MA History internship 2019

An image from: Report on the manufacture of sisal hemp at Togo Plantation, Togoland, 1919

The post below is made on behalf of Ed Thompson, who is undertaking an MA in Modern History at King’s. From January to April 2019, Ed undertook an internship in the Foyle Special Collections Library, in which he researched early photographic representations of the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

An online exhibition showcasing Ed’s work will be available here shortly.

By Ed Thompson

In a recent piece for the London review of books, Susan Pederson, Professor of History at Columbia University, has claimed that archival research acts as ‘the foundation for most breakthroughs in the field of history.’ Whilst my project does not claim to provide any significant ‘breakthroughs,’ having the opportunity to spend 100 hours amongst primary material gets to the heart of what it means to be a historian.

My time in the Foyle Special Collections Library has predominantly been spent collating and researching photographs of the British Empire contained within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) historical collection. Before its acquisition by King’s in 2007, the collection acted as a library for consultation by the staff of the FCO and its former associated offices of government and was described by Gladstone’s Foreign Minister, Lord Granville, as the ‘pivot on which the whole machinery of the Office turned.’

This internship has been exciting, novel and fascinating, with the potential to take my first foray into co-curating an exhibition presenting a challenging but engaging task.

The scope of the collection

The wide scope of the collection has brought me into contact with official documents and reports ranging from A collection of 1937 coronation celebration documents, which includes a programme of the first broadcast football match in Accra, now capital of Ghana and photographic representations of places like Cyprus and Hong Kong, to a work on Togolese Sisal hemp manufacture. Indeed, the materials remained in the process of being catalogued throughout my time, with new items of relevance being added to the catalogue on a weekly basis.

It has introduced me to both broad themes of colonial history and specific (at-times idiosyncratic) narratives and individuals. It can be easy to lose sight of individual tales given the size and depth of the British imperial project. Yet these tales can enlighten empire-wide themes, often hierarchical and profit-driven in nature and mostly presented through official reports.

An image from EW Birch’s 1885 report

EW Birch’s 1885 Report on the Cocos-Keeling Islands is an example. The Islands, situated in the Indian Ocean and now an external territory of Australia, became a formal part of the British Empire in 1857. Before this, from 1820, the Scottish Clunie-Ross family ruled the island as self-styled ‘kings,’ and continued to dominate the island until its sale to Australia in 1978.

The family enforced a racial and patrimonial hierarchy upon the indigenous peoples of the islands and Bantamese immigrants from Java. Whilst they had also appealed to the British government for the installation of a telegraph cable to connect them to the wider world, the seclusion of the Isands was almost absolute.

In the photographs from the report, Birch and his photographer Adams appeared to get along well with the Clunie-Ross family, who themselves had been educated amongst the British elite at Eton and Oxford.

A view of a village from EW Birch’s 1885 report

In this one unexpected example, the colonising behaviour of the British is put into view. Perceived European racial superiority was established as legal and economic realities, with the hierarchy revolving around the Clunie-Ross family. More than anything, it evidenced that the imperial project was as much a private enterprise as it was state-based.

For Birch, a government agent, photography presented a good medium through which he could visually exhibit this unfamiliar and remarkable territory.

The age of empire

The period described by Eric Hobsbawm as ‘the Age of Empire,’ (1875-1914) coincided with the rise and proliferation of photographic technology and, as one might expect, photography became more common in reports towards the beginning of the Second World War.

Hence, my project has brought me into contact with a wider field of theoretical discussion on the photograph, particularly in the colonial context. It has been particularly interesting to question the purpose and unspoken undertones in photographs of the period, an exercise which can reveal a great deal about the cultural processes that go into the creation of any image.

The collection can also demonstrate the complexities and heterodox nature of the imperial project and its agents. Therefore, my exhibition attempts to highlight as much of the full-range of photographic material as possible, covering many different areas and genres which are to be found within.

It is exciting to know that several of the photos included in the exhibition are being presented for the first time outside of their Foreign and Commonwealth Office context. Most of the photos used are originals, taken and stuck into typescript reports to inform officials in London and in governing areas as to the progress (or lack thereof) of varying events or projects in the colonial world.

Insights into the collections

Alongside the exhibition I have been given a fantastic insight into the work here at the Foyle Special Collections Library and have been given introductions to the role of cataloguing and digitisation. The latter has been a crucial part of this process and is of vital importance, in helping to preserve these images for later generations to examine for themselves.

It remains to be said that at times the materials I used were extremely distasteful (and offensive) by modern standards, yet it is imperative that rather than shying away from these sources, historians and indeed the wider public confront Britain’s imperial past and its legacy.

The British Empire remains a large, if often unspoken, influence on British society. Thus, investigating the ways in which colonial territories and subjects were presented is an invaluable exercise in comprehending British colonialism and gives a sense of the processes that have driven the particularities of continuing imperial influence.

As a final note, I would like to extend my thanks to the staff at the Foyle Special Collections Library for their help in directing me through the FCO Historical Collection and, of course, for fetching materials and then digitising most of the photos on display in the online exhibition.

