Leading the Exploration of the West African Past

The History department is currently without question the best equipped department in the country – and one of the best in the whole Anglo-American academic world – for the teaching and study of the history of West Africa. The department currently has 5 historians specialising in the history of different aspects of the West African past, a situation that is almost unique in British academic history.

Current staff members include Bronwen Everill (Abolition and Humanitarianism in Liberia and Sierra Leone; Consumer cultures in West Africa and the Atlantic World); Toby Green (Precolonial West Africa; Atlantic slavery; oral history; economic history); Vincent Hiribarren (space and borders in Africa; the history of Borno in northern Nigeria; archives); Tim Livsey (Universities in West Africa and their role in creation of colonial and postcolonial subjects); and Sarah Stockwell (British colonialism in twentieth-century Africa, especially in relation to the history of colonial development and welfare, end of empire). Dr Hiribarren has just been appointed as Lecturer in Modern African History (from July 1st 2015), alongside Dr Green (Lecturer in Lusophone African History and Culture) and Dr Stockwell (Senior Lecturer in Imperial & Commonwealth History) as a permanent staff member, and so the department offers a real research strength in West African history from the distant past to the present day.

Toby Green said: “The current strength in West African history is a great feature of the current History department, and a unique opportunity for students to learn more about a region of the world which is becoming of increasing geopolitical significance, but remains very poorly studied and understood. It’s a real privilege to teach in a department where students can learn about everything from the Historical Origins of Economic Underdevelopment in Africa, through abolition and imperialism and their impacts in West Africa, to the history of colonial and postcolonial Nigeria. I find that students are very keen to learn about something about which they often know very little beforehand, and the chance to learn from specialists and with the latest research is something that they seize with both hands. This is also filtering through to a thriving research culture and the development of new areas of wider impact in the public sphere.”

One of these is the new OCR A Level option in Precolonial African Kingdoms, currently being developed by the OCR in collaboration with Dr Green. This is the first time that precolonial African history has been offered at A Level in British schools, and will also see for the first time an OCR-KCL prize in Precolonial African history being offered for the best A level student essay in the area.

OCR Interview with Dr Toby Green

More information can be found in this OCR opinion piece and this sample exam script.

Dr Hiribarren added:

“Quite strikingly, our students know that Africa has a very long history but they have never studied it before. Archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, geographers and historians have now gathered so much material that it has become difficult to choose which aspect of African History to study! The continent is often depicted in rather pessimist terms but there is so much more to say about one billion of Africans. Our modules at King’s College London clearly show the wealth of Africa but also link Africa to the rest of the planet. We believe this is the strength of our teaching at Kings as we can relate the history of specific countries such as Nigeria to wider themes relevant in other parts of the world.”

Becoming a Historical Researcher

Hello Students, Prospective Students and Faculty of King’s College London. My name is
Patrick Wingrove and in January 2014 I graduated with an MA in Modern History from KCL. I am writing this article primarily for those prospective students thinking of undertaking an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in history but also for those who are just coming to the end of their studies.

Undertaking a history degree is no easy task. You will spend most of your time reading,
either through books or manuscripts long forgotten about, and sometimes be expected to
find new and interesting points of view on subjects that have already been analysed a
thousand different ways. If you’re anything like me, though, you will love every moment if it.

The real question is how do you apply all that hard work to the real world? If you’re
planning to pursue a life in academia and/or historical research, then the answer is obvious. However, for those who love history but aren’t quite sure what career avenue they want to take, do not fear. Some of the most successful people working in television broadcasting, law, publishing, teaching and many other fields are history graduates. The skills a history degree will give you in analysis, writing and organisation are highly sought after in graduates, not to mention the appreciation you obtain for hard work and sheer bloody mindedness.

To give you an idea of a career path you could go down, I thought I would give you an
insight into mine since graduating. A few months ago, I was hired by Illustrated London
News Ltd as a Historical Researcher. Once a great media empire, which published
periodicals such as The Illustrated London News, ILN Ltd is now a creative content agency encompassing digital and print with an archive that goes back to 1842. My job is essentially to utilise the archive for the company’s benefit. I’m often tasked with finding material that helps with approaches to prospective customers with a rich past, e.g. Aston Martin, whose magazine ILN produces.


