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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 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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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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Reckoning with Britain’s Colonial Past: The Mau Mau Detention Camps and Dedan Kimathi

By Lauren Brown @LaurenBroon

Britain has a complicated colonial history. Sadly, thousands of descendants from former colonial territories, still face the legacies of Britain’s hegemony. This is true for the Kikuyu, Embu and Neru people of Kenya. During the Mau Mau rebellion of 1952-1964, the British colonial government placed some 80,000 people from these ethnic groups in a ‘pipeline’ of detention camps after a series of violent attacks on British settlers and ‘loyalist’ Africans. Camp inmates were subjected to brutal interrogations, whippings, sexual assault and even castration.[1] Detainee letters cited a lack of food and poor sanitation, whilst David Anderson’s ‘Histories of the Hanged’ detailed the systematic hangings of many ‘hardcore’ prisoners.

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The Hanging Baskets of a Medieval German Prague: English Travel Literature from 1815 to 1848

By Jana Hunter @janakhunter

At the heart of Europe lies Prague: a city centred around the River Moldau, embodying antiquity, mysticism and the sublime. Its imposing and grandiose scenes received little attention from travel writers up until the Napoleonic Wars. Through travel literature, Prague emerged as a fantastical city providing escapism, both physically and mentally, for travellers. Mapped like a medieval German city, and located in Central Europe, Prague was home to a dynamic cultural milieu. Yet, it was also deemed to be uncivilised, possessing an Oriental grandeur. This contentious portrayal epitomises the difficulty travellers had – and continue to have – in defining the city and challenges the powerful concept of a binary Europe.

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Early Modern Quarantine and Present Social Distancing

By Marina Inì (@MarinaIni_)

The past few months have been unexpected and distressing for everyone. As an Italian citizen originally from Lombardia, the centre of the outbreak in Italy, I strongly felt the anxiety caused by COVID-19 weeks before the declared global pandemic. As a historian, however, I have been especially puzzled and even intrigued by the news around me. My PhD dissertation examines quarantine centres, called lazzaretti, as plague prevention strategy in the eighteenth-century Mediterranean, focusing on the Venetian territories (which included Italy but also the Balkan peninsula and the Ionian Sea), Malta, different states of the Italian peninsula, and France. Suddenly, my topic has become extraordinarily relevant in the ongoing circumstances. Deep down, every historian knows that historical research, even the most specific and peculiar topic, helps to understand the present day. But never would I have imagined that my topic on early modern quarantine could resonate so much with current events, nor that I would be writing my dissertation on quarantine while preventatively isolating myself amid a global pandemic.

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Art in the Time of Coronavirus

By Zara Kesterton (@ZaraKesterton)

15 March 2020: we were beginning to realise just how much of an impact the coronavirus pandemic would have on all our lives. One of my friends messaged a group chat, ‘Now that we aren’t allowed to touch anything ever again does it spell the end of material culture? Is the new textual turn approaching?’ Read more

‘Come From Away’: Can historical methodology and theatre co-exist?

By Charlotte Coyne (@charlottecoyne_)

Recently, there has been a rise in the number of musical theatre productions which choose to depict historical events. Many even delve into discussing historiography and the process of creating history as a major theme of the show. Most lauded among these is, of course, Hamilton: An American Musical, to which biographer Ron Chernow’s role as historical consultant arguably added a stronger claim of historical authenticity. However, despite this proliferation of ‘history musicals’, and though considerable research has also been done on the strengths of historical re-enactment in promoting public engagement with history, there are still academics who argue that theatricality and historical veracity are too disparate to coexist effectively: Nancy Isenberg has notably claimed that “history cannot be reduced to song and dance”.[1]

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Victim Personal Statements: Are We Restoring a Wrong Right?

By Kevin Bendesky

Beginning in the 1960s, the Victims’ Rights Movement had profound impacts on English law. One result, Victim Personal Statements (VPS), raised the important question of whether the victim should have the chance to say how the crime affected them. A VPS happens after the adjudication of guilt, but before the sentence is determined. It is not supposed to influence the sentence, yet judges often refer to the VPS in their sentences.[1] Some studies demonstrate that the statements do not harshen penalties; but still, victims report that they sometimes hope their VPS will affect the sentence.[2] Clearly, then, the VPS is still a topic of debate. The Victims’ Movement was grounded in the common desire to “restore” the rights of crime’s many victims.[3] But what was there to “restore”? A careful retracing of the victim’s role in English history complicates this effort.