Select bibliography

Eric Hobsbawm. Age of Empire: 1875-1914. London: Abacus, 1987

John Scott Hughes. Kings of the Cocos. London: Methuen, 1950

Susan Pederson. ‘I want to Love it: Eric Hobsbawm: a life in history by Richard J Evans’, London review of books, 41 8 (2019), p.14

James Ryan. Picturing Empire: photography and the geographical imagination. London: Reaktion, 1997

Nick Squires. From our correspondent: the man who lost a ‘coral kingdom’, 7 June 2007[http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/6730047.stm accessed 13 April 2019]

MA internship in Special Collections

This post is made on behalf of James Hatherill. James is undertaking an MA in Modern History at King’s and as part of his course is taking the optional internship module. For this element of the course he is based in the Foyle Special Collections Library where the research project designed for him involved:

  • Transcribing a 19th century manuscript report by William Young (1749-1815), Governor of Tobago and MP. The report was a plea to the British government to bring stability and prosperity to the island of Tobago and consolidate British possession of the island. A link to the catalogue record for the item James has been working on is available here: An essay on the commercial and political importance of ye island of Tabago, 1810
  • Assisting in the digitisation of the item for display in an online exhibition; and assisting with the online curatorial process
  • Researching the context of the report by using the holdings of the Foyle Special Collections Library, (including the historical library collection of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office); and undertaking a trip to the National Archives to discover any evidence of an official response to the report
  • Writing an introductory essay and a blog post on the work

The internship runs from January to April 2017 and involves 100 hours of primary research. James writes:

James Read RoomI have found my time in the Foyle Special Collections a rewarding and intellectually stimulating experience. The subject of my research has given me a new perspective on a part of the world I did not previously know much about, and also an insight into the workings of the British Empire and its presence on the world stage.

I was able to consult contemporary documents and maps of the area, and even follow up some research at the National Archives. I found the digitisation process interesting and rewarding in the knowledge that the document I was working on would be preserved in a digital format.

Academia, like much of the world, has been completely changed by new technology and the information age. The benefits are quite immediately apparent in the discipline of history: access to primary sources previously made difficult through geographical circumstances can be more easily obtained. Similarly for secondary sources, websites like JSTOR can allow you to search countless articles from any journal relating to any subject which you may be researching. As a result, my studying of history has involved quite a lot of digital interface.

This has perhaps led to my experience at the Foyle Special Collections Library being quite a novel one as I have never worked quite so intimately with 18th and 19th century documents before. There is a larger debate surrounding digital vs. analogue in the background here, but that is for another day.

I am by no means a Luddite and completely enjoy the benefits of this age, but coming here and working in the collections has reminded me of the reason why history can be so encapsulating. To be connected to a person from the past through the paper with which they put their pen to and made a mark. That, along with the pleasure of working with the staff at the collections, has been the most enjoyable aspect of the internship.

An extract of my research into the work is reproduced below.

The development of Tobago

tob002The island of Tobago has a history of political instability unlike that of any other Caribbean island during the 17th and 18th centuries. Tobago was in a ‘State of Betweenity’ as stated by Eric Williams. This is in reference to the relentless claims of various European powers to their colonial rights to the island, namely France, Britain and the Netherlands. In addition to this, buccaneers and marauders made sailing through this part of the Caribbean at the time a dangerous affair.

Young’s Report

By the beginning of the 19th century, we have an island which is wrestling with its history and legacy. Sir William Young, 2nd Baronet (1749-1815) became Governor of the island of Tobago in 1807. He began to comprehensively assess the island’s viability as a suitable focus for expansion, an assessment which eventually culminated in this manuscript.

In the transcription I undertook I have not edited the text in any way. I have included any misspellings, punctuation or grammar mistakes which Young may have made. In some cases, these may just have been conventions of the 19th century such as the frequency of Tobago being written ‘Tabago.’

Young’s report to the British colonial government was in essence a plea to try and bring stability and prosperity to the island. He quite rightly points out in his report that instability does not encourage investment. The reputation Tobago had found itself with ultimately meant few merchants were willing to station themselves on the island. Young heavily plays up the mercantile spirit of the British and in a fairly typical attitude of the time, champions these as virtues of the British Empire which would benefit all.

International rivalry

There is also the unavoidable, and repeatedly referenced war with Napoleon’s France in the background during the period – France being at this time, of course, a rival colonial power as well as a frequent belligerent. Young constantly reminds the reader of the importance of securing against French interests in the area as a matter of national interest. Young’s ultimate conclusion to his report was that the French were planning to increase their presence on the island before it was handed back to British hands, and that this intention was something that Britain should also take an interest in.

tob004To Young, Tobago was an island of unrealised potential – there were various reasons why it should have been one of the British Empire’s most significant colonial possessions.

Many of his arguments are compelling. However, either the island’s unstable reputation, or pure misfortune, would never see it become a true mercantile capital. While the Colonial Office decided his report worth keeping for preservation, there is no record of a reply from the government concerning this report.

Update – August 2017. The online exhibition of James’s work is now available to view in full: Young’s Essay on Tobago

Bibliography.

