news and updates on the Past & Present Blog


Watch: "The donkey and the boat: rethinking Mediterranean economic expansion in the eleventh century"

By Josh Allen - May 22, 2017 (0 comments)

by the Past & Present editorial team

Past & Present’s Chair Chris Wickham, emeritus Oxford Chichele Professor of Medieval History, delivered the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures Annual Lecture earlier this year. The University of Birmingham is where Chris researched and taught for much of his career and a video was produced of the lecture:

Social media highlights from the event have been collated by Past & Present here.

Refugees in Syria, Syrian Refugees: Then and Now

By Josh Allen - May 16, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Benjamin Thomas White, University of Glasgow

This post originally appeared on the Refuge History blog and is reposted here with permission 

Six years ago, popular demonstrations began against the Assad regime in Syria. Their brutal repression by the regime plunged the country into civil war, and since then Syria has become the world’s largest producer of refugees—almost five million at the latest count. But for most of its modern history, Syria didn’t produce refugees: it hosted them, in large numbers. There has barely been a decade in the last hundred and fifty years without a significant flow of refugees into what is now Syria, from the Balkan Muslim refugees of the late nineteenth century to the Iraqis who crowded into Damascus after the 2003 US invasion.

In a recently published article, I explore what this meant for the country in the 1920s and 30s: the period when the modern state of Syria emerged, nominally independent but dominated by France under a mandate from the League of Nations. In these years, the arrival and settlement of refugees helped to define modern Syria: its territory, its responsibilities as a state, and its national identity.

Assyrian refugees at Tell-Tamar and the Khabour River, July 21. Something of the twenty-seven villages built here by the League of Nations. The women still spin wool yarn and knit socks, etc. of it. LC-DIG-ppmsca-17416-00122 (digital file from original on page 65, no. 2093), Library of Congress

The area that became ‘Syria’ had been part of the Ottoman empire for four hundred years. After 1918, the division of Ottoman territory was contested between rival empires and nationalist movements. On maps, borders were agreed, disputed, and agreed again in diplomatic meetings. But it was the displacement of populations between the emerging states and mandates that drew those borders on the ground. As the priest, aviator, archaeologist, and French intelligence agent, Antoine Poidebard put it in 1928,

“The regroupment of the populations of Upper Mesopotamia (Upper Jazira and North Iraq) that is in course will necessarily be to the profit of the territory most quickly delimited and reorganized… [But] this settlement of Kurdish and Christian refugees requires the rapid solution of the delimitation of frontiers with Iraq and Turkey, the indispensable condition for the installation of a good administration closely controlled by the Mandatory Power”

In the post-Ottoman Arab provinces, the movement of refugees between different zones led national and mandatory authorities to establish firmer control across the territories that they claimed, and define their borders through topographical surveying, the building of border posts, and other means. State authorities needed to be present to monitor refugees, count their flocks, decide whether they were to be taxed, or disarm them and move them away from the border.

But it wasn’t just at the border that refugees helped define the national territory. Longer-term settlements helped establish the authority of the new state, with its capital in Damascus, right across Syria. In Aleppo, the mandatory state helped transform informal refugee camps created by Armenian genocide survivors into planned suburbs with modern amenities. In the countryside, it established agricultural colonies to settle refugees permanently—and, at the same time, develop Syria’s agricultural economy in ways that changed the relationship between state and territory.

The most extensive rural resettlement plan in interwar Syria was for Assyrian refugees from Iraq, several thousand of whom entered the country after 1933. An initial plan to settle them in western Syria’s Ghab plain failed. The Ghab was densely populated and farmed, so land was expensive, and settling refugees there was a political risk;  the city of Hama, where Syrian Arab nationalism was strong, was also nearby. Deciding on a cheaper and politically safer option, the French built villages for the refugees by the Khabur river in the remote northeast—thereby making the region more firmly a part of Syria, through surveying and registration of land for tax purposes, agricultural development, and the provision of healthcare and policing for the refugees.

This helps explain why the arrival and settlement of refugees became politically explosive. The French ruled Syria, and decided to accept and settle refugees to benefit their own imperial interests: to create buffer zones with neighbouring states, for example, or to channel economic development in Syria to populations they trusted. The League of Nations participated in these plans. But under the terms of the League mandate, Syria was nominally independent, and the French were meant to be preparing it for self-government. Syrian Arab nationalists fiercely resented the infringement of Syria’s independence, and refugees became an important symbol of that—especially because while Syrians had no control over the arrival refugees, the French often paid for their resettlement with money from the Syrian state budget. The refugee settlements of the Khabur had better healthcare than most Syrian villages. In response, nationalists argued that they should govern Syria, and decide whether refugees should be allowed to enter.

In making these arguments, nationalists were circulating their own idea of the Syrian national territory. The newspaper al-Yawm warned in 1931 that ‘a thick line of towns and villages stretching along the northern Syrian borders’ had been transformed into an Armenian national home. By naming these remote places—‘Ayn Diwar, Dayrik, Damirqali, and over a dozen more—it claimed them as part of a Syrian national territory centred on Damascus. Similarly, by questioning refugees’ right to Syrian nationality (which Armenians had been granted under the new state’s 1924 nationality law, instituted by the French), nationalists were trying to propose their own definition of Syria’s national identity. Like almost everyone else in Syria, the refugees had been Ottomans until a few years earlier: if it wasn’t self-evident that they should be included in a definition of the Syrian nation, it wasn’t self-evident that they should be excluded either.

Assyrian refugees at Tell-Tamar and the Khabour River, July 21. Something of the twenty-seven villages built here by the League of Nations. Steel irrigating-wheel erected by the League of Nations. LC-DIG-ppmsca-17416-00125 (digital file from original on page 66, no. 2095), Library of Congress

By the time Syria became independent in 1946, its national territory was increasingly well defined, and there was no longer any threat that a part of it would become an ‘Armenian national home’. At that point, refugees could buttress national identity in a less exclusive way. The nationalist intellectual Muhammad Kurd Ali had once been hostile to Armenian refugees, but in his memoirs, published in the 1940s, he spoke warmly of them—and, particularly, of the ‘nobility of the soul and protection of the stranger’ that they had encountered in Syria. Armenians retained their Syrian nationality at independence, and the story of their welcome continued to form a self-flattering part of Syrian Arab nationalist stories about the nation.

This is not an exceptional history. Throughout Europe and the Middle East in the years after the First World War and the collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires, new nation-states were defining themselves around and against refugees. The same happened around the world a few decades later as the colonial empires vanished.

Researching and writing the article as Syria descended into civil war, what struck me most about this history was its contemporary resonance with events in Europe as well as the Middle East.

As Syrian and other refugees have tried to enter Europe in the last few years, the borders around the EU and between its member states have been drawn more sharply. The question of who decides to let refugees into a country remains as controversial as ever, and parties like UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France, or Fidesz in Hungary, argue that only ‘taking back control’ of national borders from the EU can stem the flow. The provision of state services to refugees and asylum-seekers raises the same questions about states’ responsibilities to their own populations. In Britain, politicians hostile to refugees in the present continue to tell self-flattering stories about how we have welcomed refugees in the past. Nation-states still define themselves around and against refugees.

Many thanks to the excellent Refuge History network for allowing us to repost this blog

A Map for Imperialism? Henry VIII’s Conquest of France and the Emergence of the English Empire

By Josh Allen - May 12, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Neil Murphy, Northumbria University

In my article “Violence, Colonization and Henry VIII’s conquest of France, 1544-46” (open access), published in the November 2016 issue (233) of Past & Present, I examined the character of English warfare in France in the 1540s. Whereas many historians see the harsh military strategy the English used in sixteenth-century Ireland as being unique (even in European terms), this article sought to show that Henry VIII’s armies pursued a policy of mass violence in France which was designed to inflict the maximum amount of damage on the native population of the Boulonnais, which was the region the Tudor monarch targeted for conquest. While historians have explained the apparently distinctive use of severe military methods in Ireland by drawing on the traditional narrative of the emergence of English (later British) Empire, which is widely believed to have started with the establishment of colonies in the midlands of Ireland during the mid-sixteenth century, it became clear while researching this article that many of the hallmarks of imperial rule had already been implemented in northern France in the 1540s.

The research I began while working on the Past & Present article raised a number of important themes, which I am fully exploring in a forthcoming book on the colonization of the Boulonnais. Following the region’s depopulation by means of a policy of mass violence, the territory was surveyed and the lands leased out to English settlers. While maps are typically seen to have emerged as a tool of English territorial expansion in Ireland and America in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they played already a crucial role in English expansion in France in the 1540s. Plans of colonial towns were devised according a model which was still being used during the British settlement of Florida in the eighteenth century, while the numerous scale drawings made of the Boulonnais can be considered as the very first English frontier maps. Like the maps produced during the conquest of Ireland later in the sixteenth century, those made for the Boulonnais depicted a land that was abundant in natural resources but had been depopulated through violence – and was thus ready to be settled by the English.

“The Boulonnais” By Bourrichon – fr:Bourrichon) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By highlighting the destruction of French villages and the construction of English forts and settlements, these maps intersected with Henry VIII’s claim to hold this land by right of conquest, which was particularly suited to the English monarch’s focus on territorial imperialism. Rather than seek to rule the Boulonnais and its population as the rightful king of France (the strategy used during his previous campaigns in France), Henry VIII annexed the lands he conquered in the mid-1540s to his English crown. By setting aside a claim founded on a right to rule the French people and asserting instead one that was focused on territory won by force, Henry could remove any obligations he had to the native population and thus distribute their lands as he saw fit. The Tudor monarch and his ministers then implemented their ideas about cultivation and the proper use of land during the re-settlement of the Boulonnais, particularly by introducing English arable farmers as a way to bring these territories more firmly under royal control. While historians have tended to see the drive to create self-sufficient colonial settlements to be a product of English expansion in sixteenth-century Ireland (from where it was introduced into the New World), this concern was already of paramount importance during the settlement of the Boulonnais. English settlers were given farms in the Boulonnais, while skilled workers were encouraged to take up residence in the towns and villages founded in the region.

Although Henry VIII wanted to develop an exclusively ethnically English colony in the Boulonnais, economic necessity and a need to farm all the lands he had conquered meant that it became necessary to reintroduce French peasants to the land to act as a labour force. Yet they were given the least desirable land and charged higher rents than the English settlers, while series of ethnic precepts were introduced to anglicise the region, including regulations regarding the baptism and naming of French children. As well as living under English laws and customs, these French peasants were made subject to the Church of England and all the religious reforms introduced under Henry VIII and especially Edward VI. Indeed, Boulogne was England’s first protestant colony. Decades before the settlement of America, the Church of England played a central role in the imposition of English colonial rule in France in the 1540s, particularly because it provided a good way to anglicise these lands and strengthen royal authority.

The English monarch governed these lands through a series of regional councils staffed by men from loyal families who had experience of service on the frontiers of the realm. Membership of the councils of Boulogne and New Haven also provided a new generation of men with their formative experiences of frontier warfare and of the methods used to anglicise conquered lands. Many of these people went on to play leading roles in English expansion in Ireland, where they implemented the methods of warfare and government they had first used at Boulogne. Moreover, Boulogne housed the largest garrison in the English king’s dominions during the mid-sixteenth century, with the soldiers being given lands to farm in the surrounding region. While Boulogne lay at the forefront of the re-emergence of the garrison strategy which became key to English expansion in the mid-sixteenth century, it has largely been omitted from studies of the mid-Tudor monarchy’s conquests. Yet the garrison settlement introduced into Scotland following the model established at Boulogne and – as in Ireland – it was devised and implemented by the same people.

Calais harbour today, By Rurik (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Overall, the Past & Present article and the wider project which has developed from it seeks to highlight the connections which existed between English expansion in France, Ireland and Scotland in the mid-sixteenth century. While the loss of the England’s continental possessions of often seen as moving England away from feudal conflicts in France to take up the mantle of developing an Atlantic empire, major developments in conquest and imperial expansion took place in France during the reign of Henry VIII, which interacted with and impacted on Tudor actions in other theatres of conflict. This project firmly situates the Boulogne colony within the wider context of medieval English expansion. For R. R. Davies, the ‘First English Empire’ was focused on the British Isles, c.1100 to c.1300. This project builds on Davies’ arguments by considering how far the growth of English rule in France under Edward III and Henry V (especially the establishment of English settlements in Calais and Normandy) provided a bridge between Edward I’s colonial actions in Wales in the late thirteenth century and Henry VIII’s conquest of Boulogne. Although overlooked by historians, Henry VIII’s actions at Boulogne link the medieval and modern manifestations of Empire. Overall, this project shows that R. R. Davies’ medieval Empire turned into the modern English (later British) Empire via colonial actions in France, which were followed by those in Ireland and then America.

Everyday Empries: Trans-Imperial Circulations in a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective – Origins, Inspirations, Ways Forward

By Josh Allen - May 5, 2017 (0 comments)

By Dr. Nathan Cardon and Dr. Simon Jackson, University of Birmingham

The genesis for Everyday Empires can be found, as is often case, in the quotidian interstices of academic life – in its linoleum-floored, poster-bedraggled corridors, as much as in the formal arenas of conference panel, seminar room or library carrel. As historians of French colonial empire, and U.S. empire respectively, we were co-teaching an MA course in Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham. Working through a syllabus that juxtaposed the work of Susan Pedersen and Joel Dinerstein with that of April Merleaux or Keith Watenpaugh, we lingered after class sessions, digesting our students’ comments and trying to parse the overlaps, gaps and tensions between the fields in play. It was clear that we were both interested in the ways empires elaborated their hierarchical “rule of difference” and in how that imperial rule was experienced on the ground level through everyday things – such as racing bicycles, or the spare parts for Fordson tractors – and through the global circuits (ideological, commodity, and military) that supported them. At the same time, it was also clear that while we were concerned with “trans-imperial” perspectives our work was very much rooted in the historiographical and archival legacies of our fields.1 If we found that our historical protagonists thought and moved globally, and that they skilfully exploited the in-between spaces of empires that wielded immense power but were never able to saturate their subjects’ lives, should not our own intellectual and historiographical frameworks function in a similar manner?

Everyday Empires aims to foster a greater dialogue and intellectual engagement between historians of Ottoman, U.S., French, Habsburg, Qing, German, British, and Spanish empires. It seeks to extend Ann Laura Stoler’s observation of empire in North America to the globe: that the study of empire must not begin with a “color-coded school map with fixed, clearly bounded units, but with a notion of empire that puts movement and oscillation at the center: to see them instead as states of becoming (and, for those ruled, as states of deferral), as polities with protean rather than fixed taxonomies and mobile populations whose designated borders at any one time were not necessarily the force field in which they operated or even their sovereign limits.”2 Imperial structures and empires did not, we know, exist in isolation. Empires shared ideas, leaked and imitated practices, and competed with one other. Their administrators crossed borders seeking solutions and answers to local problems. Colonial subjects looked and travelled abroad, including to the grand stages of international institutions or the cathedrals of industrial modernity, seeking answers, publicity, and methods to contest imperial control.3 And yet historians so often remain rooted in the methodologies, historiographies, and archives that we were trained in and know so well. If we are to write trans-imperial histories, we must begin to locate our intellectual frameworks within the in-between spaces of imperial historiographies and imaginations.

Where, then, is the everyday of empire in a world determined by movement and circulation rather than “fixed taxonomies”? What happens to our understanding of empire when we look at the liminal spaces or staging posts that separate, or gradate, metropole and colony? What happens when home and abroad, the domestic and foreign are not exclusive but shifting and mutually constitutive?4 These histories call for a multi-sited approach that localizes global history and makes clear how the everyday practices and agency of both the colonizer and colonized were produced and transformed through trans-imperial connections.5 To do so, Everyday Empires places emphasis on a variety of frameworks, from new materialist approaches in Science and Technology Studies to the storied traditions of Alltagsgeschichte.6 Each panel is organized around a theme that brings together junior and senior scholars working within a discrete imperial framework. By combining and mixing we hope to foster a dialogue on the in-between spaces of empire, to ask scholars to interrogate empire as a process emergent through the everyday, ontologically negotiated material practices of its citizens and subjects: from children’s play to postcards; from military work to coffeehouses; from British sitcoms to steamships.

Image from the American Colony in Jerusalem Collection, Library of Congress

Cross-posted from Everyday Empires

Past & Present is pleased to be supporting the Everyday Empires Conference which will be taking place from 25th-26th May 2017 at the University of Birmingham. Before and after the conference Everyday Empires will be publishing a series of blog posts reflecting upon the themes and issues raised by the conference, Past & Present will be cross-posting them here.   


1The “trans-imperial” is itself a protean concept still to be fully defined. Beyond this conference see the recently held “Harmsworth Conference on Transimperial US History” at Oxford University, May 27-28, 2016 ( and “In-Between Empires: Trans-imperial History in a Global Age” to be held at the Freie Universtät Berlin, Sept. 15-16, 2017 ( See also Paul Kramer, “Trans-Imperial Histories: Spanish Roots of the American Colonial State in the Philippines” in Maria Elizalde, ed., Filipinas: Un País Entre Dos Imperios (Barcelona, 2011) and E. Natalie Rothman, Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul (Cornell, 2012).

2Ann Laura Stoler, “Intimidations of Empire: Predicament of the Tactile and Unseen” in Stoler, ed., Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History (Durham, 2006), 9-10.

3Nile Green, “Fordist Connections: The Automotive Integration of the United States and Iran”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 58, 2 (2016), 1-32.

4See for example Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill, 2000); Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge, MA, 2002); Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose, eds. At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge, 2006); and Kristin Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill, 2007).

5Paul Kramer, “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World” The American Historical Review (December 2011), 1365.

6See for example Wiebe E. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnological Change (Cambridge, MA, 1995); David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity (Chicago, 2013); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, 1984); Alf Lüdtke, “Introduction: What is the History of Everyday Life and Who Are its Practitioners” in Lüdtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life, trans. William Templer (Princeton, 1995); and Paul Steege, Andrew Stuart Bergerson, Maureen Healy and Pamela E. Swett, “The History of Everyday Life: A Second Chapter” The Journal of Modern History 80:2 (June 2008).

The Making of "Four Fishermen, Orson Welles, and the Making of the Brazilian Northeast"

By Josh Allen - April 19, 2017 (0 comments)

By Dr. Courtney Campbell, University of Birmingham

I write this blog post five years to the day from arriving in Fortaleza, Brazil to carry out research. The research from that trip would lead to my article Four Fishermen, Orson Welles, and the Making of the Brazilian Northeast about fishermen who protested their labour conditions by travelling sixty-one days by sail-raft from the city of Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro and the movie that Orson Welles attempted to make about them (published in Past and Present’s February 2017 issue). I was in the Northeast in 2012 to carry out research on regionalism in the Brazilian Northeast, with a particular interest in how discourse about the region formed during international events. I had lived in Recife, the capital city of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, from 2003 to 2008. My personal connection with Recife melded with the already Recife-centric regionalist movement, making it all too comfortable to repeat the same narrative that assumed that Recife represented the entire region. I aimed, with my trip to Fortaleza (as well as to Natal, João Pessoa, São Luiz, and Salvador), to find stories of northeastern regional identity on the margins of an already marginalised region.

Vista aerea de Fortaleza, 1936
Aerial View of Fortaleza in 1936, By desconhecida (desconhecida) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I arrived in Fortaleza on an extremely limited budget and without a clear plan. Experience had taught me that the best way to carry out research in the Brazilian Northeast was to get there, get in touch with other historians in the area, and be flexible with where the stories and sources might lead you. I found a very humble room to rent in a boarding house (of sorts) and reached out to my only contact in the city: Tácito Rolim, now Assistant Professor at the State University of Ceará in Quixadá. In Recife, I had met with Grazielle Rodrigues, an engaging and generous historian with the government of the island of Fernando de Noronha, who put me in touch with Tácito. Tácito became a friend and my greatest ally in the search for sources and stories, accompanying me from archive to archive, sharing hints and suggestions, and inviting me to Quixadá to give a talk.

Brazil Region Nordeste
Location of Brazil’s Northeastern region, By Raphael Lorenzeto de Abreu (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

I had already heard the story of Orson Welles arriving in Fortaleza to make a movie, but I hadn’t considered it as one of the stories of region formation until Tácito suggested it to me. He mentioned a beautifully written book by another Fortaleza historian, Berenice Abreu titled Jangadeiros: uma corajosa jornada em busca de direitos no Estado Novo, which, coincidentally, had just come out that year. I became hooked on the story of the four fishermen from just down the road from where I was staying that had captured not only national, but international attention in 1941. I spent most of my time in Fortaleza hunting newspaper articles at the Menezes Pimentel Public State Library and the Institute of Ceará; art at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Dragão do Mar Center for Art and Culture  and for cordel pamphlets (a type of popular poetry) at the Image and Sound Museum and the Museum of Art of the Federal University of Ceará. In addition, I went in search of the signing book that the fishermen had taken from port to port, which I heard belonged to the Museum of Ceará. When I arrived at the museum and requested to see this signing book, they presented me not with the original archival material, but with a hard cover for-sale volume that Abreu had published, including scanned images of the original journal and easier-to-read transcriptions. The book proved invaluable for showing how ideas about the region circulated not only among intellectuals, but among people of all ages and professions, men, women, and children, who greeted the hero fisherman at nearly every port along their journey. Finally, I arrived at an archive I would never have found without the help of Tácito (and a pair of motorcycle taxis): a personal collection held in the home of Miguel Ângelo ‘Nirez’ de Azevedo, locally referred to as the Nirez Archive. With the support of the oil-company Petrobras, Nirez had digitised his collection of record albums containing tens of thousands of songs into a searchable database of mp3s. These are the songs that I used in the article to show the resonance of the fisherman as northeastern archetype. I continued to search for sources referring to the fishermen in archives in other states, like the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, where I found the liquor label highlighted in the article.

Brazil map en 2004
Location of the cities within Brazil, By CIA (CIA, The World Factbook, 2004.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recent conversations at historical conferences, research talks and in other professional settings; hint that political historians are (again) envisioning cultural history as standing in direct and defiant response to more traditional archival histories. I would argue, instead, that historians attempting to write the history of marginalised peoples in less funded archives have little to no interest in this debate. When outlining my research, I don’t consider which of my sources will most annoy a political historian (although I’m also not opposed to this approach); in fact, in Fortaleza, I was not thinking much about any other historians, beyond those who were kind enough to help me in my research.

Meanwhile, to the historian trained to research in well-organised, well-funded European or North American archives, the somewhat spontaneous, somewhat anthropological way of pulling together a research project outlined above might seem haphazard. Those of us attempting to construct histories of less studied areas with less funded archives, in turn, frequently hear the warning: ‘It’s just not possible. You won’t find enough sources’. In this way, I believe that the approach to cultural historical research outlined above is often the only way to carry out a social history. Picking a specific event, talking it through with historians, archivists, and journalists on the ground, seeking out less traditional archives and noting every possible source that hints at the research topic—from governmental records to popular poetry pamphlets, from recorded music to liquor labels—is a survival method. We do not (necessarily) use an ongoing historical debate as our starting point. We are not first and foremost responding to a historiographical discussion. Instead, these are the scrambles of historians attempting to pull together sources on the underrepresented before the sources disappear. Our struggles with sources reflect not only that the marginalised often produced less textual sources (this is the easy argument), but that we are still struggling to incorporate the everyday and the underrepresented in the archive and that few historians dedicate their time to reversing this persistent loss of historical record (with the notable exception of projects like those funded by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme like Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies).

This approach to research requires not only time, funding, language skills, and flexibility, but also the ability to talk and relate with people in the language spoken on the ground. It presents the challenges of travel, unexpected archive closings, tight funding, precious time, and varied source organisation. Surprisingly, while it is a ‘survival method’, it has also proved to be one that is viable, leading to rich, deeply researched studies. In the case of my article, figuring out the topic and source base on the ground allowed for a focus on the many strands of discourse on regional identity in the Brazilian Northeast, in which I teased out what one group said and didn’t say in comparison to another: a social history, created through the methods of cultural history.

Praia de Iracema - Fortaleza-CE (8432880377)
Fortaleza beach front as it is today, By Joao Carlos Medau from Campinas, Brazil (Praia de Iracema – Fortaleza/CE) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons