Blue Planet in historical perspective

Environmental historian Peter Coates is currently working on a project with the Bristol-based BBC Natural History Unit, which is  just a five-minute walk from the Department. The recent broadcast on BBC1 of ‘Blue Planet II’ provided the occasion for a number of interviews with the publicity office of the project’s funding body, the Arts and Humanities Research Council. These interviews covered the  latest series, its predecessor in 2001, and the work of the project more generally. Environmental history is one of the Department’s  distinctive areas for teaching and research.

Colonialism in Shanghai, China’s Global City: Former Bristol PhD student Isabella Jackson on how she wrote her new book

Isabella Jackson describes how her new book emerged from her 2012 PhD thesis here at the department, a process, it sometimes seems, that involves unlearning all the things that had to be learned in order to prepare the thesis. Isabella’s story of presenting her findings on modern Chinese history actually began here in the department 14 October 2002, when as a 1st year undergraduate she gave a seminar presentation on ‘The Chinese World Order and the West’ in my class on the Boxer Uprising in China. After her BA, she took the MA here, then an MPhil in Modern Chinese Studies at Oxford as part of her preparation for the PhD. Robert Bickers

How do we develop our own original line of argument in a research project? And what makes a book from a PhD dissertation? These are two of the biggest questions faced by doctoral students, one early in their research and the other nearer to graduation. When I began my PhD in 2008, I had a one-page outline of a project to investigate how the International Settlement at Shanghai was managed. My supervisor, Professor Robert Bickers, pointed out that while he and one or two others had written about the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC), a British-dominated colonial body, as part of wider examinations of colonialism in China, no dedicated study of this state-like institution and its long tentacles existed. But another professor in the department warned that institutional history was deadly boring (not quite his words). I knew I needed to provide more than an analysis of how the SMC functioned and how it influenced the city, but I did not know what that might entail.

The Council of 1936-1937, with American, British, Chinese and Japanese members. Image courtesy of Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol. HPC ref: Bi-s085

So I got reading, noting anything that leapt out as surprising; Professor Rana Mitter, who taught me during my MPhil at Oxford, is a great advocate of paying attention to what is surprising in our research. What kept striking me was the paradox of it being an International Settlement but an expression of British colonialism. How justified was the ‘International’ moniker? I found that as time went by, particularly from the late 1920s, the SMC was increasingly transnational in the members of the council, its staff, and the networks in which those councillors and employees moved. I called this form of colonialism ‘transnational colonialism’. It was still important to demonstrate the huge impact of the SMC on Shanghai, its residents, and the politics of the period, particularly the growth of Chinese nationalism, but I now had a thesis of potentially wider interest to people beyond the field of Shanghai history.

The Shanghai Municipal Archives on the Bund

After a year in the Shanghai Municipal Archives and longer writing up, I completed my PhD in 2012. The next job was to adapt my thesis for publication as a monograph. My PhD examiners made many useful suggestions, and they needed more convincing on aspects of my argument, so I knew the areas that had to be strengthened. A couple of people advised me to leave my thesis for six months and come back to it afresh, when I’d be able to see its strengths and weaknesses more objectively, which I did. I’ll never know whether this was a good plan in my case or not, but in retrospect, I wish I had ploughed straight on with the book rather than breaking my momentum. What prompted me to get back to it was meeting the immensely encouraging Lucy Rhymer, Commissioning Editor for Asian Studies at Cambridge University Press, at a British Association for Chinese Studies conference. She liked the look of my paper and asked if I was publishing my PhD. I promised to send her a proposal that month, and it was just the push I needed to start to see my project as a potential book aimed at a wide range of readers.

A book proposal requires the writer to focus on key words, audience, market, and significance. Summarising each chapter in terms of the claims I was making helped me develop a punchier style. I now needed to locate my work in relation to the existing field in a different way to a dissertation literature review, which shows how a project builds on and departs from the existing scholarship. I had to demonstrate not only that there was a ready market for a book about how precisely colonialism worked in Shanghai, but also that I was taking a different approach to existing books on Shanghai and historical Sino-British relations. As much of that work is by none other than my excellent supervisor, Robert Bickers, this was a delicate task! I related my work to comparable colonial sites, from smaller treaty ports in China and the colony of Hong Kong to municipalities in British India and even Egypt, which was subject to both British and French imperialism.

