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.