The main project I’ve been working on is ILN’s First World War centenary website www.illustratedfirstworldwar.com. With Heritage Lottery Fund backing, this project has made the 1914-1919 editions of The Illustrated London News freely available to the public, soon followed by The Graphic, The Sphere, The Bystander, The Tatler, The Sketch, The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News and The Illustrated War News. 


My colleague Hannah, a fellow historian, and I wrote content for most sections of the
website, curated images, ensured the site was historically accurate and we continue to write weekly blog pieces. We’re now working on the second phase of the site, which will see improved search functionality, more content and a much-improved teaching resources section. Although I am a “Historical Researcher”, my role is not entirely research based. A lot of my time is spent learning new digital skills to help improve the website, including design and basic programming skills. I’ve also been charged with office and events management, including organising a “Road Show” designed to showcase the new website and a preview event for an auction at Christie’s South Kensington of original artwork published in the ILN’s magazines. I also write weekly content for The Times, English Heritage and the Imperial War Museum as part of my responsibilities.

Jobs such as this (though often under different titles) are constantly becoming available.
Companies are now becoming aware that their archives are one of the best resources
imaginable for brand knowledge, differentiation and innovation. One good example is the
Savile Row tailors Gieves & Hawkes, who recently hired historians to help dig up old designs to be used in their “capsule collection”. Archival material helped with their campaigns based around their long-standing reputation as a royal tailor, as well as content written about their history as a designer for the Royal Navy going as far back as the Napoleonic wars.

Indeed, the future is bright for anyone interested in, or just coming to the end of, a history
degree. Mine is only one example of the doors that were opened because of my degree
from King’s College London. If you’re interested in history, I highly recommend it.

Who Should We Write History For?

The blog entry below is a response to a question, ‘Who should historians write history for?’, that was posed by an event of the same name held in the history department at King’s College London on the 14th of January 2015. We had a series of responses from members of the history department, including that below, which will hopefully form part of a series over the coming months. These responses are intended to respond to the debate initiated recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto about the public role of history.

In the oft-quoted preface to his 1963 The Making of the English Working Class E. P Thompson described his ambition to ‘rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” As an undergraduate I was, as others surely were, deeply inspired by this eloquent exposition on the value of social history. In the History Manifesto Jo Guldi and David Armitage cite Thompson approvingly as an example of a politically engaged historian, somebody who ‘spoke to power’.

I am not sure the feeling of approval would be completely mutual. Guldi and Armitage see the future of history in the long-term and the wide scope. For them digital history and big data offer the techniques by which historians can shape histories for public and especially policy consumption. Yet Thompson, despite his public political engagement, had a rather different idea of how to practice history. He was reacting against a structural Marxism in which individuals were subsumed into an inhuman statistical morass. Instead he sought to reassert the agency of the individual, the working classes made their history rather than being victims of it. Thompson teased out the richness of the working class lives he examined.

This richness is also characteristic of the work of other scholars, such as Natalie Zemon Davis, whom Armitage and Guldi dismiss as ‘micro-historians’. For Guldi and Armitage cultural historians such as Davis have simply asked the wrong questions and over the wrong time scales. They have apparently not engaged with big enough issues, Guldi and Armitage’s favourite seems to be climate change, and they did not do so over the ‘long dureé’, which for Guldi and Armitage seems to be as long as the proverbial piece of string.

Yet a whole host of other social and cultural historians have engaged with political questions. Questions about gender and patriarchy, class and social status, race and racism, the holy trinity of social and cultural history, have given voice to those excluded, both in past and present, from power. These accounts are usually from closely observed readings, from fragments and details. It is this detail that offers us compelling perspectives on the complexity of the past.

My fear is that Guldi and Armitage’s dismissal of such histories and their calls for focus on ever-larger datasets obscures the complexities, the detail, and the individual from history. It is not only Guldi and Armitage’s methods but the way in which they suggest our findings should be communicated that bothers me. Their focus on the production of ‘one screen visualizations’ that sum up research for public and policy consumption seems to pander to an age in which so much of our politics and policy is captured in sound bites and images with little substance or explanation. It seems to suggest an ability to obscure as much it reveals.

