Featured Historian: Will Pooley

Will Pooley is Lecturer in Modern European History. His research explores popular cultures, folklore, and witchcraft in modern France. He is particularly interested in creative historical practices, such as history through games, theatre, poetry, art, and creative writing. 

What’s your new book Body and Tradition in Nineteenth-century France about?

The book is about trying to understand what it felt like to be an ordinary agricultural worker or artisan in nineteenth-century France. What were the bodily experiences, and how did ordinary people use their own bodies?

Headshot of Will PooleyTo answer those questions, I used this huge ethnographic archive collected by the folklorist Félix Arnaudin in a small area around his hometown, between about 1870 and 1914.

Arnaudin’s an interesting man in some ways, but what really interested me was the people he collected folklore from and photographed. I wanted to understand their stories, songs, and proverbs. So, I use the tools of comparative folklore to explore they talked about sex, work, and body parts.

What do werewolf stories, for instance, tell historians about how the rural population thought about identity and transgression? How does analyzing dialect speech help us to understand a bodily culture that was quite different from our own?

How did you become interested in Arnaudin and French folklore more generally?

I owe the interest in folklore to David Hopkin, who first suggested folklore as a research topic to me when I was a master’s student. I did a master’s thesis on one storyteller and singer from the Massif Central, an illiterate woman named Nannette Lévesque.

Book cover: Body and TraditionFor my PhD, I wanted to do something much more ambitious. I was going to compare three folklorists from southwestern France – Arnaudin, along with Jean-François Bladé, and an interesting folklorist named Antonin Perbosc, who had very unconventional politics, and collected a lot of obscene folklore. But when I was about 14 months into the PhD, I knew I would only have time to do Arnaudin’s work justice… so that’s how I ended up with the subject of this book.

What is the importance of this research today?

Everyone has a body: it’s the definition of being human. And one of the things about embodiment is that our own experience and expectations of the body can seem deeply ‘natural’ to us. The ways we use and talk about our bodies become automatic, invisible.

I’ve always thought that one of the things history can do is to challenge that seeming naturalness. Even our very recent ancestors felt differently in their skin. They described and understood their bodies differently. They had different expectations and fears of their flesh.

How different I am from a shepherd born in 1815 might not seem a burning issue, but I think that part of the value that history has for the wider society is that it highlights some of these differences, and makes them visible. It’s a reminder that what we experience as ‘normal’ for our bodies now is not necessarily what other people around us are experiencing. And that’s a message that some people need to hear more than others, because their unspoken assumptions are normalized and taken for granted in all sorts of ways in everyday life.

If bodies were different in the past, they can also be different now, and they will be different in the future. That’s the message I have always taken from work by scholars like Barbara Duden, Lyndal Roper, Annmarie Mol, and even Michel Foucault. 

What advice would you give to a student interested in the history of the body?

There’s so much exciting work being done in the intersecting fields concerned with bodies in the past. I was always fascinated by the new work on anthropometrics, for instance, even though I never did any of that kind of research. Anthropometricians like Deb Oxley and Jane Humphries have used historical and archaeological records of body sizes and weights to investigate questions such as the effect that the Industrial Revolution had on the health of workers, or the ways that families divided limited resources when they did not have enough to eat…

But my advice for someone interested in the history of the body would be two things. First, get to grips with the philosophical and theoretical work on the body. When I started this project ten years ago, I found Lisa Blackman’s short introduction The Body pointed me in the direction of lots of useful things.

The other thing I think I would advise anyone who wants to be a historian of the body is to use practice as research. Cooking historical recipes, trying historical clothing, even imitating movements, gestures, and work can be a really important way of grappling with the difference of the past.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

‘You’ve got enough.’

I have a running conversation with one of my colleagues at Bristol, Julio Decker, about not overdoing research. I’ve been working on a database of material collected from historical newspapers for the last six years, and I have too much material. But [in the time before COVID19] every few days, I [would] say to Julio, ‘I really want to go and visit this archive to find a few more cases’, or ‘I just need to spend a few hours nailing some of these details down in some online newspaper records’.

And Julio says to me, ‘Stop it. You’ve got enough.’

That’s great advice. There’s such a temptation to just keep collecting and hoarding material.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

I really loved David Shields’ Reality Hunger, which was a present from a colleague, the playwright Poppy Corbett, who has been working with me on my latest project.

