Tuesday, 3 December 2013

A damaged garden fence and 200 years of St Lucia history ...

I would hope that I am alive to situations where 'history' can almost materialise and make its presence felt: but these rather elevated feelings usually result from visits to historic ruins and buildings, watching great state occasions and so forth, and so I'll risk making a crass generalisation and say that no conversation with any builder I have ever known has produced quite the aforementioned emotional effect. Until now that is, when, following a brief and ostensibly insignificant incident, I started thinking about how some patterns of history can be thrown into sharp focus in very unexpected ways.

So, a prosaic scene: following the recent gales we had our builder around to see about replacing a damaged garden fence; nothing unusual about that, and nothing remarkable either about him breaking off during our conversation to take a call on his mobile - except that the call was conducted in the strangest sounding French I've ever heard. It was really quite startling, but it shouldn't have been: after all, he was born in St Lucia and I do know something of the Anglo-French elements of that island's history, having researched its early nineteenth-century newspaper press for my PhD. But what amazed me is the fact that some 200 years after the British took possession of the island, the variant of the French language spoken there clearly endures and, to judge from my witnessing one half of a very animated conversation, may even be in rude health.

This linguistic survival is a cheering thought in an age when advancing cultural homogeneity seems to be unstoppable; its unexpected appearance in my living room also loosened a lot of half-forgotten memories about my own laborious researches which - among other things - attempted to capture the acute tensions of the abolition period in the island by charting the impact of the St Lucia Gazette under a rather colourful character called George Washington Busteed (father of Richard Busteed, incidentally - a minor figure in American history), who briefly bulked large in the island's history. But how odd that one short telephone conversation can, in its own way, be as illuminating of historical development as any number of painstakingly researched PhDs and scholarly monographs. History! you really can see  - and sometimes hear - it everywhere.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Mehemet Ali: A Muslim Napoleon?

I am always struck by the number of overseas scholars and researchers who can be seen hard at it on any given day at The British Library, The National Archives, and I dare say any of the other great archival repositories and libraries in the UK. Given that we are talking about some of the finest collections anywhere in the world it is no surprise to see these fellow toilers; but assuming that rather than studying British history most of them are using British documents to study the history of their own countries/regions/personalities, the interpretative care and skill that is surely necessary when attempting to reconstruct history in this way has always intrigued and rather daunted me.

I thought about this once again during a holiday in north-east Greece in early September. As well as visiting Graeco-Roman sites such as Philippoi and Amphipolis we made a couple of trips to the town of Kavala, and there enjoyed an hour at the restored house of Mehemet Ali. Unknown to many no doubt, but a fascinating man: there might even be an argument for setting his achievements in the eastern Mediterranean beside his contemporary Napoleon - Ali certainly made significant territorial conquests and he founded the dynasty which ruled Egypt until 1952. So no doubt a man worthy of serious attention from a number of historical angles - Egyptian, Greek, Turkish, French and British. But how to get as complete a picture as possible, and what to do if all that remains are documents written about rather than by him?

It's not quite as bad as that in this case: at least one letter by Ali is extant; at the house in Kavala is a copy of this slight document which apparently relates to affairs in the town - the original is now stored in the Egyptian National Archives where there are presumably other papers, but whether anything more illuminating than administrative records exists is anyone's guess. The key point I am making here - and it is the thing that draws scholars from all over the world to Britain - is that we do have relevant documentary materials in this country, however imperfect they might be.

