David Brewster and the culture of science in post-Enlightenment Scotland

Blog written by Dr Bill Jenkins. Dr Jenkins is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of History, working on the Leverhulme-funded project ‘After the Enlightenment: Scottish Intellectual Life, 1790-1843’. He is the author of Evolution before Darwin: Theories of the Transmutation of Species in Edinburgh, 1804–1834, published by Edinburgh University Press in 2019. If you want to learn more, you can follow him on Twitter (@BillHWJenkins) or view his personal website.

Dr Bill Jenkins

I first made the acquaintance of David Brewster (1781–1868) when I was working on my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. Today, Brewster is best known as the inventor of the kaleidoscope and for his work in optics, but he was also an important author and editor of scientific books and journals. It was in the latter capacity that I first encountered him while working on my doctoral research on pre-Darwinian theories of evolution in the Edinburgh of the 1820s and 1830s. The central figure in my thesis was Robert Jameson, Edinburgh’s professor of natural history. Jameson had co-edited a journal entitled the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal with Brewster between 1819 and 1824. Both men were big personalities with a habit of making enemies, so it wasn’t long before they had made enemies of each other. After parting company, Brewster went off to found his own Edinburgh Journal of Science, while Jameson stayed at the helm of the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal. I was intrigued enough by Brewster to read a number of the popular books he wrote on scientific subjects, which are notable for their lively literary style and dramatic leaps of the imagination. I was immediately hooked.

Image: Chalk drawing of David Brewster by William Bewick, 1824 (Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Given my existing interest in Brewster, I was delighted to learn in Spring 2018 that the School of History at St Andrews was looking for a postdoc to work on Brewster and Scottish natural philosophy for  a project entitled ‘After the Enlightenment: Scottish Intellectual Life, 1790-1843’. I was fortunate to be the successful candidate, and soon found myself working alongside fellow postdocs Felicity Loughlin and Lina Weber. We are also lucky enough have an eminent group of senior academics in the form of Professors Aileen Fyfe, Knud Haakonssen, Colin Kidd and Richard Whatmore on the project team.

Brewster was a multi-faceted character, and I’ve chosen six aspects of his life and work to focus on for the monograph I’m writing for the project. This will explore not only his own career, but through him will shed light on post-Enlightenment science in Scotland more generally. These six topics fall into two broad sections. The first section focuses on the contexts and institutions within which Brewster operated and which he helped shape. Firstly, Brewster has a great deal to tell us about the immediate contexts for scientific practice in early nineteenth century Scotland. This includes scientific networks and the exchange of ideas, instruments, and specimens. Secondly, he was a prolific writer and editor of scientific books and journals. This makes him the perfect vehicle for studying the communication of science. Thirdly, Brewster was deeply involved with a number of key Scottish and British scientific societies: he was secretary, vice-president, and finally president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a founder of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the first director of the Society of Arts for Scotland, to name just three of his roles.

Image: Title page of Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic (1832), one of his popular science books, in which he gave scientific explanations for optical illusions and other magic tricks

The second section of my study looks at natural philosophy in the light of the political, religious, and intellectual cultures of Scotland. The fourth topic deals with Brewster’s involvement with the political life of the country. Brewster was a life-long reform Whig, who relied to a considerable extent on the patronage of fellow Whigs, and in particular the influential politician Henry Brougham, who shared Brewster’s scientific interests. The period between the French Revolution and the First Reform Bill was a particularly turbulent era in the political life of Scotland, and Brewster’s career was deeply marked by the times in which he lived.  Fifthly, like many men of science of his time, Brewster was deeply religious. He was a passionate champion of the Evangelical Party of the Church of Scotland and, like most members of that Party, left the established church to join the Free Church at the Disruption of 1843. The compatibility of the book of nature with the book of revelation was an abiding concern for Brewster and often shaped his scientific views in surprising ways. Sixthly and finally, Brewster wrote a great deal regarding the history and philosophy of science. He was a fervent champion of the power of the scientific imagination, which he saw as closely akin to ‘poetic fancy’.