It’s a provocative book made up of lots of little short sections, organized into broadly thematic chapters. There are no quotation marks or footnotes, but the afterword explains that some of the material is actually taken from other writers. The book is about this hunger for reality that has dominated lots of cultural forms for the last generation or so – from memoir, to documentary, reality TV, and hip-hop.

I think it has a lot to say to historians about history as part of the same cultural impulse, a desire to ‘tell it like it really is’ but to do so in a way that is artful and compelling.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

This is a tough one! I don’t think I would really much enjoy visiting many of the people I research. I’m not sure we would even be able to understand one another: I taught myself to read the Gascon dialect Arnaudin recorded folklore in, but I can’t speak it!

I’d be quite interested to attend a nineteenth-century criminal trial in France, though. I’m working on criminal trials at the moment, and sometimes the newspaper reports give vivid impressions of courtroom dramas. Sometimes you want to know more. It would be fascinating – as well as probably quite distressing – to sit in on one of those cases, and see how they played out.

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

Chilli Daddy’s is a Szechuan restaurant with a few branches, and a stall at St Nicholas’ Market.

If you haven’t tried it, you should definitely have the soup noodle first. They offer it in a spice rating of 1-5. I’ve never tried higher than 3!

What are you working on next?

The newspaper database and court cases are research from my current project on crimes of witchcraft in France from 1790-1940. It’s a big topic, and I’m halfway through an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant to work on ‘creative histories’ based on this material. You can read some of the things we’ve been up to here: https://creativewitchcraft.wordpress.com

Featured Historian: Victoria Bates

Dr. Victoria Bates is Senior Lecturer in Modern History, with research interests in the modern social history of medicine and the medical humanities.

A picture of Dr. Victoria BatesHi Victoria, could you start by telling us about  your new research project?

I have just started a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship called ‘Sensing Spaces of Healthcare: Rethinking the NHS Hospital’. The project rethinks healthcare environments through the body and the senses, focusing on how places have felt rather than how they have looked. The historical part of the project will consider how NHS hospital sensory environments (or ‘sensescapes’) and the perception thereof changed as a result of new design trends, architecture, materials, technologies, nature and human behaviours. This history is just one part of the research, though, which is a complex 4-7 year project with many components. As well as the historical and archival research, there is a strand of the project (led by the project RA – Rebecka Fleetwood-Smith) working on site in hospitals (Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and Southmead Hospital in Bristol). This part of the project will use participatory arts to understand and improve people’s sensory experience of hospital spaces.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

I actually get this question quite a lot because my PhD was on a quite different area of medical history (sexual forensics in Victorian Britain). The project has long roots, so I will try to keep the answer short but with apologies it is difficult to do so!

During my PhD I was co-lead on two projects together broadly called ‘Medicine, Health and the Arts in Post-War Britain’ that included a conference, exhibition, workshop series and edited collection. My interest in this area of research at first related to the roots of the ‘medical humanities’, as a named field of academic enquiry, and its relationship to the history of arts and health. I also became interested in the development of different professional areas (art therapy, hospital arts and the arts in medical education) and their use of similar language (the idea of ‘rehumanising’ medicine through the arts).

I was inspired to conduct further research: why was there a perceived need to ‘rehumanise’ medicine in the post-war period, and why was there a turn to the arts, as a tool to do so? In 2013 I received a small grant from the Wellcome Trust to conduct a small study of late twentieth-century multidisciplinary medical education in the UK. In 2014 I was awarded scoping funding from the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute to look at archives in the UK and USA relating to all three areas (art therapy; arts in medical education; art in hospitals). Of these topics, I found myself most drawn to the history of hospital arts; this subject opened up interesting questions about the relationship between arts, design, space and architecture.

I soon became immersed in spatial theory, new materialism, and sensory studies as well as in histories of art, architecture, and design. I found myself moving away from a human-centred approach to design and perception, and thinking more about space as dynamic and as co-produced between the different objects and people in it. Art is just one of these objects, so I moved my focus to the sensory as a better way to think about space and the ways in which it is made through interactions between people and environments. I was fortunate to receive University of Bristol Strategic Research Funding to develop this work (2017) and to spend a month as a visiting scholar at the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University in Montreal (2019).

Alongside this research I engaged in a couple of projects working with artists, designers, smell technicians and others. One of the projects involved designing a sensory prototype called InTouch and the other was about the non-visual aspects of nature and wellbeing, for which we created an ‘immersive experience’. These projects also got me thinking a lot more about the impact of my work and collaboration with non-academic partners, and is why my new project has a large design and prototyping element. Overall, I am always trying to push myself out of my comfort zone!

