History steering committee: Ludmilla Jordanova, Alix Green and Jo Fox.

 

 

ECH Publishing: Submitting to a Journal

What makes a good journal article? First, it must stand on its own. It may be a version of a chapter of a PhD dissertation, but it has to be self-contained. Second, it ought to have a strong and distinctive argument. The standard way to demonstrate this is by reference to the historiography – but it’s not enough (or even, really, at all persuasive) to say that your subject has been ‘neglected’ by the historiography. Some subjects are neglected for a good reason – they’re not interesting or important. You need to show how the historiography will look different by including your paper – what arguments are called into question, what new light is cast on bigger subjects, what new subjects are being developed that command attention. Sometimes people publish articles that give the overarching argument of a PhD thesis; sometimes they pick the richest or most provocative argument (perhaps from a single chapter). Third, you ought to be able to provide convincing evidence in support of your arguments. This isn’t easy within the scope of an article – which ought probably to be 8-10,000 words; it’s a real skill to learn how to select evidence that will fit within these limits and still carry conviction. How do you decide which journal to submit to? (You must only submit the same paper to one at a time.) The best course is to ask yourself which journals have published papers in your field that you have admired, or papers with which you have disagreed and would like to engage. Go for the highest-quality journal that fits this description – the one that publishes the work you consider to be the best in your field. If your work is accepted by that journal, people like you will also recognise it as standing with the best in your field. If you don’t succeed with the first submission, try the next journal down the pecking-order. This is likely to be a more specialised journal. Before you submit your paper, check your chosen journal’s website for their advice to contributors – how to format a submission, how to send it in. It’s polite to format the paper to suit the journal’s house-style; if they have an unusual style, very different from other journals, you can format it in a generic style so that you don’t have to keep re-formatting every time you submit to a new journal. For more details on what happens after your paper has been accepted, see publishing in a journal.

 

 

‘Historians as Outsiders’, Adam I.P. Smith remembers William Brock and Michael O’Brien

Adam I.P. Smith is Honorary Secretary of the Royal Historical Society and Senior Lecturer specialising in American History at University College London (UCL).


In the last twelve months we have lost two great historians of the United States: William Brock and Michael O’Brien.* I remember them both with admiration and affection. They were men of different temperaments, backgrounds and generations, but beneath the surface were some similarities that tell us much about the practice of history at its best.

William died in November 2014 at the age of 98 having enjoyed (and enjoyed is the appropriate word) a long and distinguished career during which he made his name as one of the first generation of British scholars to write about the United States. In every decade from the 1930s to the 2000s, William published a book or an article, beginning with a study of Lord Liverpool, via a major body of work on nineteenth- and then twentieth-century American political history and ending with a brilliant study of Lord Bryce, a British observer of America of even older vintage than William.

(c) James Terence Hart Dyke; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Brock’s portrait in Selwyn College, Cambridge. (c) James Terence Hart Dyke; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When I was a graduate student at Cambridge in the 90s, William took me under his wing, sending me a note inviting me to dinner in his college (the note said: “Come to High Table at Selwyn on Wednesday. Bring a Gown. Yrs, W. R. Brock”). He seemed, and was, almost Victorian. He had been supervised by G. M. Trevelyan, he told me in his booming voice. He might as well have said he’d met Mr Gladstone, so impossibly venerable did that seem. With his large beak-like nose and his longish white hair, his tall stooping frame and his sharp blue eyes he looked as if he had walked out of a Tenniel cartoon inPunch. In his late years, he coped with deafness in a manner that I recommend we all adopt: when he couldn’t hear what you said (which was often) he just guffawed merrily as if you’d made an eruditely witty observation. He told me stories about Cambridge in the 30s when he had first come up as an undergraduate to Trinity College, about his war service (in Jamaica: he had a jolly good war), about a brief stint teaching at Eton and about life in postwar Cambridge where he returned as a fellow in 1947 and remained for the rest of his life, apart from a stint in Glasgow as the Chair of Modern History. As a historian, William was endlessly fascinated by how politics is shaped by institutions and by culture (though “culture” was not a term he tended to use). He wrote at a vigorous pace. His Glasgow colleague, Peter Parish (my own PhD supervisor) recalled that William would turn up every morning in the department office with sheafs of hand-written prose on yellow paper that he would press into the hands of the secretary to type up “in time for lunch”.

Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien

Michael, who died in May 2015 at the age of just 67, only a couple of months away from retirement came from a working class background in the West Country. His career began and ended, like William’s, at Cambridge. But unable to get a job in the UK when he completed his PhD in the 1970s (despite having published a pathbreaking article in theAmerican Historical Review while in only his second year as a research student), he went to the US where he taught for nearly a quarter of a century, mostly at Miami University in Ohio, before returning to Cambridge in 2002. Michael had a very dry sense of humour and a wry manner that suggested he was perpetually on the outside looking in, even when, in fact, he seemed to slot very neatly into the intellectual life of Cambridge, just as he did the wider community of intellectual historians in which he had become so influential. While William launched his scholarship with a redemption of the reputation of Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister and spent much of the rest of his career studying senior American politicians, Michael’s intellectual project was to take seriously what had once been known, with a hint of irony or defensiveness as the “mind of the South.” His great two-volume work, Conjectures of Order, takes southern antebellum intellectuals seriously, reconstructing, in an amazing feat of historical imagination, how they sought to balance modernity with the slave system into which they were bound by multiple ties. Where William dealt in the language of “ideology”, partisanship and policy-making, the conceptual tools of Michael’s trade were Romanticism or historicism. No doubt perceiving William’s history as unnecessarily positivist, Michael was fascinated by the diversity and particularity of experience and understanding.

Both fierce intellects who expected a high standard of precision in the use of language, they were the product of contrasting intellectual influences. Yet, reading them both recently, and reflecting on their characters as I saw them, I am struck by how much they shared.

Most obviously they both made major interventions into their respective fields. In fact both opened up areas of scholarly research where old dogmas had long remained unchallenged. In Michael’s case the lazy assumption that the Old South had no intellectual tradition to speak of, or if it did, that it was mindless reaction; in William’s case, with his astonishing An American Crisis (1963), rejecting the canard that post-Civil War Reconstruction was a period of unmitigated disaster. Along with John Hope Franklin, William Brock laid the basis for the total reorientation of that fraught period in American history. What was once a “tragic era” became, by the time of Eric Foner’s great synthesis of 1988, an “unfinished revolution” in which the seeds of the twentieth century civil rights movement were sown.

Both Michael and William were generous to younger scholars and saw their role as intellectuals in part to nurture others and share ideas. If something was worth saying, both thought, it was worth saying well. Neither had any trace of pomposity. Confident in their own intellects, neither had the slightest desire, as so many academics so tediously do, to parade their learning on the page. They understood themselves to be engaged in a literary project when they wrote history. If the challenge of all historical writing is to show us a muddled world with clarity and precision (and perhaps wit), they both triumphed as few other historians do. They saw history as an eternally on-going conversation about how people imagine their world. Neither was under any illusion they would ever have the last word even while writing with an Olympian confidence in their own judgement.

Both used imagery to bring ideas alive. Both had a knack for describing the characters that drove their stories. No one other than Michael is likely to have described reading Francis Lieber’s letters as like “overhearing someone at the Athaneum Club” or would have written that William Gilmore Sims, “sat, like the thinking man’s Mr Pickwick, in the middle of the world he belonged to.” For William, Andrew Jackson was a man of “violent temper who had learned to control and use a rage when it suited him without letting it distort his judgement; but the temperament of a duelist remained, he would not forgive an insult and he saw his political opponents as personal enemies.” Probably no one other than William is likely to have explained in the Preface of a book, as he did in The Character of American History (1959), “the footnotes are intended to illustrate and occasionally to amuse.”

They shared a commitment to clarity in their writing and to understanding people on their own terms, including the intellectual frameworks that shaped their worlds. These things were more important, in my view, than the divergence of their subject matter or the self-consciousness of their methodology or the generational gulf that separated them.

Unlike most American historians of America who write, overtly, as citizens as well as scholars, deliberately seeking “usable pasts”, William and Michael valued their status as outsiders. (A point made about Michael in a lovely obit by Joel Isaac and Samuel James). They made no claims to superior insight because of their detachment, simply that they observed their subjects with openness, curiosity and a lack of moral judgement. They were not writing about “we”, but nor were they writing as a Victorian explorer might, about “them”.

In this, as in so many other ways, they are an example to all of us who aspire to write history. I miss them.

