Awards and Prizes 2018

Assoc. Prof. Frances Clarke and her collaborator Assoc Prof. Rebecca Jo Plant (University of California, San Diego) received the Carol Gold Prize for the best article published in a peer-reviewed journal in 2018 by an academic at mid-career or above level, given out by the American Historical Association’s Coordinating Council of Women Historians.
Many congratulations to Senior Lecturer Thomas Adams, who will be spending November 2018-July 2019 as a fellow at the International Research Center for Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History at Humboldt University, Berlin.
Many congratulations to Miranda Johnson, whose book This Land is Our History, was shortlisted for the W.K. Hancock Prize, given out by the Australian Historical Association. The biennial W.K. Hancock Prize recognises and encourages an Australian scholar who has recently published a first scholarly book in any field of history. The W.K. Hancock Prize was instituted in 1987 by the Australian Historical Association, to honour the contribution to the study and writing of history in Australia by Sir Keith Hancock. Since his death in 1988, it has served to commemorate his life and achievements.
Many congratulations to Dr. Sarah Claire Dunstan on her two year postdoctoral Fellowship with the Leverhulme Trust. She will be working at the University of Sussex in the UK.
In May, Sydney University History Department Alumna Dr. Lizzie Ingleson has won one of ten early career researchers Travelling Fellowships for 2018, awarded by the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
Many congratulations to current PhD student, Darren Smith, for winning the prestigious Hakluyt Society Essay Prize competition, for his essay: ‘Ex Typographia Savariana: Franco-Ottoman relations and the first oriental printing press in Paris’.
The Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney is pleased to note the following good news: Beatrice Wayne, postdoctoral fellow in the Laureate program, has won a three year lectureship at Harvard in the Literature and History program; Marigold Black, recent History PhD, and JRF in the Laureate Research Program in International History, has won a three-year research fellowship at ANU working with the Australian Defence Forces on Strategic Issues; and Glenda Sluga was a successful co-applicant in a European Research Council funded project with Stockholm Royal Institute of Technology on the Rise of Global Environmental Governance.
History at the University of Sydney was recently ranked 26th in the world (and 2nd in Australia after ANU) by the QS World University Rankings by subject, sharing a 5 star rating with the top twenty history departments.
Congratulations to recent PhD student Sarah Bendall who was awarded a Bodleian Library Visiting Research Fellowship at Oxford University. as well as a Folger Shakespeare Library Fellowship.
Many congrats to recent Sydney University History Department PhD recipient Liz Ingleson on earning a prestigious and highly competitive two-year postdoc fellowship at Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History. Many congrats and warm wishes for the coming year or two.
Congratulations to Ben Silverstein, winner of the History Australia and Taylor & Francis best article for 2017. You can read Ben’s article online now: ‘Possibly they did not know themselves’: the ambivalent government of sex and work in the Northern Territory Aboriginals Ordinance 1918

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Recent Postgraduate Completions

Dear Colleagues
Please join me in congratulating the following Department of History postgraduates who have all had their Phd and MA theses passed in 2018. This is a wonderful achievement.
Sarah A. Bendall, ”Bodies of Whalebone, Wood, Metal, and Cloth: Shaping Femininity in England, 1560-1690′ (PhD)
Michaela Cameron, Stealing the Turtle’s Voice: A Dual History of Western and Algonquian-Iroquoian Soundways from Creation to Re-creation (PhD)
Sarah Dunstan, ‘A Tale of Two Republics: Race, Rights, and Revolution, 1919-1963’ (PhD)
Rollo Hesketh, ‘In Search of a National Idea’: Australian Intellectuals and the ‘Cultural Cringe’ 1940-1972 (PhD)

Rosemary Hordern Collerson
, ‘The Penitential Psalms as a Focus Foint for Lay Piety in Late Medieval England’ (MA)
Kim Kemmis, ‘Marie Collier: A life’ (PhD)
Georgia Lawrence-Doyle, ‘Unmasking Italy’s Past: Filming Modern Italy through la commedia all’italiana,’ (PhD)
Tiger Zhifu Li, ‘Dancing with the Dragon: Australia’s Diplomatic Relations with China (1901-1949)’ (MA)

Qingjun Liu
, ‘Reinterpreting the Sino-Japanese War: The Jin-Sui Border Region in North China, 1939-1940’ (PhD)