The overarching question which runs throughout my work is: Can a distinct Scottish style of science be discerned in the decades following the Scottish Enlightenment? My answer to this is a clear ‘yes’. This scientific style emerged from two principal sources. Firstly, the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment had taken a deep interest in scientific methodology and the type of questions it was reasonable for natural philosophers to ask. Their views profoundly shaped the thought and practice of generations of Scottish men of science into the middle of the nineteenth century and beyond. Secondly, the Presbyterian worldview influenced even those natural philosophers who rejected some of its harsher Calvinist doctrines. They were unlikely to share the optimistic worldview of many earlier Anglican natural theologians, who had seen God’s goodness reflected in every sunbeam and blade of grass. Instead, the Scots were haunted by a darker vision of a fallen universe declining towards final dissolution that was to have a profound influence on physics and cosmology to this day.

Spatialising the Modern: The Frankfurt Kitchen and its Gendered Work Politics

Blog written by Dr Claudia Kreklau. Dr Kreklau is an Associate Lecturer at the University of St Andrews. Her research interests include Food History, Modern Germany, and Women/Gender/Sexuality.

Dr Claudia Kreklau

In 1924, Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (1897-2000) designed the modern kitchen. This kitchen was a single room designed for a worker, presumably a woman. As one of few well-explored early-twentieth-century woman architects, Schütte-Lihotzky’s work, politics, and feminism have attracted a good deal of attention, usually of a rather critical nature. She has been accused of relegating the female worker into domestic cooking spaces and enabling their Tayloresque exploitation, having no knowledge of housework, and not being enough of a feminist. A spatial analysis of Schütte-Lihotzky’s design with attention to the prehistory of the kitchen in central Europe in my most recent article suggests, however, that while the Viennese designer could by no means remedy the dominating middle-class gender ideals of her time, her design of the ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ reflects her aim to spatially streamline the labor of the woman worker in the context of the deteriorating political and economic climate of post-war central Europe.

Schütte-Lihotzky was the only woman to join the city of Frankfurt’s design programme ‘The New Frankfurt’, which was tasked with remedying the post-war living-space squalor of Weimar Germany. Her contribution—the kitchen—achieved two things: one, it guaranteed a minimum of sanitation, hygiene, and air quality as well as ventilation and lower humidity for the lower strata of society; two, it provided women working domestically with a room of their own.

Figures 1, 2, 3: Three views of Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen. Courtesy of the EM Haus Website: https://ernst-may-gesellschaft.de/mayhaus/frankfurter-kueche.html

Schütte-Lihotzky’s design changes were small but significant. The architect built a desk and chair into the centre of the kitchen under the kitchen’s window, allowing the working woman to sit or rest. Until that point, central European kitchens had been largely devoid of permanent seating areas, forcing workers to remain standing. When a worker in a kitchen sat down in nineteenth-century depictions, they did so on a temporary stool for such purposes as plucking a chicken, not to write, read, or rest. She included plumbing, a metal sink with two compartments—one for washing, one for rinsing to support hygiene ideals—collapsible workspaces, and storage facilities for crockery on the walls as well as in fitted cupboards, a standard feature of many kitchens in the twentieth century. Finally, she made space for a removable iron stove that could be easily replaced should technology advance (and was easier to clean than the brick-and-mortar ovens of the previous century). The room was accessed via two doors. The original design still stands, albeit in renovated form, in the Ernst May Haus Museum in contemporary Frankfurt am Main.

In some ways, Schütte-Lihotzky’s design presents the historian with a host of social work specific and politically gendered assumptions encoded in brick and mortar, reflected in the architecture and spatial organisation of her kitchen. Some have noted that Schütte-Lihotzky planned the Frankfurt kitchen ‘exclusively’ as a workspace. Others have associated her design with ‘Taylorism’ and highlighted its prioritisation of effectiveness, comparing the architect’s actions to producing ‘factory’ conditions. Yet others noted that although the lone and isolated housewife’s tasks were varied, in contrast to repetitive Fordist production conditions, Schütte-Lihotzky’s architecture still relegated women to a role similar to that of factory workers. It is finally often pointed out that she had never cooked or managed a household before joining the Frankfurt Housing project; these formulations accuse her of studying and reducing women to exploited labourers in the domestic sphere.