*This post is an extended version of remarks I made at a session remembering Brock and O’Brien at the 2015 BrANCH Conference in Cambridge. Writing this the morning after I spoke I am no doubt also channeling the thoughts and reflections of the other contributors to that session, especially John Thompson who was supervised by William and who supervised Michael. John spoke very movingly about both men, who he knew far, far better than I.

 

In Black History Month Ryan Hanley reconsiders his research on slavery and abolition

Ryan-Hanley-300x200Ryan Hanley won the RHS 2015 Alexander Prize for his article ‘Calvinism, Proslavery and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’, Slavery & Abolition 35:1 (2015) (published online in 2014). Dr Ryan Hanley is Salvesen Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford.


The article for which I was awarded this year’s Alexander Prize, forced me to reconsider a few things I had taken for granted as a historian of slavery and abolition. Now, during Black History Month, I’d like to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities facing historians interested in the study of black people in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain.

October is Black History Month in the UK.  As historians working in this country, this is an opportunity for us to focus especially on aspects of our shared past which had for a long time been, systematically and quite purposefully, elided from our ‘national story’.

This includes Britain’s massive financial and ideological investment in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade—not an insignificant ‘small part of our long history’ as is often (I think cynically) claimed, but an almost 300-year-long cycle of brutal exploitation, racist subjugation, and state-sanctioned murder. It had direct and catastrophic demographic consequences for parts of Africa. It undergirded a system of global capitalism that was to contribute, very significantly, to Britain’s rise to leading world-power status during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The compensation monies paid out to slave-owners were reinvested into domestic infrastructure, linking slavery in a very tangible way to much-cherished episodes of the Whiggish ‘national story’, such as the expansion of the railways during the nineteenth century. As reparationists like Verene Shepherd argue, it also indirectly led to on-going ‘poverty, illiteracy and public health crises’ in the Caribbean. Many historians—including me—would suggest that slavery is a root cause for some of the grossest manifestations of global economic disparity and domestic social inequality visible in our communities today.

RH Equiano

The portrait often supposed to depict Equiano

Yet, enormous though slavery is in the landscape of our shared history, it is not the whole story of how black and white people interacted during the same period. While historians like me, who are interested in recovering the experiences black people in Britain during the long eighteenth century, have to consider slavery and abolition at some point, we are also struck by how central a role black people played in a whole host of the other movements that (to borrow a cliché) ‘made Britain what it is today’. Nevertheless, it is telling that most of the ‘black heroes’ (in itself an unhelpful paradigm, as David Olusoga has recently pointed out) drawn from this period are primarily remembered through their crucial interventions in the abolitionist movements. For example, most of us will recognise the portrait that is often supposed to depict the famous black abolitionist Olaudah Equiano.

RHWedderburn square

Robert Wedderburn

Fewer will know about Robert Wedderburn, the radical writer and orator who played a central part in the campaign for domestic political reform during the early nineteenth century. He was almost certainly involved in the ‘Cato Street conspiracy’ to murder Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and his cabinet in 1820, for which five men including William Davidson, Wedderburn’s friend and another ‘mulatto’ radical, were executed. Even those who do know about Wedderburn are still more likely to remember him for his antislavery writing than his radical activities.

RH Davidson

William Davidson

Black History Month prompts us to broaden our understanding of the contributions made by black people to British society, and thereby improve our understanding of British history more generally. For eighteenth-centuryists, this demands that we cast aside a couple of assumptions, namely:

1) That the only thing black people in eighteenth-century Britain were interested in was slavery.

2) That those black people who were interested in slavery all thought about it in exactly the same ways.

RH Sancho

Ignatius Sancho

RH Soubise

‘A Mungo Macaroni’, believed to be based on Julius Soubise

The first of these assumptions is easy to challenge. The archives are full of counterexamples. As well as Wedderburn and Davidson, we might name Ignatius Sancho, valet to the Duke and Duchess of Montagu and later an independent shopkeeper, who was the first black person in Britain who we know to have voted in a parliamentary election. Sancho was a composer and music theorist, known to his (predominately white) friends as their ‘oracle’. His posthumously published Letters demonstrate his commitment as much to literary sensibility and polite sociability as to any single political issue. (He is, incidentally, the subject of a wonderful one-man show starring Paterson Joseph, which is currently touring the US.) We might think also of his young friend, the scandalous Julius Soubise, who, if reports are to be believed, was more interested in fine clothes, fine wine and sexual conquest than intervening in the issue of slavery. These are just two well-off and well-known examples; a great many more black people participated in British movements and societies without ever accruing such a degree of celebrity. Add to these the numerous black ministers and preachers who toured the country—men like Boston King and John Jea—and the picture we are left with is one of far greater intellectual and ideological heterogeneity than is often supposed.

Challenging the second assumption can take us into some more problematic, even disturbing territory. While abolitionists like Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano played a hugely important role in British social and political history, not all black intellectuals shared their views. Some of the most troubling of these relationships with slavery were mediated by religion. The Methodist minister and former slave John Jea, for example, preached passivity and forgiveness to the enslaved, assuring them that true (i.e. spiritual) emancipation would be waiting for them in the afterlife. My article on James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, the first black author to be published in Britain, suggests that his near-lifelong involvement with Calvinism, and in particular with slave-owning British Calvinists, may help to explain why his autobiography does not challenge, and at times appears to condone, enslavement as a means of Christianising Africans. (We should note, of course, that Gronniosaw’s text was recorded by an amanuensis [scribe] and therefore may not uncomplicatedly reflect his own private views, but given the circumstances surrounding its publication it is likely that he at least publically expressed the sentiments recorded in his autobiography.) In its support of proslavery religious thought Gronniosaw’s work echoed that of Jacobus Capitein, a black Dutch Reformed minister whose academic dissertation ‘examining the question: is slavery compatible with Christian freedom, or not?’ was published in Leiden in 1742.  Moreover, a number of the highest-profile African visitors to Britain during this period, such as Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and William Ansah Sessarakoo, were themselves slave traders.

RH Diallo & Sessarakoo

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (left) and William Ansah Sessarakoo (right)

Of course, this does not mean that we cannot acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of black abolitionists, which, I reiterate, were of central importance to the British campaigns against slavery. Nor should it distract us from the fact that by far the majority of proslavery argument came from self-interested white slave owners, or indeed that Europe has benefitted from the transatlantic slave trade while sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean have suffered. But there is room to acknowledge that, contrary to what some commentators like Edward Long said about them at the time, black people in eighteenth-century Britain were human beings, and were thus subject to historical contingency, cultural bias and social influence. Like their white peers, some of them were wrong about slavery.

As historians we have an obligation to take seriously what these black intellectuals said, even when it is not what we were hoping to hear. But we should also note that, in a roundabout way, even these misguided figures ultimately helped improve the lives of free and enslaved people in Britain and its colonies. They proved to a sceptical British public that black people were capable of intellectual, spiritual and moral understanding at the highest level, and in doing so debunked one of the fundamental myths used to justify slavery. While acknowledging the complexities that surround the formation and dissemination of some of these ideas, we should celebrate these hard-won achievements as fundamental to the development of our shared history—or, if you prefer, our ‘national story’.

Go to History Matters conference video about why so few black students pursue history at Higher Education level.

Go to RHS News

 

History Matters Conference video

On Saturday 25 April, a conference was held to discuss why there are so few history students and teachers of African and Caribbean heritage. A short video was made of the conference highlighting the key issues, which you can view here.

Some disturbing facts:

  • Last year only three Black students were admitted to train as History teacher
  • Official statistics indicate that History is the third most unpopular subject among Black undergraduates
  • During 2012/13 there were 1340 Black undergraduates studying History, 1.8% of the total
  • At present it is estimated that there are less than 10 Black PhD students studying History in the country
  • Why are so few Black students studying History?
  • Why are there so few Black teachers of History in our schools?
  • Why are there so few Black academic historians?
  • Why do some young black people view History as just a ‘white middle-class pursuit’, when history is so popular at community level?

The History Matters Conference explored these questions aiming to understand why such low numbers of Black students are engaging with History as a subject. Teachers, school and university students, as well as professional historians convened to discuss their experiences of studying history and to suggest ways forward. The objectives were to identify the reasons for this under-representation and to encourage more young black people to study history.

‘Black and ethnic minorities still have mountains to climb in Higher Education’, Times Higher Education, 5 November 2015

History Matters logo‘Only three black applicants win places to train as history teachers’, The Observer, 22 March 2014

More information