What is the importance of this research today?

Design is a pressing issue in healthcare. Poor hospital design impacts staff, patients and visitors, and critiques of hospitals are increasingly widespread. The project’s findings will feed into a rethinking of current and future hospital design, including the development of design interventions for healthcare environments.

The historical research can help us to rethink the root causes of perceived sensory problems. For example, my work so far on the history of hospital ‘noise’ has shown that it has long been defined in social terms rather than in terms of volume. Perceptions of noise have changed over time in line with societal change, ranging from attitudes to race or gender to ideas about privacy. Understanding the societal aspects of such change can help us to think more creatively about solutions to noise as more than an engineering problem.

The part of the project working with GOSH Arts and Fresh Arts at Southmead will pinpoint sensory challenges for specific types of hospital user/worker or hospital spaces, which might range from sensory under-stimulation to sensory overload. In turn, these challenges will form the basis for sensory design solutions through a prototyping and development process in collaboration with artists, designers, charities and NHS Trusts. These outputs will be produced with and of value to all those who use hospitals, from patients to professionals. We are also working with Architects for Health to develop a hospital building note around sensory design. Overall, the project offers a novel approach to the history of healthcare spaces that helps us to rethink hospital histories and their relevance to current-day design.

What advice would you give to a student interested in this area of research?

Talk to me! I would love to work with more PhD students or postdoctoral researchers interested in this area of research. I would be particularly keen to see some comparative or international work in this area.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

I took Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations away for a weekend to read for leisure, but it turned out to be extremely relevant to my research. It has a section that captures her sensory experience of hospitals, and which addresses this subject explicitly in a way that I have never seen before. For example, she describes noticing the sound of air conditioning after weeks in hospital; the sound becomes extremely aggravating to her, but nobody else can hear it. I found it not only a really engaging book, but also a useful reminder that we need to think about the sensory environment of hospital as dynamic, and as different for every person in them (or even for the same person, on a different day).

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

I have never come up with a good answer to this question – how could you possibly choose from all of time and place? My possible answers have ranged from an iconic music concert to solving some great historical mystery or crime or visiting an extinct species. I know that I should pick something related to my research, but I do not think it would be a historic hospital if I wanted to return with my health intact… 

What’s your must-do Bristol restaurant?

I love Korean food, so Sky Kong Kong is my classic Bristol ‘go to’ when people come to visit – it is small and serves really interesting food, with a personal touch, as well as being very good value.

What are you working on next?

This UKRI project is going to take up most of my time for the next few years, so first job is to organise a launch event for it. I’m also co-leading a couple of really interesting, interdisciplinary networks funded by the Wellcome Trust: one on the senses and health/care environments and one on the intersections between medical and environmental humanities. We have lots of workshops, writing retreats and conferences coming up for those over the next two years and I will be really excited to see what comes out of our collaborations. Watch this space on both!

Featured Historian: Grace Huxford

Dr Grace Huxford is Senior Lecturer in Modern History. She is a social historian of modern Britain, specializing in the Cold War period and with particular interest in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Korean War. She is an oral historian and currently conducting an oral history of British military communities in Germany (1945-2000). She was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 3 about the project as part of a special programme on post-war Germany, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – you can listen to the interview here.

Grace Huxford

Hi Grace, can you start by telling us what you are working on at the moment? What’s the British Bases in Germany project about?

Between 1945 and 2019, Germany was home to many thousands of British service personnel and their families. Initially sent there as a post-war occupation force, the British military quickly became part of the frontline against a possible Soviet invasion. These bases form an important element of Britain’s post-1945 military history, but they were also unique and complex social communities. My project explores the experiences of those who lived and worked on the bases – not just service personnel, but their partners and families, as well as the wide range of support workers, professionals and volunteers who ended up there. My postdoctoral research assistant, Dr Joel Morley, and I interview people as part of this research – we’ve spoken to over 60 people so far with a range of experiences and memories. These interviews will form the foundation of our research and future publications.

How did you become interested in this area?

I’ve long had an interest in social history of the Cold War and my PhD and postdoctoral research examined the varying responses to the Korean War (1950-3) in Britain, which resulted in my book The Korean War in Britain: Citizenship, Selfhood and Forgetting (2018). The Cold War is such a long conflict, much of it about watching and waiting – no more so than in west Germany, where British and NATO forces trained for an invasion that never came. I was interested in how that situation affected people, from service personnel to their families and civilians on the bases.  I also came across many references to Germany in the material I looked at for my book on Korea: though no units were directly posted from Germany to Korea, I got the sense of how important Germany was for the British military. It was at the centre of a constellation of bases across world that had developed as part of imperial strategy and during the Second World War. Another aim of my research is to examine what living in Germany meant for people other than service personnel too. This is an important area of what is sometimes called Critical Military Studies – acknowledging that the military’s influence stretches far further than the lives of fighting troops alone.

What is the importance of the British bases project today?

Apart from a few remaining units and offices, British Forces in Germany closed its last bases in 2019. It’s therefore a really important moment to analyze their historical significance, as well as the impact Germany had on the British military and understandings of military life. One of the most fascinating aspects (and challenges) of using oral history as a method is that the present context shapes the interview too – so our project explores how people viewed British communities in Germany after the end of the Cold War and closing of the bases as well.

What advice would you give to a student interested in oral history?

Oral history has both practical and theoretical elements – you need to think about both when planning and analyzing interviews. There’s a great deal of helpful advice out there already on oral history: the Oral History Society (UK) has some great advice pages about getting started with oral history interviewing and important ethical and legal issues, like obtaining full consent and thinking about how you will store your eventual interviews. I also really like the Oral History Review’s blog, which has some great articles from oral historians reflected on all sorts of topics like recording equipment and personal dynamics, to suggestions of reading.

I’d also encourage students to think about the time available to them (and to their narrators) and to remember that quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Taking the time to interview one person, to really listen to what they have to say and to analyze their testimony with care can be just as rewarding (both personally and intellectually) as doing a huge number of interviews. Alistair Thomson, for instance, has reflected extensively on his interviews with one First World War veteran, Fred Farrall – to great effect.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

On the recommendation of a colleague, I read Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot. It’s a semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s first year at university – some very funny and moving parts, but also some interesting reflections on what language means and its limitations. Plus, I fully empathized with the line: ‘what was Cinderella, if not an allegory for the fundamental unhappiness of shoe shopping?’ I hate shoe shopping.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

It will still be there in the morning.

 Which historical figures would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?

Tough question. I’d probably invite some of the people I came across in my book on the Korean War, particularly some of the British anti-war activists. The Chair of the Stevenage New Town Development Corporation, Dr Monica Felton, was sacked for visiting North Korea during the war, but she always claimed she ‘did it for Stevenage’. I suppose I’d like to ask more about that. I’d also invite some of her critics too though, for balance, including someone called Christine Knowles who worked with the families of British prisoners of war. It would certainly be an interesting evening!

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

I love the walk along the Avon Gorge to Pill. It’s about 7 miles from the university, across the Suspension Bridge and takes just over two hours. Pack your sandwiches and enjoy the views. Then pop into a pub at the end and get the X4 bus home. And if you’re feeling adventurous you can do the full 23 miles of the Avon path! http://www.riveravontrail.org.uk/

Cycle path - Pill to Bristol © Linda Bailey cc-by-sa/2.0 ...

What are you working on next?

I’m going to be writing up my findings from the British Bases in Germany project – a few articles and a book. I’m also writing/thinking more about the history of military childhood. I’d also like to research more about where I live in Bristol, so need to plan a trip down to Bristol Archives!

 

Forest 404: A Chilling Vision of a Future Without Nature

by Professor Peter Coates , Professor of American and Environmental History, University of Bristol

Binge-watching of boxsets on BBC iPlayer or Netflix is a growing habit. And binge-listening isn’t far behind. Podcast series downloadable through BBC Sounds are all the rage (with a little help from Peter Crouch). Enter Radio 4’s ‘Forest 404’ – hot off the press as a 27-piece boxset on the fourth day of the fourth month. This is something I’ve been involved in recently: an experimental BBC sci-fi podcast that’s a brand-new listening experience because of its three-tiered structure of drama, factual talk and accompanying soundscape (9 x 3 = 27).

Try to imagine a world in which not only forests but every last trace of the natural world as we know it has been erased (almost……). This eco-thriller by Timothy X. Atack (credits include ‘Dr Who’) is set in the 24th century following a data crash called The Cataclysm (404 is also the error message you get when a website is unavailable). The action follows lead protagonist Pan (University of Bristol Drama alumna and ‘Doctor Who’ star Pearl Mackie), a sound archivist who uncovers some recordings from the early 21st century that grab and intoxicate her.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a project with the world-famous, Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), exploring wildlife filmmaking over the past quarter-century. We wanted to include and support a creative dimension going far beyond the project’s more strictly academic and historical elements. Something poetic and performative that could take the study of nature at the BBC into new territory, and away from the visual. But the core theme remains the same: the value of the natural world and its representation in cultural form. This haunting drama focuses on that cultural value very closely by exploring an alien and alienating future world without nature – a world where the only memory of its former existence is preserved in Pan’s sound archive.

This is a deeply historical approach that re-unites me with a piece of research I published some time ago on what I called the strange stillness of the past – how sounds, both human and non-human generated, were overlooked by most historians. Me and my partners at the BBC and Arts and Humanities Research Council see ‘Forest 404’ as part of an emerging research area known as the environmental humanities. The starting point of ‘enviro-hums’ is the conviction that a scientific perspective, no matter how important, cannot do full justice to our complex and many layered relationships with nature.

The humanities and arts also have a big contribution to make, especially in helping us to appreciate the value of what ecosystem services researchers call cultural services. This refers to the so-called non-material benefits we derive from the natural world – its aesthetic value (beauty), how it inspires imaginative literature, painting and music, its spiritual significance, and its role in forming cultural identities and giving us a sense of place. ‘Forest 404’ confronts us with the brutal possibility of a world not just without forests and trees but even lacking a conception of nature. And it makes us think about how that absence impoverishes us culturally as well as the more obvious ecological dangers we face.

Accompanying the podcast is an ambitious online survey devised by environmental psychologists at the University of Exeter and operated by The Open University. Data on how we respond to nature has previously concentrated on the visual. This focus on natural soundscapes will add a fresh dimension to what we already know about how contact with nature benefits our physical and mental wellbeing. So give the podcast a listen. Then please do the survey. It takes less than 10 minutes.

 

‘An Arena of Glorious Work’

UOB PhD student Gary Willis writes for us, below, on the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. Gary wrote his Masters dissertation on the role of British conservation organisations during the Second World War, and this forms the basis of an article about the role of CPRE during the war which is now published in the October 2018 issue of the Rural History journal.  He is currently undertaking a PhD on the impact on the rural landscape of Britain’s expanded war industry in the Department of History (Historical Studies) at Bristol, supervised by Professor Peter Coates.

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‘An Arena of Glorious Work’ . Such was described the Council for the Preservation of Rural England’s work during the Second World War, trying to protect the nation’s rural landscape against the consequences of its own war effort.  The quote comes from Professor Patrick Abercrombie, Executive Committee member of the CPRE, National Trust and sometime consultant to the Air Ministry, whose unpublished account of his activities during the Second World War is preserved in the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections.  That and the (now) Campaign for the Protection of Rural England’s archives at its South London HQ and at the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, enable an expanded understanding of ‘Home Front’ activities during the Second World War.

The CPRE archives show an increasing pre-occupation with concerns over demands for land from late 1935 onwards, particularly by the Air Ministry for airfields, the Ministry of Aircraft Production for aircraft factories, the army for training camps, and the Ministry of Supply for munitions factories.  With no significant protective legislation in existence until 1947’s Town and Country Planning Act over the use to which land could be put, there was in effect a War Department land-grab free-for-all in 1936 and 1937, with CPRE performing a reactive, rear guard action to stop swathes of countryside from being requisitioned by the military at a time when war was by no means assured.

A flying boat factory at Calgarth on the shores of Lake Windermere during the Second World War; CPRE fought unsuccessfully to stop the factory being built, but extracted a promise that the factory would be dismantled at the end of the war. It was. (photo courtesy of Allan King, photographer Derek Hurst).

Whilst CPRE was supportive of Britain’s war effort once war was declared, it nevertheless sought throughout the war to remain an effective advocate for the preservation of the rural landscape – a landscape which whilst regularly being evoked by State propaganda to stimulate the population’s support for the war effort, was subject to alteration and degradation by that very same effort.  With normal public means of securing influence such as parliamentary debate and the press severely limited by war regulations, CPRE’s response was a generally private campaign by letter, phone calls and meetings, central to which was support from its political allies in government and tip-offs from sympathetic civil servants.  CPRE’s policy and priorities during the war years was a mix of opposition to some war-effort related proposals for rural land use, acquiescence to others, such as open-cast mining and the felling of mature woodlands, and persistent efforts to seek to ensure that requisitioned land was returned to its pre-war use once the war was over.

Central to CPRE’s capacity to influence was a consultative mechanism created by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938, following sustained lobbying by CPRE.  It established the organisation as a stakeholder that Government ministries were required to consult with over their proposed use of land in rural areas for airfields, training camps, war industry, and other purposes.  This directive was never revoked by the Coalition Government, but perhaps inevitably became less influential as the war wore on.  Nevertheless CPRE’s stake was still high at war’s end, as in November 1946 the organisation was invited to arrange for the coordination and presentation to the Inter-Departmental Committee on Service Land Requirements all of the evidence which voluntary organisations throughout the country might wish to give regarding the effects of the Services’ post-war land proposals from the point of view of amenity, archaeology, natural history and other scientific interests.   This led to CPRE having under review hundreds of cases across England and Wales, using confidential material supplied by the Defence Departments.

The CPRE poacher had at least momentarily turned gamekeeper.  CPRE found itself, albeit temporarily, an agent of the State, tasked with dealing with multiple voluntary organisation interests and agendas, some more capable of objectivity than others, rather like the different shades of opinion within the broad church CPRE federation itself.  CPRE complained, on behalf of and in defence of the War Office, and without a hint of irony, that there had been frequent unjustified complaints about the Services’ proposals being suddenly announced and precipitately decided.  It was all rather reminiscent of the 1936 to 1937 period, when CPRE had been making those very same criticisms of the Defence Departments.  Except that in between CPRE had been engaged in ‘an arena of glorious work’.

 

Twitter: GaryW_Env_Hist

Email: gw17409@bristol.ac.uk

‘The Maltese Soul’ and the Quest for a Post-Colonial Identity

During a recent visit to Malta, Research Associate, Dr Andrew Hillier, found a country seeking to establish its identity in the post-colonial world.

 

Save for the odd passing reference, Malta tends to go un-noticed in British imperial history. Yet, for over 150 years,  the island, together with neighbouring Gozo, was an important British colony, playing a key role in the empire’s Mediterranean strategy. Moreover, when the country finally gained its independence, this ended not just British rule but two thousand years of colonisation. Its history, therefore, is instructive as to both Britain’s imperial project and, more generally, the impact of imperial rule on a nation and its people.

Whilst, according to the standard narrative, the Maltese have been Christian ever since St Paul’s arrival in 60 A.D., they may have converted to Islam during the period of Arab rule (8th to 11th century).  Certainly, Arabic influence can be found in the local language, which is still widely-spoken, and in some of the architecture, which, though of a later date, has echoes of the Arabic style, particularly in the former capital, Mdina. [i]

A building in Mdina, possibly 15th century.

However, since the Arab departure, the country has been inextricably linked to the church in Rome, beginning with some 400 years of Norman, Angevin and Aragonese rule, and followed by that of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, who were ceded the island by Charles V in 1530.  Whilst Catholicism predominated, the key characteristic throughout this period was the authoritarian subjugation of the island’s indigenous population. Restricted to administering their local affairs, they were considered useful only for paying taxes and providing services to the colonial rulers.  Although the Knights are celebrated for leading a heroic defence of the island against the Turks in the Great Siege of 1565, their presence was always resented. When Napoleon landed in 1798 and persuaded them to leave, he was initially well- received. However, he flattered only to deceive and, for the next two years, his army embarked on an orgy of plunder and pillage, before an uprising led to his expulsion.

Not surprisingly, the British were warmly welcomed, the royal coat of arms over the portico of the Main Guard recording the granting of the country ‘by the desire of the Maltese and with the consent of Europe’.  However, whilst the island was crucial to the defence of the eastern Mediterranean and the route to India, there was no sense of imperial mission. Ruled by a governor and his officials, the Maltese were confined to the more junior posts in the public services and the armed forces and had no significant say in the running of their country.  Although the economy prospered, it was a period of dignified subservience, punctuated only by the odd incident of imperial insensitivity. For example, in 1912, the Royal Navy caused great offence by inexplicably re-naming its headquarters at Fort San Angelo, HMS Egmont, and, only twenty years later, in a placatory gesture, changed this back to the somewhat incongruous-sounding HMS San Angelo.