While criticisms of exploitative gendered domesticity are indeed necessary, Schütte-Lihotzky’s critics omit that the architect sought to buttress the difficult everyday life of working women whose economic and political context she could not change. After six decades of a rise in gendered domesticity, the design provided a degree of independence for work—practical and mental—as well as rest for the working woman, within the parameters of contemporary social-democratic economics and gendered politics. Schütte-Lihotzky, argued: ‘My work was based on the idea of women who worked and not in cooking itself’ [emphasis added]. Ample space was a luxury, which meant the designer had to use the reduced available area effectively. The placement of the chair by the window and the two opaque doors in turn broke any hypothetical panoptic supervision by removing the housewife from the outside gaze. Women could sit at a window and gaze outside—the act of seeing in itself an exercise of power and consumption. Having the option to close a door allowed the food worker to control this space without outward supervision.

Schütte-Lihotzky operated under the understanding that leftist party politics would cater to working women’s needs; they did not. The city council for which she worked was tied to the Social Democratic party, which failed to champion gendered egalitarianism and prioritised male workers’ rights. Her kitchen design thus reflects a social democratic feminist negotiation within general party lines at the time: a spatial construction which sought to give the female worker a room of her own, even as it embraced rather than problematised labour from the perspective of a leftist worker. She argued she ‘had never concerned [her]self with cooking in my life. Nowadays this is seen as feminist but it was not feminist at all’. Instead, cooking was a practical necessity, a task which should not be gendered, but instead should foment solidarity among workers across the genders irrespective of spatial location. That the party failed to ratify this silent gendered workers’ contract and recognise women as workers equally was not a dimension for which the architect carried blame. Neither did Schütte-Lihotzky assume that women would not hold professional occupations outside the home. The effectiveness she aimed to facilitate in kitchens aimed less at exploiting women than at helping them survive the demands on their time.

Figure 4: Removable iron stove-top combination in the Frankfurt Kitchen. Courtesy of the EM Haus Website: https://ernst-may-gesellschaft.de/mayhaus/frankfurter-kueche.html

In my most recent article, I examine the gendered prehistory of kitchen work in central Europe—with unexpected findings. In central Europe the kitchen was not always gendered, or even necessarily a room. Elites in the nineteenth century in general preferred to employ men, making the many rooms which castles dedicated for cooking and food preparation preferentially male domains. Workers and poorer rural populations in turn often lived in single-room homes, where kitchen areas were inseparable from living, working, or resting areas—meaning that there was no room to gender the space. It was primarily the middle-class with its gendered domestic ideals after the 1860s and their idealised nineteenth-century Roman architectural designs who championed the idea of gendered domesticity in a single room and successfully spread the ideal throughout society. The notion that women’s work should unfold in a private feminine sphere rather than in a masculine public sphere coincided with a drop in house-staff numbers due to industrialisation, which forced middle-class women to take on more household tasks.

Schütte-Lihotzky’s ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ deeply affected twentieth-century western kitchens which derived modernist spatial design elements from this architectural nexus. I argue that this did not solidify the success of the idea of a kitchen as a gendered room. Politics and society had already solidified this work allocation by 1900 in central Europe and elsewhere. Instead, contemporaries and scholars have been spatially blind to the surreptitious nuances of her work and texts to contest the broken gender relations of her period and its leftist politics through architecture. More recent designs since 1924, in turn, from studios and lofts to open-concept kitchens, continue to renegotiate and destabilise the limits and limitations of our spatial, gendered, public and private ideas, ideals and practices—in the unexpected shape of brick and mortar.

February 7, 2021- Day of Solidarity with Belarus

Blog written by Dr Tomasz Kamusella. Dr Kamusella an interdisciplinary historian of modern central and eastern Europe, with a focus on language politics and nationalism.

Belarus hardly features in the western or Anglo-American mind. When I arrived at the University of St Andrews a decade ago with the remit to teach Central and Eastern European history, our library did not sport a single monograph on this country. Most St Andrews students’ hands-on knowledge of Europe ends with Germany, beyond which a blurry area of numerous states intervenes before Russia emerges in the east as a huge splash of color on their mental map. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the unprecedented eastward enlargements of the European Union (1995, 2004, 2007, 2013), has hardly corrected this Cold War myopia.