Lucy asked for sample chapters, so I revised what I thought were my strongest chapters and she sent them out for review. The anonymous readers’ reports provided more guidance as to how to make the manuscript more book-like. By this point I thought I was stressing the significance of my findings a lot, but I needed to do it even more explicitly. Writing my response to the readers was perhaps the most useful stage: much of what I wrote in answer to their critique went into my Introduction, setting out my stall as directly as I could. Next I had to deliver the full manuscript to go back for review, and this time the readers were satisfied, as were the Cambridge Syndicate in turn, and I got the contract for the book. For the first time I had a deadline, and there is nothing like a deadline to get me writing. Three months later I sent off the final manuscript, fully indexed. Every stage since then has been enjoyable: seeing the proofs laid out like a real book, choosing the cover image, and finally receiving my own copies.

The Cambridge University Press Syndicate, which takes the final decision on whether to offer a contract for a book. Source:

The project has come a long way from the one-page outline with which I began my PhD. It remains to be seen how readers will respond to my argument about transnational colonialism in Shanghai, but I am confident that I am making a new contribution to debates that should be taken into account as we seek to understand the different permutations of colonialism in China and beyond.

My new book

Isabella Jackson, Trinity College Dublin

Avonmouth Docks – some uncharted territory

In this blog, second-year undergraduate History student Jacky Baker reflects on her time spent this summer working in a local archive:


“Archiving is yet another one of those fields that has, to some degree, come out of the closet to understand itself as a form of creation and production imbued with subjectivity rather than an objective bureaucratic practice.”

Marvin Taylor, the Director of Archives at Fales Library


For a week this summer, I was creative, got dirty, and had fun, whilst moving, sorting and categorising about one thousand books, pamphlets, and journals.  The end result was a library at the Bristol Port Company in which I hope existing users can relocate items, and new users can go exploring.

Aerial view of Avonmouth and Portbury Docks.  Reproduced by kind permission of The Bristol Port Company.

As I was staring at the bookshelves, working out where to start, I was reminded of a recent conversation. The conversation was with David Lane, a writing fellow of Bristol University researching for a new play, who made me think that an archive could be alive.  The objects, books and letters of the past remain a forgotten store until retrieved.  In the role of creator of the library/archive this summer, it was my responsibility to create a manual, map, or phrase book for present-day historians to explore the past and find answers, or more questions.

Part of Library in its original state.

The library did take on a life for me.  I certainly talked to some of the books, when they failed to stand up, or when a gap on the shelf was too small for a category of publications planned for it.  Tetris – an older computer game – became a reality for me, that week.

I was first introduced to the Bristol Port Company archives on a research visit, for my first year undergraduate project on the 1949 Dock Strike, as part of Dr Grace Huxford’s unit ‘Britain’s Cold War’.  The majority of records relating to the Port of Bristol before 1991, when it was purchased from Bristol City Council, lie in the city’s archives. However, I found gaps where I expected to find original source material.  With an email, and an appointment made, I was introduced to the Bristol Port Company and their reference library which certainly helped my project.  I resolved then, to seek a revisit, and try to discover more items on shelves, and / or in boxes on the floor at Avonmouth.

One could call it work experience, as I had volunteered to look at the Port’s forgotten resource.  Businesses, needing to focus on the present and the future, have little time to spare for such a task. Fortunately for me John Chaplin, the Director of External Affairs and Special Projects, very trustingly giving me free reign as I set off exploring.

Organised chaos / work in Progress

Whilst considering if Bevin’s biography belonged with ‘Trade Union and Industrial Relations’ or ‘History and Art’, I wondered how many other local companies have areas such as this:  a room of books, or a dark cupboard of dusty old ledgers forgotten by many, sometimes read by a few whilst perhaps killing a wet lunchtime.  Could a keen amateur offer their services to other companies to bring some order, or at least make the archives more accessible for other historians to use?

After five days. I had categorised the library and tried to create a framework for later completion with a more detailed book list.  Some items I listed individually, to show others the dormant source material located on their shelves.  For example, one envelope contained a velum pilotage certificate, and letters of reference for an Arthur Jackson, from the 1920s.   One book – the personal telephone directory of the Traffic Manager, from the 1950s – was an analogue ‘Facebook’ containing clippings of marriages, deaths, and promotions of those contacts in his directory.  There was an insurance ledger dating back to the 1890s, and minutes of the Dues Committee, from around the same time, that had extracts of letters protesting at the rate of charges for harbour use.  Should another undergraduate take up the study of the Canadian Seamen’s Union 1949 Dock strike, they could find the Rochdale Report, printed TGWU leaflets warning about Communist influence, and other interesting references to the Cold War period.

The finished library

The end result was something I felt proud to have created.  The library, though already in existence, had a frame of categories.  Even the Chairman, Terence Morduant, expressed an interest in spending an afternoon amongst the books, reacquainting himself with old friends, and finding some new ones.  Next year I will doing some more archive exploring, this time in the engineers’ library at The Bristol Port Company, hard hat not required (I hope).



The White House, Unguarded Gates, and the Huddled Masses

As President Trump endorses a bill to restrict immigration, Lecturer in North American History, Julio Decker, reflects on the history of US attitudes to the ‘huddled masses’.

Much of what has been happening since the American election last year seems novel and unprecedented. It seems difficult to remember a single week of the Trump administration that did not collide with political customs. Last week, another seemingly unprecedented break with the past happened when White House Aid Stephen Miller declared that Emma Lazarus’s poem ‘The New Colossus’, engraved in the pedestal, was irrelevant as it was added after the Statue of Liberty had been erected. In a heated exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta, he defended President Trump’s support for a Senate Bill that would halve the number of legal immigrants allowed to come to the United States. The bill would test potential migrants’ job prospects before admission, among them their English-language skills.

Image by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. Public Domain.

For many commentators, this seemed like a new low: denigrating a poem that stood for the American tradition of calling for the world to send ‘your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’. And there is a case to make that Miller misrepresented the poem, which was written as part of a fundraiser for the statue, thus being explicitly connected to the Lady of Liberty. But Miller did get one thing right: opposition to immigration, and to the poem and what it represented, was not a break in American history: it had existed even before 1903 when the plaque with the poem was installed. Just like the travel ban, the Trump administration’s immigration policy proposals have such a clout because the restrictionist impulses have a long tradition in American history.

Lazarus wrote the sonnet in 1883, one year after Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned – with only a few exceptions – an entire nationality from entering the United States. Opposition to immigration was not limited to those from Asia: when the origin of most new arrivals started to shift from North-western to South-eastern Europe in the 1880s, many Americans started to demand restriction. These nativist voices explicitly rejected the spirit embodied in ‘The New Colossus’ – new immigrants were depicted as lowering wage levels, being unwilling to assimilate, and lacking the cultural knowledge to participate in a democratic society. In the late nineteenth century, these views were framed in contemporary racial theories – new immigrants were classified as part of the Alpine or Mediterranean races, supposedly inferior to Anglo-Saxons.

From the 1890s, nativist voices began to be heard in Washington. Conservative think-tanks and lobby groups such as the Immigration Restriction League built alliances with farmers, Southerners, and labour unions. Influential Senators such as Henry Cabot Lodge started to lobby for new means of reducing immigration. What university degrees, skills, job prospects, and language skills are to conservative lawmakers today, the literacy test was for nativist reformers of the early twentieth century. At Ellis Island and at other inspection sites at American borders, immigrants were meant to prove that they could read and write. Restrictionists argued that the test was impartial, and that apart from testing a crucial skill for participation in American politics, it would also exclude the most undesirable, as illiteracy supposedly correlated with criminality, poverty, and dependence on state aid. The real motivation, however, was another correlation – that illiteracy was the lowest among people from North-western Europe. Depending on the audience, restrictionists would openly address this racial dimension– the founder of the Immigration Restriction League, Prescott F. Hall, declared in 1919 that immigration restriction should be seen as a method of keeping ‘inferior stocks’ from ‘both diluting and supplanting good stocks’.

Henry Cabot Lodge. Image by John Singer Sargent – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain.

For most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, Presidents rejected the ‘radical departure from our national policy’, as Grover Cleveland wrote when he vetoed a literacy test bill in 1897. Woodrow Wilson vetoed similar bills in 1913 and 1915. Furious with the President’s threat of a veto, Senator Lodge declared that instead of clinging to the tradition embodied by ‘The New Colossus’, he should read Thomas Bailey Aldrich. In 1893, this poet had written ‘The Unguarded Gates’ as a reply to Lazarus, bemoaning that the nation let in ‘featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho, Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt and Slave’, who brought ‘with them unknown gods and rites’. The poem called out to Lady Liberty to rethink her welcome to the world:

In street and alley what strange tongues are loud,
Accents of menace alien to our air,
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!
O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well
To leave the gates unguarded?

Lodge was not the first to bring Aldrich’s poem into political debate – it was popular among restrictionists. While citing it did not convince Wilson in 1913, the nativists’ lobby work did eventually pay off when the United States entered World War One. Public doubts over immigrants’ loyalties helped restrictionists to organize the Congressional votes necessary for overriding another veto by Wilson. In 1917, the new Immigration Act included the literacy test. It also banned all immigration from the so-called Asiatic Barred Zone, stretching from the Ottoman Empire to New Guinea. While this wholesale ban excluded migrants regarded as non-white, the literacy test proved to be less effective than originally envisioned. In the 1920s, a wide coalition of Democrats and Republicans passed acts establishing a quota system which drastically limited immigration from South-eastern Europe. Like today, the radical anti-immigrant rhetoric was supported by the White House. ‘American liberty’, vice-president Calvin Coolidge wrote in an article for Good Housekeeping in 1921, ‘is dependent on quality in citizenship’. While the ‘Nordics propagate themselves successfully’, he wrote, in the question of limiting immigration ‘racial considerations [are] too grave to be brushed aside’. It is only ‘when the alien adds vigor to our stock that he is wanted’ – to ensure national progress, racially inferior immigrants therefore had to be excluded, he argued.