Christian McSweeney-Novak
, From Dayton to Allied Force: A Diplomatic History of the 1998-99 Kosovo Crisis (MA)
Adrienne Tuart, ‘Discrimination and Desire: Italians, Cinema and Culture in Postwar Sydney’ (MA)
Benjamin Vine, ‘For the Peace of the Town: Boston Politics during the American Revolution, 1776-1787’ (PhD)
Kind Regards,
Department of History, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry (SOPHI)
841, Brennan MacCallum | The University of Sydney | NSW | 2006
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Articles, Essays, and Presentations 2018

Dr Sarah Bendall, who recently completed her PhD, shows the value of historical reconstruction and the importance of contextualising historical comments on dress in her newly published article titled “‘Take measure of your wide and flaunting garments’: The farthingale, gender and the consumption of space in Elizabethan and Jacobean England” [] in Renaissance Studies, available as a read-only copy on desktop.[]
Rohan Howitt, a PhD student in the Department published an article entitled ‘The Japanese Antarctic Expedition and the Idea of White Australia’ in the November 2018 issue of Australian Historical Studies, and is available at the following link:
Professor Mark McKenna published a feature-length Quarterly Essay in the March issue, entitled: Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future.
Newly minted History PhD James Findlay recently featured in the Australian Historical Association’s Early Career Researcher’s blog site.
Sarah Dunstan, who recently completed her History PhD, also edits the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog. She recently spoke with Professor Stefanos Geroulanos about his latest book Transparency in Postwar France: A Critical History of the Present (Stanford University Press, 2017).
Newly minted-PhD Michaela Cameron contributed another biographical essay on an early female first fleeter, “Betty Eccles: The Dairy Maid (1730-1835)” as part of her ongoing and funded St John’s Cemetery Project.
PhD student Emma Kluge reflects on lessons learned on her recent research trip to PNG.
Dr. Sophie Loy-Wilson shared her advice for professionalisation during your PhD, based on a 2017 plenary talk she gave at the University of Sydney Postgraduate History Conference on the Australian Women’s History Network blogsite.
PhD student Tamsin O’Connor published an article entitled, “Charting New Waters with Old Patterns: Smugglers and Pirates at the Penal Station and Port of Newcastle 1804–1823” in a special edition of the Journal of Australian Colonial History entitled “Colonial Newcastle: Essays on a Nineteenth Century Port and Hinterland,” guest edited by Nancy Cushing, Julie McIntyre and David Andrew Roberts, Vol. 19 (2017), pp 17- 42.
Dr Peter Hobbins reflected on the fraught process of integrating imagination with empirical evidence in a blog post for the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT.
Professor Michael A. McDonnell wrote about the simple digital humanities tool he created from some recent research work that allows students to analyze historiographical trends in the flagship journal of early American history, the William & Mary Quarterly, entitled “Historiographical Revolutions in the Quarterly: From Research to Teaching,” at The Panorama.
The University of Chicago Press’s journals division has launched a site devoted to new History scholarship. Dr John Gagné’s article in I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance is that journal’s featured essay, and is available via open access until mid-May 2018.
PhD student Marama Whyte weighed in on The Conversation in January about the the historical – and ongoing – battle for equal pay in the media. The essay was republished in various other places, including Mumbrella, Australian Business, and the Daily Bulletin.
PhD student Emma Kluge reminds us that slavery is not yet history. See her January blog.
The History of Science Society’s newsletter recently reported on the REGS team’s panel at the American Historical Association conference earlier this year. Miranda Johnson spoke, along with Sarah Walsh, Sebastián Gil-Riaño, and Ricardo Roque. Warwick Anderson served as chair.
A report on the recent workshop on the Global history of Natural Resources co-organized by the Laureate Research Program in International History in December 2017 can be found on the Past and Present website, a useful resource for the state of the art thinking on environmental history.
The December 2017 issue of the American Historical Review features a lead essay in a special forum on Banking and Finances in the Modern World by Professor Glenda Sluga entitled: ‘“Who Hold the Balance of the World?” Bankers at the Congress of Vienna, and in International History.’
PhD Student Sarah Bendall blogs about an amazing bit of historical reconstruction – of an early modern Rebato Collar in December.
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History on Wednesday Department Seminar

