Primary Sources in Transnational History

[NB: Post co-authored by Maitreya and Kṣitigarbha]

For both of our projects, we both have a lot of thoughts on primary sources in particular. How do we find enough source material? Will the availability of primary sources affect our potential for scope and is this necessarily a bad thing? How do we most effectively present the information we find in these sources? These are undoubtedly questions everyone in this course will have thought about at one point or another, as this is something that we’ve all had to consider while writing our projects.

In Erica’s case, the bulk of the Red Cross archives about World War II are not open at the moment, and what is theoretically accessible is in Geneva. While it does make sense that, for the purposes of data protection, the ICRC won’t place personal information about refugees on the internet, it is frustrating nonetheless. The Red Cross did do a major report on its actions (or lack thereof) during the Second World War, which was published in 1948, but the sheer volume of information to be absorbed is truly daunting. I suspect that there are other letters, and hopefully records of conversations between ICRC agents and representatives of the Nazi Germany (and likely other) governments, but I’ll likely be mining the bibliography of books that I’ve been able to find on the subject for more information about letters. Jean-Claude Favez wrote an excellent book about the ICRC and its interactions with Nazi Germany which does contain records of letters, reports, etc., but more reading will be required.

One of the concerns that is somewhat unique to Erica’s project is the somewhat peculiar nature of writing about international organizations. Erica will elaborate on this in a subsequent blog post, but she is slightly worried about writing a history that is not strictly transnational in nature. She thinks that when you are writing about an international organization, it is easy to completely neglect ‘transnational’ ideas, and write a history that is completely removed from nation-states. One of the strange paradoxes of transnational history that she has come to appreciate throughout this course is that transnational history has a complicated relationship with the nation-state – it both attempts to transcend it in rejecting strictly comparative views of history, but also kind of requires that the basic category of nation-states continues to exist so that transnational trends can be examined in detail. Where this specifically comes in for Erica’s project is that it might be very easy for me to just write about internal, high-level decisions in the Red Cross without thinking about the transnational networks involved in making decisions. For example, it would make sense for me to write about the Red Cross’ interactions with both the Swiss and German governments, as well as examining the actual work on the ground that Red Cross inspectors were doing in occupied Eastern Europe. Erica has realised throughout the course of her project that she almost needs to do almost the opposite of what Sian is considering – she needs to look at a more broad-based examination of the Red Cross actions so that her project remains truly transnational in scope.

In Siân’s case, the primary sources really have dictated the nature of the project. The initial idea for a project was to explore the transnational links between the different welfare state systems adopted across Europe before and after the Second World War. Whilst this sounded viable at first, after thinking more about sources that would highlight transnational links between these welfare states, it became obvious this could only be achieved through tracing how ideas moved from place to place and person to person.Obviously, this would require a very narrow approach in regard to sources, as trying to understand how an individual might have been inspired by an idea means that more personal sources (such as diary entries, letters, etc.) and sources dealing with particular episodes (e.g. newspaper articles) would need to be used. This has inevitably put an end to any idea of a pan-European history as was initially conceived, as it has become very clear this would need far more than a 5,000 word project to do it any sort of justice! Instead, the sources have led towards a more microhistorical perspective on the topic.

At first, this was a seriously daunting prospect, something which was discussed in last week’s blog post. Trying to shed any sort of meaningful light on a topic such as the welfare state in a microhistory seemed impossible. However, after last Tuesday’s meeting, it became obvious that several members of the class had had nearly the exact same issue. Not only that, but people seemed somewhat excited about narrowing down their focus of study to such an extent. After discussing this as a group it actually became fairly clear that, in a paradoxical way, having a smaller lens through which to approach a topic can often lead to more source material becoming available. For instance, had the topic remained as broad as initially intended, it would not be as clear what particular primary material should be approached first. This is definitely not an issue now. Hearing the opinions of others in a similar situation has been an enormous comfort and help in this regard. Having to rely on your own resources to go and find primary evidence from which you can make a valid argument can be extremely daunting to say the least. Knowing that you are not the only person whose initial idea had to be modified significantly is reassurance that this is simply all part and parcel of carrying out your own research.

The challenges regarding both may be slightly different, but the key thought we both shared when discussing our projects was how to get the most from the primary sources we could.

Considering Identity (and Some Self-Indulgent Self-Reflection)

I know this is more a consolidation (project-finishing, presentation-preparing, caffeine-pounding) week than anything else, but I stumbled onto something interesting (to me, at least) while polishing up my work on my project, and I thought it worth sharing. I had no idea where I was headed when I began my research in January, but I managed to land on Santería and its rich cultural history. What I’ve ultimately chosen to focus on is the transnational identities and communities, formed in the crucible of colonial Cuba and shaped through centuries of cultural diffusion across the Americas. All that has me thinking about the things that form our identities and the communities that we build for ourselves as students, as young adults, as historians, as citizens of our respective countries. Bear with me, because I know this sounds a little ‘we are the world’, but it’s a fantastic thing if you really think about it.