Image by Dyfsunctional. Public Domain.

Symbols like the Statue of Liberty are imbued with political meaning. For many liberal Americans, the statue stands for an American tradition of welcoming immigrants regardless of English-language skills, race, or ethnicity. But the statue so many immigrants saw on their arrival to New York also embodies another powerful strand in American politics, one those with a positive view of the United States tend to repress. Immigration legislation was also shaped by a strong tradition of nativism, racism, and conservatism, one that politicians can mobilize when calling for tighter regulation. In their vision of American history, Lady Liberty was wrong in welcoming the world’s poor and huddled masses – this is why ultra-nationalists interpret the latest Vogue cover as a criticism of the Trump administration. Understanding this history gives us a stern warning: when this tradition is embraced by the White House, consequences for immigrants can be dire.

Finding Love in War

University of Bristol history graduate Karen Mead reflects on her summer research internship and how it led her to a dissertation on Bristol women’s relationships with American GIs:


When I was invited to be a history research intern last summer, I was thrilled. I could never have anticipated the journey on which the research would take me! The project initially involved researching African-American GIs’ experiences in Bristol during the Second World War. Together with Dr Julio Decker, lecturer in North American history, I was to work with archival material from the Bristol Archives. As with many archives, much of the Bristol Record Catalogue is conveniently listed online.  Following an extensive search of the material they held, it seemed they held promising material for the research project. I made an appointment and was excited to be viewing primary sources, the bedrock of historians’ work.

It quickly became clear, from looking at the initial material, that the task was not going to be as straightforward as I had imagined. From the outset, despite online listings to the contrary, police records for the crucial war years were missing. Equally, some of the material had sustained damage and some records were incomplete. It also became clear that, due to the US military having jurisdiction over their own servicemen, any records of their transgressions were likely to be held in the United States; this further limited the material we could work with. Unfortunately, these problems are regular obstacles that historians can encounter in the course of their research. Nevertheless, inspiration came from an unlikely source. Following nearly nine months of research, the unexpected find of twelve letters to the Bristol Mayor, which initially seemed outside the scope of the research project, transformed the central focus of the research project onto a under examined area of the Second World War.

Whilst examining the Lord Mayor’s Wartime Correspondence, I came across a selection of letters written by members of the public, British servicemen, and even from America following the publication of a small article in the Sunday Pictorial Newspaper in August 1945. The article detailed scenes in Bristol when African-American soldiers were leaving to return to the United States at the end of the war. Whilst the authenticity of the article may be apocryphal, the responses were damning. The writers of these letters fiercely criticised the purported behaviour of these women.  This indicated to me that these writers perceived the behaviour as unpatriotic and suggests that some British servicemen considered British women their property on their return from the war.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Bristol Archives: LM/C/X13/232.

With such clear condemnation and an awareness of the contemporary labels attached to women who had relationships with American servicemen, these letters led me to consider the motivations and experiences of these women. At first, I thought that this topic would have attracted significant historical scholarship. To my surprise, only a few female scholars had directly looked at these relationships in the last few years. Their research focussed on government actions to discourage such relationships, the tension they caused, and the framing of the relationships as unpatriotic.[1] These articles were notable for their lack of evidence from the women themselves. In light of the sparse scholarship, I wanted to recover these women’s stories. As many of these women did not leave contemporary accounts for historians to draw upon, this proved challenging.

After much searching, I found oral history interviews and questionnaires completed by GI brides in the Imperial War Museum Archives in London. These detailed oral history interviews and questionnaire responses, covering their experiences of meeting their husbands to moving to America, shed light on a previously unexplored aspect of the social history of the Second World War. Importantly, these sources challenged the limited historical research on these relationships to date and formed the bedrock of my dissertation. My final piece ‘Finding Love in War: An examination of the motivations and experiences in their relationships with American GIs during the Second World War, 1942-1946’ combines oral history and documentary sources. It reveals that – contrary to contemporary stereotypes – the women in the study married their American GIs for love, had positive experiences introducing their GI to their families and were welcomed by their new American relatives. This study challenges prevailing historical scholarship on these relationships, which has suggested women were motivated by the luxury items that GIs could provide, often resulting in transitory encounters. Moreover, it highlights the importance of diversifying the historical picture by examining evidence from the individuals involved.


[1] L.McCormick, One Yank and They’re Off: Interaction between US Troops and Northern Irish Women 1942-1945, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 15 (2006), 228-257; S. O’ Rose, ‘Girls and GI’s: Race, Sex, and Diplomacy in Second World War Britain’, The International History Review, 19 (1997) 146-160; W. Webster, ‘Fit to Fight, Fit to Mix’: Sexual Patriotism in Second World War Britain, Women’s History Review, 22 (2013), 607-624.


Age of the Anthropocene

“We’ve killed off the dodo, released unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and raised sea levels: welcome to the Anthropocene, the geological age in which humankind has permanently left our mark on the planet.”

This was the description I gave to my new unit, ‘The Age of the Anthropocene’ hoping to catch the attention of second year students keen to explore the impact and meaning of global environmental change. It worked: students from History, English Literature, Religion and Theology, Philosophy, Ancient History, and Study Abroad students joined me this autumn to explore how the notion of the ‘Anthropocene’ has gained traction as a definition of time that recognizes the unprecedented Earth-altering impact of the human species. We engaged with debates among scientists and humanities scholars over the concept, while also exploring how it has captured popular and scholarly imagination.

One of the activities that I looked forward to was holding an inaugural Bristol ‘Anthropocene Slam’ – inspired by the original Anthropocene Slam at the Nelson Institute, Centre for Culture History and Environment (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2014); the Anthropocene exhibition at the Deutsches Museum (Munich, 2014-16); and the BBC/British Museum initiative, ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’. The challenge was to select an object/visual/sound that encapsulates and communicates the Anthropocene to a wide audience. Here, the students describe the unit, the Slam, and present their selection of objects which best communicate the Anthropocene to you, the public.

What is the Age of Anthropocene unit?

The Anthropocene is the notion that humanity has become a geological force in its own right, moving us in to a new epoch. Proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, it has inspired this unit ‘The Age of Anthropocene’, which explores the origins, reality and future of the changing planet. Expect hard-hitting truths about the changing relationship between humans and the environment, using the most innovative of recent scholarship, but also material and technology sources.

What is the Anthropocene Slam?

Slam! Now I’ve got your attention. For the Anthropocene slam we were each tasked with presenting a material source ranging from audio to bleach bottles, which represented our perceptions of what the broad concept of the Anthropocene meant. Our overall purpose was to present the Anthropocene with clarity, in the most effective fashion. Our broad scope reflected how the Anthropocene affects all areas of life. 

Object 1: Fordite /Detroit agate

Proposed by Thecla Horton


Image via, copyright unknown

I chose this as an item that I think most represents the Anthropocene for a number of reasons. Fordite is layers and layers of old car paint, from when cars were hand spray-painted, which built up in the painting bays on the ‘tracks’ and ‘skids’ that cars were painted on. The colourful layers show many years of this, these layers were then ‘baked’ when the car bodies went into ovens to set the paint. This process is now extinct as cars are no longer hand sprayed.

Firstly, I think it is a good representation of the Anthropocene as a product of the automobile industry-a significant driver behind the oil industry, mass consumption, and a significant contributor to global warming. The fact that the production of this material is now extinct seems symbolic to the proposed idea that we are entering the 6th mass extinction. Technology and our world is moving so quickly that even these man made materials are becoming rare.

It looks natural and beautiful even the name, Fordite/Detroit agate, is suggestive of a natural mineral, the pattern of multiple layers making it look like it is millions of years old.  Yet it is a fossil of the beginning of the Anthropocene. While fossils have taken millions of years to form, the human impact on the planet has happened so rapidly and violently to produce fossils within just a few years, and then for it also to become virtually ‘extinct’.

Object 2: Photograph of Male, Maldives

Proposed by Toby Lane


Image: Creative Commons/Flickr/la_camera_obscura

This is Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Situated in the Indian Ocean it is home to over 130,000 people and is the fifth most densely populated island globally. It is the world’s lowest lying nation with the islands that make up the Maldives being on average only a few feet above sea level. Sea level rise consequently jeopardises the future existence of the Maldives and the way of life for all those who live on the island. The example of the Maldives epitomises the problems offered by the onset of the Anthropocene but also its unjust nature. Those who live on Malé have contributed little towards anthropogenic climate change but will be massively affected by the decisions and excesses of others. Furthermore the fate of Maldives is almost entirely outside of its inhabitants’ influence and the country lacks the ability to defend itself. Malé itself is only protected by a 3m high sea wall which took 14 years to construct at an expense of $63 million (99% of which was funded by Japan). Finally, a study of the Maldives also emphasises how little time is left in order to take action on climate change if catastrophic levels of disruption are to be avoided. In April 2012 President Nasheed of the Maldives declared that “If carbon emissions continue at the rate they are climbing today, my country will be underwater in seven years.”

Object 3: Emojis

Proposed by Noa Leach

Emoji story by Noa Leach ©

Emoji story by Noa Leach ©

Object 4: Video of a turtle (warning: scenes of an animal in distress)

Proposed by George Mumford

Object 5: Pollution mask

Proposed by Matt Davis

A man and child wear masks to visit Shanghai’s Bund. Via Creative Commons/CNN

A man and child wear masks to visit Shanghai’s Bund. Via Creative Commons/CNN

Since the end of the Second World War and the onset of the ‘Great Acceleration’ phase of the Anthropocene air pollution has risen rapidly.

In the build-up to the 2008 Olympic games held in Beijing the Chinese media became fixated on the city’s choking pollution. During an air quality crisis in February 2015, the concentration of ‘hazardous particulate matter’, known as PM 2.5 since they are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, rose to nearly twenty times the safe level.

Due to the health risk many people who live in China’s major cities have started wearing pollution masks in an attempt to keep themselves safe from PM 2.5, that are small enough to seep into a person’s lungs or bloodstream. The cause of the ridiculously high air pollution has been attributed to the Chinese industrial sector as the nation’s heaviest polluters. Despite the use of pollution masks a recent report has claimed air pollution is killing around four thousand people per day in China, and accounts for one in six premature deaths.

Air pollution masks represent much about human interaction and the general consequences of the Anthropocene. It has been predicted by scientists that continued burning of fossil fuels and high pollution levels will make much of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable by the year 2100. Pollution masks represent how Beijing has arguably become the closest city yet to be rendered unfit for human habitation due to the effects of the Anthropocene, and although the government is taking action to reduce pollution, the staggering number of deaths caused already begs the question ‘are they acting too late?’ The mask also represents the human reliance upon technological remedies to the Anthropocene, a quick fix that makes the immediate threat smaller and yet fails to address the cause of the problem, that of a constant striving for economic growth, over consumption and a frame of mind that prioritizes the pursuit of human progress over nature.

Object 6: Bunch of Keys

Proposed by Beth Gaffney

Photographer: ©M Dudley

Photographer: ©M Dudley

This object consists of a household key chain, three different sized keys, a combination padlock, and a supermarket points fob. This object symbolises Paul Crutzen and John McNeill’s third stage of the Anthropocene: ‘The Age of the Stewards’, which marks mankind’s recognition that human activities are indeed affecting the structure and functioning of the Earth system as a whole and is filtering through to decision making. Just as a steward is an official person responsible to take care of something, mankind uses keys to lock something into a safe space. This illustrates how humans have come to acknowledge their responsibility for the earth systems, which they value for continuance of human life.

However, keys are generally forgotten about; they remain hidden in our pockets for most of the day and are often misplaced. This suggests that mankind “knows” the importance of protecting the Earth systems, but often forget to act appropriately in everyday life. Mankind’s planetary ecological consciousness has not formed.

In addition, the different sized keys illustrate how human individuals have been given various “solutions” to protect the environment. However, neither of these three keys fit into the padlock. The keys also sit alongside a plastic supermarket key fob. The solutions provided by market environmentalism often falsely legitimatize the idea that one can continue his or her consumption habits without adjustment, and no broader systematic or structural changes are required. For example, polluters pay distant others, frequently located in the global south, to engage in emission reduction activities as a substitute for reductions at the source. These solutions prioritise the western anthropogenic world and are tokenistic.

By Dr Marianna Dudley (Lecturer in Environmental Humanities), Lucy Bennett (Religion and Theology), Matt Davis (History), James Foss (History), Beth Gaffney (History), Thecla Horton (History), Lydia Hunt (Philosophy and Theology), Yejin Jeong (Study Abroad), Toby Lane (History), Noa Leach (English), Rupert Liddell (Ancient History), George Mumford (History), Roisin Murphy (History), Olivia Nathan-King (Religion and Theology), and Cassie Rist (Religion and Theology) . Thanks go to Bristol Museum Curator Bonnie Griffin for joining our workshop and sharing her expertise, and to Cabot Innovation Fund for their support.

CFP. Creative Histories

University of Bristol, July 19th -21st 2017

What does it mean for history to be creative?

This two-day conference explores the ways that educators, researchers, writers, artists, students, practitioners, and curators have brought the past to life, made history compelling, and had fun.

This is particularly important today. While public enthusiasm for history is as strong as ever, academic historians face currents of anti-intellectualism from politicians convinced ‘we’ are sick of ‘experts’, and even senior university officials who think ‘society’ does not need historians. Some academics, on the other hand, have jealously guarded the title of ‘historian’, leading to debates about professional identities, independent research, and popular history. Now, more than ever, is the time to explore the creativity of the many different types of history being produced in (and across) many different places.

