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.
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]
Today known for its luxury tourism, high-end ‘destination weddings’, and romantic ‘Instagrammability’, Santorini was for seventeenth-century Westerners a ‘demonic’ island. 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. 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.
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.