Take the identities we see here in St Andrews. Is it a society affiliation or your course of study that primarily defines your days’ work? Are you a proud champion of your Hall or are have you gone private? Do you ignore freshers simply because they’re freshers and probably as immature as you were when you first arrived? Or do you prefer taking them under your wing and making them part of your university family? Are you an Academic Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter, Cousin, Grandmother? Do you study a science or one of the humanities? Can you afford to attend every last ball and fashion show or are you working 20 hours a week just to pay your rent?

All of these questions point to the immeasurable variety of humans that we are able to meet and connect with, even in this tiny town. And how do they build our communities? Are we St Andrews students? Are we Chapel Choir singers, brewers at the Shire of Caer Caledon, stargazers at AstroSoc or first-string footballers? What ties of identity and association build each of our own hodge-podge university families? These questions barely touch the surface of the multitude of self-identifications we can see here, never mind the ways in which we each identify others and their communities. If we accept that incredible array of possibilities, then how can we ever carry out a comprehensive study of any group?

The simple answer, I suppose, is to focus on single points of commonality and reduce the dimensions of our work. As historians (especially budding transnationalists) it is our job to attempt to tell stories of the past with the greatest accuracy possible and with consideration of the innate complexities of human interactions.

What’s the point of all that waffle? Well, I think the waffle is a prime example of why interdisciplinary approaches to history are so important. Most of what I learned about santeros and their fellows came from anthropologists, those who probe the deep roots of human culture, and you can see evidence of that in the highly personalized shape my work has taken; in attempting to study a religion, I have found myself studying its practitioners and their lives for the simple reason that concepts (such as religion) only matter to the extent that people believe in and/or practice them. If I was to study St Andrews, it is the students, the staff and the townspeople who would probably best illustrate the complex reality that the town lives every day, not statistics or official records or even photographs. Yet that seems more a job for a sociologist or anthropologist than a pure historian, so we must adopt a hybrid method to better understand the true nature of things (a process at which I believe transnationalism excels).

I suppose the takeaway is to consider how unfathomably complicated our individual contexts are and then to attempt to bear that in mind as we look at the people of the past.

Whether this is just sentimentalism run wild, the tired ramblings of someone who’s been listening to Lucumí chants for too many consecutive hours, or something of substantive use, I thought it worth sharing with you all. I appreciate how personal this project has become to me, and I think it is the unique perspectives offered by transnational methodology that have allowed me to build a deep understanding of the people I’ve been studying. Sometimes it helps to remember that we’re studying ourselves, just a few years back. When we talk about actors and their networks, we are talking about structures that we reshape and rely on every day. How fantastic is that?

Finally Embracing Transnationalism

Transnational history: why is it worth doing and what does it do well? Transnational approaches take marginalized people and places and attempt to connect them or understand existing connections in different ways. They illuminate connections which may have been ignored in favor of broader or ‘louder’ networks. They create narratives with which we as researchers and we as readers can connect in a more personal way, because the connections we explore are more relatable and tangible to us as individuals.


With regards to the project regarding Regla de Ochá, a transnational approach has offered the option of illuminating the unique situation of West African slaves and the communities they built in their captivity. This religion as the intersection of Spanish colonialism, Yoruban faith, and Native Cuban culture tells the complex story of a kidnapped people who created their own faith in the face of incredible cruelty and oppression. The narrative of newly freed slaves building their lives around their santeros and their altars is a deeply personal one and one with which most people can identify and empathize. The dignity restored to marginalized groups through exploration of their development from a sympathetic perspective restores them to the wider historical narrative with as much significance as any ‘dominant’ people or culture. This connectivity and personalization is one of transnationalist history’s greatest strengths, because it engages us with the past in a personal way; how many of us can only identify with our nation, rather than with our families, our language, any of a million subcultures, our personal social networks, ourselves?


Also, transnationalism provides the framework for integrating a multitude of different methodologies; microhistory, macrohistory, comparative history, just to name a few. Within this framework, we are able to better access aspects of history that have been obscured by previously dominant forms of analysis. For example, the national approach can focus too much on (arbitrary) boundaries and can ignore identities that may supercede the ‘nation’ within a specific individual or communal context.


For the project concerning the European Capitals of Culture, methodology is an issue of extreme importance. European History has been categorized as a sum of national histories since the creation of the nation-state. While these individual histories give in-depth explanations of the political, social, and cultural evolutions of each state, they remain isolated and unrelatable. In contrast, this project deals with a larger supranational identity that either complements or might even seek to overpower the conventional national identity. Transnationalism uses the combination of methods to provide the most accurate form of analysis. By incorporating forms of micro, regional, national, international, the European Identity can be fully broken down as the product of connections through various spatial scales. Europeans are inherently part of many spatial communities and their identity needs to understood by exploring the connections within the various scales that shape them.


