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August 18, 2010

History Division News
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» Easy Writing?

Stevie Davies: Into Suez: Parthian Press, Cardigan 2010

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Usually, historians are unwilling to recommend historical novels: we tend to see them as ‘easy writing’, and we’re quick to point out their anachronisms and errors. However, occasionally, an exceptional novelist writes a work which not only seems to get the historical detail accurate, but also adds a dimension of its own.

Into Suez concerns the quest by a daughter (living in Church Stretton in 2003) to understand more about her recently deceased mother. This leads to her to investigate events in Ismailia (in Egypt), on the Suez Canal, in 1949. Her mother followed her father here, as he was working for British army. Much of the novel is a vivid re-creation of the lives of ordinary soldiers and their families in ‘Wogland’, as they term it. The relationships between mother, husband and daughter pulse and rock together: at times there are strong, loving feelings, drawing them together into a sense of shared human community, despite their differences. But the strange context in which they live throws up new tensions. Davies is extremely observant about the micro-processes: the tiny unwritten laws, the daily manoeuvres, the small decisions which make up the texture of daily life. We anticipate from the start of the novel that there will be a tragedy: as the chapters go by, each of the characters faces decisions and chooses options and, gradually, we realize that often despite their essential decency, they choose badly. Within this spectrum of decisions, attitudes to the ‘Gyppos’ (Egyptians) and to the rising tide of Egyptian nationalism become more and more important.

Into Suez is a rich, subtle, intricate novel, writing with a type of imaginative power that is capable of transporting the reader into a world that is at once very far away and yet still very close.

Reviewed by Sharif Gemie, whose research and teaching interests include Israel and Palestine and nationalism

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.

July 20, 2010

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» On the Beach

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Andy Croll recommends some summer reading

It’s that time of year again. Put down your history books for a couple of weeks, slap on the sun cream and head for the beach. Think again! Here’s some good news for you. You can take some history books with you next time you head for Barry Island.

As all good history students know everything has a history. This even goes for a space as apparently ‘natural’ as a beach. The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth (1998) by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker is a wonderful reminder that the beach is in fact a social and cultural artefact – it has a history that changes over time.

If lying on a beach can seem like a timeless experience (surely people in every age have enjoyed frolicking in the waves on a hot summer’s day?) read about the ‘beach phobia’ that gripped medieval society, ponder the rediscovery of the beach that took place in the eighteenth century and consider the changing ways in which the beach has been experienced in the intervening two centuries – from a place of recuperation for the sick and weakly to a site of pleasure.

The Beach is longue durée history that will make you appreciate afresh an everyday phenomenon. You’ll never be able to don your swimming costume again without thinking about how much beach attire has changed – in just the last one hundred years.

From a formal three-piece suit in the Edwardian period to skimpy Speedos in just half a century – the speed with which we’ve exposed ever larger areas of flesh to the sun and to the gaze of strangers is another remarkable indicator of just how much the way we experience the beach – and our bodies – has been transformed over time.

So, pack your sun cream, swimming costume – and The Beach – and enjoy your summer holiday!

Andy Croll

March 23, 2010

History Division News
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» Science, Race and Slavery

What we're reading: Chris Evans on Darwin's Sacred Cause

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Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (Penguin, 2010).

The popular image of Charles Darwin is of a reclusive sage, wholly driven by his scientific interests. A rather different picture emerges in a new book by professors Desmond and Moore, whose 1991 biography of the great naturalist was highly acclaimed. In Darwin’s Sacred Cause they give us Charles Darwin as the enemy of slavery. Anti-slavery, they claim, was an abiding passion and one that influenced Darwin’s science.

His grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, were both active opponents of the slave trade, and the young Charles grew up in a militantly abolitionist household. His epic voyage on HMS Beagle not only took him to places that influenced his evolutionary theory – like the Galapagos Islands – it took him to Brazil, where slavery was flourishing as never before in the 1830s. Darwin was haunted by the experience.

Desmond and Moore interpret Darwin’s views on evolution in this light. His insistence on the common ancestry of all human beings was a challenge to the new schools of anthropology, which were predictably popular in the slave states of the American South, that saw different races as having entirely separate ancestries.

Some of the scientific debates get a little involved but Desmond and Moore write in a lively fashion. Recommended to anyone interested in racism and anti-racism in the history of science. Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (Penguin, 2010) is available from via this link.

Chris Evans researches slavery and its abolition and teaches a second-year module on The Ending of Atlantic Slavery: 1776-1888

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