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
By Jordan Buchanan
Augustine Sedgewick, Coffeeland (Allen Lane, 2020), £25.00.
In Coffeeland, Augustine Sedgewick achieves the often-elusive goal of creating an academic history that is enjoyable for the non-professional history enthusiast. Coffee is a product so closely attached to complex historical themes that this history could easily have become an esoteric one. By taking the reader on a biographical journey entwined with world history, Sedgewick creates a work that accessibly demonstrates the complexity of its main theme of global capitalism.
By Sam Young (@Samyoung102)
Minnette de Silva was a remarkable individual. Sri Lanka’s first female architect and the first Asian woman to join the Royal Institute of British Architects, she pioneered the development of a ‘Regional Modernism’ style of urban design throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In Plastic Emotions, Shiromi Pinto intimately explores the life of this often forgotten but nonetheless influential figure in architectural history, focusing on de Silva’s struggles in a turbulent post-independence Ceylon and her passionate (if speculative) relationship with famed Swiss-French Modernist Le Corbusier. A heady mix of art and romance, Plastic Emotions has been praised for its gripping portrayal of two fiercely intelligent individuals brought together by a shared belief in the transformative power of architecture, resulting in a story as beautiful as it is desperately sad.
Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27) reviews Samia Khatun’s Australianama (Hurst Publishers, December 2018, ISBN 9781849049696 £25.00)
In Australianama, author and academic Samia Khatun skilfully weaves an intricate patchwork of hitherto unexplored connections between South Asia and Australia. I first heard about Australianama at an Islam and Print in South Asia Workshop at the British Library where Khatun was presenting on her work on South Asian peoples in Australia. She shared her research journey, relating how she came across a photograph of a book labelled as the Quran located in the desert lands of Australia in Broken Hill, noting how the words looked like Bengali script. At the workshop, as well as in the book, she shared her experience of visiting the mosque to find that the book was not the Quran but a book of Bengali Sufi poetry called Kasasol Ambia (Stories of the Prophets), all the while wondering how a book published in Bengal found its way to an inland Australian mining town. (Khatun, 3) This question is where Khatun’s Australianama begins.
By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)
Within the first month of 2019, historians were treated to not one but two blockbuster movies: The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) and Mary Queen of Scots (dir. Josie Rourke). Both grossed millions of dollars in the short time since their worldwide release, reminding us that film is by far the most accessible form of historical representation for expert and non-expert audiences alike. In their immediate afterlives, their success and significance are open for debate. As Natalie Zemon Davis has reflected of her own role in bringing sixteenth-century France to the big screen, ‘it’s up to historians, those who have participated in the film and those who have seen it, to bring to the debate both an understanding of the possibilities of film and a knowledge of the past’. In this spirit, last month The Cambridge Public and Popular History seminar invited the historical consultants of these new films, Professor John Guy (Fellow in History at Clare College, whose 2004 book My Heart is My Own was adapted for Mary Queen of Scots) and Dr Hannah Greig (Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York, and consultant for The Duchess, Poldark, and The Favourite, amongst others) to discuss their experiences.
Harriet Lyon (@HarrietLyon) reviews Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart, adapted and directed by Robert Icke.
What is history if not a series of contingencies? For every thing that happens, an infinite number of other possibilities are extinguished. But what if things had been different? Although writing history certainly involves a good dose of imagination, academic historians have generally tended to be nervous of counterfactuals and their capacity to re-imagine the past. Historical fiction, by contrast, has built a thriving industry on the question of ‘what if?’ What if Germany had won the Second World War? What if John F. Kennedy’s assassin had failed? What if there had been no Protestant Reformation?
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
When I first saw the University Library as a new Cambridge student last October it looked like something from a dystopian novel. The library tower loomed above me – a modernist monument to humanity’s pursuit of knowledge. With the addition of a few slogans on the walls, I thought, it would fit right into Orwell’s 1984. What this says about my sense of trepidation embarking on a PhD aside, the library tower has long been a focus of mystery and myth since it was completed in 1934. Now, the new exhibition Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower, which opened at the University Library earlier this month, uncovers some of its secrets for the first time.