On seeing the letter at the house I made a mental note to check the catalogues of the BL and TNA to see if I could find anything that would help a would-be biographer of Ali or historian of the region. Sure enough, a cursory search uncovered quite a few things of interest; pick of the bunch for me was a short narrative of the history of Egypt from the expulsion of the French in 1801 to the mid-1820s, augmented by a manuscript life of the Ali, all contained in the first volume (Add MS 34080) of the papers of the Arabic scholar and Egyptologist Edward William Lane at the BL (Add MSS 34080-88; additional papers concerning Egypt by Lane are at the Griffith Institute and the Bodleian). I am well aware that I am on dangerous ground here, but presumably Lane was a credible witness (he made it into the HMC's guide to Papers of British Antiquaries and Historians), and the mere fact that these papers exist at all is something that the historian of nineteenth-century Egypt can be thankful for, but that doesn't solve the problem of how to overcome their inherent weaknesses as historical sources - as I say, a daunting intellectual prospect that I'll leave others to scale.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The lure of a serendipitous find

A crucial requirement for anyone claiming to be a competent archival researcher is the ability to follow the client's brief and ignore the siren distractions of irrelevant documents, however interesting they may look. All very well in theory, but it can be difficult in practice, and most researchers will occasionally stumble across something so unusual and striking that at the very least it will merit a brief marginal note to self.

Coventionally enough I think, I tend to notice things in unlikely places; this stems from the undeniable fact that that there are great seams of historical riches lying where you might not expect to find them: who would think that the scholar of women's labour history, for example, might be interested in any of the Admiralty publications in ADM 275 at The National Archives? The series sounds pretty dry: publications that were issued for internal use only and were intended to provide practical guidance and instruction on the use of facilities, equipment and 'Service methods' generally. Nothing to get too excited about there, and yet in ADM 275/19 (the serial history of technical problems dealt with by various Admiralty departments) there is a report entitled 'Naval Anti-Gas Devices' which features a superb series of photographs of women working at the grim-looking sharp end in a chemical factory in Stamford Hill in north London during WW1. I fought the temptation to dwell on this document as there was the small matter of my client's commission to complete, but I took a note of it and with the centenary of the the outbreak of the Great War rapidly approaching surely someone could make use of these photographs. And if anyone can explain what 'worming' and 'slabbing' means in the arcane context of early twentieth-century industrial chemistry, perhaps they could let me know!        

Thursday, 5 September 2013

A Hidden Gem

I wonder if anyone actually has an accurate figure for the number of libraries and archives in London; I spend a good deal of my working life in these places and I certainly have no idea. Four more to add to the list of those that I am aware of are the libraries of the Inns of Court. The revelation came about courtesy of a colleague in the Library at Queen Mary who recently arranged a staff visit to the Middle Temple Library. Access to the Middle Temple Library is limited to members of the four Inns and to bona fide researchers by appointment only, so the QM visit was a chance not to be missed. The place did not disappoint: it's not just that the Temple setting is one of the most restfully calm and elegant in London; it's also the fact that the specialist collections are of the highest quality, and full of surprises. Each Inn library specialises in certain areas, and in the case of the Middle Temple the particular strengths are in American Law (the Middle Temple's connection with the US goes back to the founding of the first colonies and endures to this day), European Law and Ecclesiastical Law - all told, some 250,000 volumes of the stuff. And not to be outdone, I see from the NRA that the archives contain the following unlikely deposited gems:
  • The records of the Padstow Customs House 1700-10 (ref. GD.34)
  • The accounts of Rawmarsh (Yorkshire) tithes 1763-95 (ref. GD.18)
  • Genealogical pedigrees compiled by the herald Ralph Brooke 1598 (ref. GD.17)
And among the institutional records the standout must surely be from the Commons, Kitchens and Entertainment records:
  • Cigar Book 1931-59
So there you have it: something for the scholar of the eighteenth-century Cornish coastal trade, the finances of the established Church in Yorkshire, sixteenth-century genealogy, and a curio for the student of no doubt fine cigars. The simple fact is that London's range of libraries and archives is - perhaps - unmatched anywhere else in the world. I sometimes think that provided you are willing to look, search and look again in sometimes unlikely places, you will find anything and everything. In fact, now that I think of it, the subject of unlikely material, found in unlikely places and put to unlikely research uses might be the subject of my next blog ...    