We invite proposals for contributions including performances, recitals, demonstrations, research papers, and exhibitions addressing one or more of the following broad themes:

History in Public – History from and for below – Community histories and co-production – Museums and galleries – Interactive historical education – History publishing – The economics of public history

Historical (Non)Fiction – Novels – Poetry -Theatre – Journalism – Memoir and autobiography

Visual Histories – Photography, film, television – Art history – Curation

History and Social Media – Blogging – #twitterstorians – Digital humanities – #storypast

Proposals of 250 words for a single contribution should include the name(s) of contributor(s), the AV and technical needs and length of the contribution, and explain how it relates to the theme of ‘creative history’ and the sub-themes above. Grouped proposals for sessions of two to five contributions are especially welcome.

Deadline: 31st January 2017.

Please send proposals and questions to


South Asian Migrants and Bristol

Our new colleague Dr Sumita Mukherjee looks at the place of Bristol city and university in the modern history of South Asian migration:

David Olusoga’s BBC2 programme Black and British: A Forgotten History has brilliantly demonstrated the ways in which peoples of African descent have been living in Britain since the Roman times, how they have been part of the fabric of British life and society for centuries, how migration and multiculturalism are not twentieth-century phenomena.

It should go without saying that just as men and women of African descent have lived and played their part in British history for centuries, so have men and women from Asia, including men and women from the Indian subcontinent. Much of my research has focused on Indian men and women who came to Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, before the more large-scale migrations of the post-war era.

A study of the effects of such migrations could focus on the city of Bristol. Bristol has many long-standing connections with Indian men and women. These links are publicly noted in College Green with the statue of Indian reformer Rammohan Roy. He came to Britain in 1831, was present at King William IV’s coronation, and politicians and philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Macaulay and Robert Owen all clamoured to meet with him. He was a vocal champion of women’s rights, and human rights more broadly.


Rammohan Roy statue at College Green, Bristol. Original image & CC licence here.

In 1833, staying in Bristol with Minister Lant Carpenter and his daughter, Mary, Roy died of suspected meningitis. He was buried in Bristol. A few years later, Dwarkanath Tagore, the father of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, shifted Roy’s grave to Arnos Vale and erected a monument; Roy’s tomb at Arnos Vale Cemetery is grade 2 listed, a tourist attraction and remains a site of commemoration for members of the Brahmo Samaj, the reformist group he founded.


Image of Rammohan Roy tomb at Arnos Vale (author’s own image).

Mary Carpenter moved to Red Lodge after the death of Roy, and it was there that she hosted, Keshub Chunder Sen, another Brahmo Samaj reformer, on his tour of England in 1870. Carpenter tried to make Sen comfortable by preparing  ‘curry and rice’ for him in her Elizabethan drawing room, and together they formed the ‘National Indian Association’, first in Bristol (September 1870) and then in London (1871), as a place for Indian visitors to meet like-minded British people and to discuss reform issues.

Bristol was eulogised by many Brahmo Samajists and so Mary Carpenter hosted many other Indian visitors in the nineteenth century who came to pay their respects at Roy’s grave, and to build networks among like-minded reformers. They include Sasipada Banerji, whose son was born on 10 October 1871 at Carpenter’s house and named Albion, after his birth place. The family returned to India in 1872, but Albion came back later to Britain to study at Oxford.

Indeed, in the early twentieth century, the largest foreign student body at British universities were Indian students. Many Indians were encouraged to visit Britain to pursue higher education, having been educated in institutions in India that were modelled on British schools and colleges. In the academic year 1930-1, Bristol University had 28 Indian students. As John Reeks has discovered, one of those students, Man Mohan Singh, attempted to be the first Indian to fly from England to India in 1930. He was unsuccessful.

Another noteworthy example is Sukhsagar Datta, who came to Britain in 1908. He married Ruby Young in 1911, and joined the University of Bristol Medical School in 1914, qualifying as a doctor in 1920. He first worked at the Bristol General Hospital, and eventually the Stapleton Institution (now called Manor Park Hospital) until his retirement in 1956. Datta joined the Labour Party in 1926 and became chair of Bristol North Labour Party in 1946.

Bristol continued to host, and became home, for many more men and women of Indian origin. Many of these stories have yet to be uncovered; their names are hidden in censuses, their faces obscured in photos. Their stories are interwoven with other migrant groups, and together they have shaped the architecture and history of Bristol and Britain.

Menton Memorials: Then and Now

On his travels again, Andrew Hillier finds evidence of British colonisation nearer home in the French Riviera resort of Menton.

In my last blog (Malaysian Linkages, Old and New) I examined how Britain’s presence in nineteenth-century Malaysia could be explored through its buildings, cemeteries and other spaces. Similar evidence of a British presence, albeit in a different context, can be found in Menton, the village, perched on an outcrop of the Mediterranean coast, which Britons began to frequent in the 1860s.

University of Bristol historian John Pemble’s, The Mediterranean Passion, published almost 30 years ago, remains the most engaging account of how the Riviera was colonised during this period, principally by Britons, Germans and Russians. As he shows, it was British doctors who, by ordering their patients to go south in winter, first transformed the region’s ‘humble French and Italian villages into fashionable winter resorts’.[1]

Nowhere was this process more evident than in Menton. If Dr James Henry Bennet (1816-1891) first put the medieval village on the English map, by recommending it for patients suffering from phthsis (tuberculosis), it was Queen Victoria who gave the resort its real impetus. She spent two months there in 1882, in search of a cure for her youngest son, the sickly Prince Leopold; sadly without success, as he died two years later.

Such was its attraction as a health resort that, by the turn of the century, invalids in ‘their Bath chairs monopolised the promenade du Midi by day and by night their premature retirement imparted a hospital hush to the atmosphere’.[2] By then, although multi-national, the French regarded it as ‘une colonie Britannique’. And although this was in part Gallic humour, it can properly be considered as part of ‘the British World’: of its seventy-five hotels, seventeen boasted Anglo-Saxon names, including Victoria, Windsor, Balmoral and Westminster, and, outside the old town, many of its Belle Ēpoque villas were owned or occupied by Britons, whose lush ‘English’ gardens cascaded down to the sea.

The more intimate setting of Le Cimetière du Vieux Chateau most obviously captures this presence. Multi-denominational, the marbled mausolea of French Roman Catholics greet you on arrival. Higher up the hill, the graves of those same invalids compete for the fabulous views which unfolded before the grieving mourners. Trusting in, but – alas – not cured by, treatments prescribed by Dr Bennet, they first started to be buried here in the 1870s. Plainer than the French graves, the simple stone slabs are each surrounded by a low gated fence – the only concession to the Mediterranean ambience. Evocative in their own right, they connect us with lives that, for all their luxury, ended, for many, in their early thirties.


It might be thought that these Britons, who spent their winters in Menton and other Riviera resorts, developed a more cosmopolitan outlook than their counterparts who stayed at home. The evidence is, however, against this. Most came in search only of the climate and a cure and had little interest in France or its culture, nor in associating with any of the other nationalities who wintered there. When they stayed in hotels, they held themselves aloof and when they rented villas, they brought their own servants to tend to their needs. If they had any interest in their surroundings, it was limited to classical antiquities. As Pemble concludes, in the years leading up to the First World War, the British ‘were never more insular than when they were abroad’.[3]

If this smacks of a typical colonial mentality, it would be wrong to suppose that it was resented then, or is so now. The resort is keen to celebrate what an official publication calls ‘la volonté Britannique de recréer un “bout d’Angleterre” partout où ils s’installent’.[4] Buildings and streets retain their English names: Rue Henry Bennett boasts a statue in his honour; Avenue Edouard VII runs in parallel to it; and, in 1960, an elegant fountain was installed in Square Victoria, as it is called, to commemorate the visit of that monarch’s mother.[5]


Not only is the foreign section of the cemetery well-maintained but public funds were also made available to restore the grave of a quintessential Englishman, even though he had not merited a mention in Pemble. If the Revd William Webb Ellis may not be the cemetery’s most celebrated incumbent, his grave is now certainly the most garlanded.


No indication is given as to why the Vicar of St Clement Danes, The Strand, was in Menton at the time, but, if, as seems likely, it was to convalesce, then as with so many others who came for that purpose, it was to no avail. A bachelor, he died on 24 January 1872 at the age of 65. Whether he did in fact pick up the ball and run and thereby found the game of rugby is controversial. However, plainly this does not trouble those who climb the hill to pay their respects and place their tributes on his tomb. Ranging from New Zealand to the Ukraine, they demonstrate how memorialisation can be a positive means of generating and reflecting international goodwill.


Surrounded by the graves of Britons, Russians, Germans and French, high above the bay known as Le Golfe de la Paix, the private memorial of one unassuming English clergyman provides a fitting space in which to ponder the fragile nature of international comity.



[1] John Pemble, The Mediterranean Passion: Victorians and Edwardians in the South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); quote at p.84.

[2] Pemble, p.87.

[3] Pemble, p.268.

[4] Francois Rosso et al., Menton rejoint la France: 1861, Chronique du Rattachement (Les Archives Municipales de Menton, 2011), p.58.

[5] The French always spell his name with two T’s, Pemble, following his BMJ entry, with one.