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The Cancellation of Christmas

Philippa Carter (@extispicium)

In The accomplisht cook (1660), the English chef Robert May recommended to his readers a feast ‘to be used at Festival Times, as Twelfth Day [of Christmas]’. All the budding cook had to do, May explained, was to construct – in pastry – a castle, a ship laced with gunpowder, a wine-filled stag impaled with an arrow, one pie containing live frogs, and another live birds. Once served, it was simply a matter of persuading ‘some of the Ladies’ Read more

Playing the Blame Game: Divorce Then and Now

By Georgia Oman (@Georgia_Oman)

When Parliament was suspended this September, several bills making their way through the Commons and Lords were dropped. Although three pieces of legislation were carried over to the next session, the remainder fell into a legal limbo, with their only hope of resurrection being that the government would choose to re-introduce them upon the return of Parliament.[1] One such bill lost in the Brexit shuffle is a reform of the divorce laws of England and Wales, which at the moment demand that couples provide evidence of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or years of separation before a divorce can be granted, even if both parties have amicably agreed to end their marriage.[2] Put simply, the proposed legislation aims to establish ‘no-fault divorce’, in which neither partner need be apportioned blame for the failure of the marriage.[3] Under the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973 currently in force, those seeking a divorce must prove their partner was at fault through adultery, desertion, or unreasonable behaviour. If there is no evidence of fault, consenting couples still must live apart for two years before they can file for divorce, while cases in which both sides cannot reach agreement must endure five years of separation.[4]

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Film archives: using moving images as historical sources

By Max Long

My first encounter with moving image archives took place in a windowless room in the basement of a building in London. I was there to view a selection of natural history films. I had watched similar films online, but here I could load, spool, and wind up the films myself. Films are the principal source in my research, but prior to my PhD, I had little experience with the medium. Here I was left alone with two towering piles of 35mm and 16mm films, and an unexpected lesson in the materiality of film technology.

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How to abuse and misuse history: a guide from twentieth-century politics

By Spike Lister

The utilisation of history in political discourse has itself a long history. For as long as there has been a public space and a shared experience, communities have looked to the past as a lens through which to understand their issues. History offers us a guiding light by which to move forwards or a source from which to draw blood-curdling parallels to our present circumstances. Consequently, it should not surprise us in such complex and disruptive times that historical parallels abound as a means of garnering political support. In periods of political intricacy and seemingly tectonic historic change, it is inevitable that politicians draw from the past to assert the continuity of their policies within a nation’s historical experience, or to draw ominous parallels between history and the present day.

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‘No Stamp Act’: Pots & Politics in Early America

By Evelyn Strope (@emstrope)

Although it may come as a shock to a twenty-first-century consumer, tea was once a political brew. The strong, steeped leaves and the teapots, teacups, and silverware that accompanied them were representative of clashes between imperialism and commercialism in the Atlantic world. As tea shifted from luxury to necessity in early modern Europe, Britons wanted tea-time utensils as fashionable as the drink itself.[1] Sensing a profitable opportunity  in this spike in tea consumption, British manufacturers raced to meet demand for teaware and challenge the Chinese stronghold on the porcelain market through the invention of ‘creamware’ or ‘pearlware.’ Both attractive and cost-effective, creamware opened up new markets for fine tableware beyond the middling classes, allowing ordinary men and women whose pocketbooks had once restricted them to rough earthenwares to dabble in the finer things in life. New-and-improved British ceramics were marketed throughout the Empire, including in the North American colonies, where tea and teaware would set the stage for now-infamous taxation protests. Long before disaffected colonists threw around 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, Americans had already begun to associate pots and politics. Take, for example, the ‘No Stamp Act’ teapot.

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The History of Advertising Trust: preservation, management, and marketing in modern Britain

By Alistair Moir (Archive and Library Collections Manager, https://www.hatads.org.uk/.)

The History of Advertising Trust (HAT) is a nationally accredited archive service established in 1976 to preserve the heritage of the UK advertising industry and make it available for study and research. Today the HAT archive is the most comprehensive collection of British advertising and marketing communications in the world. Over the past forty years the Trust’s collections have developed into a truly unique resource for advertising industry and brand heritage records. Archives of several major advertising agencies and industry professional bodies form the core of HAT’s collections, alongside ephemeral press, poster and commercials collections.

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Who do I think I am? – My experience with AncestryDNA

By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown)

Thanks to programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? there has never been more interest in family history. Since the turn of the century, family historians have started to look beyond traditional records such as the census, and birth, death, and marriage indices to new scientific methods. DNA tests are now being used to shed light on ethnic or biogeographical origins and to identify genetic relatives.[1] In 2017, more people took an ancestry DNA test than in all  previous years combined. Moreover, it is estimated that by 2022, the genetic testing market will be worth approximately £261 million. The ease and reasonably low cost of heritage DNA tests has made this technology accessible to everyone. So, with that in mind, I decided to give it a go.

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Reclaiming Spaces: CUSU and GU Welfare and Women’s Officer’s campaigns

By Claire Sosienski Smith & Christine Pungong, (welfare@cusu.cam.ac.uk & womens@cusu.cam.ac.uk)

My experience as a student at Cambridge centred around the feminist activism I chose to get involved in, as part of the Women’s Campaign. I learned that feminist work is legacy work in the physical spaces I shared and created with women and non-binary people. My involvement in these spaces led me to run for my current position as the full-time Women’s Officer on the students’ union (CUSU), where I work closely with people who influenced my feminist activism. Christine Pungong, the current CUSU and GU Welfare and Rights Officer, was one of the first people I met when I joined Cambridge as an undergraduate and has been part of my feminist community during the last four years of our involvement with the Women’s Campaign and student organising. The Our Streets project, a collaboration between the Women’s Campaign and Welfare portfolio, represents these kinds of feminist communities that enable us to survive in these spaces, legacies which are often missing from our depiction of Cambridge as an intensely competitive environment.

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Uncomfortable History: Modern Skull Collecting

By Jeremiah J. Garsha (@jjgarsha)

It is comforting to think of the collecting of human heads as existing in the distant past. When visitors to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford marvel at the shrunken heads display, they do so under a combination of alterity and distancing. The process of shrinking the heads renders them distinguishable from life-sized heads, as does their distant geographic origins as creations by Amazonian ‘tribes’ bought by Victorians as souvenirs. Visitors to art museums also encounter human heads. Dubbed memento mori, the appearance of skulls in early modern European works of art was a leitmotiv reflecting mortality. Viewers of these paintings can relegate even this artistic practice as existing in a removed history, like the objects themselves.

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23. Criminal Quilts

By Ruth Singer | @CriminalQuilts

Back in 2012 I was commissioned to make a piece of contemporary textile artwork inspired by the Shire Hall in Stafford including 18th century court buildings. I found that I was drawn to archive photographs rather than the building itself. I created a series of miniature ‘quilts’ taking inspiration from photographs of women prisoners with their hands on their chests. I was haunted by these images and found the details of their clothing intriguing. I based my work on the textile details in the images and made quilts in reference to their lack of comfort in the prison system.

I have continued to work with these images and am now Artist in Residence at Staffordshire Record Office engaging in further research into the prison photo albums and the lives of the women they show. New work will be shown in exhibitions in 2018.

Image: Work by Ruth Singer, photography by Joanne Withers and original image courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office.

 

22. Spiritual encounters in the archive

By Alice Soulieux-Evans

An English literature student, my ‘conversion’ to history came through studying the Reformation. Yet this scholarly ‘conversion’ coincided with my coming to faith. Whilst as a historian I seek to be objective, it doesn’t mean I don’t find my research and the people I study spiritually edifying as a Christian. One of my most memorable ‘encounters’ in the archives was one such occasion, when I came across a copy of Laud’s last will and testament. Read more