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The National Gallery and hidden biographies

I freely confess that I have little knowledge of the visual arts, and a poorly developed aesthetic sense to boot. So it was something of a surprise to get a recent call from an art historian who was looking for someone to visit the archive of the National Gallery to look for footprints left by a number of Royal Academy students from the 1930s. I was quite open about the fact that I had never visited the archive and could not lay claim to any research expertise in this field (although it helps to be good friends with one of the archivists at the Gallery), but my client was generous enough to entrust me with the commission, and I am pleased to report that the trip was a success: all but one of the people of interest were identified in the Gallery's registers of copyists. But the point I wish to make is that one recurring name - not on my list - struck me for some reason and I didn't know why. The name was Roger Fry, and a quick search of Wikipedia when I got home confirmed his status within the art world; I cannot think where I came across the name, but it obviously lodged in my mind - an example of the mental detritus that seems to accumulate at some depth but occasionally bobs to the surface.

The fact that Roger Fry's name appears in some obscure registers at the National Gallery is probably of no consequence whatsoever in terms of biographical importance; but that might not be the case with some material - that you'd have to assume as hitherto hidden - that the researcher accidentally uncovers. I recently came across a letter at the Bank of England Archives where I did think 'if he or she hasn't already seen this, a biographer of Austen Chamberlain might just be interested'. I believe that Chamberlain was at the India Office for much of WW1, and there had obviously been a spat about something with Sir (John) Gordon Nairne, the chief cashier at the Bank. Portraits of Chamberlain suggest a man who would brook neither argument nor insult and this letter supports that impression. The tone is of icily controlled fury, although it may have been a struggle to maintain professional calm: Chamberlain had dictated the letter but then added a MS note to reiterate his point about refusing to respond 'to a letter which is gratuitously offensive'. Professional working papers - as opposed to personal papers - are for the most part marked by their calm and dispassionate tone, but not here in this one small item: it may just be momentary, but the full force of personality blasts from the page.     

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Post-colonial Musings

Given the fact that it used to be a British Protectorate and was, from 1925 to 1960, a Crown Colony, a holiday in Cyprus was always likely to prompt some reflections of a historical nature, and so it proved. If I am right in saying that studies of decolonisation in general are not that common then that is something of a gap in the historiography of the British Empire; turbulent events in Cyprus in the mid-1950s certainly offer plenty of scope for serious research.

The subject gave some shape to my thoughts following a visit to the 'Museum of the Boat of Saint George', just north of Paphos. The Saint George caique was used in an attempt to run guns from Greece to Cyprus in early 1955, the shipment being intended for the nascent National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters, usually known as EOKA, under the command of Georgios Grivas (who, by way of a flippant aside, must - surely - have been nicknamed 'Grivas Bodily Harm' by British squaddies given to such mordant wit). The Museum's leaflet talks darkly of the mission's betrayal, but tellingly it does not provide any details. What ever the exact truth of the matter, it does seem that the Saint George was closely shadowed from the beginning of her voyage, and events culminated in rather ignominious confusion, mass arrests and the eventual imprisonment of most of those involved. 

Thus the events of January 1955. The Museum itself is well worth a visit; the Saint George is a fine looking craft, and there is some excellent archival material on show - mugshots, photographs, press-clippings, letters and so on, and although not everything has English captions there is enough to gain a general understanding of what happened and the main protagonists. Inevitably the place has been pressed to serve contemporary political ends, and it is now a celebrated site for Cypriots (but I suspect largely unknown to the British ex-pats who mass in great numbers along this coast), which is fair enough. But what I find most intriguing is how events that - when viewed dispassionately - are in themselves of little actual historical consequence (the weapons were never used in the cause: they were impounded or thrown overboard) somehow become so symbolically powerful; the process by which a failed gun-running mission is transformed into an unchallengeable act of heroism must involve all sorts of complex interactions - it would be well beyond my competence to unravel it all, but someone should give it a go.         

