Archives for category: empire


In September 1926, 500 American university students left New York aboard the Floating University, on a journey around the world that involved stops at forty-seven ports and visits to foreign dignitaries including the King of Siam, the Sultan of Lahej, Mussolini and the Pope. Organised by New York University professor, James Edwin Lough, and promising a ‘world education’ to its students, the venture was influenced by new approaches to psychology and education, the internationalism of the period, as well as economic and social imperatives. But if its organisers thought the voyage would be a way for American students to know the world, it also became a laboratory for American imperial diplomacy, a stage for nationalist and anti-imperial politics, and a magnet for scandal.

For the last few years I’ve been chasing the Floating University and its 500 students in archives scattered across the United States and the world. I’ve found them in diaries and artwork and photographs and radio transcripts and legal records and newspaper articles. Much like the students on the ship, I’ve frequently found myself in unfamiliar surroundings, following leads down dark passageways and IT’S ALL SO INTERESTING. I mean who wouldn’t be diverted by the thrills and spills of what has often seemed the Great Gatsby version of a gap year?!

But more recently I’ve been trying to work out what the whole thing adds up to. There are so many possible angles of approach and there’s so many threads to the story that the project has sometimes seemed to me to be in danger of proliferating endlessly.  But for better of worse, I’ve got to begin. For the next few months, thanks to New College and the Rothermere American Institute, I have a desk in Oxford and my job is to put words on a page.

Which is obviously why I’m getting straight on with that task by writing this blog.


The TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and space.

Historians too often get a bad rap for being out of touch. Stuck in the ivory tower, so the story goes, neck deep in dusty archives and lost in their contemplation of dead white men and forgotten pasts. Where’s the relevance? is frequently the refrain.

Yet my Facebook feed tells a different story. The number of articles I see written by colleagues for public audiences seems to increase all the time.

Thinking temporally in public has got to be one of the most important things we can do as historians in a period of uncertainty and change. This means going beyond the ‘Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions’ version of public commentary (although let’s be frank, sometimes the temptation to do that is just overwhelming) and instead thinking in public about time, its politics and its effects.

The uneven and unequal legacies of empire and capitalism are all around us, but so too – if we know how to look – are the tangible reminders that as a society we once thought social change possible and were prepared to back up our dreams with money and action. I can’t help thinking that the destruction of these reminders, as Oliver Watts points out in in his piece listed below, is part of a larger project of alienating us both from our history and the possibility of a different kind of future.

Because although not a template, history can be a inspiration, showing us that, through collective action, inherited structures can be changed. Institutionalised slavery can be abolisheduniversal public health free at the point of delivery can be establishedthe Franklin River can be saved. The long-term ramifications of our own society’s policies and actions are, therefore, also a matter for critical temporal thinking.

Time is not just an axis on which processes play out, it is political in itself. In this world of distributed digital processes and the marketisation of our everyday life we increasingly ‘spend’ our leisure time shopping for essential services – deciding which financial, educational or health ‘product’ to buy, and ferrying ourselves and family members across town to access them. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people work on low-paid ‘zero hours’ contracts that leave them desperately insecure.

Universities are repositories of time in all of these senses. Produced by uneven structural processes (have you every wondered where the wealth that funded the bequests of Australia’s early universities came from?) they increasingly rely on casualised labour and the mortgaged futures of their debt-laden students.

But for all their faults, universities do still work with an understanding of time and human capacity that stretches beyond the frames of annual reports, funding cycles, government elections or even of individual careers. They draw the future into them with each new intake of students; they mix up the generations, and bring the living into contact with those long dead. They are places where deep and slow thinking is still possible. Not everyone wants or needs to live like this, but now, more than ever, as a society we need people who do.

If historians don’t think temporally, who will?

So Yay! to temporal thinking in the public domain. Yay! to the dexterity of the historical mind (cough). Yay! to a critical eye and longer view on questions that would otherwise appear to be of this moment only.

Here is this week’s haul of recent #PublicHist pieces by people wot I know, writing about stuff not always entirely within their field. If you can, give them the time (and the retweet) they deserve.

PS. I foresee a regular series on this #PublicHist friend-puff business, so please alert me to anything you have published that is directed at a public audience and I’ll add it to the next instalment.

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the sea.

