news and updates on the Past & Present Blog


Jamie Kreiner Wins Wayne D. Rassmussen Award

By Josh Allen - June 11, 2018 (0 comments)

by the Past & Present editorial team

We were delighted to hear that Dr. Jamie Kreiner (University of Georgia) recently was awarded the Agricultural History Society’s Wayne D. Rasmussen Award. Dr. Kreiner received the award for her article “Pigs in the Flesh and Fisc: An Early Medieval Ecology” which was published in Past & Present last summer (No. 236, pp. 3-42).

The Agricultural History Society awards the Wayne D. Rasmussen prize annually “for the best article on agricultural history published outside [the Society’s own] journal Agricultural History in the preceding twelve months. In addition to the honour of the prize, recipients are granted a year’s membership of the Society, free registration at their annual conference and two hundred US Dollars in cash.

In recognition of Dr. Kreiner’s achievement and to ensure the widest possible readership for her award winning research, out publishers OUP Academic have made “Pigs in the Flesh and Fisc” free to access until 29th June 2018.

Past & Present logo, 2017 all rights reserved

It also offers our web editor an excuse once again to share “The Pig[er] Picture” Dr. Kreiner’s blog post about her research which he considers “amongst the most exuberant things [he] has ever published”.   

Voyage Iron: An Archival Odyssey 20 Years in the Making

By Josh Allen - June 5, 2018 (0 comments)

Dr. Chris Evans (University of South Wales) and Dr. Göran Rydén (Uppsala University)

What took us so long?

We first got interested in “voyage iron”, one of the currencies of the Atlantic slave trade, two decades back, so why does our (open access) article on the subject only appear in Past & Present in 2018? Archival research takes time, of course, but not always twenty years. The real reason lies in our failure to ask the right questions. So, not so much “What took us so long?”, more “Why were we so obtuse?”.

Voyage iron came to our attention in the late 1990s. Like so many historians at the time, we were trying to push at the boundaries of Atlantic History. We were convinced that early modern Sweden had an unsuspected Atlantic dimension, one provided by its iron industry, which exported huge volumes of bar iron to Britain. As late as the 1780s, it should be remembered, most iron on the British market was shipped in from the Baltic. In some sectors of the economy there was total reliance on Swedish material. Every steel manufacturer in Britain, for example, depended upon high-grade Swedish iron. That had important Atlantic consequences. It meant that every edged tool exported to the Atlantic frontier, whether the axe used to fell timber in Maine or the machete grasped by enslaved fingers in Jamaica, embodied metallic matter that originated in Sweden – indeed, matter that originated in a single mine, Dannemora.

“A late 19th Century photograph of the workings at Dannemora” ,By Riggwelter (Information sign at Dannemora mines) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How were we to demonstrate this? We found our answer in Somerset Archives, in the papers of Graffin Prankard, a Bristol merchant of the 1720s and 1730s, whose letterbooks were dotted with mysterious hieroglyphic squiggles. Mysterious, that is, unless you were a historian of Swedish industry. To Göran, they were instantly recognisable as the brand marks stamped onto bars of Swedish iron.

Graffin Prankard’s voluminous archive gave us a way of tracing the passage of Swedish iron into British manufacturing networks and out into colonial markets. ESRC funding allowed us to do just that and we reported on our findings in Economic History Review in 2002. It also made us aware of voyage iron, a commodity that Prankard sold to Bristol’s slave merchants. These bars of iron, we realised, were specially manufactured for the African market and were to be bartered for slaves. Indeed, voyage iron was so widely traded along the African coast that the ‘bar’ became the unit of account in Afro-European transactions.

More funding, this time courtesy of the Leverhulme Trust, allowed Chris to spend a year at Uppsala University and enabled us to explore the Swedish end of the commodity chain. Once again we had a stroke of archival luck. Graffin Prankard regularly bought voyage iron from an ironworks estate at Gammelbo, about 170 kilometres west of Stockholm. The estate archive, we discovered, was still on-site, stored in the attic of the old manor house. Clambering into the roof space and prising open account books that had not been touched since the eighteenth century was, for dry-as-dust historians like us, a heart-thumping experience. Because the attic had also been home to countless generations of roosting pigeons, it was also dismayingly unhygienic.

But crouching amid the pigeon shit was worth it. The accounts recorded work in the Gammelbo forges on a weekly basis and revealed just how smartly the Swedish forge crews responded to market signals from West Africa. Voyage iron, as a form of currency, fluctuated vis-a-vis other commodities traded on the West African coast. The weight of the individual bars needed therefore to be adjusted to reflect the current value of the ‘bar’. The Gammelbo forgemen had to contend with this, awaiting instructions every spring from Bristol as to the exact dimensions that voyage iron would take in the coming year.

Linking together Graffin Prankard’s letters and the Gammelbo accounts, we were able to show how trading conditions in African markets affected the day-to-day routines of Swedish forgemen. We did so in a book published in 2007: Baltic Iron in the Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century (Brill). We were moderately pleased with ourselves. Yet we shouldn’t have been, for in seeking answers in European archives we had followed the line of least resistance. There was a very obvious question that we hadn’t asked. Why was so much iron exported to West Africa?

“Illustration of an 18th Century ironworks”, By William F. Durfee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Answering that question forced us to leave our archival comfort zone behind and edge gingerly into the world of African archaeometallurgy. It was a liberating moment. Working our way through a rich,   if sometimes challenging technical literature, we came to understand that West Africa was home to an ancient and sophisticated iron-making tradition. Yet that only deepened the problem. If African artisans could draw upon a supply of domestically produced iron, how was Swedish iron able to find a market?

Further funding, generously provided by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, allowed us to think about this problem. The answer we arrived at involved linking iron imports to a far broader agro-environmental shift in West Africa, one driven by the Columbian Exchange. What we propose in Past & Present is that the arrival of New World cultigens boosted the demand for iron in coastal West Africa. The spread of new crops, especially maize, required forest clearance on a massive scale, which required in turn a proliferation of axes, machetes and other edged tools. Iron from northern Europe was indispensable for this transformation. African ironmaking yielded a high-quality product but West African smelters were small-batch producers; they were not able to respond to surges in demand. North Europeans, making voyage iron at high-throughput, water-powered forges, were.

Our conclusion – that voyage iron was eagerly taken up in coastal West Africa – poses a further question. How did voyage iron interact with iron forged in Africa? Iron, as archaeometallurgists well know, is never just iron. African iron was typically a carbon-tinged material of steely hardness. Voyage iron was carbon-free and malleable. One hard, one soft: they were not substitutes. The arrival of voyage iron did not, therefore, drive African producers to the wall. Indeed, the smelting of iron in West Africa seems to have grown, even as voyage iron arrived in greater and greater volumes. North European iron did not replace its West African counterpart; it complemented it. We are wandering here in a statistical desert but the per capita consumption of iron in seventeenth and eighteenth-century West Africa must surely have jagged upwards. But with what result? Did it, perhaps, stimulate a growth of West African manufacturing? Did the presence of voyage iron promote technological hybridity, bringing together European materials and African technique? And if there were such developments, how did they fare amidst the violence and social dislocation brought on by the transatlantic slave trade?

These are our next questions. Hopefully, they are now the right ones to ask.

Imagining Revolutions II

By Josh Allen - June 3, 2018 (0 comments)

from Prof. Peter Jones (University of Birmingham)

We are delighted to let you know that the programme of A Date with History – the second edition of our annual Franco-British collaboration with the York Festival of Ideas – is now available!

Over the 9th and 10th June, this second edition Imagining Revolutions will bring together top historians including Peter Mandler of the University of Cambridge, Laura Lee Downs of the European University Institute, Florence Tamagne of the University of Lille, Helen Rogers of Liverpool John Moores University, Mike Savage of the London School of Economics (LSE) and David Andress of the University of Portsmouth!

Reproduced with the permission of the event organisers, all rights reserved 2018

Over the weekend, leading historians from France and the UK will discuss how national narratives are written, from revolutions and empires, to the industrial revolutions in France and Britain during the following panel discussions:

–          Were the 1960s a Revolution? (Sat 9 June, 12.30pm – 2pm)
–          Revolutions and Empires (Sat 9 June, 2.30 – 4pm)
–          Gender Revolutions (Sat 9 June, 4.30 – 6pm)
–          Industrial Revolutions and Social Welfare in France and Britain (Sun 10 June, 11am – 12.30pm)
–          Revolutions in History Writing (Sun 10 June, 1.30pm – 3pm)
–          A Revolution in Universities (Sun 10 June, 3.30pm – 5pm)

We are looking forward to welcoming you!

We would be grateful if you could spread the word around you.

For further information and bookings see here.

Inequality needs to be put at the heart of our understanding of social change during the industrial revolution

By Josh Allen - May 14, 2018 (0 comments)

by Prof. Emma Griffin (University of East Anglia)

For the past decade, I have been looking at the impact of the British industrial revolution on the lives of ordinary men, women and children, drawing upon life-writing and autobiography and focusing on the lived experience. My reading of the autobiographical evidence suggested that adult men working in industrial occupations earned higher wages and enjoyed a raft of advantages compared with those who remained on the land, and although I emphasised these gains were not shared by women and children, the suggestion that industrialisation brought any meaningful benefits to any segment of the working classes, nonetheless proved to be controversial.

A collection of extraordinary working-class household budgets collected between 1790 and 1850, offered the promise of studying the living standards of the early industrial workforce in a more quantitative way than was possible with the working-class autobiographies. The budgets were recorded by gentlemen investigators – vicars, landowners, and other members of elite society with an interest in the lives their poorer neighbours. The investigators collected information about income and expenditure in selected households in their parishes, making it possible to compare the incomes and diets of those who lived in the industrial heartlands with those who lived in more traditional, rural communities as yet unaffected by the industrial revolution.

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I analysed and compared the diets consumed by the different social groups, the difference between the communities was stark. Family incomes were significantly higher in the industrial districts, which enabled the families to enjoy diets that contained more meat, more dairy produce, and more imported items, such as tea, coffee and sugar. In the rural areas, by contrast, male wages and family incomes were much lower – less than half the level earned in industrial areas. As a result, these families consumed a far more limited diet, composed largely of bread, with very small quantities of bacon and diary, and very little else. My analysis appeared to show that the early industrial areas, so often depicted as places of extreme poverty and deprivation, in fact offered workers higher wages and the opportunity to consume a better diet.

When I began presenting elements of this work in academic seminars and conferences, however, I received a mixed, and often very critical, reception – particularly from economic historians, among whom the belief that the industrial revolution did not improve living standards is very widely held. As these critics were likely to be the gatekeepers to the world of academic publishing, I realised that I would have to rethink the evidence and get to the root why my results from the budget data were at odds with so much recent writing about living standards during the industrial revolution.

I decided to explore whether the large collection of autobiographies which I had previously worked with (and could readily access) could be used to shore up my findings. Of course, autobiographers did not provide comparable information about family incomes and food expenditure, but they did frequently write about the experience of hunger, and so offered the possibility of thinking about access to food from a different perspective. I resolved to work through all of the autobiographies – around 350 in all – for references to hunger, and analyse the context and causes of every instance.

But the endeavour threw up a number of surprises, and did not support my initial findings in the straightforward way I had hoped for. The evidence for the families living in agricultural communities was the easiest to interpret. Here, as we might expect given the evidence from the food budgets, hunger was endemic and widespread. Around 40 percent of all the autobiographical writers recalled a specific moment in their life when they had lacked food to the point of going hungry. The experience was most common in childhood, but it did occur in adulthood as well. In almost every case, it was caused by low family incomes: when individuals went hungry it was because their household lacked the money to purchase adequate rations for all.

In the industrial context, however, the evidence was far more ambiguous. The overall rate of hunger was lower, just as the family budget data would indicate. But with hunger being mentioned by 20 percent of the industrial writers, it was still far from eliminated. Most surprising of all, however, was the cause of these writers’ hunger, as their lack of food did not appear to be directly related to their family income. In most instances, the father in fact earned a relatively good wage. The problem was that their families did not see very much of that money, as it was spent before it ever reached his wife for housekeeping. Such behaviour by male breadwinners was virtually unknown in rural areas, but affected a significant minority of families in the industrial regions, and explained almost every instance of hunger in the examples I surveyed. Had male wage earners shared their earnings as consistently and reliably as the agricultural workers did, hunger would have been eliminated. Instead, it remained a significant social problem, affecting one in five of all families.

I had never imagined that the story told by two different sets of data – food budgets and autobiographies – could be so divergent. Yet they were, and the significance of this goes beyond the standard of living debate.

Economic historians, who objected to my initial results because they failed to conform to those from other recent quantitative studies, had prompted me reanalyse the data. The new results were certainly closer to what they might have expected, but the process threw up some deeply worrying implications for the methods of economic historians. The budget data is presented as numbers in tables, and as a conscientious quantitative researcher, I had carefully entered all those numbers into my computer programme. Yet the procedure had led me to error – to exaggerate the quality of the diets eaten in industrial areas. What had gone wrong?

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The budget data might be presented numerically, but it was still loaded with the social and cultural assumptions of the men who collected it; and when I entered their data into my database, I entered all their assumptions too. The investigators had always assumed that men handed all their wages over to their wives for housekeeping money and that the contents of the family’s weekly food basket was therefore determined by the sum of his earnings. The autobiographies could not be quantified in the same way as the budget data, but they did shed light on how families really behaved, and indicated that this process of transfer from male breadwinner to female housewife was much more complex and uncertain than the investigators ever reported. Economic history might aspire to rigorous quantitative analyses, but the use of numbers does not void the problems surrounding the need to understand the messy social and cultural context within which the historical record was created.

The research also forced me to reconsider the complex relationship between rising wealth and individual outcomes. I have long believed that industrialisation led to more wealth entering the hands and households of working people, and the evidence suggests that it did. But comparing the different sources also suggests that a more nuanced reading of this process is necessary. The nation’s rising wealth made some workers richer, but it also created new forms of inequality. Historians are accustomed to looking for inequality between different classes, but my evidence suggests another place we need to look: higher wages triggered greater inequality within families as well. Economic growth and wealth creation was not a simple, unambiguous good. Families and individuals gained in highly uneven ways and inequality needs to be put at the heart of our understanding of social change during the industrial revolution.

A Ghost Army of Ancestors

By Josh Allen - April 27, 2018 (0 comments)

by Dr. Song-Chuan Chen (University of Warwick)

Located in Taipei, the voluminous records on tomb protections in the Academia Sinica archives, piqued my curiosity. It was 2009, and I was leafing through a collection of Qing dynasty foreign office documents when my attention was arrested by accounts of Chinese villagers ardently protecting ancestral tombs against Western encroachment during the closing decades of China’s last dynasty.

The villagers’ tears and protests against tomb destruction conjured personal memories of growing up on a remote outer island of Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s where an old evolving tradition of ancestor worship escaped the disruption of modernity. In those days, my mother faithfully prepared annual rituals of ancestor worship during important festivals, and my father careful maintained his father’s tomb, to which he has a deep attachment. To him, the tomb provided a physical connection to his father, whose remains lay just beneath the earth. Because my father and brother believed that my career was not going anywhere (in fact I have been not a day without employment even before graduation), they sought to improve my fortunes in 2011 by trimming the overgrown Acacia trees surrounding the burial site. In their minds, the tomb’s feng shui holds a particular significance to my life. At the same time and entirely by coincidence, I was in Bristol writing the paper “The Power of Ancestors” and thinking more about obtaining a permanent teaching position. Even though my family and I are half a world apart, the completion of my PhD deepened their belief in feng shui. I allow them—and myself half-heartedly—to maintain this belief system that I have known my whole life merely by growing up in that world.

This map by an unknown Chinese artist of the nineteenth century depicts the 1874 incident in which Chinese protesters were gunned down by French policemen. (Picture source, Collectif, Le Paris de l’Orient : Présence française à Shanghai 1849-1946, Musée Albert Kahn, 2002, 44

The title “The Power of Ancestor” had different origins altogether. When I finished reading the thousand pages of archival materials that I had gathered, an image came into mind that encapsulated how I imagined villagers across China fighting against foreign encroachment to protect ancestral tombs during the second half of the nineteenth century: The Army of the Dead in the movie The Lord of the Rings. These ghosts of the White Mountains, cursed to dwell in the cold and darkness, were summoned by Aragorn, the Heir of Isildur, using a sword re-forged by elves that allowed him to command this soulless army. Swiftly levelling battlefield enemies to lift the siege of Minas Tirith, the ghost army was vital to Aragorn’s victory. No sooner was the battle won than he released them from their curse. The story helped me visualise how tombs, ancestor worship, and the concept of feng shui played a role in China’s foreign relations. The deceased Chinese, while nowhere near as powerful as the ghost army of the White Mountains, succeeded in assisting the Qing patriots in expelling Westerners from tomb land.

The more I have researched this history, over seven years on and off, the more I have realised how the Qing’s bureaucratic officials, who were the most talented men of the Qing empire, played a key role in limiting the power of the ancestors. They were no Aragorns. Their weapons were not swords but brush and ink. Rather than summoning the power of the ancestors as a weapon, they negotiated peaceful interactions between the village believers and the foreign community—and thus dissipated the latent force that stemmed from the belief system.

The power of ancestors has subsequently been subjected to modernity’s onslaught in the twentieth century. Yet, the ghosts of the ancestors live on. Even though tombs in China under the communist regime have experienced greater destruction than ever before, the religious system is alive and well—and edging its way into urban space and modernity in unimaginable ways of reinvention. It was not what it was, but it is as it has always been.