Holidays and history

It’s the last week of term, and next week I’m off on holiday. (Sorry to those of you who have a week to go – I used to work that pattern and I feel your pain.) For two and a bit weeks I’m not going to be doing any work. At least, no work related to my main research interest in Renaissance Europe. I might take some photos of some world heritage sites, and I might show them to my heritage students next semester. But that’s it.

Except it isn’t, because this holiday is also something of a trip into family history. Specifically, into twenty-odd years of family history that happened in India between 1943 and 1967. It’s funny how you discover what’s significant in other periods. Until I started chatting to historians of modern India about my family history it was just a strange heap of childhood tales, saris in a dressing-up box, pictures of Mount Everest and jewellery from my grandparents’ house (oh, and my grandfather’s claim that he understood Goodness Gracious Me better than the rest of us because he’d spent so long in India).

What I didn’t get as a child, though, was how this bit of personal history fitted into the twentieth century. The British Empire wasn’t on my school curriculum. And yet, like many British families, our history is all tangled up in it.

My grandfather, Donald F. Hudson, was a missionary. (You can read more about his life here.) He travelled to India in 1940 and spent most of his twenty-seven years there as a teacher at Serampore College. He and my grandmother, Miriam, had a wartime romance by correspondence, and she went out to join him in 1945. The dramatic tale of waiting for wartime notice of when the ship might sail – and from where – is one of the things I do remember hearing when I was young.

Founded in 1818 by three British missionaries, Serampore College was intended to provide not only training in ministry for their converts, but also a general education in the arts and sciences. It became – so I’m told – an important institution of what today might be called ‘soft power’ in India under British rule.

I’m not going to become an expert in this history overnight, but I am interested in seeing how the stories I heard as a child fit into a bigger picture. I’m interested in thinking about how historians’ own pasts shape our interests and our work. And I’m interested in how personal experience can shed light on the things I often tell my students about the fragile relationship between memory and history.

To be continued…

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