Empire, family and public history: thoughts on the 44%

Last week Twitter was very chatty and (in my timeline generally displeased) about an opinion poll suggesting that 44% of Britons think we should be proud of our history of colonialism.

As many historians have pointed out, this isn’t exactly a cheering result for anyone who knows about the range of atrocities that happened in the context of Empire, from the Amritsar Massacre to the Bengal Famine (in one part of the red-splattered map) to the enslavement of some millions of Africans (on another).

Why, I wondered, would 44% of those polled think the British Empire was something to be proud of? Well, there’s not a lot of critical imperial history in the school curriculum; nor is there on television. (There’s more on slavery, and I suspect a poll that mentioned slavery would get different answers.) Better education is no doubt part of the answer. But I think the problem runs deeper, and that has to do with the weight we place on different sources of information as we arrive at conclusions about what to make of Britain’s imperial past.

I’ve been reflecting on attitudes to imperialism in the last couple of months, not particularly because this is part of my research (though I read a lot around early ideas of ‘race’ for my forthcoming book), but because in December 2015 for the first time I went to visit India, where my grandparents were missionaries.

Serampore College, where my grandfather worked as a missionary and teacher

I’m interested in how family histories might affect replies to that poll. A lot of popular family history emphasises the idea that we might inherit personality traits and talents from our forebears. Think how many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? feature a showbiz celebrity excitedly discovering that his/her ancestor also had some musical gift. On the other hand, as the controversy over Ben Affleck’s Roots highlighted, it’s very much harder to accept that your ancestors did the Bad Things. (Slave-owning, in his case.) Because, in the narrative of these shows, that might imply that you also are a person who given half a chance would enslave or exploit.

Were it not for the fact that I know quite a lot about history, I suspect that my attitude to Britain’s colonial past would be heavily determined by the fact that my missionary grandparents were very nice people, who despite religious views that I don’t share did lots of valuable educational and welfare work (including on unpopular issues like welcoming migrants to Britain in the late 1960s) and that as very nice people they surely couldn’t have been implicit in any Bad Imperial Things. In fact, most of their mission took place post-Independence, and the interests of missionaries and the Imperial establishment did not always coincide. Still, on a structural level the alleged superiority of Christianity over other belief systems was used to justify all manner of dubious Imperial projects. But if I didn’t know that it would be tempting to draw my conclusions about colonialism on the basis of warm family ties and not much else.

If I didn’t have those grandparents, and I’d just taken my holiday to India out of interest, would I have learnt along the way that I shouldn’t be proud of the British Empire? Strangely enough – and this surprised me – I don’t think I would. When I walked around the National Museum in Delhi, or the Indian Museum in Kolkata, I came away with the impression that the ‘British period’ was just one of many periods in Indian history when parts of the continent were ruled by one or other dynasty. Not by any means uniquely bad.

I also came away with the impression that most of the kids in the school party visiting the National Museum wanted to shake my hand, say hello in English and pose for a selfie with me. Several parents wanted a snap of me with their kids too. Which didn’t give me the sense of a generalised hostility to the British. Rather the opposite. For sure, a fair number of the people I met in India who were jolly friendly to me had a professional interest in my TripAdvisor rating of their hotel, city tour or restaurant. But these children and families didn’t.

When I went to the Victoria Mameorial in Kolkata, an Imperial monument par excellence, it was selfie-central again, Indian visitors posing against the statue of Queen Vic for their Sunday snaps. The massive crowds meant the museum in the monument was hard to engage with but my impression was of light Bengali nationalism and mild criticism of the British for accommodating to local conservatism. I certainly didn’t get the impression it was bluntly anti-imperialist.

Posing for photos with the status of Queen Victoria outside the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata

So if my view of British colonial history had been shaped by my visit to India, and if I wasn’t a historian who tried to think about the complexity of the human past, well, I could easily have come home thinking that in general Indian people really quite like British people and they don’t appear to have an axe to grind against us for the various Bad Stuff.

Returning to the poll, if I had nothing else to base my opinion on, both my family history and my experience of public history in India would incline me to the view that (in India at least) the British Empire was just another set of rulers, and that some, perhaps the majority, of the British in India were good people. So why not be proud? Or at least neutral?

