Historian Highlight is a new series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students researching in unprecedented times. In the second post in the series, George Severs explains his research into the history of HIV/AIDS activism in England in the late twentieth century.Read more
By Kate McGregor (@ks_mcgregor)
David Lyndsay is perhaps Scotland’s best, but least well known, poet and playwright. Yet his work both reflects the vibrant culture of early modern Scotland and the deeply political ramifications drama could have during this period. One could imagine that the performance of a play written by Lyndsay was an eagerly anticipated event. The Great Hall of Linlithgow Palace was in January 1540 packed with the lairds and ladies of the Scottish court. With a fire crackling, the sights and smells of the Christmas season all around, a hush would surely have descended on the hall for the centre piece entertainment by Lyndsay.Read more
By Nicole Sithole
Charles van Onselen, The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and from South Africa, circa 1902-1955. (Jonathan Ball, 2019), £25.00.
The Night Trains is a riveting account of the gruesome experiences of black men from the Sul du Save in Mozambique, on board ghostly night trains which transported them back and forth to the coal and gold mines in South Africa. Over a period of four decades, these trains operated on the Eastern Main Line which connected Johannesburg to Lourenço Marques (Maputo). These trains acted as agents of underdevelopment for black societies in the Sul du Save through the mass exportation of men to the labour hungry mines. This succinct book brings to the fore a topic that has, to the author’s surprise, not solicited much historical attention. This is even though “the Eastern Main Line and the seemingly endless supply of black labour that it conveyed across the face of the southern African plateau formed the umbilical cord and lifeblood that gave birth to the mining revolution that took place on the Witwatersrand between the two world wars.”1Read more
By Rebecca Goldsmith (@rebeccagold123)
The desire to recover ‘lost voices’ in the archives is by no means a new impulse. It has underpinned entire fields and ‘turns’ in the historical discipline. Nevertheless, there is something new in the recent attempts made by scholars in modern British history to recover the ‘vernacular’. Historians spanning Jon Lawrence, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and David Cowan have turned to the unpublished field notes of twentieth-century social-science, attempting to ‘re-use’ the archived testimony of individuals interviewed within past research encounters to answer new questions. These field notes offer a unique means of accessing the thoughts and feelings of ordinary people in the past. My own research into the popular political culture surrounding the 1945 general election uses this material to present a vernacular, grassroots account of Britain’s social democracy.Read more
On January 13 2021 the Irish Taoiseach Michéal Martin made a public apology to the survivors of mother and baby homes. ‘It is the duty of a republic’ he said, ‘to accept parts of our history which are deeply uncomfortable’. Martin’s predecessors made similar apologies. In May 1999, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologised to victims of Industrial Schools, offering ‘a sincere and long overdue apology…for our collective failure to intervene’. In February 2013, Enda Kenny apologised to victims of Magdalen Laundries; ‘I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the government, and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them’. However, for many, these institutions are not simply a thing of the past; their legacy, and the actions of the current government, continue to impact negatively on the lives of survivors.Read more
By Rory Bannerman (@BannermanRory)
If there is a work of sociology that has held more attention, generated more discussion, and created more controversy than any other, it is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Released in 1905, its premise is based on Weber’s observation that Protestants, in particular Calvinists, appear to be more economically prosperous than their Catholic counterparts. This looked to be the case at both the individual and national levels. His research set out to find out if there was an element in Protestant thinking that was uniquely compatible with engaging in capitalism that would explain this. Read more
By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)
In early January 2020, a newsletter disclosed an unknown pneumonia spreading through Wuhan, China.[i] This understated report failed to lade me with extreme anxiety on an otherwise ordinary day in Cambridge. Many of my peers did not anticipate any interruption to our annual schedule of international trips, but lockdowns and travel restrictions were looming. The infectious virus, later named as COVID-19, fermented an ongoing crisis that enveloped the world within months. It marks an unusual epoch when the globalised world has suddenly become suspended with immobility.Read more
By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)
The sari as national dress was contested across the early twentieth century as people imagined visions of postcolonial national futurity. Amongst Indian Muslims, many scholars have identified an Islamisation in dress reform from the late nineteenth century. National, religious, regional and transnational modalities ceded into dress debates within various Urdu periodicals read by cross-religious Urdu reading publics. Women’s magazines also discussed local and transnational shifts in conflicting identifications of a unifying mulki [national] or qaumi [community] dress. This comportment project emerged long before a separate nation for Muslims became a viable reality. In 1927, an Ismat article entitled “Hamari Labaas” (Our Clothing) was written in response to a 1926 article on Muslim women’s clothing by male author, Mohammad Zafar. The disgruntled Hamshir Nalwar from South India contested Zafar’s assertion of the superiority of pajama dupatta [trousers and veil] over saris. According to Zafar, saris displayed the nakedness of the body. Nalwar, in contrast, states that Muslim women tie their saris in a different way to Brahmin (high-caste) women so that they remain identifiable from Hindus through wrapping techniques and supplementary clothing items such as jackets, sari corners [anchal] and skirts [lengha]. In doing so, she exalts southern regionality over religion in observing dress customs. This response questions the homogenous construction of a “qaumi Muslim labaas” [national Muslim dress] and reminds us of the distinct junctures of race and class between northern and southern India. Reformers discussing “qaumi Muslim labaas” variously cited Islamic sources of authority (Quran and the Sunnah), questioned the sari’s regional popularity in east Bengal and drew on localised connections across the Indian Ocean (Burma, Malaya and Jeddah) to argue that different Muslim communities had their own dress. Others looked beyond the distinction of saris and shalwars [trousers] to argue that dress was “qaumi” if it was comfortable, modest, simple, and economical [iqtisadi] and “pak saaf” [ritually pure and clean]. This simpler, purer choice was actually very similar to the gendered elements of dress reform advocated by Hindu reformers.
Image: Ravi Varma, “Woman holding a fan” (c.1895- 1900), this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas.
 The Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League in 1940 formally advocated the establishment of a separate homeland for Muslims.
By George Pliotis (@gpliotis)
How do we picture ancient Romans? In the case of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4BC-65AD), eminent littérateur and statesman of his day, we have no contemporary depiction; but something about this bust (which most likely dates to the Hellenistic period) has made it a persistently popular visualisation since the end of the 16th century.
The story seems to have begun with the Italian antiquarian Fulvio Orsini, who included an image of the bust in his 1598 Imagines Illustrium and, despite its lack of authentic inscription, christened it “Seneca”. His justification was that the figure resembled an image in a Roman contorniate (a kind of medallion) that allegedly bore an inscription of Seneca’s name. However, no record of that contorniate remains. We may therefore suspect that Orsini’s (mis)identification was a consequence of the way the bust manifests an appealing image of Seneca: beyond resembling the “senile body” mentioned by Tacitus, this elderly, ascetic figure, haggard but still possessing an intense gaze, capures much of what we want to see when we read Seneca — the sexagenerian castigator of vice, exhorter to the life of Stoic simplicity, and sage counsel to the wayward emperor Nero.
Such idealisations are hard to shrug. Today, Seneca has proved a popular figure amid interest in mindfulness and self-help, often presented as a voice of ancient wisdom in a way that takes us back to the wizened look of this “Pseudo-Seneca”: not for nothing will you still find that very image attached to his name. “False” or not, it is an image that’ll be with us for some time.
Campbell R. (ed., tr.), Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Penguin: 2004).
Strandman, B., “The Pseudo-Seneca Problem”, Konsthistorisk tindskrift/ Journal of Art History 19.1-4 (1950), pp.53-93.
Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Faculty of Classics, Cambridge: https://museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/seneca-so-called.
By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)
Before the 1920s, visual renderings of the seafloor largely relied on drawings and engravings. This was true even in places where bodies routinely inhabited the underwater, such as the pearl fisheries of Ceylon. Here, photography did play a role: on the shore and on the decks of colonial steamers, British administrators and elite local and European visitors used photography as a tool of art, surveillance, documentation and science.
In the early twentieth century, Ceylon was a laboratory for the biology of the tropical seas. This photograph here, for instance, was made over the course of a of a Royal Society sponsored investigation into the conditions of the fisheries. In one trawl-netting exercise to deduce which fish fed on pearl-bearing oysters, a suckerfish or remora was brought up. The diver in the photograph is unnamed, and the composition is staged, with the fish placed deliberately on the man’s back to attest to its suction-generating maw. The image is a testament to both direct and indirect violence wrought under colonialism on environments and bodies. But it also invokes a space between the sea and land: a fish out of water, a body that was often submerged within it; a place within photography’s reach which gestured also at spaces that—at this point in time—still lay beyond it.
Image credits: Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar (London, 1903), vol. I, 65.
This axe can now be found at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. It was used on 12 January 1830, to execute Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a maid, and Friðrik Sigurðsson, a farmhand, for their role in the murders of ‘womanizer’, Natan Ketilsson, and Pétur Jónsson, an unfortunate bystanding victim. The crime took place in 1828 at Natan’s farm, Illugastaðir, where they lived and worked. This was the last execution to be carried out on Icelandic soil. Although, Iceland did not abolish capital punishment until 1928.Read more
By Xinyi Wen (@HPSWarburgian)
Red, umber, carmine, massicot yellow, ultramarine… in a 15×15 inches humble drawer, 63 kinds of pigments constituted a vibrant, colourful world. Each pigment was held in a labelled paper box lining inside the wooden grid, indicating these ingredients’ mobility and their flexibility of spatial arrangement. This drawer, together with other 28 counterparts of seeds, stones, fruits, roots, and animal parts, made up the cabinet of John Francis Vigani (c. 1650–1712), the first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge.Read more
By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)
Basking in the sacred light, the Virgin Mary is greeted by Gabriel in an oriental wooden house ornamented with delicate lines and patterns (fig. 1). This unique Annunciation, as one of the fifteen hybridised images, appeared in a seventeenth-century print for Chinese rosary prayers. Its source version was Evangelicae historiae imagines, which was published in 1593 (fig. 2). The Portuguese prelate João da Rocha (1565–1623) is believed to have ‘translated’ these copperplates into indigenous-inspired woodcuts in Nanjing, a vibrant city in East China. This endeavour was completed in around 1620, after the local persecution of Christians which erupted in 1616 when European missionaries were arrested and repatriated to Macao.Read more
By Miles Kempton (https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/people/miles-kempton)
This image shows a chimpanzee painting; not an abstract portrait of a chimpanzee, but a painting by one. The artist was Congo (1954-64), a captive chimpanzee at London Zoo who in the late 1950s caused a scientific and artistic sensation with his uncanny aptitude for painting and drawing. Desmond Morris – zoologist, broadcaster, and author of the international bestseller The Naked Ape (1967) – was behind it all. Between 1956 and 1959, he made Congo the subject of a scientific-cum-artistic experiment into ‘the biology of art’. For Morris, Congo’s pictures were not mere ‘random scratchings’ but displayed the ‘germ… of visual patterning’.Read more