The richness of the lives that Thompson, Davis and a range of social and cultural historians since have examined, also has a place in the way history, as a discipline, engages with the public. Often as not, it is the tangled tissue of individual lives and stories that some publics (a plurality largely ignored by The History Manifesto) find compelling. The BBC’s ‘Who do you think you are?’ is a testament to this interest. It is the publics of television, radio, museums, classrooms, readers of books and blogs that are often interested in these stories, publics that Guldi and Armitage’s book largely ignore.

Who should we write history for? I think in a sense the question is about emphasis. That we should write history that engages with a wide range of publics is not a controversial statement. The history manifesto’s issue seems to be a focus on a policy making public above all else. But, in addition to this, I would also suggest that we partly write history for the dead. This may seem slightly idealistic or clichéd. It’s also convenient because the dead can’t answer back. This is not the audience of entrepreneurs, CEOs and politicians that Guldi and Armitage have suggested as historians’ targets. Yet thinking in this way forces the historian to do justice to the complexity and richness of past experience, a complexity and richness that comes from combining the micro, macro and everything in-between. The historian has a responsibility to the dead, more particularly to those whose voices and lives emerge only from a great deal of close and careful engagement with our sources. It is the social and cultural historians that Guldi and Armitage criticize that have done so much to excavate these voices from the archive. The History Manifesto argues that historians should ‘speak truth to power’, but historians’ greatest achievements have often come from speaking to the powerless, or at least making their voices and stories heard.

Finally, a slightly more cynical point. Historians write, and publish, at least partly to earn a living. Putting to one side the fact that individuals other than academic historians write history (a point that Guldi and Armitage problematically ignore), it seems pertinent to note that academia, not just academic history, suffers from its own crisis of short termism. In a world in which the pressure is to publish early, where rising numbers of early career researchers are on ever-shorter contracts that pay for teaching but not for research, and where academics have to work within the timescale of research assessment cycles, the grand projects which Guldi and Armitage suggest seem harder to grasp. Fernand Braudel is the history manifesto’s hero. Yet the research for his mammoth work on the Mediterranean began in 1927 and he didn’t commence writing until 1939. Even with digital techniques this suggests that the future of history will also be partly determined by the institutional culture in which historians exist, which itself is undergoing fundamental, not always positive, change.

William Tullett is a PhD researcher in the History department at King’s College London working on the social and cultural history of smells and smelling in eighteenth-century England.

Historical Film as a Learning Tool: Pirates of the Caribbean

Rebecca Simon, PhD Student

The inevitable question that comes up in every PhD student’s conversation is, ‘What is the topic you’re researching?’  Or some variant of that inquiry.  In response, we have all developed our ‘elevator answer’ – a quick, one-sentence summary of three or four years of painstakingly detailed original research.  Mine is, ‘Pirate executions and the transference of British law to the American colonies during the early modern period.’  I don’t want to sound immodest, but I have to admit that this is a great way to introduce myself at parties.  My elevator answer is always greeted with a look of excited interest followed by an enthusiastic, ‘You research pirates?  You must love those Pirates of the Caribbean films!’

I have been researching public responses to piracy in print during the early modern period since I started my Master’s degree in 2008.  If I had been given a pound every time I heard that quip, I would never need to apply for any form of funding again.  As someone with a passion for historical film, I have come to embrace the association my research topic has with the Disney franchise.  In fact, I would like to argue that one could use Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in a university module of Atlantic or maritime history.

As a seminar tutor for the first-year module, The Worlds of the British Empire, I recommend films that tie into every lecture topic and I welcome students to suggest others that I have missed.  I am a firm believer that popular film can and should be used as a resource to study history to put the information in context.  I did this with success when I taught history at the secondary level and if I taught a module on early modern Atlantic history, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film would be an essential introduction.  Although the film is fantasy-genre and based on the popular ride at the Disney parks in the United States (which is in turn loosely based on the novel, Treasure Island), there are numerous thematic elements one can glean from this film: English colonisation in the Caribbean, the rise of the Royal Navy’s authority in the Caribbean and, of course, the history of early modern Atlantic piracy.  These are all important themes in the film, but one I’d like to focus on is the element of maritime culture that sets the tone for the entire story.  To be specific, the Pirate’s Code.

