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July 31, 2011

History Division News
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» Helsinki, Sweden

If you are invited to join a gathering of Swedish historians you expect to find yourself in Sweden. So why does my plane land in Helsinki? It’s not quite as strange as it seems. Two hundred and fifty years ago … Continue reading

June 8, 2011

History Division News
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» Copper Theft: a Crime Wave from History

Chris Evans Here’s the good news. Crime on Welsh railways is shrinking. The bad news is that there’s one conspicuous area of growth: cable theft, which has bounded up by 168% in the last year. Wales is not alone in … Continue reading

August 14, 2010

History Division News
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» The End of Slavery

Chris Evans on Nicholas Draper's Price of Emancipation

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When Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833 it set up a £20 million compensation fund. The compensation was not intended for the ex-slaves, however; it was awarded to their masters.

This was a huge sum of money, for which the British state had to raise the largest single loan in its history. But who did the money go to? This is the question that Nicholas Draper sets out to answer in The Price of Emancipation. He’s able to do so because the records of the Slave Compensation Commission, set up to administer the fund, are preserved at the National Archives in London.

By wading through a lot of material, Draper has been able to establish how many people in the British Empire actually owned slaves. He’s also been able to plot where slave owners lived. (Were they based in the West Indies or were they absentees living in Britain? And if living in Britain, where did they reside?)

The results reveal a lot about the importance of slave-generated wealth in British society at the start of the Victorian age. The research is on-going with the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project at University College London .

The Price of Emancipation is only available in hardback at the moment but a cheaper paperback edition is likely. Meanwhile, read an extract here.

Chris Evans is the author of Slave Wales (forthcoming 2010) and teaches modules on Atlantic History and the Abolition of Slavery.

June 15, 2009

History Division News
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» Age of Magnificence

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What was Baroque?

If you’re in London this summer don’t miss Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence. This exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum showcases the dominant European artistic style of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries

What was baroque? Most of all, it was exuberant. As the exhibition catalogue explains, baroque art ‘did not stand shyly by, hoping to be noticed. Paintings, sculpture and decorative arts swirled with vigorous action and strong feelings.’

The baroque - whether expressed in architecture, painting or sculpture – had a flamboyance that would have even Graham Norton pursing his lips. Why so? Part of the explanation lies with artistic patrons. The commanding baroque style expressed the growing power of princely courts and the aims of the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation.

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Monarchs, following the lead of Louis XIV of France, wanted an art and architecture that trumpeted their power. It’s no accident that the most grandiose projects of the age were the work of ambitious and powerful princes. Republics (like Holland) and weak, crisis-ridden monarchies (like England) were not major centres of the baroque.

Baroque style was also taken up with enthusiasm by the Roman Catholic Church as it sought to roll back the Protestant Reformation, the great doctrinal revolt of the sixteenth century. Protestantism was deliberately sober in form. The reformers looked down upon visual showiness. Scripture was the key to salvation. The Catholic Church retaliated by taking the opposite tack: lavish display was one of the best ways in which the untutored masses could be brought to understand the majesty of God.

Like the Church, baroque was international. It was, the exhibition organisers claim, the first global style. It coincided with the earliest overseas European empires, so some of the finest examples can be found in South America, in India, and in the Far East.

A sample of what’s on offer can be found at the exhibition’s website. You’ll be stunned by the opulence on show. You may also, like me, be repelled by the selfishness of Europe’s ruling elite.

Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence runs at the V&A; until 19 July 2009.

Chris Evans