One of the significant downsides of transnational history (in fact, the only one we’ve really found) is that defining where the ‘ends’ of your connections are can be extremely difficult. Where do you cease your study when all of these threads interact in thousands of different ways? This has been a topic of considerable debate during our seminars, and this will continue to be highly subjective and individualized to each specific historian and each area of research. The image of the wheel defining the end of the spokes from a central hub, which we used when discussing networks and network analysis, is one which we’ve found very useful; defining our own parameters is one of the liberties (and the difficulties) of transnationalism, and it ultimately provides for greater freedom of expression in our research. In determining the boundaries of our own inquiry, we are encouraged to probe deeper into our subjects in order to carve out the perfect shape for our analysis, thereby allowing for an inherently fuller, more thorough understanding of history.


Madeleine Miller and Susannah McClanahan

The Necessity of Hands-On History’

Today was spent on an archival research road-trip to Edinburgh, which gave me plenty of time to think on the bus about what ‘hands-on’ means to me in the context of this transnational course, as well as in my larger pursuit and philosophy of history. Essentially, thinking about how historians handle and engage with their sources both literally and emotionally, and what effect this has in our writing.


My first reflection concerns how direct our interactions with primary sources are, in terms of ‘us’ as historians personally handling the documents or materials we analyze. Two years ago a French PhD friend of mine, Edern, complained bitterly to me about having to write his dissertation using only microfilmed sources; he kept repeating to me, “historians work with paper!”. At the time I didn’t understand, since the topic he’d chosen seemed highly engaging, he was clearly excited about it, and he had easy and access to the ample materials he needed while living in Paris. But for Edern, the thrill of the exhaustive historical treasure hunt came from touching the documents that real human beings he was studying had handled over three centuries ago, seeing where long-dead individuals had filled in legal claims, inventories, and other similar paperwork. This could be both dense and dry over weeks of study, but in the micro a particularly telling document, included note, or even marginalia made it worthwhile. On the microfilm register however, the information was there, but it was stale, frustratingly illuminated in negative. Similarly, while a lot of my (and probably your) research and reading comes via digitized museum collections, journal articles, and online books, today I found myself actually touching the genuine water-colored studies and paintings done by the Scottish painter David Allan (1744-1796) at the National Gallery of Scotland’s Prints and Drawings study room. Instead of copying and pasting defining appropriate search terms for hours, while distracted by petty routine, the material was faster to assess in person, I could ask questions directly to the attendants, the items themselves were thrilling to handle, and 6 images I found in particular from Allan’s Italian tour (1764-1777) may prove pertinent to my eventual argument! This same issue of direct contact and access is even more pressing for material sources (original artifacts), where the online images, if any, are rarely detailed enough for any serious study (larger institutions with high-resolution scans like the Rijksmueum, Museum of the American Revolution, or Metropolitan being exceptions to this rule). Obviously, being able to travel to one’s evidence is a luxury (particularly given the breadth of transnational study), and sometimes it’s far faster and simpler to work from a laptop, but I think there is certainly something lost in the process of research when it is limited to one sense only, sight, which happens only electronically. At the risk of nostalgia, I firmly believe this gap would be expressed in analytical writing on the materials later on, making it as one-dimensional as the research process itself.


My second though concerns how we engage emotionally, physically and personally with our topics. In my mind, a solid foundation of sources is not enough if you lack the empathy and perspective needed to connect yourself with your own analysis. As an example, I’d use an American friend who was finishing a costume studies degree under a woman believed to be ‘the expert’ on early modern women’s undergarments. Yet, though she had made it her life’s work, this woman had never actually taken the time or effort to wear the garments she had spent so long researching, and it made her unable to empathize with the reasons why women chose to wear these garments, or the practical function of them in use. Another example would be a show run in 2005 on BBC 2, ‘Tales from the Green Valley’, wherein  four historical specialists recreated daily  rural life on 1620s farm in Wales. Archaeologists were now building period structures, agricultural historians were plowing fields with heritage-breed oxen, cultural historians were doing laundry with traditional techniques, and all were immersed in this for nearly a full calendar year. In essence, historians with decades of experience in studying their respective topics finally had a chance to engage fully with the material, and to put what they’d read about into actual practice. This divide can also be bridged on more theoretical topics; for instance, studying changing perceptions of time with reference to the actual physicality of clock technology and the speed (or slowness) of pre-industrial travel, or environmental historians working on energy use who experiment with various types of historical fuels.  Clearly one can push this too far, and introduce significant bias, but I firmly believe anyone studying a historical topic should seek, as best they can, to experience it viscerally, to push outside of their comfort zones as an intellectual and experiential exercise.


How does this relate to my project? Clearly the study of clothing is one that is well suited to the material, and even requires it.  But above all, taking the time and effort to come to grips with one’s topic means one gains empathy for it, and with those human beings who did the same in the past. And I believe this is critical to any historical project, transnational or otherwise.IMG_3220

Narrowing down my proposal: why too much beer is bad for your project

Having received feedback from my proposal I have come to the realisation that there is such a thing as too much beer. My previously planned three-tiered approach is going to either be too large for a 5,000 word essay, or is going to be too thin on details. After some deliberation on how to deal with this, I have decided to now focus on the international legal battle over the name ‘Budweiser’ as this will allow me to still involve the transnational history of the beer, and the agency of Adolphus Busch, but only to the point that it has been relevant to the court cases.

One of the side effects of this alteration is that it will alter the balance of my project into a more even focus between Budvar and Budweiser, which is not a bad thing. Budweiser is the world’s most American beer, in spite of its name, its origins and that its current owners are Belgian. This feels like another aspect to this transnational project that could be looked at. My previous focus on the origins of Budvar beer, and the clash between German and Czech nationalism will be minimised, which I am slightly sad about as writing the short essay on the micro-macro link made me realise that, if done well, this could have been effective. However on the other hand this would have definitely been the most challenging part of my project as I would have had to compress large amounts of information, and also as a result of a lack of sources

This change certainly helps me in terms of sources, as I can look at court records for these cases, and there has also been a bountiful amount of newspaper coverage for some of these cases. Having done some research on Amazon, there also seem to be quite a few books on the history of beer that look like they will be fruitful in their pages on Budweiser. This has also helped me in that the previously troubling language barrier I had with Czech can now, to some extent, be avoided, as the court records I have found thus far are in English.

Overall I am happy with the alterations I’ve made as they make the project feel slightly more manageable. Now I just need to tuck into some court records to get a far better understanding of how the project is going to come together!

Ideas through a transnational and microhistorical lens

When I decided to explore the transnational nature of the welfare state for my project, the transnational elements I expected to be tracking were the ideas spreading across borders and the networks that facilitated them. However, this is a lot easier said than done. After a lot of research I realised that tracing when and where ideas move from A to B can sometimes prove to be nearly impossible due to the fact that the transfer of these ideas is not always well documented. It can be easy to see a common theme across borders and propose a transnational link (e.g. the fact that so many European countries started implementing social reforms on such a large scale post-1945) but finding solid evidence to support this link is much harder.
After struggling with this for a while, I came to the conclusion that tracing the movement of ideas is challenging because by their very nature they are fairly elusive and are not often written about as often as people. Therefore, I thought that perhaps the best way to explore the movement of ideas for my project was through examining the ‘border crossings’ (as Patricia Clavin described it) where actors engage and influence one another. This is the reason why I have chosen to focus on one particular episode for my project, with David Lloyd George’s 1908 visit to Germany, as this narrow focus is personally the most effective method I have encountered so far.
However, with such a narrow focus on one episode, it seems inevitable that I will end up using microhistory in my project. On the one hand, this is really exciting as I have always loved the powerful narrative and immediacy of microhistory. But on the other hand, this is fairly daunting. Microhistory sometimes gets called out for becoming too lost in its own narrative and losing sight of the bigger historical picture. This is something I definitely do not want to happen with my project. Therefore, I think the biggest challenge I will face in the next few weeks is thinking about how to appropriately bridge microhistory with the macro picture.

Proposal Changes

One of the biggest challenges I have had with my project is trying to work out the transnational scope. Studying a world map may not originally come across as national history, but looking at who made the map, and the intention of those who commissioned the work tends to focus on the promotion of a country’s agenda. Especially when looking towards colonial maps. So I was planning a more comparative historical project, looking at various colonial maps and to view the links between different empires in how they mapped to promote their own agenda. Originally, I had proposed to explore how the colonial map acted as political propaganda to manipulate the attitudes of society to promote the philosophies of the particular country. But pretty quickly, and with relatively little research, I had come to the conclusion that maps were used as a tool to visually display the extent of empirical conquest and were often distorted to really enhance the agenda of what country’s colonies were shown.

It was slightly unsatisfying to realise that there was no brand new narrative I could take. Thinking that a break away from the project would spark some ideas I turned to read the Week 8 Tutorial reading on Actors and Networks. A sentence from Ulrike Lindner’s Transnational Movements between Colonial Empires,” about how within the context of this particular essay the movement of people between different European colonies would be described as transnational. [680] With this idea in my head, I tackled the Short Essay, focusing on the transnational scope of colonial history, with particular reference to the British Empire. There are so many networks within an empire; there are the obvious trading networks and movement of people but there is also a flow of ideas and ideologies that moves with the people. But what about the networks that expand outwith of the empire? Lindner’s reading showcased how there are often networks between empires themselves.

And so I give you Project Proposal Take II (to be fair, this number is probably a lot higher):

The 1886, Imperial Federation Map has gone on to become the most iconic and most analysed map of the British Empire but when it was released it did not have that much recognition and was overshadowed by the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886. This map, however, has gone on to be symbolic for colonial history, and what, from a British perspective, an imperial map can tell us about the world at the time. But if I was to focus on this single year, and look at world, not from the perspective of a map, a lot more networks of connections become apparent. There are a lot of networks that the map cannot display, and the mapmaker may have chosen not to display. I want to highlight the power of the map but also the weaknesses in what was missed out.

Lindner, Ulrike. “Transnational Movements between Colonial Empires: Migrant Workers from the British Cape Colony in the German Diamond Town of Lüderitzbucht.” European Review of History: Revue Europeenne D’histoire 16, no. 5 (2009): 679–95.

Questioning Colonialism in my Project

In reading for my longer project, I have been thinking about its colonial context. A point was raised about terminology in the reading and in the seminar last week, and about what we can consider to be transnational. I feel that my project is transnational in scope as it follows the experience that migration had on the intellectual elites that would eventually become leaders of African national liberation movements. . However, I think that I have perhaps taken for granted that the starting point of this migration would be included as a ‘nation’ for these figures to move beyond. As we saw last week, colonialism inevitably complicates things as the territories are far removed from the nation they are part of. Further complicating this is the fact that I am concerned with the experience of the colonised rather than the colonisers. I was drawn to the point made last week that actors in a network take the ‘baggage’ of previous ideas and identities with them when they move. An interesting question is what is the identity of figures moving from a colony and can it be viewed, as Kiran Patel suggests, in the same way we view a national identity due to cultural ties? This question is important in examining how the colonial experience affected this transnational migration network, yet there are some problems with how we view this colonial experience that also need to be considered.

Frederick Cooper identifies a trend towards seeing non-Europe as static and backward in general writings on colonialism. In searching for reading on my project, I have found that I agree with Cooper’s assessment. Particularly in the study of colonial migration, there seems to be a large focus on the movement of nameless, non-skilled multitudes. This creates a somewhat homogenising picture of Africa that overlooks the existence of social stratification within different colonies. While traditional historiography has made us more than aware of the racial hierarchies in place during the colonial period, it can be criticised as treating the levels of these hierarchies as distinctive groups with unifying characteristics and little variation. For example, the work of Ghai et al on the experience of the Asian population of East Africa argues that the compartmentalisation of society was one of the largest economic problems facing the region. However, the existence of elite migration challenges this view of colonial societies being rigidly compartmentalised. The fact that figures such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta were able to travel for education suggests that there was a level of privilege available to some black Africans that the traditional histories infrequently acknowledge. This is important as it could be argued that this privilege is an important factor in facilitating the growth of the national liberation movements in Africa as it allowed those who used it to gain access to the transnational network of intellectuals who shared their political ideas.

Ghai, Dharam, Ghai, Yash, ‘Asians in East Africa: Problems and Prospects’, The Journal of Modern African Studies’, 1965

Rodogno, Davide, Struck, Bernhard, Vogel, Jakob, Shaping the Transnational Sphere, Berghahn, (2014)

Project Update: Structuring Communities

This is just a sort of project update post, so please bear with me as I get all kinds of specific. While I have been able to find ample sources for the nature of Regla de Ochá (RdO) itself, I am being forced to rely on secondary sources (primarily anthropological studies) to trace the history of community development. While this does not invalidate my conclusions, it has made the ultimate unification of my information a little bit tricky. With oral accounts and anthropological assessments to guide the greatest part of my inquiry, keeping my conclusions and arguments strictly historical has been difficult. I don’t know if anyone else has been experiencing anything similar, but I hope the conference in week 11 will ultimately help to ensure my research has taken a properly historical shape.

On the happier side of things, one of the most interesting relationships I have been focusing on is that of godparent and godchild. This unique incarnation of a familiar Christian tradition has been studied primarily by a single researcher, Mary Ann Clark (University of Florida), but even her briefest treatments of this social structure reveal it to be a key example of the ways in which transnational and multicultural influences have shaped RdO. The kinship traditions of the Yoruba combined with the Catholic institution of godparenthood combined together to form a pattern of recreating a ‘religious family’ for RdO practitioners. These bonds of a community of faith have lost some of their centrality to the lives of believers and some of their formality as an institution, but they remain significant even into the 21st century. As I am focusing on the history of RdO communities, bonds such as these (and those between the initiate and the RdO priests who facilitate their inititation) are crucial to understanding the ways in which these communities have evolved over time; these relationships as institutions have existed for hundreds of years, and it is the community built around them that has fluctuated and reformed over time.

Finally, I would like to raise an issue of research methodology with you all in the hopes that someone might have some advice. Tracing the transnational influence of Yoruban tradition (those practices and beliefs from trafficked Central and West Africans) is proving extremely difficult. Though there is some evidence for what these traditions were in their original incarnations, much of that has been lost through colonialism and conflict. I am attempting to reduce potential bias in my sources by reading compilations by both Yoruba and non-African scholars, but I know my knowledge will never be what it ought to be (thanks, imperialism). I hope that the images I am able to present of Yoruban influences are substantial enough to honestly represent the powerful force of African tradition in RdO’s growth and development. However, if anyone has any suggestions about how I might do this better, I am more than happy to entertain them.

The Power of Networks, Actors and Agency

In our class last week we discussed networks, actors, and agency. Networks seem to be an obvious concept and easily discernible in various narratives. Similarly actors seem to be the individuals within networks interacting and engaging in the situations. Agency was a concept I initially had a difficult time grasping. My current understand is agency is the ability for individuals to act freely. Sometimes, this agency is restricted indirectly by other networks or individuals, or even the intentional agency of others.

For my larger project, these roles have become quite pertinent. As I have still not chosen three cities to focus on, I now realize the importance of the choice. While I will probably be ultimately limited by language barriers in choosing my cities, I would ideally like to map the networks, individuals and agency of the European Capitals of Culture. The networks are the cities themselves and the European Union. It is the similarities but also diversity within these networks that make the cities representations of European culture. I would assume that the networks and actors within the confines of each city use their agency to advance the city as a European Capital of Culture. This prompts numerous questions. On the local level, what are local governments looking to achieve during their year as ECC. In comparison, is the agency of the EU tied to political efforts. Why did the EU choose cites that weren’t part of the EU. Are the efforts of both the cities and the EU morally sound for the benefit of the entire community, or do they have an ulterior motives.

While my focus is to map various hubs of European culture, last week’s class last reminded me of the importance of people and their actions. The intricate reasonings and relationships between these networks, both horizontally and vertically across Europe uncovers the similarities of the cities rather than comparing their local culture. History truly seems to be a narrative of connections between actors and networks, making it increasingly vibrant and engaging!

The Place of Female Migrant Workers in Biblical and Modern Israel

The story of migrants and refugees is a broad topic that consists of innumerable separate, personal stories. Professor Athalya Brenner briefly highlights several issues relating to female migrant workers through an article drawing surprisingly relevant parallels with the story of Ruth the Moabite from the Old Testament – demonstrating that the problem of acceptance and integration of (female) migrant workers was a problem in Israel (and elsewhere) both in biblical and modern times.
The story of Ruth is a tale of a woman who married an Israelite resident in Moab. When her husband died, she decided to travel with her mother-in-law – Naomi – who was returning to Israel. As a non-Jew, Ruth was at the bottom of society and only able to get food for herself and the elderly Naomi by gleaning from the fields during harvest time. The man whose fields she gleaned from eventually married her, and she became part of the family that fathers King David, and also Jesus, several generations later. However, Brenner criticises the romantic portrayal of this story where Ruth is the “heroine”.
The relevance of using Ruth as an example is stressed in some short points by Brenner:
– Ruth might have had no choice in how events unfolded after her initial decision to move to a foreign land – most of her later actions are motivated by her mother-in-law Naomi.
– She is always referred to as ‘Moabite’, clearly labelling her as a foreigner.
– She is only able to get menial work in the fields due to the low social status of non-Israelites.
– She disappears from her own story towards the end after the birth of her son Obed who carries on the family line – she is not “integrated”, merely “assimilated”.
– Jewish tradition required her to convert, which it is implied she does, yet Brenner finishes this section with the following question: “a convert remains a convert, almost never an ‘in’ person – does this ring a bell?” [167-168].
Brenner estimated that around two thirds of migrant workers in Israel in 2005 were women. Just like in the story of Ruth, they are often only able to get menial jobs. It is more difficult, or even impossible, to get Israeli citizenship unless you are a Jew although policies may have changed. Moreover, wages often do not meet minimum-wage, although legally required to.
When studying history it is easy to forget that the people we study were, and are, real. History should not be romanticised. Migration is a key field that is increasingly studied through a transnational lens. Maybe future transnational history can increasingly appeal to a modern day audience that some problems still have not been solved even after thousands of years. It is time that they were.

Athalya Brenner, ‘From Ruth to the “Global Woman”: Social and Legal Aspects’, Interpretation, April 2010, pp. 162-168.

Gathering Acorns Over Break

This past spring break was a welcome opportunity to slide some more bricks into place in the wall of my larger research project on historic maritime clothing, gathering evidence (while canoeing, drinking tea and generally brainstorming). The material is fascinating, but the time needed to download and organize the various files was incredibly tedious (several days of copying, pasting and labeling), and so had not happened until now due to the time-demands of term. However, with this done, the next step will be the process of analyzing these images for potential conclusions, and then linking them with prior research as well as the historiography on the wider topics of transnational history and material culture (my upcoming short essay). While it’s frustrating to not yet know whether this diligent collection will pay off in full, I’m satisfied both that I now have these files on hand for future projects, and that I can potentially make some really interesting connections between the new evidence I describe below…

Frances Mills X Vicki Balfour c

The first source I dug into were two sets of printings of the ‘Cries of Paris’, both currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York). These genre images of urban life are part of a series which consist of about 70 engravings which show various street vendors and itinerant laborers on the mid-18th century streets of France’s capital. While not directly related to my topic, these will be useful for putting the depictions of sailors into context by demonstrating the ways in which other members of France’s urban working class dressed, to find if there are any similarities (like use of clogs), or differences (the length of garments for instance, or styles of legwear). However, this series only deals with Paris, so I might have to find the other later and earlier editions by other artists which depict the streets of Dublin and London, to put this in truly international perspective!

'Carpe vive', 1738, [53.600.588(30)]#4; 'L'Afficheur', 1742, [53.600.588(37)]


Two larger paired sources were two 1790s French encyclopedias amassed by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, the first (Illustrations de Encyclopédie des voyages, contenant l’abrégé historique des moeurs, usages, habitudes domestiques, religions, fêtes…) housed in the National Library of France (Paris), and the second (Costumes de Différent Pays) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Over 500 colored engravings in total are shown, depicting the dress of groups around the world as understood by late-18th century French scholars. While the accompanying text from the book itself has very unfortunately not been digitized, which will likely limit the force of argument I can muster, the engravings themselves beautifully capture the way in which regional ethnic groups dressed, both within and outside of France. Besides just visual sources, an extant mahiole Hawaiian feather helmet in the collection of the British Museum which I was led to starting with its depiction in this book may also make an appearance in my coming work! So the potential for drawing and marrying evidence from written, visual and material sources is really promising so far, provided I can read enough to critique and use sources wisely. I’m hoping to reference these items in larger discussions of ‘Enlightenment anthropology’ to use these within a discussion of how sailors linked the world as agents of trade and European exploration, and how these connections were reflected in the clothing they wore (or didn’t, depending on the nation).                                                  Hawaiian_feather_helmet_british_museum                                 Costumes de Différent Pays, c. 1797, 'Homme et Femme de Genea'                                                         Costumes de Différent Pays, c. 1797, [Venice] 'Gondolier Venitien'Costumes de Différents Pays, c. 1797, 'Groenlandais en Habit de Pêche'

A final major breakthrough was the downloading of a 2 Volume Traité Général des Pesches et Histoire des Poissons (Vol. 1 1769, Vol. 2 1772), by Duhamel Du Monceau. While this document spends an incredible amount of text on the fish species themselves and the manner in which they are harvested, throughout it consistently and explicitly draws comparison between the economic models, ships, techniques, infrastructure, crews, and even clothing used by the various nations at work in the major European fisheries. And secondly, it is beautifully illustrated with dozens of engraved plates which are remarkably clear in their depictions of men dressed in day-to-day work within the various maritime trades. This work is both comparative and international in its outlook, which is similar to a lot of other sources I’ve found so far from this pre-19th century period, when European ‘nations’ were far more heterogeneous than we are used to.                                   
AVol. 2, Sect. 3, p. 739 PDF, Plate XXXI, fig. 1


I could gush about more pieces, but my word-count is up, and I’d rather get back to reading, so I can muster the theoretical framework I need to use these sources effectively.

The Transnational Nature of the AGA

What is interesting about material history is often not objects in themselves, but what they infer about their social environments. Using the example of the AGA oven, it can be argued that its transnational nature lies in its links into wider issues; how efficiency ideals combine with emotion and tradition to be appropriated in different contexts.

The AGA is a Swedish invention from 1922 which, from the outset, was invented to increase efficiency in the kitchen. It was designed to be multi-purpose as a cooker, laundry-dryer, hot water heater and general heat source. From Sweden it travelled to Britain in 1929, which is now the main manufacturer of AGAs. An interesting question to ask is why the AGA has not remained popular in Sweden, its origin country, but has become an icon in British culture where several separate designs such as the British Rayburn and Irish Stanley ovens have been developed from the original AGA. The answer might lie in cultural ideals. Whereas Sweden is typically seen as a liberal and environmentally responsible country driven by modern design, Britain remains rooted in traditions. Thus, the AGA at the heart of the middle-class countryside home is also at the heart of a form of British identity.

The AGA was progressive in the 1920s, and therefore rooted in modernity. However, its unaltered design now also connects it to the past. The synthesis of influences and national input in creating this particular oven makes it interesting, but what drives its status is, above all, how people relate emotionally to a piece of technology used primarily for cooking. The AGA is a lifestyle, a beating heart of the home and a friend. How people respond to this in different places, and emotionally engage with an object in different cultural circumstances creates a sense of universal experience. Even today, the AGA is increasingly popular in certain places in France, but rarely used in Scandinavia. This is also an indication of environmental policies, although the company has responded to this by creating a new AGA model that has electronic controls and can be switched on and off which, in its turn, reflects wider global responses to public demand for more environmentally conscious consumer items.

The AGA is an example of the transmission of ideas and inventions across borders, and demonstrates different ideals being appropriated in different contexts. Its enduring, largely unaltered, design and successful impact in different cultural conditions thus give it resonance in transnational history. What can be inferred from this, and the range of questions it raises is, however, what is truly exciting. For further exploration of this, see my forthcoming project on kitchen efficiency and development.

Undermining the supremacy of “shared history” and historicising Time


Having been reading Thomas Bender’s “Introduction” to the edited volume of Rethinking American History in a Global Age, I’d like to deepen our previous conversations on the methodology of transnational history, as well as the rationale behind it.

We’ve often talked about the tension that exists between transnational and national history, but also noted that transnational history needs the nation. Bender provides an insight as to why practitioners of transnational history may like to challenge a nationalist historiography – that is because nations, by default, celebrates commonality. It “affirms a common history for a shared future,” and “represents a particular narrative of social connection that celebrates a sense of having something in common.” (my emphasis) Breaking this down further, we see that nationalist historiography privileges certain narratives over others, which are equally valid and enlightening in their own ways, but left in the dark because they don’t share the effect of fostering a sense of nationhood.