History on Wednesday
Seminar Series for Postgraduates and Faculty
Held at 12.10-1.30
in Woolley Common Room, Woolley Building A22
(Enter Woolley through the entrance on Science Road and climb the stairs in front of you. Turn left down the corridor, and the WCR is the door at the end of the hall)
Click here for more details
Dr Andrés Rodriguez and Professor Kirsten McKenzie
Semester 2 2018
1 August
Deborah Cohen (Northwestern University)
The Geopolitical is Personal: American Foreign Correspondents, India and the British Empire in the 1930s and 1940s
15 August
Andrew Fitzmaurice (University of Sydney)
Hobbes, democracy and the Virginia Company
22 August
Charlotte Greenhalgh (Monash University)
Women and Social Research in Australia, 1940-1970
12 September
Hélène Sirantoine (University of Sydney)
The Saint and the Saracen: Iberian hagiographical material and Christian perceptions of Islam in the Middle Ages
3 October
Chin Jou (University of Sydney)
Food and Power in American prisons in the mass-incarceration era.
17 October
Catie Gilchrist (University of Sydney)
Call the Coroner! Investigating Sudden Death in Colonial Sydney
31 October
Laura Rademaker (Australian Catholic University)
Found in translation: language and translation in Aboriginal history
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Australian Historical Association Prizes

We are delighted to announce that two Sydney University Department of History academics have featured in this year’s AHA Prizes.
The W.K. Hancock Prize recognises and encourages an Australian scholar who has published a first book in any field of history in 2014 or 2015. Miranda Johnson won this award for her book, The Land Is Our History: Indigeneity, Law, and the Settler State (Oxford University Press).
The judges citation reads: In The Land Is Our History, Miranda Johnson has produced an ambitious, original and imaginative history exploring land, indigeneity, legal rights and activism across three settler-colonial nations. Thinking transnationally, Johnson explores legal and public discourses to draw together a raft of distinctive events and personalities into a vast and coherent canvas. She weaves nation-based histories of indigenous-settler conflict over land into wider networks and power structures, making sense of seemingly disparate developments in indigenous activism. Archival documents and oral accounts highlight the strength and moral authority of indigenous leaders who worked to gain acknowledgement of traditional ownership of land, and to interrupt and influence public debates around national identity. Johnson writes with precision, flow and economy. The work has a compelling argument, convincingly showing the complex and sophisticated ways indigenous activisms functioned to change settler attitudes towards land and indigenous belonging. An exemplary history, The Land Is Our History brings important new insights to a significant topic in both the past and the present.
The Allan Martin Award is a research fellowship to assist early career historians further their research in Australian history. Peter Hobbins won this award for his project: ‘An Intimate Pandemic: Fostering Community Histories of the 1918–19 Influenza Pandemic Centenary’.
The judges citation reads: The recipient of the 2018 Allan Martin Award is Peter Hobbins from the University of Sydney for a project titled ‘An intimate pandemic: Fostering community histories of the 1918–19 influenza pandemic centenary’. The program of study proposed is impressive, both for its academic rigour and its spirit of community engagement. Dr Hobbins proposes to work closely with local historical societies to chart how the devastating pandemic affected their communities. He has already garnered significant institutional interest for the project, with Macquarie University, the University of Sydney and the Royal Australian Historical Society all offering support. Peter Hobbins already has an impressive record of publications and innovative research. The judges are delighted to make the Award to a scholar of this calibre who is pursuing a project of such significance.


The full list of winner of 2018 prizes and awards include:
The Jill Roe Prize is awarded annually for the best unpublished, article-length work of historical research in any area of historical enquiry, produced by a postgraduate student enrolled for a History degree at an Australian university. Alexandra Roginski, ‘Talking Heads on a Murray River Mission’
The Serle Award is given biennially, to the best postgraduate thesis in Australian History awarded during the previous two years. Anne Rees, ‘Travelling to Tomorrow: Australian Women in the United States, 1910–1960’. The judges also commended Steven Anderson, ‘Death of a Spectacle: The Transition from Public to Private Executions in Colonial Australia’
The Kay Daniels Award recognises outstanding original research with a bearing on Australian convict history and heritage including in its international context, published in 2016 or 2017. Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden, Van Diemen’s Women: A History of Transportation to Tasmania (The History Press Ltd)
The Magarey Medal for Biography is awarded biennially to the female person who has published the work judged to be the best biographical writing on an Australian subject. It is jointly administered by the Australian Historical Association and the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL). This year’s winner was announced by the ASAL on Tuesday 3 July 2018. Alexis Wright, Tracker (Giramondo)

Many congratulations to all short-listed and award winners.

History Postgrad Conference – CFP

Announcing the 2018 History Postgrad Conference: a conference run by postgraduates, for postgraduates, across all disciplines, with an historical focus.
The University of Sydney Postgraduate History Conference will be held on Thursday November 29th and Friday November 30th, 2018. We warmly invite postgraduate students to submit an abstract for this two-day interdisciplinary conference on the theme of Connected Histories.

Ideas. Culture. Family. Environment. Media. War. Trade. Language. Food. Histories are connected in more ways than we can imagine. At the 2018 University of Sydney Postgraduate History Conference we invite you to share your research and the historical connections you’ve uncovered. We take a broad understanding of this theme and invite you to submit an abstract based on our suggestions below or one of your own choosing:
Global, international, and transnational connections
Interdisciplinary connections
Histories of empire and colonialism
Connections of past and present: how understandings of the past impact us today
Intellectual histories of connected ideas and concepts
Chance encounters: unexpected connections?
We welcome abstracts from postgraduate students across disciplines and encourage anyone with a historical aspect to their work to apply.
If you wish to present, please submit an abstract of no more than 200 words for a twenty minute presentation, as well as a short bio, here.
Please note, abstracts are due by 3rd August 2018.
To register to attend, whether presenting or not, click here.
The 2018 University of Sydney Postgraduate History Conference will be held at the University of Sydney, Camperdown campus, on 29th-30th November 2018. We have a limited number of travel bursaries available for those travelling from outside Sydney—including Honours and Masters students considering the University of Sydney as an option for PhD study. To apply, please indicate your interest and include details of your enrolment with your abstract.
Contact the conference organisers at

Recent Completions

In February, Sarah Dunstan received word that she had successfully passed her PhD. Sarah’s dissertation, completed under the direction of Shane White, is entitled “A Tale of Two Republics: Race, Rights, and Revolution, 1919-1963.” Her reports were unanimous that the dissertation needed no more revision and was ready to be accepted immediately. One reviewer noted that ” This is an extraordinarily ambitious study, which addresses multiple histories, multiple historiographies, and multiple scholarly audiences,” while another pointed to how “she skillfully distributes (her research)…through an ambitious synthetic narrative that spans most of the 20th century and encompasses a wide range of actors, movements, ideologies, debates and events not only in France and the United States but in French Caribbean and African colonies as well.” A glimpse of some of her work can be found in a recent blog post she wrote for the Journal of the History of Ideas. Please join us in congratulating Sarah.
Many congratulations to Sarah Anne Bendall for the successful submission of her Ph.D. thesis, entitled “Bodies of Whalebone, Wood, Metal, and Cloth: Shaping Femininity in England, 1560-1690,” which she completed under the direction of Dr. Julie Ann Smith. Sarah’s reviewers were universally impressed by her research and writing, with one noting the thesis “is sophisticated, wide-ranging and highly ambitious in scope,” another calling it “one of the best I have read to date,” while the third heaped praise on her nuanced argument and substantial research. Some of the innovative work she did for her thesis can be found on her blogsite. Please join us in congratulating Sarah on her incredibly impressive achievement.

Historians in the News

Professor Kirsten McKenzie was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
Dr. Miranda Johnson weighed in on the Australia Day debate by talking about the ongoing legacy of settler-colonialism with the international online magazine, OZY.
ARC Research Fellow Ben Silverstein won the History Australia and Taylor & Francis best article for 2017.
PhD students Hollie Pich and Marama Whyte have both won Endeavour Awards to undertake research in the U.S. in 2018. These highly-competitive awards are provided by the Australian government to scholars engaging in study, research, or professional development overseas. Marama has been granted the Endeavour Postgraduate Scholarship to conduct 6-12 months of research at New York University, sponsored by Professor Thomas Sugrue, while Hollie has won an Endeavour Research Fellowship to conduct 4-6 months of research at Duke University, sponsored by Professor William Chafe.
Marama Whyte has also won the Tempe Mann Travelling Scholarship for 2018, which is awarded by the Australian Federation of Graduate Women-New South Wales, taking up an honour that Hollie held the year before.
Professor Glenda Sluga recently presented at the Graduate Institute Geneva on the history of global governance of the environment. For the Geneva report on this talk click here. Glenda is also cosponsor of this Cambridge conference on the global history of sovereignty and natural resources. This was the winning concept in an international competition. A copy of the poster is available here, and you can download the final program here. The Guardian also reported academics from around the world including Professor John Keane from the Department of Government and International Relations and Professor Glenda Sluga from the Department of History are rallying in support of Dr Maha Abdelrahman, a Cambridge University scholar whose PhD student Giulio Regeni was murdered in Egypt.
The New Republic (US) discussed Dr Chin Jou’s new book, Supersizing Urban America about fast food and obesity, and she was interviewed by KPFA Radio (US) about it. Dr. Jou also wrote a piece on the global expansion of the fast food industry in the Washington Post.
University of Sydney PhD student Emma Kluge has a new piece on the UN History website on Decolonization Interrupted: U.N. and Indonesian Flags Raised in West Papua
Channel 7 (Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane) interviewed Dr Miranda Johnson from the Department of History about broadcaster Stan Grant’s calls to change a statue of Captain Cook in Hyde Park.
Dr. Marco Duranti’s The Conservative Human Rights Revolution and Prof Mark McKenna’s From the Edge were longlisted and shortlisted respectively for the CHASS Australia Book Prize 2017.
Dr. Duranti was also interviewed on ABC Radio National about the human rights revolution born in a conservative UK after World War II.
Dr Sophie Loy-Wilson was interviewed on ABC Radio National about Australian migration to China and the story of Daisy Kwok, a Chinese-Australian socialite who was born in Sydney and moved to China in 1917.
Dr. Ivan Crozier and Dr. Peter Hobbins have both spoken recently in the University of Sydney Rare Books ‘Rare Bites’ series of lunchtime talks, which they video, caption and upload to YouTube: Peter Hobbins speaks on Researches on Australian Venoms (1906); Ivan Crozier speaks on Sexual Inversion (1897), and Dr. Hobbins featured on an episode of ABC TV’s Hard Quiz, and co-authored an article published on The Conversation about misconceptions around the fatality risks of snakebites.
Professor Dirk Moses recently wrote about the pros and cons of “flipping” the classroom in a large first year unit in Teaching@Sydney.
Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick authored an article published in the Australian Financial Review about the 100 years since the Russian Revolution, and she was interviewed by ABC Radio Melbourne about her new book, Misckha’s War.
Professor Mark McKenna from the Department of History was quoted in the Daily Telegraph about Australia’s historical monuments, and he also wrote a review of Donald Horne: Selected Writings, published in the Weekend Australian.
Sky News interviewed Professor James Curran from the Department of History about US President Donald Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville and was interviewed on ABC Radio Sydney, 2SM Sydney and Sky News about the history of the ANZUS alliance in light of the Prime Minister confirming Australia would join US military action if North Korea were to attack. Professor Curran also wrote an article about what the ANZUS treaty obliges, published in the Australian Financial Review, and another in the Australian Financial Times about Australia’s ongoing alliance with the US during the Trump presidency. Weekend Australia published an article by Professor James Curran from the Department of History and the United States Studies Centre about how US President Donald Trump has intensified the cultural crisis gripping the US. CNN (US) quoted Professor James Curran from the Department of History and the United States Studies Centre about the federal government’s foreign policy white paper. The Saturday Paper quoted Professor James Curran about the Foreign Minister’s relationship with US diplomats. The Straits Times (Singapore) quoted James Curran about the resurrection of the quadrilateral security dialogue between the US, Japan, Australia and India.
The Star Tribune (US) quoted Professor Robert Aldrich from the Department of History about his research on French colonialism, while the National Post (Canada) quoted him in a story about increased attendance at the National Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris following the 2015 terrorist attacks in France.
Professor Ian McCalman from the Department of History and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute was interviewed on ABC Radio National’s Conversations with Richard Fidler. quoted Emeritus Professor Richard Waterhouse from the Department of History about Remembrance Day.
Professor Shane White from the Department of History published a review of The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison in the Sydney Morning Herald. The review was syndicated across Fairfax Media.
ABC Radio National interviewed Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick from the Department of History about the Bolshevik revolution.
Dr Thomas Adams featured on ABC’s The Drum discussing a number of topics including the Manhattan terrorist attack and US President Trump’s comments following the event.
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Scandals and Historical Curiosity

In this blog entry, Professor Kirsten McKenzie reflects on the utility of studying historic scandals. Her thoughts are drawn from the presentation she gave at a plenary session on Historical Curiosity at the recent History Postgrad Conference, “The Past and the Curious” in November 2017.

Historical Curiosity

I’ve taken inspiration from the theme of this conference in two ways – firstly, what use can we make of curious incidents in the past? And, secondly, how do we deal with our own curiosity about them?
I’m still not entirely sure whether this is by accident or design but I’ve come to realise that much of what I research can be classed as ‘curious’. I don’t mean in the sense that the past is another country, and what might seem odd to us was not so previously. These are events and personalities who were considered downright weird at the time. My two most recent books are both about convict impostors in the first half of the nineteenth century, although their impersonations were undertaken with very different motivations and effects.
One, the improbably named John Dow, was a con artist seeking gain through identity theft. The other, who began his life as Alexander Kaye and ended it as William Edwards, was an escapee trying to hide under a false name. Both got caught. Neither would admit their guilt. In the case of Edwards the mystery persisted even after the prisoner took his own life. These cases excited much curiosity and debate in their own time, even if they were largely forgotten afterwards. When remembered, they were never considered the proper subjects of serious history.
By their very nature, Dow and Edwards were serial liars. Their actions confounded observers at the time, several of whom described them as insane. Much of their story remains unknowable. This brings me to my second point – what do we do, as historians, with our curiosity about the past. How should we direct that curiosity?
When I was sitting where you are now – and in the last year of my PhD – I gave a presentation at a large international conference where the papers were pre-circulated and where Ann Stoler was the keynote speaker. For those not in my field, Ann Stoler is one of the big names in imperial history, and was already an academic superstar in the late 1990s. So, you can imagine how I felt when mine was the paper she singled out for praise and discussion as part of her keynote address.
When I had found the material on which the paper was based, I knew it was a huge coup – I was writing a thesis about questions of gender and honour and I had found a cache of papers about alleged incest and concealed pregnancy involving the Chief Justice of the Cape Colony, Sir John Wylde, and his daughter Jane. The day I came upon the papers saw me quite literally shouting aloud with joy in the car all the way home from the archive. Which seems a bit sick when you consider the contents of the material itself.
But this wasn’t why Stoler singled out my paper for praise – she admired what she called (and I can still remember the gist 20 years later) my ‘postmodern determination’ not to become caught up in the solution to the story, but rather to leave the mystery unresolved. Instead of putting what had happened to Jane Elizabeth at the center of my analysis – was she the victim of rape or incest? had she killed her own child? had she had a lover whom it was somehow impossible to acknowledge? – I had focused in the paper on the wider significance of the scandal for understanding Cape colonial society – how it related to debates over slave emancipation, the press, and the nature of gendered discourse in public and private.
My immediate thought when I heard Stoler’s comment on my paper was – ‘well, I’m glad this great scholar thinks I have postmodern determination, I better start pretending I’ve GOT postmodern determination because the reality is that if I could have solved the mystery from the sources available I would gleefully have done so.’
I mention this as a foundation story in my career not only because it pointed the way to the historian I would become – one who specialised in scandal – but also because it took the process of writing several books to work through quite how incisive Stoler’s comment was to how we should approach the phenomenon of scandal. Indeed, she likely didn’t realise herself the significance of what in retrospect was probably just an off-hand remark.
If historians want to understand the kind of everyday attitudes that are the focus of cultural history, why work on scandals? They are surely unusual events by definition? But, of course, some people are scandalous, only if others are not. So, they allow us to see where the lines of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour are drawn and constantly renegotiated.
Secondly, they generate extensive sources and articulate what are often unspoken assumptions about proper behaviour. Scandals can also have important effects in bringing about social change – they can involve the rise and fall of public figures, they can have concrete political effects by bringing unacceptable behaviour under public scrutiny. They can be used by the powerless to shame and expose the powerful. They can be used as political traction to bring about desired outcomes, often only peripherally related to the original scandal itself. All of this is inherently unstable and unpredictable – scandals are extremely difficult to manipulate. They often start out as being about one thing or person and end up being about something quite different. The scandal of John Wylde and his daughter is a textbook example of this.
For all these advantages, the historian of scandal must be prepared to have her curiosity frustrated. She must always face the prospect of suffering what the novelist A.S. Byatt calls ‘narrative greed’ – and of accepting that this greed will not be satisfied. This is not to say that narrative is a bad thing – but it isn’t the only thing. There is always the search for the good story when writing about scandal, the satisfaction of finding out ‘what happened’, of marshalling all the twists and turns of plots and sub-plots.
It is notable how often historians of scandal use the language of plots, or of drama when they are setting the scene. We need to be honest about the narrative pleasures of this sensationalism. There are very good reasons why we might want to know what happened. But as I tell my students in the unit ‘Sex and Scandal’, some really bad history – often for general audiences – can be written about scandals in the name of telling stories. This risks not only being bad quality, but having bad effects, simply interested in the prurient details, details that are taken for granted and sensationalized, with no attempt to understand what it all means.
It is worth mentioning that I found the Wylde material (marked as “under restricted access”) with the help of a very experienced archivist – and he said quite explicitly that he had only brought it to my attention because he knew my scholarship and he was satisfied that I would deal with it responsibly. (I’m glad he didn’t see me shouting in the car on the way home.) Our curiosity is natural, and important in getting things right, but it is important not to become caught up in a historian-as-detective approach when dealing with scandal. This is not CSI Archive. Sometimes the best solution is to set aside one’s natural curiosity to discover a secret – or to become curious about something else.
Let me end with an example of this from my most recent book. One of the most challenging parts of writing Imperial Underworld was addressing an incident in the life of William Edwards that has been written about numerous times – but never in a scholarly way. This involved a notorious scandal that was intensively investigated at the time – without a satisfactory solution. An anonymous placard was posted on the streets of Cape Town accusing the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, of “buggering Doctor Barry”. No copy survives. Various accounts of its wording exist. There were even doubts expressed as to whether it had ever really existed, for only one person admitted to having seen it before it disappeared.
William Edwards was the chief suspect, but nothing was ever proved against him. The incident has sparked intensive curiosity amongst popular historians, particularly those writing about Barry, whose sex remains a subject of debate. Serious scholars, however, have shied away from the incident – unable to find an analytical purpose for it, even though it took place in the midst of an intensively studied period of Cape history.
What should spark our curiosity about the placard affair – what questions should we be asking about it as historians? ‘Narrative greed’ leads us to two obvious ones – were Somerset and Barry engaged in sexual relations? And, who put up the placard? The answer to the first question has eluded countless biographers of both Barry and Somerset. For what it is worth, a recent book on Barry has uncovered some persuasive evidence that the doctor was born female though that leaves us no further ahead on the question of relations with Somerset. And with regard to the second question – \who put up the placard – the historian has access to only the same evidence, admittedly voluminous, that was collected in the original case. Can she expect to succeed where a determined public prosecutor under intense political pressure failed some 200 years earlier?
I didn’t consciously think of Ann Stoler’s comment while I wrestled with how to write about the placard scandal in a useful way. Nevertheless, her response to that paper on the Wyldes some 20 years ago doubtless had a role in helping me to work out how I approached this problem. For my purposes, the scandal’s utility lies precisely in recognising its tenuous hold on reality – using that as the object of my analysis rather than an obstacle to my analysis – and in tracing the tactics of ideological warfare that broke out in its aftermath.
As a way of understanding the processes of imperial reform debates, my interest was more in the political management of the scandal than in the alleged sexual improprieties of Lord Charles Somerset and Dr James Barry or the identity of the persons who claimed to have brought them to light. If we look carefully at the sources we can see what was very clear to contemporaries but what historians have missed. What was most significant about the incident was not the contents of the placard itself but the “political ends” – in the words of contemporaries – to which its existence could be put. Despite the dangerous accusations allegedly made in the text (remember our evidence that the placard even existed is tenuous) sex drops out of the public discussion remarkably quickly. What ensues is effectively a public relations struggle between Somerset and his political opponents in both Britain and the Cape, a debate that revolved not around his sexual misconduct but around his tactics of information gathering and the use of spies. Historians can and often should use scandals to ask and answer different questions from the ones that preoccupied those living through them. Because after all, what we are most curious about is working out methods to understand the past as best we can.
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