Featured Historian: Hilary Carey

In the latest in our regular series, we caught up with Prof. Hilary Carey to talk about her interests in the histories of religion and empire.

Hilary Carey is Professor of Imperial and Religious History and Research Director in the Faculty of Arts. She trained as a medievalist originally, but these days works mostly on colonial religious history. Her most recent book, Empire of Hell (CUP, 2019) was a religious history of the campaign to end convict transportation from Britain and Ireland to penal colonies in Australia, Bermuda and Gibraltar.

Hi Hilary, thanks for joining us! What’s the title of your new research project?

I am really excited that Sumita Mukherjee and I have been funded by the AHRC for the next three years. Our project is called ‘Mariners: religion, race and empire in British ports, 1801-1914’.

Images shows Hilary Carey outside the Mersey Maritime Museum in Liverpool

What’s ‘Mariners’ about?

There are two strands, one – led by Sumita – looks at lascars or South Asian seafarers, and the other looks at missions to British sailors. We are very happy to be partnering with the Anglican Mission to Seafarers, which is one of the world’s largest marine charities, and the Hull History Centre, which has recently completed cataloguing their (huge) archive.

Sumita and I are putting together a research team who will be probing the attempts by different religious charities to support, convert and Christianise mariners in nineteenth century ports.

How did you become interested in this area?

When I was researching convict transportation, I was regularly diverted by the light it shed on the merchant marine and the marine industries which made long-distance sea faring possible. A number of those who ministered to convicts were also interested in converting sailors. This made sense because convicts and sailors often shared similar backgrounds and were generally regarded as devoid of all religious and moral feeling. As I argued in my book, this was far from the case, though it was complicated.

With a former student at the University of Newcastle, I was initially interested in missions to seamen in the coal port city of Newcastle, New South Wales. When I moved to Bristol, I discovered that ports throughout the UK are littered with sailors’ homes, missions and institutions for turning sailor’s orphans into good Christians and able seamen.

Diving deeper it was also evident that the ethnic makeup of the marine workforce changed rapidly so that, by the end of the nineteenth century, lascars made up about one third of the merchant marine visiting British ports. Many found it difficult or impossible to find secure accommodation while in port or between jobs, which was a severe problem because, besides ever present racial discrimination, they also suffered extreme insecurity of employment.

When I discovered that Sumita was one of our leading authorities on migration and mobilities of South Asians to the UK, I thought we had to try and develop a project together on the merchant marine.

And what is the importance of mission to mariners today?

Merchant mariners continue to suffer from the same sort of problems they have always faced – dangerous working conditions, exploitative employment relations, piracy, shipwreck and loneliness. This is compounded in many cases by toxic hierarchies of race and religion, in which officers and ship owners come overwhelmingly from a small minority, and sailors and other port workers from the global majority. Everything was made worse by the pandemic, with dramatic stories of crews stranded by their owners and unable to leave their vessels or get paid.

Marine missions and seamen’s homes for lascars were some of the most important vehicles for mitigating, but possibly also for entrenching inequality in this most unequal of workforces.

Our project is important for the light it will shed on the mixed religious and racial workforce of the merchant marine. We will look closely at three ports – Hull, Bristol and Liverpool – to show how missions and marine charities were woven into the port landscape and their people.

Many of the buildings associated with marine missions have been demolished or given new purposes. We hope to recover some of the memories around these places which we plan to do through a conference and a travelling exhibition. We are also commissioning artistic impressions and conducting interviews with marine chaplains and the clients of their missions to get a sense of the lived experience of those who made a living from the sea in days of sail and steam.

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

My advice would be don’t be put off.

Religion is an unfashionable subject for many historians, particularly since these days fewer have had a religious education. This means that the past is even more of a foreign country than it was for earlier generations, who were educated in religious schools, or went to Sunday School and were religiously literate. But this means you have plenty of opportunities to make a difference, and the archives are wide open.

I would also suggest that they join the Ecclesiastical History Society, which has some terrific support for graduate students and runs excellent conferences and has an accessible journal.

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

In a word – persist.

My tutor in Oxford was the late Maurice Keen, a wonderful historian of late medieval chivalry. When I was a young academic, I was upset by a review of my first book, which I thought very unfair, and I wrote to him from Australia asking what I should do. He gave me the perfect answer, sending me a scorching review of one of his own early books, which had been merciless in pointing out various minor errors. (Readers, reviews used to be so much more vitriolic than they are these days.)

He said that you should always check your copy and, if you tend to overlook your own slips (and we all tend to do), then pay someone to check the manuscript. But he also said to persist. You learn from mistakes and, if you keep on writing, you do – eventually – get better.

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

I think much the most interesting things I have come across lately have been in the archives.

I have been reading my way through all the condemned sermons delivered in Newgate Chapel before the abolition of public execution. That is pretty interesting – if not particularly cheerful. I suspect no one else has read them since they were printed along with other gruesome details of the execution of these unfortunate people in the popular press.

For the project on missions to mariners, I was gripped by the records in the Mersey Maritime Museum of the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society. This was not strictly a mission to seamen, but had a benevolent intent. The minute book records hundreds of instances of ordinary bravery, by people of all classes, who rescued people from drowning, saved those caught in fires at sea, or dived into the Mersey to save children who had fallen off the docks. There are page after page recounting acts of individual heroism, which the Society rewarded with a few pounds.

I am not sure how this will fit into the project, but I felt privileged just to read these fragments of working lives on the Liverpool docks. I should also mention that the Society noted that far more ‘rescues’ happened in summer, and in calm weather, and that boys from the Akbar Training Ship seem to have made a habit of rescuing each other and claiming the Society’s reward.

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

For my fantasy dinner party, I think I would like to invite the Quaker activist Mrs Elizabeth Fry and some of her companions from the women’s prison visiting committees she set up in Newgate and elsewhere. I would like her to tell me about conditions on the convict women’s transports that she personally visited, having been swung up in a bosun’s chair, to ensure they were well treated. I am prepared to be soundly bossed and cajoled, because she was a powerful woman. But I would like to experience the full force of her moral indignation in person. And I would like the other guests to be convict women whose lives were torn apart by transportation from one end of the world to the other. I would like to hear from them how they endured it.

What’s your must-do Bristol activity?

I took up bell ringing just before the pandemic struck and I am still just getting the hang of it.

It is a mad British thing to do and Bristol is one of the best places in the world for ringers with hundreds of towers in more or less working order both in the city and the surrounding towns and villages of Gloucestershire and Somerset.

My most memorable experience was ringing double muffled – with the clapper in little leather jackets- to commemorate the death of the queen. As an Australian, I confess that I don’t really understand monarchy, but it was truly moving to be part of this once in a lifetime event, which took place in every tower across the country.

(And if you want to get into ringing – you can contact the University of Bristol Society of Change Ringers.)

What are you working on next?

Besides Mariners, I am writing a short book on the condemned sermon at Newgate. I gave a talk about this to the History Showcase at the start of term. I got interested as a result of my work on convicts and prisoners and wondering about the fate of those who did not have the good fortune to be transported to the penal colonies, but were executed for their crimes.

I also have a long running project on missionary linguistics, including an edition of the first translation of the bible into any Australian Aboriginal language. With a colleague in Germany I am interested in the attempt, led by the British and Foreign Bible Society, to translate the Bible into all the languages of the world.

So there is plenty to keep me going.

That sounds wonderful! Thanks again for joining us!