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Alejandro Barrett Lopez – Historian Highlight

By Alejandro Barrett Lopez (@Alebarr_1889), interviewed by Alex White (@alex_j_white)

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 fifth post in the series, Alejandro Barrett Lopez talks about his Masters’ course in World History and his research into anti-piracy campaigns in nineteenth-century in Southeast Asia.

What are you currently researching?

I’m currently researching the European suppression of piracy in Southeast Asia from about 1840 to 1885, focusing specifically on the British and Spanish empires in Borneo and the Sulu Sea. I find it very interesting because the fight against pirates tells us more about those doing the fighting than the pirates themselves. The pirate is the quintessential threat to any empire – much more, I think, than even rival empires. A pirate negates the authority which empires wish to project: they defy territorial waters, attack trade, and don’t answer to authority. So, I look at what pirates in nineteenth-century Southeast Asia represent to Spain and Britain. What do representatives of each empire stress about the pirate threat? For the Spanish, a lot of it comes to religious and civilisational panic – because the pirates were predominantly Muslim and attacking Catholic settlements. For the British, the threat is understood more as a challenge to free trade and international commerce.

What led you to research this topic?

When I was an undergraduate, I originally wanted to become a medievalist. I was hoping to research the diplomatic relations between the Byzantine Empire and the Crusading States – as part of this, I decided to try to read every book written by Sir Steven Runciman, whose work had got me interested in the Byzantine Empire in the first place. For whatever reason, the only book which Runciman wrote which was not about mediaeval Byzantium or the Crusades was The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946. The so-called White Rajahs, especially Sir James and Charles Brooke, were major anti-piratical figures from 1841 to 1917. The book got me hooked first onto Sir James Brooke, who lived as a semi-independent prince in Borneo and fought pirates there, and afterwards my interest resulted in my switching focus from the twelfth-century Levant to nineteenth century Borneo.

What is one thing you wish more people understood about your topic, and why?

My research deals heavily with pirates, so I suppose it would be nice if the general understanding of pirates could move on slightly from the Caribbean Golden Age of Piracy. I enjoy the history of Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Henry Avery as much as the next fellow. However, Golden Age pirates do tend to be overrepresented in media through Pirates of the Caribbean, the Assassin’s Creed games and a recent Netflix programme. There are so many more fantastic pirates who could be represented. Piracy has likely been around as long as maritime commerce has existed, and the fact that people’s perception of it tends to stall in the seventeenth century could do with some rectification.

What is one of your favourite historical sources?

I quite like reading the personal writings of anyone very opinionated. Reading other people’s letters is always enjoyable, but it certainly helps with passing the time if they are very passionate, or histrionic, or otherwise entertaining. The source which epitomises that experience for me are the letters of Sir James Brooke. Brooke really fits into the stereotypical image of the British Imperial Adventurer, and his personal letters are often very funny: in one letter to his mother, he casually asks if she could buy him a volley gun. His letters are also very relatable to me as someone who is awful at responding to emails. Nearly every letter contains an apology for the tardiness of the message, with the casual explanation that he had been shot in the arm in a raid. They’re all fantastically enjoyable.

How have adapted your work to suit current travel restrictions? Has it changed how you approach your topic, or the kinds of sources you use?

The most obvious effect which the restrictions have had on my work is that I cannot travel to Spain to use archives in Seville and Madrid. The same sadly applies to the National Archives, which I managed to visit only once before the closure. I am lucky, however, that it was quite popular during the nineteenth century to publish one’s journal or letters. The majority of the Spanish sources which I am using, for example, are published histories of the Philippines written by colonial administrators. They are written in a very heroic vein and the chapters from the discovery of the Philippines until about the 1820s are not terribly useful, but thereafter the account is usually laced with the personal experiences of this administrator as well as copies of memoranda and speeches.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?

It sounds trite, but to have fun with it. I have met a few historians in the past who treat their chosen line of academic work as some burdensome task which they have to bear. This can be the case with a lot of sources and histories – I certainly do not enjoy reading about internal deportations or the separation of Iranun families. That being said, I try to keep in mind that my research is often just glorified snooping and gossiping. I read people’s private letters to their friends and families and am therefore often privy to family or friendly gossip that must have been quite the scandal at the time. The fact that the people are long dead is immaterial to me. I like to think of many of the people I study as my friends, and it certainly makes the task of researching more enjoyable.

And the worst?

It is not quite a single piece of advice, but people often try to nudge my academic interests one way or another. Sometimes that advice is valid and it is then certainly followed. But there have been people who, in the past, have scoffed at my research and suggested I study some area or discipline of history which might be more trendy or marketable. I view academic historical work as being similar to Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji. Each picture is of the same overall subject – the mountain – yet each picture has its own perspective and power. Some might not like my own view of Mount Fuji, so to speak, but I do.

Finally – what is your must-do Cambridge experience?

One of my favourite books is The Picture of Dorian Gray. In it there is a line about how, although every place is capable of playing host to romance, ‘Venice, like Oxford, had kept the background for romance’. Wilde is understandably biased towards Oxford, but I think the same applies to Cambridge. So I would say my must-do Cambridge experience is to use it as an appropriate background to certain activities which, though I can do them anywhere, feel more suitable when done in the more picturesque environs of Cambridge. My personal suggestion consists of reading a book somewhere pretty. I also probably spend a third of my waking hours drinking coffee in Espresso Lane, so it is hard not to recommend that.

The Abyss of Recipes

Cassell’s Cyclopaedia of Mechanics and William Kentridge’s Second-Hand Reading

By Xinyi Wen (@HPSWarburgian)

Artist William Kentridge told an anecdote when talking about his video artwork Second-Hand Reading (2013). Once Kentridge asked someone what a common friend of theirs was doing and received the answer ‘busy making a tree-search’. A confusing term as it is, ‘tree-search’ triggered Kentridge’s imagination – one has a central subject, like the trunk of the tree, and then follows the divergences into the more detailed branches and even jump across them and back to the trunk. At the end of the conversation, Kentridge asked what he was researching/tree-searching on. But the phoned person was surprised: ‘No! I didn’t say tree-search. I said he was busy making a T-shirt’.[i]

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Vampires, Ghosts, and Spirits on Santorini: The Affectivity of a Sulphuric Landscape

By Lavinia Gambini (@GambiniLavinia)  

Today known for its luxury tourism, high-end ‘destination weddings’, and romantic ‘Instagrammability’, Santorini was for seventeenth-century Westerners a ‘demonic’ island.[1] Early modern travellers to the Aegean encountered an unsettling landscape: they met a fragmented island torn into pieces by the many seismic and volcanic activities that had struck Santorini throughout the centuries.[2] Santorini’s red and yellow, sulphuric lava soil appeared to be touched by ‘infernal’ fires. We can imagine how early modern contemporaries smelt the sulphur, coughed when inhaling the volcanic exhalations, and marvelled at the ‘burnt’ layers of lava rock exposed by its mesmerising cliffs. From this sensory experience with the insular landscape, Western travellers to the Aegean believed that otherworldly powers were in action on Santorini.[3]

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International Commonwealths: Public Diplomacy in 17th Century Europe

By Basil Bowdler (@BasilBowdler)

When allegations of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum and US general election of 2016 surfaced, it struck many as a new and disturbing development in public politics. But in reality, foreign powers have been attempting to manipulate public opinion to their own ends for much longer. In seventeenth-century Europe, as public opinion was first emerging as an arbiter in politics, foreign diplomats and agents exploited the print revolution and an explosion in access to news in order to sway newly empowered citizens to suit their own ends.

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Max Long – Historian Highlight

By Max Long (@max_long), interviewed by Cherish Watton (@CherishWatton), Series Editor

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 fourth post in the series, Max Long explains his research into the representation of ideas about nature in the mass media during the interwar period.

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The It-Narrative as Material Culture Methodology: Practical Applications for Historians

By Kerry Love (@kerrymlove)

A popular novel format in the eighteenth century was the ‘it-narrative,’ or ‘novel of circulation,’ whereby the story was told by an inanimate object, such as a coin, quill or a coach, or an animal such as a pet dog, in first person. Their treatment in literary studies has been covered by Mark Blackwell and others, but I would suggest that the it-narrative holds worth in other disciplines beyond literature, such as material culture history or museum studies. [1]

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Who liberated Belgrade – and who cares who liberated Belgrade?

By Helena Trenkić (@helenakic)

In 1948 Tito’s Yugoslavia was expelled from the alliance of Marxist-Leninist parties known as Cominform. In the aftermath of the Tito-Stalin split, the narrative of who liberated Yugoslavia at the end of the Second World War – and in particular who liberated the capital, Belgrade – became hotly-contested history. 

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Smartphones in the archive

By Davide Martino (@DavideMartinoDM)

‘Writing this book would not have been possible without Samsung, whose phone was of invaluable help.’ If acknowledgments were an honest reflection of the research process, a similar sentence would probably feature in most scholarly works of the last decade. Though pencil and paper, as well as our eyes and hands, are not usually acknowledged, the use of a smartphone or camera probably should be, for it alters our relationship to the sources.

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Grace Whorrall-Campbell – Historian Highlight

By Grace Whorrall-Campbell, interviewed by Cherish Watton (@CherishWatton), Series Editor

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, Grace Whorrall-Campbell explains her research into the history of emotion and psychology in the mid-twentieth-century workplace.

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Women of the Manhattan Project

By Evangeline Leggatt (@evie_leggatt)

Traditional narratives of the Manhattan Project emphasise a group of heroic white male physicists in the United States who succeeded in creating, testing, and using the world’s first atomic weapons. Perhaps the most recognisable figure in atomic history was the project’s scientific leader, Dr J. R. Oppenheimer. Other prominent male figures include Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi. What is missing from the narrative, however, are the contributions and experiences of the thousands of women who worked and lived on the Manhattan Project.

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George Severs – Historian Highlight

By George Severs (@GeorgeSevers10) Cherish Watton (@CherishWatton), Series Editor

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.  

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David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estatis

By Kate McGregor (@ks_mcgregor)

David Lyndsay is perhaps Scotland’s best, but least well known, poet and playwright.[1] 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.

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Book review – Charles van Onselen, The Night Trains

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.”1

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‘In Defense of Clara’: Contestation of the Female Body in the Spanish Anarchist Press

By Sophie Turbutt (@Sophie_Turbutt)

When twenty-year-old Federica Montseny advertised her first full-length novel, La Victoria, in her parents’ Spanish anarchist journal La Revista Blanca in 1925, she hardly could have imagined the drama that would unfold in its wake. Certainly, La Victoria was a deliberately provocative book. Its romantic plotlines flew in the face of expectation – even by some anarchist standards – but for heated debates about the book to litter the pages of La Revista Blanca for years afterwards was astonishing. So, what was it about La Victoria that triggered such an outpouring of admiration and vitriol from readers? Its politically tenacious, passionately independent, childless female protagonist: Clara.

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Helen Sunderland – Historian Highlight

In the first post in the series, Helen Sunderland explains her research looking into the history of schoolgirl politics in late Victorian and Edwardian England.

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The Challenges of Writing ‘Vernacular’ Histories

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.[1] 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.

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Replicating past mistakes? The Irish government, survivors, and the mother and baby homes report

Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)

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.

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Protestant Echoes and the Spirit of Calvinism

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. [1]

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“#Thank a Black Woman”: The Legacy of African-American Women in U.S. Politics

By Tionne Paris

In August 2020, commentator Jorge Guarjardo tweeted that “Black women will save the United States”.[1] Whilst this statement was complimentary of black women’s ability to enact change, it highlights the unfair burden black women have been asked to shoulder throughout history. The American public vastly underestimate the political impact black women have had for centuries, despite the fact that political pundits credit the results of the 2020 Presidential election and the 2020 Georgia run-off elections as largely due to the efforts of black women. Although Rosa Parks is often heralded as an obvious example, black women have consistently led the charge for societal change. 

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