EI Carlyle, ‘Young, Sir William, second baronet (1749–1815)’, rev. Richard B. Sheridan, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/30284, accessed 7 March 2017]

Bryan Edwards, The history, civil and commercial, of the British colonies in the West Indies, London, John Stockdale, 1807

Tabago, or, A geographical description, natural and civil history. London: printed for W Reeves, 1759

Eric Williams. History of the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Port of Spain, PNM Publishing, 1962

Sir William Young. The West-India common-place book. London, Richard Phillips, 1807

Sri Lanka: Empire, coffee and tea

Introduction

This article was written by Veera Mo and is posted on her behalf. Veera recently graduated from King’s with a First Class degree in International Relations and has been undertaking an undergraduate fellowship in Archives and Special Collections, researching material related to South Asia in preparation for a new Research Guide.

The new printed and illustrated guide will cover Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. It will span the early modern and modern periods and will cover political, military and social history, topography, natural history and culture.

ci_pl022This article relates to her research into the former British colony of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The images shown in this article are from the Official Catalogue of the Ceylon Court (1886). Please see the Bibliography for full details of this and other works mentioned in the article.

Veera writes:

It it is safe to say that the introduction of the camellia sinesis plant in 1824 changed the course of Sri Lankan history. Following a failed attempt at coffee production by British planters, tea plantations had incredible success, and eventually superseded the formerly predominant trade in cinnamon, coconut and pearls.

British involvement in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, began many years earlier. Indeed, in the late 1700s, Britain was engaged in imperial trade competition with the Dutch and the Portuguese. By 1815 they had captured the island from the Dutch East India Company, and proceeded to expand commercial activities in the non-settler colony.

The Foyle Special Collections Library holds copies of several rare items on the expansion of imperial trade and related works exploring what was termed the ‘Wonderland of the East’ and its potential.

The debate as to the suitability of the island for coffee production is evident in the works held in the Library. Tytler’s 1879 work entitled: The position and prospects of coffee production as affecting the value of Ceylon coffee estates, explains the potential competitiveness of Ceylonese coffee, despite the ravages of Coffee Leaf Disease. Six years later, Ferguson’s work, Ceylon & her planting enterprize in tea, cacao, cardamoms, cinchona, coconut, and areca palms critiques the zeal of the continued, but failing, coffee enterprise:

Theoretically it was shown many years ago that the climate and much of the soil of Ceylon were better suited for tea than coffee; but still the felling and clearing of the most beautiful and tropical forests in the world went on until from 400 to 500 squaremiles of country were covered with the one shrub, Coffea Arabica.

Title page of Officila catalogue of the Ceylon Court, 1886By 1886, faith in the tea plant was evidently growing among British planters. Produced for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, 1886, the Official handbook and catalogue of the Ceylon Court introduces Ceylon through its many resources, particularly emphasising the potential of the tea trade.

Later successes in tea production ensured that Ceylon tea became the glory of the island. The more touristically minded work, A handbook on Ceylon: the Wonderland of the East, even appears to contain a marketing attempt, where other teas are described as ‘rubbishy’ in comparison to those produced in Ceylon.

The introduction of the tea plant to Sri Lanka played a role not only in the island’s own historical development, but also in shaping British beverage habits. In fact, tea was partially popularised in the United Kingdom through Thomas Lipton’s entrepeneurship in Ceylon. He bought himself some Ceylon tea gardens in order to cut out the middle-man and produce ‘an inexpensive blend for the public’ (Wickramasinghe & Cameron 2005:127).

ci_tpfr2The expansion of tea production had several consequences beyond production and consumption, and its success was not only determined by favourable soil and coincidence.

The British planters saw the proximity to India as a source of cheap labour as the key advantage in Ceylonese tea production. Hence, imperial trade expansion of plantations began to influence local hierarchies and structures. In many ways, these developments were to shape the foundations of the Sri Lanka we see today.

Select Bibliography

John Ferguson. Ceylon and her planting enterprise in tea, cacao, cardamoms, cinchona, coconut, and areca palms: a field for the investment of British capital and energy: giving opinions of a number of planters of diversified experience in the colony : also, estimates of the outlay on, and return from, a variety of products. Colombo: AM & J Ferguson, 1885  [Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection SB108.S72  CEY]

Samuel Nicholas. A handbook on Ceylon “The Wonderland of the East”. H.W. Cave & Co: Colombo, 1939 [Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection DS489 NIC]

Official handbook and catalogue of the Ceylon Court. London: William Clowes & Sons Ltd., 1886  [Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection T696.G1 COL]

RB Tytler. The position and prospects of coffee production as affecting the value of Ceylon coffee estates. Aberdeen: Free Press Printing Company, 1879 [Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection HD9199.S722 TYT]

DW Wickramasinghe & CD Cameron. ‘British capital, Ceylonese land, Indian labour: The imperialism and colonialism of evolution of tea plantations in Sri Lanka’. Critical Management Studies Conference (Management and Organizational History), Cambridge. Vol. 4, 2005