As an educator, I like to think that better formal education about imperial history might change things, but I’m well aware that family, tourist experience and public history can easily trump anything I say in class.

Besides, I’ve seen those TV programmes about the Indian railways. Damn good. Don’t tell me this is an Evil Imperialist Train. I won’t believe it.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway


Indian history photo galleries

All this week I’m going to be sharing photos of Indian heritage sites on this blog. I ended up with hundreds of these after my December trip and I’m sure they’ll be useful to other people besides me who teach heritage studies, architectural history, the history of India and/or the British Empire, and so on. Today I’m starting with three sets from Mughal-period sites in Delhi:

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…

History publishing – between trade and academic

I have a new book out this week. Hooray! Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome is the second of two books based on my doctoral and post-doctoral research. The first one, Our Man in Rome (aka The Divorce of Henry VIII) came out in 2012. There’s a big difference in publishing terms between these two: Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome is an academic monograph and The Divorce of Henry VIII is a trade history book. But from a historian’s point of view what does that mean? Here follows my quick guide:

Academic books are generally expected to sell to a small and specialist audience, primarily university libraries and a limited number of academics who’ll fork out the cover price (usually minus a decent discount that you get by writing for the same press or being at the right conference). It isn’t unusual to sell fewer than a thousand copies. Trade books are aimed at a general readership and are expected to sell much more widely, into the tens of thousands.

That basic difference is reflected in the pricing: academic monographs often cost £60-100 while trade books might start in hardback at £20-30 and then come out for less than a tenner in paperback. (This is the UK market: it’s somewhat different in the USA, but that’s another blog post!)

The good news is that if you can convince a publisher your book can sell widely then you can get paid for writing a trade book. Trade non-fiction history is unlikely to make you rich (check out these depressing figures for authors’ median earnings). But it can be a source of income and/or cover substantial research expenses. Academic publishers may pay a small percentage royalty but they operate essentially on the basis that your income is coming from an academic salary. A senior academic (who shall remain nameless) once asked me why I’d done the trade book first. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘they were paying me.’

The publication processes are different too. Academic presses are open to direct submission from authors: you send in your proposal and off you go. Your proposal may be peer-reviewed, or you may be invited on the proposal alone to submit a full manuscript. That’ll then be read by other experts in your field; then you submit revisions; then it goes for copy-editing and proof-reading.

Some smaller trade publishers accept direct submissions, but the major ones expect you to find a literary agent first, who will then pitch your work on your behalf. Trade presses don’t do peer-review (you can of course organise it informally), but you can expect much more substantial editorial work on your book (requests to restructure, to add background, to clarify sections for non-experts and so forth) before the copy-editing and proof-reading. Without peer-review they also work to a much faster schedule – more than a year faster in my case!

The marketing process is another contrast. Academic book marketing tends to focus on getting your book reviewed in scholarly journals and in promoting it to university librarians and academics through catalogues. Trade book marketing involves newspaper reviews, radio interviews, literary festivals and (in short) a lot more work and public profile on your part.

One consideration for people working in academia will be: can I put a trade book in for the REF? If it’s based on original research and properly referenced, no reason why not. My first book was submitted and double-weighted, and I know of other similar cases. Trade books can also be a route to impact, though just showing lots of people have read your work isn’t enough.

Got other questions? Comment below or tweet me your queries!

Have ‘young academics’ been betrayed?

There’s been some frustration on Twitter with Mathew Lyons’ piece in History Today on ‘Young academics: the great betrayal‘. Commenters have taken exception, in particular, to the suggestions that many academics disdain teaching (which I agree is unfair) and that they don’t support early career colleagues. The temptation is, though, to point to structural problems as if academics bear no responsibility for those at all.

The fact is, however, that there have been possibilities to resist the structural change that has got us where we are. Twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at a Russell Group university, we had tutorial groups of six and from the first year my tutorials were run by permanent academic staff. Very occasionally they were delegated to a PhD student, but that was the exception. Now (outside Oxbridge) it’s rare to find tutorial groups of fewer than ten, and teaching by doctoral students is the norm at first-year level. I don’t have the data to hand to make that more than an anecdotal point but I doubt many people would argue with it.

