Archives for category: international

FloatingUniversity2

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.

daisylate1920s

Daisy in Shanghai, late 1920s (Chen Danyan, Shanghai Princess: her survival with pride and dignity, Better Link Press, New York, 2010)

Over the last couple of months I’ve been making a radio documentary for ABC Radio National’s Earshot series. It’s about Daisy Kwok – an amazing woman who was born in Sydney at the end of the 19th century to wealthy Chinese merchant parents. Moving to Shanghai with her family, Daisy became the toast of interwar cosmopolitan Shanghai only to suffer terribly during China’s cultural revolution.

Yet that’s by no means the end of Daisy’s story. Her life is remarkable on its own, but it also sheds light on the history of Australian-Chinese relations, and on the fabulous history of Shanghai itself. As the little blurb on the RN wesbite puts it, this is a story of riches to rags to redemption, set during one of the 20th century’s most turbulent eras.

Making the programme has been a great experience and many thanks to David Rutledge at the ABC for showing me the production ropes.  Here too a big a shout-out must go to the brilliant Sophie Loy-Wilson, whose own encounter with Daisy Kwok is a must read and who has been a fantastic co-producer.  I clearly remember the wide-eyed revelation that came upon us both in the studio one afternoon, when we realised exactly what we were doing: “no footnotes!” we whispered to each other, in wonder.

Shanghai Princess aired on ABC RN’s Earshot programme on Wednesday 21 September 2016 and is available now for download or podcast.

Further Reading

Photographs

with acknowledgements to Bobby Fu, Paul and Maunie Kwok and Kate Bagnall

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Gustave Doré, The New Zealander 1872

In an academic world where we all need a tagline, I find myself hard to categorise. Writing the little blurbs for websites or talks is excruciating. British or imperial? International or Global? Cultural or social (or political)? Nineteenth or Twentieth century? And now, increasingly (and slightly surprisingly, even to me) the United States or the Sea? Since moving to Sydney I’ve ended up writing about Australian history too. What sort of historian am I?

At the heart of all my work is an interest in universities and the institutions and spaces of knowledge production, but embracing the label of ‘university historian’ leads pretty directly to eyes glazing over at dinner parties and almost certain career death.

This seemed a worry too, for the presenters who gave papers at a workshop on British History in the ‘Antipodes’ in May 2015. Despite working with British sources, almost all of them seemed reluctant to adopt the label ‘British historian’.

In my contribution to the special journal issue of History Australia (13:1) that grows out of the workshop, I try to think about this disavowal in the context of recent developments in both transnational history (and its global, international and new imperial iterations) and the continuing robust life of more insular national approaches.

Australia and Britain were (and are) made both by cross-border processes (such as the tendrils of capital, the routes of imperial and transnational migration, the regimes of land, labour, trade and consumption), and also by local efforts to create, resist and direct these forces.

As scholars we too are made by and in these dual processes. We are conditioned and enabled by thick networks of connection, and by variously resourced and located institutions. We work in the midst of specific currencies of legitimacy and we are fashioned by distinct intellectual and economic geographies that, in the case of the ‘Antipodes’, still reflect our particular connected history as part of the English-speaking former British empire that now buys us good access to the international universities, overseas students, archives, journals and funding opportunities that are so crucial to the contemporary (neo)liberal intellectual order.

In the article I suggest that our task as historians might be, not to disavow, but instead to claim these multiple labels (though I would say that wouldn’t I?)

It might be to situate our histories within the supply chains (of commerce, governance, labour, belief etc) that stretched across the globe, and also within the particular polities that sought to locate and contain these in various contexts.

These multiple geographies not only shaped the lives of our historical subjects, they also (if in a somewhat different guise) continue to shape our own.

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Here is the free-to-download full text pre-print version of the article.  For the subscription version visit ‘Afterword: What was Britain? Where is its history?’ History Australia 13:1 (2016), 153–159.

The full issue is here. It includes pieces by James Vernon, Leigh Boucher, David Blaazer, Kate Fullager, Kirsten McKenzie, Andrew J. May, Tanya Evans, Charlotte Greenhalgh, and Shurlee Swain with a brilliant bonus meditation of a life in history by Wilf Prest.