Fort San Angelo

It was the Royal Navy and the island’s superb fortification system, strongly reinforced in the aftermath of the Great Siege,  that enabled the Maltese to mount a heroic resistance against Germany during the Second World War, one that resulted in appalling hardship and the award of the George Cross, still an important reminder of the solidarity between Britain and Malta at that time.  After the war, a plummeting economy fuelled an intense but always peaceful drive towards independence. Achieved in 1964, for the more radical element, the country only truly became free when the Royal Navy and other NATO forces withdrew on 31 March 1979, now celebrated as Freedom Day. Although this dealt a severe blow to the economy, through tourism and various commercial initiatives, by 2004, it had recovered sufficiently to be admitted as a full member of the EU and the Eurozone.

From this complex history, it is difficult to disentangle the multiple influences that have shaped Malta’s identity. English remains widely-spoken and scattered through the island are references to Britain’s presence, in particular in connection with the war. However, whilst there is the odd statue and memorial plaque, there is little evidence of the architecture so familiar in its other colonial settings.

Emblems of Britain’s Imperial presence, Valetta

Inspired by the Palace of the Grand Masters and the Knights’ auberges, the principal buildings, constructed in the local honey-coloured limestone, are mainly of baroque design.

Palace of the Grand Masters, Valetta, 1571

For the rest, the style and mood is quintessentially Mediterranean in a country with an extraordinarily rich cultural history, one that boasts the oldest standing temples in the world at Tarxien (3600-2500 BC), an outstanding Museum of Archaeology and an exquisite mosaic from the Roman era. Supported by generous EU grants, there is a substantial programme to promote this heritage.

If this all contributes to a new identity, the country is also grappling with major issues. The government has recently closed its borders to more refugees, it has been accused of a cover-up in relation to the murder of the investigative reporter, Daphne Galizia, and has been heavily criticised for selling citizenship to anyone who can afford the extortionate fee.

Memorials in Valetta to Daphne Caruana Galizia, murdered 16 October 2017

Lamenting what he sees as a cynical commercialism, one commentator has suggested that the people ‘have lost their Maltese soul’: ‘we have always welcomed foreigners amongst us, be they imposed without our consent or as refugees from conflict or persecution…It was because we were friendly, generous, warm and altruistic’. But, he argues, ‘we have forgotten the meaning of solidarity and need to ask, “am I still truly Maltese?”’[ii] Others, however, consider this as no more than the birth pangs of a young nation, slowly emerging  from a long history of colonial exploitation.

It seems clear that, whatever the outcome, Malta’s identity will be forged within the framework of the European Union, which has given it the confidence to assert itself as a nation. The geo-political wheel has turned full circle and it now has the right to veto whatever terms are proposed by its old imperial master for leaving the E.U.

[i] All photographs by the author taken in July 2018

[ii] Anthony Buttigieg, ‘Are we still truly Maltese’, The Sunday Times of Malta, 8 July 2018, p.19.

The Roots of ‘Springwatch’

BBC 2’s ‘Springwatch’ recently completed its fourteenth annual 3-week run. It’s become as much a part of the British spring as bluebells, wild garlic, frogspawn and ducklings. But it didn’t mushroom into success overnight. Environmental historian Peter Coates, who’s working on a project with the Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit, has written a blog for the Arts and Humanities Research Council about the origins of this national institution: https://ahrc-blog.com/2018/06/14/how-springwatch-was-sprung/

Why are Indian earthquakes missing from history?

Dr Daniel Haines is Senior Lecturer in Environmental History and principal investigator on the project ‘Broken Ground: Earthquakes, Colonialism and Nationalism in South Asia, c. 1900-1960′.

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I first started thinking about earthquake histories because of an accident. It was 2014. I had just started a new job at Bristol, and decided to teach an undergraduate course on natural disasters in South Asia. Looking for ‘good’ disasters to include as case studies, I stumbled across this piece by Roger Bilham about a huge earthquake in Assam in 1897.

The article focused on Tom LaTouche, a British scientist in Kolkata with the colonial Geological Survey of India. The head of the Survey, Richard Oldham, sent him up to Shillong in Assam, near the epicentre, to find out more about the quake. LaTouche wrote extensive letters, to his wife as well as his boss, detailing what he saw.

The letters contained plenty on physical effects, but more intriguing were the incidental references to how people had experienced the earthquake. Usually these were other Brits that LaTouche came across, but sometimes also Indians.

It was clear that the earthquake had been huge, frightening, and calamitous to people across hundreds of square miles.

Why had I never heard of it before?

Over the following couple of years, I dug more into South Asia’s earthquake history, and gradually realised that big, destructive earthquakes are a common occurrence along the Himalayan arc.

The Gorkha earthquake in Nepal in 2015 was a tragically immediate reminder. ‘You must be happy to have a big new disaster in your area, Dan,’ one of my students said shortly afterwards. I wasn’t. But I did notice how vast the media coverage was, even in Bristol, thousands of miles from Nepal. The same was true of other recent South Asian disasters – the 2010 floods in Pakistan, or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Earthquakes and other calamities are not just horrible. They are also big news. But where were the historical earthquakes in the literature?

An earthquake that flattened Quetta (now in Pakistan’s Balochistan province) in 1935 also killed roughly 30,000 people. I did my PhD research on the next-door province, Sindh, in the 1930s-1960s. Quetta’s population included numerous Sindhis, and Karachi was the chief destination for refugees evacuated in the weeks after the shaking. Yet I don’t recall coming across any substantial reference to the earthquake, either in primary sources or in history books.

The 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake is better known, partly because two of India’s key national figures, Mohandas K. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi and the Nobel laureate Rabinranath Tagore, disagreed sharply over how to interpret its meaning. Gandhi favoured reading the earthquake as divine punishment for what he termed the sinful practice of untouchability in the Hindu caste system. Tagore preferred a secular approach that focused on natural forces.

Even here, though, the focus has been on the intellectual clash between Gandhi and Tagore’s opposed worldviews. Although leaders and volunteers of the Indian National Congress were instrumental in organising relief and reconstruction in Bihar, only the Indian historian Tirthankar Roy has analysed the earthquake’s broader effects.

My current AHRC-funded research project, Broken Ground, is a partial attempt to correct the record. I’m investigating six earthquakes that shook various parts of colonial and postcolonial South Asia between the 1890s and 1950s, looking at their political, social and environmental ramifications. Such natural disasters are not only a humanitarian issue today, they were also an important part of the experience of colonialism, nationalism, and the post-colonial period for Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Myanmar people and the British alike.

Looking beyond South Asia, earthquakes are surprisingly absent from environmental histories more generally. Historians have tended to focus on other types of hazard: storms, flooding, drought. These disasters usually recur much more frequently than major earthquakes, so it is easier – more satisfying? – to track the changing ways that humans and hazards have impacted on each other over time.

Meanwhile, a handful of historians have looked at the social implications of earthquakes, often with considerable literary and analytical success (find examples here and here). But these works tend to use post-earthquake reconstruction as a prism on local society and politics. The earthquakes themselves can seem more like jumping-off points for general history, rather than historical actors in their own right.

I’ve (just!) discovered Conevery Bolton Valencius’s compelling 2011 book on earthquakes in the early nineteenth century Mississippi Valley. Valencius argues that the earthquakes transformed the middle Mississippi region by turning the St Francis river’s hinterland –which had been a booming trading zone where Cherokees, Osages, Creole boatmen and white American settlers rubbed shoulders – into a swampy marsh. Contemporary American intellectuals wrote extensively about the quakes’ effects on the landscape and its inhabitants, but by the twentieth century this conversation was almost entirely forgotten. The quakes helped drive the region’s diverse population away, but subsequent frontier narratives cast the land as ‘always empty’. History had swallowed the earthquakes.

Perhaps the absence of South Asia’s earthquakes from historical narratives is also due to accidents of geography and timing. Assam’s two earthquakes, in 1897 and 1950, killed relatively few people directly (around 1,500 apiece) and did their worst damage away from the population centres of the plains. The 1905 event, centred on Kangra in today’s Himachal Pradesh, had a much higher death roll (about 20,000) but occurred up in the Himalayan foothills, a region which barely figures in the literature. The three earthquakes of the 1930s, in Bago (Myanmar), Nepal/Bihar and Quetta, coincided with the eventful rise of popular nationalism, the decline of colonial power, the Second World War, and then independence.

By studying all six of the earthquakes together, I hope to tell a coherent story about the changing relationship between the colonial state and its subjects, and between humans and the landscape that these earthquakes dramatically reshaped. Perhaps they were not as central to political changes in late-colonial India as I first thought. But they deserve a more prominent place in the region’s history.