So it’s reasonable to ask, I think, whether those in a position to resist that change did enough, and whether there’s more we might do now.

I’m sure that many of the objectors to Mathew’s argument were the person in the Departmental meeting who said – when it was announced the Department must take x% additional students with no additional staff – that this was unacceptable. Perhaps they went on demonstrations against tuition fees, or wrote to MPs, or lobbied within their universities. They may well have been the people, too, who went to their UCU branch meeting and said that we need a strategy to tackle the increasing dependence on casualised staff to deliver teaching. And it’s good that they did those things.

But I do think there is a case to be made – in general – that there’s been more throwing up of hands in horror at the incremental shifts towards increased precarity in higher education work than practical resistance. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a serious industrial dispute in the university sector over job security for early career staff. UCU has raised the question regularly in the annual pay negotiation rounds, but the employers’ body UCEA refuses to negotiate on the topic, and, well, that’s been it.

Yet there are many practical things that might be done. Here’s one suggestion. A consortium of universities (such bodies already exist to deliver doctoral training and for various other purposes) might hire early career academics on the basis that they’ll be guaranteed permanent work in one of the partner institutions, even if it isn’t the one where they start out. That’s how many large companies operate – with the expectation that in the first few years of work you might switch base – and they seem to manage it perfectly well. Such a system would give departments some flexibility while allowing ECRs to plan their lives better than they can on a succession of nine-month teaching contracts. It would shift some of the risk away from the individual onto the institutional group. The practicalities would take some working out, and it’s certainly not all I’d wish for in the long term, but perhaps as well as lamenting our betrayal we should start talking about solutions and how we might campaign for them. After all, if we don’t fight, we can’t win.

The Burghers of Calais: a morality tale

In Victoria Gardens, London, outside the Palace of Westminster, stands a statue of six men: the Burghers of Calais. Unveiled a hundred years ago this summer, it is one of a dozen casts of Rodin’s original in Calais and commemorates a famous incident from the Hundred Years War, recorded by Jean Froissart in his Chronicles.

Rodin's Burghers of Calais

Froissart tells how the army of Edward III, king of England, had laid siege to Calais for almost a year. The French king had advanced to nearby Sangatte, then retreated. Peace efforts had failed. As supplies dwindled, six of Calais’ leading citizens – the so-called burghers or (in French) bourgeois – offered themselves as hostages in return for the lifting of the blockade.  The six (Eustache de Saint-Pierre, Jean d’Aire, Jacques de Wissant, Pierre de Wissant, Jean de Fiennes and André d’Ardre) left the town with its keys, expecting to go to their deaths. They were saved thanks to the intervention of Philippa of Hainault, queen of England, who begged the king to show mercy.

Rodin’s sculpture, unveiled in 1895, proved controversial. His burghers did not look heroic. He portrayed them as men might look after eleven months of siege – emaciated and drawn. This was not their moment of triumph, but a moment of doubt about their decision to face death. The commissioners of the work, Calais’ municipal council, were not entirely happy with Rodin’s innovative style, but that’s another story. (Read more about the artistic arguments here.)

Reading these past weeks about the desperate attempts of migrants in Calais to reach the UK reminded me of Rodin’s statue and Froissart’s story. Froissart’s story, because at its heart is something that has been badly lacking from most of the political debate on Calais and the ‘migrant crisis’ – mercy. Other people have documented far better than I can the appalling conditions from which the migrants in Calais have fled, and in which they now live. But I have yet to hear a British politician say that mercy is what is needed in the face of such human desperation. It is a sad thing indeed when medieval queens seem to have a better humanitarian instinct than twenty-first century politicos.

And I think of Rodin’s statue, well, because it’s in the back garden of the Palace of Westminster. I bet most MPs have done a TV interview within yards of it. Did they ever stop to think about who those starving, almost skeletal people in the statue were? Or what happened to them? Perhaps if they did, they might be a little more inclined to show mercy to people who are desperate enough to risk death.

Image by Patche99z used under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence.