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 Evelyn Strope (@develyn_16)
Location: 3rd & Chestnut Streets, Philadelphia, PA, USA, Independence National Historical Park
Ticket Prices: $18 Student, $21 Adult
Opening Hours: Mon–Sun, 10am–5pm
While undertaking archival research in Philadelphia this summer, I finally had the chance to visit the Museum of the American Revolution (MAR), situated at the heart of the United States’ Independence National Historical Park. The Museum is still relatively new; it opened in 2017 on the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington & Concord – 19 April 1775. Both its modern architecture and its attention to visual experience and to cutting-edge digital history reflect its age. More importantly, those technologies, woven into eye-catching text panels and amongst many extant artefacts, help the MAR to tell a cohesive story within its main exhibit, divided chronologically into four sections: Becoming Revolutionaries (1760–1775), The Darkest Hour (1776–1778), A Revolutionary War (1778–1783), and A New Nation (1783–Present).
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 Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27) and Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)
We were both lucky enough to attend two events with the revered black communist scholar and activist Professor Angela Davis in March and April. The first was held at the Southbank Centre in London for International Women’s Day as part of the Women of the World festival with the centre’s former Artistic Director Jude Kelly CBE and the second in Cambridge in conversation with Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay organised by Decolonise Sociology. Both conversations reflected on Davis’s life and work, her iconic status as a black activist, and the legacies and futures of social activism.
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.
Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland) looks back at the events of 2018 and how DHP covered them.
2018 was another turbulent year in global politics. In March, Vladimir Putin was, unsurprisingly, re-elected as Russia’s President. Mobeen Hussain reflected in this blog post on how Putin’s popular appeal stemmed in part from rebranding the long-held idea of Russian exceptionalism. Tensions between Russia and the West have continued to increase. Just two weeks before Putin’s re-election, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury. As Fred Smith noted in this DHP post, spying is often associated with modern times, but double agents also operated in sixteenth-century England.
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.
As the first month of 2018 rolls on, Carys Brown (@HistoryCarys) takes a look at the events of 2017 and how DHP covered them.
Whatever your opinion of the developments of 2017 it was undoubtedly an interesting year for history, or at least for future historians. In January an unpredictable and somewhat controversial Twitter-wielding former businessman and television personality was inaugurated as President of the USA amidst allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct. As David Runciman pointed out in a DHP post in June, investigations into Donald Trump’s conduct took a surprising turn towards twelfth-century England in a comparison between Trump and Henry II (bizarrely, it was quite a good parallel). This has also been the year of “fake news”, or at least allegations of fake news, so much so that last week Trump announced that he was going to hold a ‘Fake News Awards’ for those he regards as ‘the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media’. We shouldn’t get carried away assuming that we live in a unique age of misinformation, however, as Alex Wakelam’s March DHP post highlighted.
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
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
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.
By Amy Schaffman
The film Selma opened on 9 January 2015 to a barrage of criticism about its historical accuracy. Though unable to use any of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words due to copyright issues, the movie attempted to recreate the tense scene in Selma, Alabama on the eve of the passing of the 1965 Voter’s Right Act. Providing fodder for cinema critics were reenactments of several important touchstones of the American Civil Rights Movement: Bloody Sunday, the struggle between the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Commission (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), as well as Martin Luther King’s relationship with Lyndon Johnson. Read more
by Tiia Sahrakorpi and Janine Noack
This morning, the first episode of the BBC radio 4 programme Germany: Memories of a Nation aired. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, presented...
By Joan Redmond
Next month sees the London opening of the theatrical productions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the two hugely successful novels by Hilary Mantel that focus on the life of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell rose to become Henry VIII’s chief minister during the tumultuous 1530s, which witnessed the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn as well as the beginnings of the English Reformation. Mantel’s books have been justly praised, winning almost all the major literary prizes and reinvigorating Cromwell for a new audience.
By Emily Ward
What does the early Middle Ages have in common with the Illuminati, the moon landing and JFK? The answer – that, like the other three, it has also been the subject of a conspiracy theory – may come as a surprise. This conspiracy, often called Phantom Time Hypothesis, suggests that the early Middle Ages never really existed. When conspiracy theories like this come into direct conflict with accepted historical fact, how should we, as historians, approach them?
by Emily Ward
On 1 April 2014, the French historian Jacques Le Goff died aged ninety. His life spanned the majority of the twentieth century and his contribution to the field of medieval history can only be revered and respected. Le Goff was born in Toulon on 1 January 1924. During his life he experienced the Nazi occupation of France and witnessed the “coup de Prague” in person in 1947-8. Le Goff held early career positions in several universities, including Lincoln College, Oxford, where he gained a research studentship for the years 1951-2. His principle publications came during the 1970s and 1980s and it was at the start of this period, in 1972, that Le Goff was made head of l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) located in Paris.