We swim in it, fly over it and pollute it; we harvest its resources and, in greater quantities that ever before, we consume goods that come to us in ships that have sailed over it. Yet for all our dependence on the ocean, we denizens of the twenty-first century are very much creatures of the land. We no longer see the sea that sustains us, and this brings with it a dark tragedy: with the world rapidly heating, it will soon be the waters that engulf us.

Our terra firma myopia sets us apart from our nineteenth (and even twentieth) century forebears, whose relationship to the sea was much more intimate and bodily than our own. For all the emphasis on land and conquest in colonial and imperial history, for much of this period the resources of the oceans and their shorelines were much better mapped than those of the colonial interior.*

In Britain and Australia, as elsewhere, maritime industries, subsistence fishing and naval economies pulled people onto the waters; while migration drew people over them. Between 1850 and 1880, more than 1.3 million men, women and children travelled in sailing ships to the Australian colonies, lured by the discovery of gold, assisted passage schemes and by the promise of a better life.

Lasting between seventy days and five months, these journeys took these passengers from the industrial urbanised ports of Britain, and carried them far from any sight of land, through both hot and freezing temperatures, to colonial cities that by the 1850s were well established.

What did this mean for the people who travelled these routes?

I have tried to get at this question by attending closely to the diaries written at sea by eight passengers who made the journey to Australia between 1850 and 1880.

These accounts reveal just how intimately migrants came to know each other’s bodies. In the cramped and frequently unsanitary conditions between decks, corporeal boundaries became porous. They leaked into each other, eroding individual sovereignty.

In the last couple of decades historians have done much to historicise bodies. They have stepped away from deterministic and naturalistic notions and instead examined how bodily ideas and practices changed over time and place. Ever since Foucault, scholars have been interested in the ways that bodies were disciplined and rendered docile, not just by coercion, but increasingly by ‘modern’ techniques such as enclosure, ranking, exercise, partitioning, timetabling, synchronisation, repetition, and spatial ordering.

The diaries I read, suggest that travel by sea to Australia in the era of sail disturbed the bodily practices that were increasingly being learnt on shore in Britain in the mid nineteenth century. At sea bodies were anything but stable, individualised, clean and orderly. By contrast they continually threatened to break their boundaries. Passengers of all classes experienced acute anxiety at this prospect. They were unsettled by shifting temporal and spatial practices, and immobilised by dramatic changes in temperature. The bodily fluids, bugs, noises and diseases of others were hard to avoid. If the better class of traveller sought escape in above deck cabins, they nonetheless also lived in fear of contagion from below.

In these conditions passengers, as much as those who organised migrant vessels, sought to assert forms of organisation that were familiar to them. In many ways their writings stand as cries of frustration and anxiety that at sea, land-based practices of order and control did not quite work the way they felt they should.

And what did this mean for passengers’ after they arrived?

These migrants’ first actions on landing were often deliberative attempts to recompose their bodily and social selves. They washed, put on clean clothes, ate a proper meal, read their mail and sought out family and friends.

Yet for many the sea journey never left them. They carried the death of a child, serious sickness, or friendships made on board with them for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps their ship-board apprehension of the loss of bodily order never left them either.

While historians of mobility are increasingly showing just how important spaces of transit were in fashioning experience and identity, historians of colonial cities and societies tend not to consider the impact of the sea journey in fashioning bodily subjectivities and cultures of rule. Might passengers’ experience of bodily anxiety at sea have influenced their eagerness to embrace and even produce the cultural classifications and hierarchies of rule that typified colonial and settler societies?

This question asks us to connect bodies at sea to bodies on shore. By doing so we may find a way, once again, to look both out to sea and across the land, and to stitch back together distributed geographic processes and chains of production and consumption that land-based histories have long elided.

*This is a point Alecia Simmons recently made at the Voyages and Visionaries conference in honour of John Gascgoine and Ian Tyrrell in Sydney, July 2016.


I’m talking about this at the Australian Historical Association conference in Ballarat this week. A free-to-download pre-print version of  the published article, ‘Bodies at Sea: Travelling to Australia in the age of sail’, Journal of Global History, 11:2 (2016), 209-228 is available for download here.

Or if you have library access, visit Journal of Global History, 11:2 (2016) where you will also find a series of excellent papers by Roland Wenzlhuemer, Martin Dusinberre, G. Balachandran, Johanna de Schmidt and Frances Steel as well as an incisive theoretical article by Dusinberre and Wenzlhuemer, all on the theme of being in transit at sea and the incompatibilities of global history.

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