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The Jury's Still Out

The workings (or failings) of the jury system have been in the news recently, and I'd be willing to bet that most people who have done jury service will have a story to tell. My own stock of anecdotes, from a stint at Blackfriars Crown Court back in November (I saw the very best and the terrible worst of the system), are a little too tired to bear further repetition here, but the historian in me continues to lament how few paper records the whole process seemed to generate. With the provision of raw material for future historians and genealogists in mind, I think that we're missing a trick here: no lists of jurors' names appear to be kept, let alone papers - such as they are - from the deliberating room. And if the system was based on proper record-keeping think how rich such accumulated data would be: you'd have the massed names beloved of genealogists, plus maybe minutes, verbatim transcriptions, votes and so forth. True you'd have to slap a 100-year closure period on the whole lot, but we are talking about future historians here - they can wait. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

In Praise of Bureaucracy

Not a popular view, but restrain the Daily Mail reader that lurks within and consider: bureaucracy is not only essential in terms of ensuring accountability, it is also a vital component in making an over-evolved world actually function. And from the historian's point of view the more of it the better: annotated personal papers, records of committees and sub-committees, with motions considered in depth, votes cast and counted, and minutes dispassionately recording all; how preferable that is to the sinister farce of sofa government, with its documentary silence and in-built opportunities for confusion, and worse yet, obfuscation and evasion by the unscrupulous.

But why this futile attempt to rescue such an obviously useful concept from unthinking opprobrium? You may thank the London Missionary Society, the extensive records of which are kept at SOAS. The earnest worthies who founded the Society in the 1790s were very careful record-keepers; standing committees dealt with finance and administrative matters, but the smallest subject that came within the purview of the Directors was referred to an ad hoc committee, which discussed and deliberated before reporting their findings back to the Directors for further consideration, and, ultimately, a vote. Slow, painstaking and thorough and democratic: how quaint, and how invaluable to my client, who had retained me to look into the history of the printing of the Society's published account of its first mission to the southern Pacific that sailed aboard the Duff in 1796 (a remarkable story in itself). Astonishingly, even some of the ad hoc publication committee's rough notes have survived, and these, together with the general minutes, a few financial records and in-coming and out-going correspondence, enabled me to piece together much of the story.

This standard of record-keeping reminded me of some early nineteenth-century trade union records at the Modern Records Centre that I once looked at; and how grateful we researchers should be to those hidebound and antiquated bureaucrats - their administrative genius (and honesty) has left so much for the attentive enquirer. In contrast, pity the hapless soul who comes to research the Blair years.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

When is a historical source not a historical source?

Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to receive a commission that involved working in the library of the Royal Society and at the Parliamentary Archives. I was new to both of these repositories (both 'real' archives and undeniably memorable places: a cloistered feel, oak-panelled book cases, heavy volumes and all the rest of it), but infinitely patient and helpful staff ensured that my visits were productive. I'm fairly confident that I turned up some interesting material for my client, but the nature of the job set me thinking about a particular - and in some respects slightly troubling - aspect of some of the documentary materials which some historians must use to pursue their craft.

The example I have in mind is the extensive but scattered correspondence of an important eighteenth-century political figure; nothing problematical about that, and in fact surely it is a good thing that so much has survived. Perhaps, but many of these archival remains consist of numerous copies of the same items. I was surprised to find this, although had I bothered to think about it the situation would have been self-evident: an army of clerks turning out copies of copies of copies of an original letter was an obvious and vital component of the machinery of government; cabinet members, lords, dukes, MPs and what not naturally needed copies of important letters and papers to aid their deliberations, but 200 years later how to identify the original and in some circumstances can it even be said to exist? Should one privilege one particular copy or will any of them do? And what if mistakes were introduced at some point in the laborious copying process? Would that compromise the integrity of the historical source? It could be argued that as long as the historian accurately references what he finds in the archives none of this matters as he can only work with what is available, but start thinking too much about this stuff and the discipline can start to look a little shaky. (And this might be relevant in future; think of the vast numbers of copy documents generated by business, government and organisations - which of them can be cited with confidence as the original?)