Posts Tagged ‘Empire’

Global History seminar
Frank Trentmann (Birkbeck)
17 March 2010
The Consumption of Culture – A Global History

This is a guest post by Bianca Harrisskitt, one of IHR Digital’s interns from the University of Leicester.

1347810149The growth of consumerism is a topic that seems to be receiving ever increasing academic attention, as historians, sociologists, economists and many others seek to study and explain the rise of the consumer culture. Professor Frank Trentmann of Birkbeck College delivered a lecture in March 2010 called ‘The Consumption of Culture’, as part of a larger project entitled ‘the Consuming Passion’, which sought to chart the history of consumption from 1600 to the present day.

The speaker identifies the two main problems which plague the historical understanding of the place of global developments and empire within the history of consumption. These include, firstly, the lack of research by historians on the period 1700 to 1900 and secondly, the ‘power vacuum’ in most consumer theories. Thus, in this lecture, the speaker strives to cover the 1700 to 1900 period, whilst paying attention to the role that power plays in the pattern of consumption.

In order to do this, Professor Trentmann aims to address four thematic areas of the history of consumption: the expansion of ‘drug foods’ (including chocolate, tea, coffee and sugar), slavery, the role of the consumer within imperial relations and the value of objects in relation to place. Through exploring these tropes Professor Trentmann aims to pinpoint how ‘empire’ impacted on consumers, and furthermore if and how consumers impacted on ‘empire’.

Additionally, the importance of time and the differences that occur over different time periods are considered throughout the speech. For example, Trentmann points out that tea is a typical example of the way in which exotic products embedded colonial meanings as well as colonial trade in ordinary lives in the eighteenth century, highlighting the impact of empire on consumers. However, the speaker states that whilst this is right for the eighteenth century, it does not necessarily apply to subsequent centuries. Patterns change over time, and Professor Trentmann goes to great lengths to demonstrate this.

On a concluding note, although the podcast is incomplete and we therefore do not get to hear Professor Trentmann elaborate on his final two thematic areas, his main argument is clear; it is absolutely crucial to engage with the entire time period, from 1600 up until the present day in addition to paying close attention to the role of power in order to understand the topic as a whole. Professor Trentmann therefore provides an informative and stimulating overview of the historical development of consumption and the approach needed in order to study.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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Digital History
From Cradle to Antipodean Grave: Reconstructing 19th Century Criminal Lives
Hamish Maxwell-Stewart (Tasmania)
8 May 2012


Senate House Paper_Page_18In this session of the Digital History seminar, streamed live on 8 May Hamish Maxwell-Stewart gave a fascinating talk about reconstructing the lives of convicts taken to Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Using digital tools (but not going too much into them) Maxwell-Stewart looks at what the records tell us – and it would seem they tell us a lot.  We have information on rates of illness and life expectancy; we have details about punishments and work-loads for convicts; we also have information about repeat offenders.  More than this, though, the project that Maxwell-Stewart is working on is enabling families in Tasmania to reconstruct their family pasts and reconcile themselves with a history that might well have a criminal basis.

This project has produced the Founders & Survivors: Australian life courses in historical context 1803-1920 website, which, as Maxwell-Stewart notes, is the result of a partnership between historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers.  The project seeks to record and study the founding population of 73,000 men, women and children who were transported to Tasmania.  Indeed, Maxwell-Stewart actively encourages similar collaborations believing that University historians still do not take genealogy or family historians seriously despite the amazing evidence that have been collected in those pursuits.

As an example of the information contained in the site I looked up my surname ‘Phillpott’.  There were no items under that spelling, although I am aware that the spelling of the name has changed over the centuries.  Most of my family resided in Kent during this period, and there is one record that contains a place of birth of Hollingbourne in Kent of a John Philpott.  I don’t think he is a direct relation, but his record shows that he was born in 1808, was married to Elizabeth and had one child.  John was a labourer and a protestant.  He was convicted of stealing bim cloths (I’m not entirely sure what those are?  Any ideas?).  Previous convictions are interesting: John Philpott was convicted for releasing a donkey from a pound and for assaulting a constable.  For his various crimes John Philpott was taken from Sheerness to Australia on-board the Westmoreland under John Brigstock.  The journey took 116 days.  It is certainly an interesting and highly useful resource.

 To listen to this podcast or watch the video click here.



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Imperial and World History seminar
15 October 2012
Tom Bentley (University of Sussex)
Reshaping the past: the lingering colonial present

This podcast is about 20 minutes long.

Gravestones after Herero Genocide

Violence is a driving force of colonialism, but it is not the only narrative available.  There is another that glosses Empire still in its contemporary terms: adventure, chivalry, civilising, and the saving of heathen souls.  That narrative, whilst more subdued than in the past, still exists.  You only need to look as far as the London Olympics Opening Ceremony to see a glimpse of that.

Tom Bentley’s paper looks at the present day view of the colonial past through four examples of apologies made by western leaders.

1)      Germany to the Herero (Namibia) for genocide – 2004

2)      Belgium for their complicity in the assassination of the then Republic of Congo’s leader – 2002

3)      Italy to Libya regarding colonisation – 2008

4)      Britain to Northern Ireland for Bloody Sunday – 2010

Bentley examines the language used in these apologies and asks why they are being made and for whom.  For example leaders often use apologies for their own agenda; cultivating an image of themselves as distant from previous governments and from those who had caused the act in the first place.  They talk to their own people, more than those whom they are making the apology.  The apology also seems to attempt a circumvention of plans to seek reparations by distancing their government from those who had caused the atrocity in the first place.

Secondly, Bentley looks at the familiar narratives in the apology.  The words sanitise the past and offer only an apology for one particular event.  These apologises are not, for example, for the entire colonisation programme, but for one blip where things went wrong.  The apology also serves the present, asking something of those they are apologising to and often seeking a gain for themselves.

Finally, the apology seeks to stamp on the event a conclusive official account of the event.  The apologiser is authorising a particular history of an event and making it official.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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Franco-British History
8 December 2011
Steven Pincus (Yale University)
Gulliver’s Travels, Political Economy, and Empire: The Reconfiguration of the British Empire in the Age of Walpole

Abstract (taken from the Franco-British History progamme): Why did Jonathan Swift have Lemuel Gulliver condemn modern colonies at the end of Book IV of Gulliver’s travels? Literary critics have affirmed, by and large, that Gulliver’s statements reflect Swift’s profound anti-colonial sentiments. Historians (Wilson, Armitage et. al) by contrast imply that Swift’s utterances could have little to do with empire because there was no debate about empire before the late 1730s. I, argue, by contrast that there was a broad pan-imperial crisis ca. 1715-1725 that involved a profound tripartite debate over imperial political economy among Dissident Whigs, Walpoleian Whigs, and Tories. Swift scholars have misunderstood Swift’s contribution because they have positioned Swift within a narrow Anglo-Irish dispute that could only involve religion and the constitution. Swift, I maintain, disliked modern commercial colonies of the sort advocated by Dissident Whigs. He thought proper, as opposed to modern colonies, should provide precious metals or valuable commodities (sugar, tobacco) to fuel the metropolitan economy. Swift’s disagreement with the Walpoleian Whigs was that they failed to appreciate that Ireland was properly a separate kingdom rather than a colony.

To listen to the podcast click here.

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Today we have two abstracts from the Franco-British History seminar held at the Sorbonne, France.  Both sessions look at Empire, in particular the British Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  However, there the similarities end.  The first paper (held in April last year) looks at cartography, and in particular examines the development of Imperial maps and their role in imagining the British Empire.  The second paper (held in December) examines the views expressed by Sir Winston Churchill on the subject of imperial Britain providing a much more politically-centric view of the Empire in its dying days.

Franco-British History
7 April 2011
Isabelle Avilla (Paris 4)
Cartes du monde britannique, 1885-1914
Translation: British World Maps 1885-1914

What can we tell about British national identity through a study of maps of empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s?  At a time of growing doubts about the supremacy of Britain in the world; doubts related to both the context of economic depression and international rivalries, as well as events such as the Boer war and the death of Queen Victoria, how were the British depicted on world maps?  Geography and cartography were one way for Britain to retain its hegemonic position in the world.  This new way of thinking about geography and cartography was considered by many geographers as essential to the education of citizens that they lived not on an island but in an empire.  Those British citizens who learnt how to read maps could feel proud to belong to the British nation and enable some to forget their fear that Britain was in decline.

Note: This paper was presented in French


Franco-British History
1 December 2011
Richard Toye (University of Exeter), autour de son livre Churchill’s Empire. The World That Made Him and the World He Made (2010)

‘I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.’ These notorious words, spoken by Churchill in 1942, encapsulate his image as an imperial die-hard, implacably opposed to colonial freedom – a reputation that has prevailed, and which Churchill willingly embraced to further his policies. Yet, as a youthful minister at the Colonial Office before World War I, his political opponents had seen him as a Little Englander and a danger to the Empire. Placing Churchill in the context of his times and his contemporaries, this paper evaluates his position on key Imperial questions and examines what was conventional about Churchill’s opinions and what was unique.

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