By Mobeen Hussain | @amhuss27
In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of period adaptations based on the British in India. This spat of television and film productions depicts particular historical narratives that romanticise the British Empire and hark back to the good-old-days of British imperialism. Indian Summers (2015), Victoria and Abdul (2017) and Viceroy’s House (2017) reveal a lot about the kinds of narratives that producers and the British public are interested in telling, championing and watching. With the exception of Indian Summers, these productions were post-Brexit and released in the year of the seventieth anniversary of India’s partition. Read more
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
The recent success of The Vietnam War, a television documentary co-directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, shows the enduring legacy of the conflict in popular memory. Broadcast as a ten-hour series in the UK on BBC Four and originally aired with an even longer running time on PBS, the series is ambitious in its detail and scope. That such an in-depth history can still prove gripping, accessible and popular shows how the Vietnam War continues to loom large in the psyche. Read more
Fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, Nailya Shamgunova (@nailyas_) reflects on how public exhibitions have engaged with this event.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. It is an important milestone for queer history, and as such it was commemorated in various forms throughout the country. I attended four different exhibitions in three museums, two in the North and one in the capital, prompting me to think about the ways in which we remember and display queer history. Read more
Harriet Lyon (@HarrietLyon) reviews the recent world premiere of Kepler’s Trial: An Opera by Tim Watts based on Ulinka Rublack’s book The Astronomer & the Witch.
In December 1615, the renowned astronomer Johannes Kepler first received news that his elderly mother, Katharina, had been accused by a neighbour of witchcraft. A victim of the witch craze that swept through early seventeenth-century Germany, Katharina’s torment lasted for six long years, during which time Johannes temporarily abandoned his research to concentrate on building his mother’s defence. After being subject to a humiliating criminal trial and serving a spell of more than a year in prison, Katharina was finally exonerated in September 1621. This was an ordeal from which she never recovered: Katharina died just six months later aged seventy-six. Read more
Summer may be decidedly over, but reading for pleasure doesn’t have to be confined to the beach. Here are some of the DHP team’s favourite historical novels to keep you going as the evenings draw in. Read more
By Louise Moschetta @LouiseMoschetta
I’m not entirely sure whether I owe my interest in history to my grandmother but she certainly helped. Her house, which until very recently she still lived in, was built in 1972 and hasn’t changed much since. Walking through it has almost always been, with certain exceptions such as an ever larger and thinner television, a walk through a mish-mash of past time. Her attic is an attic of dreams where, as small children, my siblings and I unearthed an old dress from the ‘40s, a bird cage, yellowed women’s magazines with patterns for perfect postwar motherhood and other such treasures. Read more
By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys
For the first ten minutes of Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, I have to confess I was sceptical. The complex political intrigue of the reign of this little-known monarch (1702-1714) is fascinating, but impossible, I thought, to convey on stage in a mere two hours and thirty-five minutes. I was wrong. In a play hooked around the relationship between Queen Anne and her favourite, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, the audience were immersed in the world of eighteenth-century high politics.
Inspiring historical writing brings our discipline alive. DHP editors Carys Brown, James Dowsett, Louise Moschetta, Tom Smith, and Alex Wakelam give their personal recommendations.
By Spike Gibbs
Spike is a first year PhD student in working on office-holding in late medieval and early modern England.
London can appear to be an overwhelmingly modern city with its towering 20th century office blocks and grand Victorian architecture. Whilst there are some very famous medieval landmarks such as the Tower of London, and early modern ones such as St Paul’s Cathedral, these can appear to be oases in the capital. However, if you know where to look London has many surprises for the pre-1750 historian and here are ten of my favourites: Read more
By Jeremy Wikeley
Over the summer I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim for the first time. I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting to. Kim tells the story of an Irish orphan who, growing up in India, has a series of adventures, first as the protégé of an elderly Buddhist monk and later as an agent in ‘the Great Game’. Kim enjoys the excitement of espionage but he misses the freedom of life on the road. Kim is a ‘boys own’ tale, but the verve and colour of Kipling’s descriptions of India and its diversity of peoples and cultures give the novel a wider appeal, as does the theme: everyone’s torn between what’s expected of us and what we really want to do.
There are around 2,500 museums in the UK. Many of the larger ones, particularly in London, contain internationally-renowned collections of great historical and scientific significance, and are always worth a visit. In some cases, however, it is the local and specialist museums that provide the most inspiring, entertaining, and educational days out. In celebration of this, the Doing History in Public team has put together a collection of our favourite museum experiences.
If you have a favourite museum, we’d love to hear from you!