Ranke, Leopold von (1795 - 1886), Deutscher Gelehrter; Leopold von Ranke, Ausschnitt aus einem verschollenen GemŠlde von Julius Friedrich Anton Schrader aus dem Jahre 1868.; GemŠlde, kopiert von Adolf Jebens, 1875 Original: Berlin, Berlin-Museum Standort bitte unbedingt angeben!;
We’ve all heard about Ranke

It is here that historians cast their gaze back on themselves. What is the role that professional discipline of history has played since Leopold von Ranke in the formation of nations? Prasenjit Duara puts it straight, “modern historiography collaborated in enabling the nation-state to define the framework of its self-understanding.” Such writing of history searches for origins – places, events and people where the idea of a nation first germinated, or initial signs emerged. What is implied here is its purpose to construct a narrative that explains a “shared history”, to provide a timeline of the most important battles, powerful states, patriotic fighters that helped to realise the nation that many take for granted today. Crucially, such a this method is teleological and linear. Promoting the transnationalist agenda, Bender argues that historians should “describe a past that can more effectively engage the present,” pointing to a need to “displace focus on origins and allow a greater spatialisation of historical narrative.”

Bender suggests that since Ranke, the writing of history has developed in a way that “the nation became the unit of politics and history,” historians were “committed to evolutionary theories,” and the most crucial is that “peoples not organised in nations” are treated as historical nonentities. To use an example of my own, the Japanese empire portrayed Taiwanese inhabitants in the early days of colonisation as “barbaric”, “uncivilised”, and above all, “backwards” to justify their subjugation, deliberately imposing a temporal difference on a contemporaneous space. This way, history becomes concerned solely with “peoples organised into nations,” the rest falls under the domain of study for anthropologists. Bender proposes that the “dissolution of that division between history and ethnology” (my emphasis) is the reframing of history brought about by the transnational perspective.

The main point here seems to be that transnational history breaks the mould that has so far restricted “meaningful history” to one that explains the nationalist agenda. It “reveals the plenitude of stories, timescales [and] geographies” by breaking history down to its basic constituent parts – time, space, structure, transformation, relations. It serves to “liberate” history so that historians can construct narratives that demonstrate other forms of social unity apart from that of a “nation”, but also doesn’t exclude it. In sum, time is not singular but historicised, and the writing of history is that much richer by it.

Some thoughts on ‘Transnational Movements’

The reading this week has focused on actors and networks. This is particularly interesting for my project as my starting point was the role of African independence leaders as transnational actors and the network of political figures that they were a part of.

One of the texts I found particularly interesting was Ulrike Lindner’s Transnational movements between colonial empires: migrant workers from the British Cape Colony in the German diamond town of Lüderitzbucht. Lindner uses the town of Luderitzbucht as an example of a transnational space as its diamond boom prompted an increase in migration, particularly from the neighbouring British Cape Colony. She argues that examining the transnational movements in this town provides insight into new perspectives on colonial environments and structures, and the lives of marginalised migrant workers. It is perhaps easy to criticize Lindner’s rationale in using the town as an example as any exemplary study comes with the difficulty of justifying how far its conclusions can be applied beyond its specific context. However, the text does bring up some interesting questions, particularly regarding national borders and where they lie. The demarcation of a national border seems simple, yet the text engages with territories that are far removed, geographically, from their colonial motherland. Thus, it is appropriate to ask whether colonies can still be considered part of a nation, making exchanges between the colonies transnational, as opposed to transcolonial. To some extent, the distinction between the two does not seem so important. It could be argued that exchanges between two colonies occur in the same way regardless of whether these exchanges are labelled one way or another. However, the two labels clearly offer different perspectives, though there is indeed overlap between the two. Seeing exchanges between colonies as purely transcolonial perhaps downplays, to some extent, the national context that shaped the administration and the values of specific colonies. As Lindner shows, the German context was particularly important in the way in which Luderitzbucht was run as the values of the administration were not limited to that colony in particularly. Similar policies regarding race and citizenship could be found in Europe. Lindner therefore is justified in her use of the term transnational as it seems to offer a scope for analysing colonial entanglements that is more thorough and all-encompassing. She emphasises the definitions that we have seen in previous weeks which focus on the connections forged by people who transcend borders.

Another, more practical, aspect of the text that I found particularly useful is in the way that it uses contextual information. One of the things that has frustrated me in some of the readings for previous weeks is that it has been difficult to see the transnational ‘value’ of some texts as the sheer specificity of the context provided has overshadowed the point. This, I think, has contributed to my lingering confusion over how to go about practicing transnational history. In contrast to this, I found the Lindner’s text particularly effective at conveying how the situation in Luderitzbucht was transnational as the British context and the German context remained balanced in such a way that the effect each had on the transnational actors in Luderitzbucht was clear throughout.