To recap the film, Elizabeth Swann, daughter of the governor of Port Royal, Jamaica (Navy stronghold of the Caribbean and former pirate-haven) finds herself about to be taken by pirates in her own home, because unbeknownst to her she is wearing a necklace of a piece of cursed Aztec gold that she’s mistaken as a pirate medallion. Before they capture her, she invokes the code of parley:  ‘I invoke the right of parley.  According to the Code of the Brethren set down by the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew, you have to take me to your captain…If an adversary demands parley, you can do them no harm until the parley is complete.’  The pirates’ honour dictate that they cannot break the code so they take her to their captain, Barbarossa, and thus the adventure of the film commences.

I’m sure you know the rest of the film’s plot, so forgive me if I choose now to break into a bit of actual history.  The mention of and adherence to the Code is a solid piece of maritime and pirate history from the early modern period.  All merchants and sailors had laws of behaviour to follow in order to maintain order and decorum on a ship.  It may surprise you to find out that pirates had a similar code.  The pirates Elizabeth refers to are likely Henry Morgan and Bartholomew Portugues, men who were actually privateers (legally-sanctioned to rob enemy ships) and active in the late 1660s Caribbean.  There are very few surviving pieces of their own documents, but Alexander Exquemelin, author of The History of the Buccaneers of America (1684 English translation) claimed that Henry Morgan had a code of conduct and honour for his men to adhere.  It has been claimed that pirates were men bound together by a common struggle for survival as seamen and then as outlaws.  As such, they attempted to construct a world where people were justly dealt with. To maintain an egalitarian order, they had to establish sets of rules for all men to obey.

Throughout the film, the pirates are told to ‘keep to the code’ if something goes wrong.  In this case, the particular code they refer to is to leave any man who falls behind.  This is an example of a pirate code that comes from legend; I have never been able to find a specific mention of this in my primary or secondary research.  But the pirate codes that existed were there to maintain order and civility on all pirate ships.  In A General History of the Pyrates, one of the key primary sources historians consult when researching piracy, the pirates’ Code of Honour is listed for the readers’ benefit.  The code was a list of ten articles that promised men equal food and drink provisions and forbid stealing, gambling, whoring, desertion and fighting.  The code established a curfew, allowed rest on the Sabbath and promised monetary compensation for all illness and injuries incurred while on the ships.  The pirate Edward Low, active in the early 1720s, had a similar code of conducts for his pirates, which forbid fighting amongst crew members, thievery and drunkenness, which was printed in the 1 August 1723 edition of the Boston News-Letter for all to read.

Egalitarian order and inspirations from the Pirate Code are present throughout Pirates of the Caribbean.  Former Captain Jack Sparrow was marooned from The Black Pearl by his first mate, Barbarossa who then took over the ship as captain.  Although mutinies were of the worst crimes and betrayals to commit at sea, Barbarossa had been unanimously supported in his mutiny and thus continued to rule the ship even under the curse of living death.  Pirates on The Black Pearl had their specific role and station.  When Jack Sparrow commandeers his own ship, he assembles a crew with the agreement that he is captain, but the men have a choice to serve under him – including Will Turner, who harbours a hatred for pirates.  Another theme present throughout the film is the maritime superstition that women on ships were bad luck.  I could go on for ages as to why women were seen as bad luck, but this superstition comes from the Code: ‘No boy or woman to be allowed among [the pirates]. If any man were found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to the sea to be disguised, he was to suffer Death.’ Elizabeth is sequestered away on The Black Pearl and Jack Sparrow’s first mate, Gibbs, warns him against bringing a female pirate, Anamaria, on board their ship (who is disguised as a man) numerous times.  Of course, women in the film did not cause shipboard bad luck and by the nineteenth century women were no longer seen as maritime curses.

Although Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is largely a fantasy/adventure film, it is one of the most memorable and recognizable movies about pirates in film history; it contains historical relevance that should not be discounted by teachers and professors.  Past the swashbuckling and ‘savvying’ there are numerous themes concerning Atlantic history context about the history of piracy, the Navy and maritime culture and superstition that make the movie a valid resource for students.  Case in point: when people ask me to clarify which pirates I research, I respond, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean pirates’ and they immediately know what I’m talking about.

The Colonial Archives of Brazzaville – Website and Online Inventories

I never thought that my research would take me to the basement of the building where the conference of Brazzaville took place in 1944. The room smelt of moisture and hundreds of documents created by the French colonial administration were stacked in front of me on rusty shelves. Even if most colonial files are not decaying in the basement but are located in an arguably safer room, the colonial archives of Congo are not in a good shape.

Knowing the relationship between France and its former colonies (especially Congo-Brazzaville), it might be necessary to ask why these documents are still quite hard to access. The slow disappearance of these archives might be in everyone’s interests. The building in which they are located is only a temporary building shared with the Congolese Centre for Dramatic Arts. Compared to other archives in Africa, the situation seems concerning to say the least.

Congolese National Archives - January 2015

Congolese National Archives – January 2015

This is exactly why I planned to travel to Congo at the beginning of January 2015. I have worked on the history of borders in the north-eastern corner of Nigeria but because of the Boko Haram insurgency, going back to Borno in Nigeria was out of the question. My aim was to determine whether future studies on Congolese borders were feasible but I also wanted to help future researchers to study Congo or French Equatorial Africa.

I did not travel there on my own. I went to Brazzaville with Jean-Pierre Bat from the French National Archives. With the support of the director of the Congolese archives, Brice Owabira, and the head of a Congolese ministerial agency in charge of the archives, Raoul Ngokaba, we digitised sample documents taken from the archives. The Institut francais of Brazzaville also helped us digitise the inventories of the files. Cataloguing can take quite a long time and if researchers can have access to the inventories before even setting foot in the archives, this could save us precious time.

The next logical step was to create a website dedicated to the colonial archives of French Equatorial Africa. The site gives details on access conditions for potential researchers and retraces the history of the colonial archives kept in Brazzaville. More importantly, users can find a few sample documents and the inventories of the Gouvernement Général and the Inspection Générale de l’Enseignement. A pdf file containing the reference numbers for a document is always a good way to start a research project.

This project was a pilot project to determine whether this experiment should be repeated in other archives centres in Congo or in the rest of Africa. The answer is yes and, clearly, this is how digital humanities can help researchers to learn more about the African past.

Vincent Hiribarren

Thomas Bush Kennington, Homeless, 1890

KCL’s Dr Simon Sleight reflects on a source that he had found especially compelling in the writing of his recent book, Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870–1914 (Ashgate). Here he offers his thoughts on the painting below which you can also see on the walls of Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia.


Thomas Bush Kennington, Homeless, 1890

Homeless, helpless, a passive victim of the urban environment – this is a dominant image of youth at large in the late-Victorian city. Raised up from wet paving stones by a compassionate passer-by, this fallen child appears feeble, an object for pity and necessary rescue. The portrait’s tone is elegiac: the female figure is dressed in ‘widow’s weeds’, the garments of mourning, and the child’s limp posture and vacant gaze suggest that death may be near at hand. In the distance the grey gasworks, belching chimney and diagonal crane frame the location as industrial. Nature is a sparse commodity here; even the solitary tree in the painting is leafless, its lower branch snapped, its stone casing restricting room for future development. Nothing, we are invited to infer, can grow normally in this setting. No visual clue is given by the artist regarding the precise whereabouts of these characters. It could be any street in any industrial city of the Victorian era.

This gloomy streetscape in fact belongs to London. Composed here in 1890 by British artist Thomas Kennington, Homeless soon transcended national boundaries by arriving in Melbourne in 1892 for a large Anglo-German display at the city’s Exhibition Building. The painting attracted considerable critical acclaim: Melbourne’s Argus stated that it was ‘full of pathos … both a poem and a sermon’ (2 March 1892, p. 2), while the Age drew attention to the face of the child, describing it as ‘a chef d’œuvre of artistic power and human sympathy … a face … that expresses all the patient suffering of a whole class, amongst whom the inheritance of sorrow and privation is patiently accepted and endured’ (3 March 1892, p. 6). Homeless serves to illustrate the traffic of ideas around the British world in the late-Victorian era and the international frames of reference in which discussions about young people and the urban environment took place. The painting implies – like so many other cultural artefacts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – that the fates of youth and the city are intertwined. Equally significant, it presents a compelling manifesto for outside adult intervention into the lives of children.

Like Thomas Kennington, lately I have spent much time thinking about and researching the public presence of young people in a metropolitan setting. Yet my findings challenge Kennington’s rendering of the urban scene, and dispute the child savers’ image of the outdoor city as intrinsically detrimental to children’s growth. Episodes and experiences retrieved from the archives and examined throughout my recent book instead tell other stories. For the children who built their own adventure playground from found objects in 1896, for example, the public domain represented a space of fun, not danger. In sight of the (still standing) Exhibition Building where Homeless had hung four years earlier, the children’s seesaws and contented play signified a sense of possibility rather than fatalism. For Melbourne’s newsboys and their fellow street traders, the city likewise served as a resource. To them it was an open-air workplace, a setting where a living could be made and a sense of solidarity acquired. Scurrying along the streets to meet a customer’s needs, or bellowing out the particulars of the day’s events, the lively newsboy presents a striking contrast to Kennington’s pallid child. Similarly, for young Elaine Macdonald or May Stewart – whose written accounts cast a crisp light on the experience of growing up in this era – the public realm promised adventure, independence and the chance to develop relationships on their own terms. At large in the city, they found room to explore their desires and extend their horizons. In turn, they shared the street corners and laneways with the ‘larrikins’, those bands of working-class youths who regarded the city as a series of rival territories and who publicly refuted the quiet compliance that their age and class position might have entailed (for more on this, see the recent co-authored journal article here). Eluding adult control in such circumstances, some young people inevitably went astray. Others found no solace in the public domain or met with tragedy when the metropolis proved unforgiving. But the desire for outdoor activity could not be contained. Young Melburnians staked claims to space all across the city.

If you would like to read more, please browse the Department’s new ‘Staff Publications Library’, or see here.

T.V. History, Dumbing Down?

Summer Term, Date t.b.c, 5-7pm, Strand 8th floor open space.

Speakers t.b.c

This event aims to bring together T.V producers and academic historians to discuss how history ‘on the box’ should be best approached. Does T.V. history tend to ‘dumb down’ the stories historians tell? We want to debate the issues such questions raise about the relationship between history and the public, academics and the media, and how this fits into our public understanding of the past. If current T.V. history does ‘dumb down’ then where does the blame lie? How should we approach history for television? After short responses from our panel we will engage in small group discussion before before opening up the floor to debate. Come along to listen, discuss and have your say!

Questions up for discussion include:

  • Does TV history dumb things down, and if so who is to blame?
  • Does TV history have a tendency to exclude large swathes of possible subject material, if so how and why?
  • How might TV get access to the most exciting work by historians?
  • How does TV decide what history to make? How does it decide what’s interesting, and what do people want to watch?
  • What are the economic and institutional bases of TV history?
  • What different sources of money and broadcasting might there be?

For more information contact:
Jon Wilson (jon.wilson@kcl.ac.uk) or Will Tullett (william.tullet@kcl.ac.uk)

The History of Monarchy Meets the History of Feminism

The History of Monarchy Meets the History of Feminism: Writing Royal History Outside of the Box, Dr Arianne Chernock, Boston University


Dr. Chernock is currently writing a book, provisionally titled The Right to Reign and the Rights of Women in Victorian Britain, which explores the politics of queenship over the long nineteenth century. Material from this project has been published in Victorian Studies and in the edited collection Engendering Women’s History: A Global Project (NYU Press, 2013). In her capacity as a historian of monarchy, Chernock has published numerous opinion pieces and editorials, and provides frequent commentary to a range of print, radio and television outlets.

Monday, 16 March, 4-6pm, Room S0.11