Historically speaking, today’s Belarus and Lithuania used to constitute the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In turn, this Grand Duchy was the eastern half of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. When in the late 18th century Poland-Lithuania was erased from the political map of Europe, Russia annexed four-fifths of the polity’s territory, including the Grand Duchy. In the wake of the Great War, independent Belarus emerged, but Bolshevik Russia’s war on Poland led to the partition of Belarus between those two countries in 1921. Uniquely, interwar Soviet Belarus was officially quadrilingual, with Belarusian, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish as its four official languages. In 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union formed an alliance and together attacked Poland. The partition of interwar Poland led to the unification of the majority of the ethnically Belarusian lands in Soviet Belarus. In 1941, Germany’s onslaught on the Soviet Union (1941-1945) pushed Belarus into the very center of wartime genocide, wanton destruction, and multiple occupations. After World War II, due to Soviet politicking, Soviet Belarus (alongside Soviet Ukraine and the Soviet Union) became a founding member of the United Nations.

In 1991, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine – as the sole three Soviet republics with their own seats in the UN – decided to dissolve the Soviet Union. Independent Belarus became a vibrant democratic country. However, the exigencies of market-oriented reforms led to the 1994 election of Alexander Lukashenko (Aljaksandr Łukašenka in Belarusian) as President, on a promise to recreate a Soviet system in Belarus. All of the subsequent presidential elections (in 2001, 2006, 2010, 2015, and 2020) were neither free nor fair, in line with the Leninist-Stalinist principle that those who count the votes win the elections. In 2005, this fact earned Lukashenko’s Belarus the moniker of ‘Europe’s last dictatorship.’ Uniquely for the European states, Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe or the European Court of Human Rights.

Prior to the last presidential election in August 2020, as usual, the Lukashenko regime either refused to register or imprisoned any viable candidates. What Lukashenko did not take into account, however, was that a new post-Soviet generation of Belarusians was born, raised and educated during the last quarter of a century, a generation with access to the internet and relatively free travel to the neighboring EU states of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. This generation considers themselves Europeans, and they want to live like their peers in Riga, Vilnius and Warsaw. As such, they have refused to accept the most recent, and blatantly rigged, election results in which Lukashenko claims victory. In reality he did not get more than 10 percent of the votes. The official results, unlike those in the past, have not been recognised by a single Western country. Rather, the unlikely winner by a landslide is an imprisoned candidate’s wife who ran in the election in his place, namely, 38-year-old Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja in Belarusian). After the election, the authorities intimidated her into leaving the country for Lithuania. With the Lithuanian government’s help, Tsikhanouskaya has established her Belarusian government-in-exile in Vilnius.

After the rigged election, Belarusians of all ages and walks of life have risen in spontaneous, unceasing and peaceful protests in Minsk and across the country, despite the repeated switch-offs of the internet and mobile phone networks. Every weekend crowds have been streaming in the streets or organising neighbourhood meetings and concerts. They protest under the red-white-red national tricolor, hated by the regime. The security forces have done their best to provoke the protesters into violence by unleashing indiscriminate beatings and incarcerations. Over 30,000 people have been thrown into prison, where they are beaten, raped, tortured, and starved. At least five protesters have lost their lives, and ten have suffered from shotgun wounds at the hands of the security forces.

What do the Belarusians want? Just the European norm, namely, a free and democratic country, fair elections, the rule of law, and respect for human and civil rights. But in Lukashenko’s dictatorship this is too much to ask. That is why this time Europe and the free world should listen to and help the protesters. Learn more about what you can do to help here.

Further information on the latest election in Belarus can be found here:









Hunting Big Game: The Military Power of Louis XIV and the French Artillery and Arms Industries

Blog written by Professor Guy Rowlands. Prof Rowlands’ principal research interests lie in the history of war, in the emergence of the modern European state in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and the nature and development of international relations in the period 1598-1792.

Prof Guy Rowlands wearing a WWI French artillery uniform at the Artillery Museum in Provence.

If I can begin by sounding like Ernest Hemingway, I only hunt big game, and Louis XIV (r.1643-1715), whom I have been tracking for 28 years, is one of the biggest beasts in the historical jungle. But the thrill of the chase is far greater than the satisfaction of a kill, and of course in history nobody ever really has the last word. There’s never really an end to controversy about any given subject. Louis XIV has been pursued by myriad historians, especially in France, but also since the 1950s (in a serious fashion) in the U.K. and North America. His era is so rich in material reflecting the activities and ideas of the time it’s an almost inexhaustible seam for scholars to mine. The difficulty with such a familiar field, however, is making a difference, and after over half a century of monographs and doctorates on the reign, and in my case nearly thirty years of research on him, I am not altogether sure what difference I have made…

My starting point, from my final year as an undergraduate, was a deep scepticism about traditional French historiography—a kind of French ‘Whiggism’ that stressed the onward march of the impersonal, centralising state—and at least some cynicism about recent Anglo-American suggestions that Louis’ reign was founded upon consensus and cooperation with the elites. My interest in the armed forces of France then led me deep into the French war archives for my doctorate to examine the relationship between the king and the most senior and prestigious military officers in the second half of his personal rule, a period I have recently argued (with Julia Prest) constituted Louis XIV’s ‘third reign’ after c. 1682. After expanding the doctorate into a wider book on how the French army was transformed from a chaotic shambles in the 1650s to a much smoother and gigantic machine by the 1690s, I then found myself sucked into military finance and from there into the much wider problems of French state finances more generally in the 1690s and 1700s. While Britain remodelled its fiscal and credit machinery in the ‘financial revolution’, France—using some of the same tools—continued down a pathway of restricted taxation on the elites coupled with currency devaluation, illiquid financial instruments, and the use of military paymasters as the greatest creditors of the monarchy. This then led me onto a third book about the international bankers serving France during the War of the Spanish Succession, when vast amounts of state revenues, for eye-watering transaction costs, were sucked out of the country to fuel Louis XIV’s war efforts abroad. As Stanley Baldwin might have said in a later context, there seemed to be an awful lot of hard-faced men who looked like they had done well out of war at the end of Louis XIV’s reign.

A painting of the siege of Tournai from the 1740s showing the artillery in camp. Credit: Photo (C) Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Marc Manaï

All this adds up to a career thus far pursued in investigating what historians have come to call the ‘fiscal-military state’ in the early modern period (as opposed to the laissez-faire states of the Anglo-American world in the 1815-1914 period and the war and welfare states of the period c. 1914-89). Rarely, however, does a single book bring together equally deep treatment of both the fiscal and military halves of this model, indeed the number can really be counted on the fingers of one hand. But this is what I have now embarked on doing in a study based on 28 years of archival research that will examine the French land army’s artillery and armaments systems throughout the reign of Louis XIV. This book looks at its military structures and their relationship to the monarchy, the embryonic artillery corps and its officers, the gunpowder and weaponry contractors, the financiers dedicated to this arm, the transportation system for heavy weapons, and the logistical infrastructure. This will be the farthest plumbing of the depths yet achieved on the way the French monarchy’s military system worked, thanks to the richness of the administrative papers. As the artillery was headed by a Grand Master, this office’s documentation in the 1700s and the remaining judicial papers of the special artillery tribunal in the Paris Arsenal open a massive window onto the problems faced by contractors, sub-contractors, junior military officers, and magazine keepers in a way that is simply not available for the other three arms of the army: the cavalry, infantry, and dragoons. One of the most fascinating avenues I have been able to pursue has been an investigation of the place of horses in the artillery. These were not the sleek, fast mounts of the cavalry but the powerful, muscular beasts bred for pulling coaches and waggons. Even so, the rate of attrition on campaign was horrific, and how their teamsters and suppliers managed them promises insights not only into the place of animals in armies but also into the problems of feeding and caring for them under massive physical strain.

The duc du Maine, Grand Master of the Artillery, 1694-1736. Credit:

This book will also challenge head-on the notion that administrative progress and operational effectiveness were primarily caused by ministerial energy and exhortation, something that is still a shibboleth of French historiography. Instead, ministers’ interventions were just as likely to prove miserably and damagingly counterproductive. More guns that ministers ordered did not mean an inherently better or more orderly system. In fact, excessive efforts by ministers to control the artillery opened the door to vast levels of corruption only proved half a century later…. More mundane and steady improvements were pushed forward by the Grand Masters of the Artillery, especially the king’s favourite bastard child, the duc du Maine, in his term in office after 1694. Some senior artillery officers and a range of private contractors—some rotten to the core, others diligent and scrupulous—also had significant influence on shaping the fourth, Cinderella arm of the land army (after the cavalry, dragoons, and infantry).

This was an era described by one contemporary as ‘the virile age’ of artillery, when cannon began to be deployed in colossal numbers, yet scientific use of heavy weapons was in its infancy, and weak military discipline and education devalued the operational potential of the guns in the field. More importantly, however, the French artillery—the largest body of land-based guns in the world at this time, and one supplied by metals from as far afield as China and Japan—was let down by an infrastructure too underdeveloped for the scale of the state’s operations and strategic needs. Studying the French artillery has really brought it home to me how important the logistical geography of a state, as well as its strategic geography, is to a country’s fate in war. I hope others will also begin to investigate in a systematic way the importance of logistical geography in international relations and in state development.

Indian Women and Global Narratives of Human Rights

Blog written by Dr Rosalind Parr. Dr Parr is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews where she teaches modules on South Asian and Global History. Her first monograph, Citizens of Everywhere. Indian women, anti-colonialism and global liberalism, 1920s – 1950s, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2021.

Dr Rosalind Parr

In December 2018, the United Nations (UN) launched a new exhibition at its headquarters in New York to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Amongst the personalities to appear was Hansa Mehta, an anti-colonial activist and leader of the Indian women’s movement.  In the past, official UN celebrations of the UDHR maintained a fixed focus on the figure of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first Chair of the Commission of Human Rights.  The current UN narrative is somewhat more inclusive. Alongside the exhibition in New York, the UN’s digital content now name-checks a wider cast of characters drawn from Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.  Strikingly, the focus is overwhelmingly on women.

The UN’s current emphasis on the role of non-Western women in shaping its early history is no accident.  The field of gender equality is perhaps the area of UN work where the spectre of cultural imperialism looms largest.  Sensitive to the charge of imposing Euro-American values on the Global South, the organisation is on a mission to emphasise its diverse past. By highlighting the contribution made by Hansa Mehta and others to the authoring of human rights, the UN seeks to uphold an alternative, universalist imagining of gender equality. 

HM UN: Hansa Mehta on the Commission for Human Rights.

The UN’s universalist claims have long been critiqued as neo-liberal cover for latter-day Western imperialism. When viewed from this angle, its appropriation of women from the Global South as historical human rights ambassadors appears tokenistic, if not misleading. 

No doubt the UN’s celebration of Mehta’s historical role derives from a present-day universalist agenda. Yet her interactions with the UN reflect a real and long-term engagement by Indian women activists with international networks dating back several decades. Far from representing a homogenous globalism, Mehta’s work at the UN reflects a distinct strand of anti-colonial women’s activism rooted in the conditions of India.

The UN’s communications are right to identify the role played by Mehta in shaping the UDHR. However, in presenting this as part of a universal narrative, it flattens out the particular processes by which she and others came to be part of this history.  It also overlooks the specificity of Indian women’s approach to rights which evolved in the context of women’s struggles in Indian.  This included a distinct perspective that pursued women’s rights against the claims of traditional customs and orthodox religious communities.

The ‘local’ Indian context underpinned women’s international activities, which I examine in my forthcoming book, Citizens of Everywhere. Indian women, anti-colonialism and global liberalism, 1920s – 1950s. Culminating with Mehta’s contribution to the drafting of the UDHR after Indian independence, the book begins over half a century earlier. In 1895, the future poet and Indian nationalist leader, Sarojini Naidu (1889-1949) boarded a boat bound for Europe. Naidu, unusually for a woman, was sent as a teenager to complete her education in Britain.  Although she quickly abandoned her studies in favour of literary pursuits, her time in London brought her contacts that would later facilitate her international career.

As the first Indian woman President of the Indian National Congress, Naidu is credited with inspiring the generation of women who came of age in the 1920s. Hailing from a learned Bengali family, she was a link between the emerging women’s movement and long-standing Indian traditions of social reform and cultural revivalism. In practical terms, her engagement with international women’s conferences and liberal networks in America established new forms of political practice for internationally focussed Indian women. Hansa Mehta, then a student in her twenties, was present when Naidu addressed a meeting of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Geneva in 1920. 

Berlin 1929: Sarojini Naidu at the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Berlin, 1929.

Naidu’s engagement with Western feminists who were accustomed to assuming leadership over non-Western women delivered an assertive anti-colonial challenge. Such transnational dialogue between Indian women and feminist networks (see also the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, pictured) would become an important means through which nationalist grievances caught global attention.  

By the 1930s, the Indian women’s movement was more wide-ranging and better organised. A concerted nation-wide campaign against child marriage had established women’s organisations as the agenda-setters on the women’s question in India. Meanwhile, a new Indian campaign for women’s suffrage after 1931 demanded a universal adult franchise.  This was far in excess of what the colonial state was willing to offer and went beyond the gradualist demands supported by the majority of British feminists. Yet Indian women’s campaigning on the issue in Britain enabled them to establish alliances with organisations that supported their claims.  These connections would help facilitate Indian women’s subsequent interactions with the League of Nations.

In September 1933, a delegation of Indian women visited Geneva.  Its purported aim was to secure formal representation for Indian women’s organisations on the social committees of the League of Nations.  Because the India Office in London controlled such appointments, this attempt by nationalist activists to bypass the imperial machine was destined to fail. But the campaign in Geneva enabled women activists to establish their legitimacy in international circles. In 1937, the All-India Women’s Conference became the only non-Western organisation to be listed as a Correspondent Member of the League of Nations Social Section. This international recognition cleared a path for Indian women’s appointments at the UN after independence.

Women’s movements in India have long been associated with unwanted Western intrusion. Yet a well-established strand of scholarship suggests this accusation all too readily assigns the provenance of ideas about women’s rights to the West. On the one hand, gender histories have highlighted the complicity of colonialism in the creation of patriarchal structures. On the other, they have pointed to the agency of Indian women in authoring liberal discourses.[1]   

My research highlights the ways that this creative authoring of ideas impacted on global conversations about rights.  These processes did not prevent the postcolonial calibration of global inequalities that all too closely resemble the racial hierarchies of European imperialism.  Nor did they avert the deployment of human rights in the service of neo-imperialistic ventures. Nevertheless, by emphasising a specific engagement with globally-circulating ideas they challenge us to resist the easy conflation of women’s rights with the politics of Western intrusion.

[1] See, for example, Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India. The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Duke University Press, 2006).

Crossing the Demarcation Line: Tales of POW Escape in Second World War France

Blog written by Dr Sarah Frank. Dr Frank is a social and military historian specializing in the French Empire during the twentieth century.

Prisoners of war have a complicated place in the public’s mind – there is a tendency to see captivity as a binary experience. Prisoners were, as Donald Trump argues, either people who gave up, or, as popular culture tells us, heroes plotting complicated and daring escapes. Many of us immediately picture Steve McQueen flying over a barbed-wire fence on a motorcycle in The Great Escape (1963). Fans of French films will certainly remember the complicated ending to The Cow and the Prisoner (1959). These competing ideas do not tell us very much about the everyday life of prisoners of war, or how few actually managed to escape (only 5 percent of French prisoners according to French historian Yves Durand).[1] In the French case where 1.8 million French soldiers were captured, the circumstances around the defeat in 1940, the rhetoric of the Vichy government, four years of German occupation, and the difficult liberation all complicated the narratives around captivity and war, which in turn continues to inform our understanding of POW experiences.

Luckily for historians of captivity, escape reports are tremendously fun to read. They illuminate many fine details on lived experience of war and reinforce that captivity during the Second World War was not just a white experience. After France’s rapid defeat in June 1940 over 100,000 colonial soldiers were among the 1.8 million soldiers captured by the German Army. In an extraordinary move, the Germans decided to intern the colonial prisoners of war in camps throughout Occupied France instead of bringing them to Germany with the white prisoners. Captivity in France brought certain advantages: slightly better climate, friendly civilian population, fewer food shortages, and critically, much shorter distances to travel for prisoners hoping to escape. Any prisoner who made it across the demarcation line (the frontier between the occupied Northern zone and the unoccupied Vichy zone) before November 1942 was considered free.

Guerre 1939-1945. Epinal (Vosges). ICRC representative speaking with POW. Photo credit: ICRC Archives, V-P-HIST-03439-12, 24/06/1941.

Escape reports from the colonial prisoners recount exciting tales of hardship and sacrifice. The journey to the unoccupied zone was lonely, long and could be terrifying. Prisoners risked recapture, getting lost or shot, and running out of food and water. Mohamed Ben Brahim and Mohamed Ben Ali spent nine days walking and swimming across two rivers to reach the southern zone.[2] All the colonial prisoners who escaped praised the generosity and assistance found among the French civilians.[3]

Creativity was as essential as good directions and civilian clothes to successfully escape. Colonial prisoners could not blend in with the civilian population as the white prisoners did. Instead, they sought advantages where they could. Albin Bancilon hid in plain sight on a French farm, pretending to be the farmer’s servant.[4] Mohamed Ben Ali took a risky but simple approach – carrying a bucket and dressed in civilian clothes, he walked across France pretending to be a North African civilian worker.[5] It worked! Escaping captivity took patience, effort, and daring. Prisoners took time to study the different possibilities. It took Michel Gnimagnon over a month of planning, and several abortive attempts, before he was able to escape. He wrote a long and dramatic report of his escape from a work assignment after slipping through barbed wire, climbing ramparts, using secret codes – owl cries – to find his guide, and, of course, disguises.[6] Eventually Gnimagnon was hidden aboard a train for Marseilles where he caught bronchitis due to the cold.

Other prisoners looked to the French resistance to help them escape. Pierre Choffel, leader of the Vesoul network, was also the locksmith for the POW camp which gave the resistance a rather large advantage over the camp guards.[7] In the early days, there was a certain complicity between the resistance and the German camp commander Lieutenant Boehm who felt the prisoners were only doing their duty in escaping. Less than six months later Boehm had been replaced because too many prisoners had escaped; after which the German guards were more vigilant, and the escapees more creative. One prisoner escaped from a work group composed of four men while Choffel was nearby.[8] The German guard accused Choffel of facilitating the escape (which he denied), and complained that he could not return to the camp with only three prisoners. Choffel offered to find a fourth, decoy prisoner so the guard would not be blamed for the escape. A medical officer working with the Red Cross agreed to assist as he had more freedom of movement than other prisoners. Slipping out of his Red Cross armband, the guard was able to return to the camp with his four prisoners, and nothing out of the ordinary was noted. Later that day, the medical worker simply put on his Red Cross armband and walked out of the camp. The escape was not reported until the next morning, leaving Choffel and the guard in the clear.

Guerre 1939-1945. Melun. Group of Senegalese prisoners. Photo credit: ICRC Archives, V-P-HIST-03440-36, 17/08/1940.

These escape stories are inherently interesting, but they serve another more important pedagogical role. Historians working on indigenous people subject to French or other colonial rule must wrestle with issues of agency – especially in the primary sources. Many white prisoners, French and British, kept diaries and published memoirs after the war. With a few notable exceptions colonial prisoners did not leave written records of their captivity. As such, much of the information about their captivity is filtered through a white European lens – via camp inspection reports from the Red Cross or correspondence between local French officials worrying about how to integrate colonial prisoners into the local economy. For a variety of reasons, the French authorities interviewed most of the escaped colonial prisoners of war about German propaganda they might have encountered, morale in the camps and relations with French civilians. These testimonies constitute the largest records of colonial prisoners’ captivity experience, containing first person narratives from surrender, capture, through to camp life and escape. While this is a fantastic source where we can finally hear from the prisoners themselves, it, of course, remains problematic. One of the challenges is then how to draw out the voices of those people whose every interaction with the French, who represented the colonial authority, was impacted by hierarchies of race and citizenship.

[1] Yves Durand, La Vie quotidienne des prisonniers de guerre dans les Stalags, les Oflags, et les Kommandos 1939-1945 (Hachette: 1987), p. 107.

[2] SHD, 14P31, Debayeux to Chef d’Escadron commanding the IV/64th RAA, 10 October 1940.

[3] For more examples see SHD, 14P17, Mohamed Ben Mohamed, escape report as told to Lieutenant Charpentier, 29 August 1941; SHD, 14P16, Salah Allag, escape report, [n.d.].

[4] SHD, 14P16, Nussard, recommend Albin Bancilon for commendation, 1 August 1940.

[5] SHD, 14P17, Mohamed Ben Ali, escape report, translated by Ould Yahoui, 7 November 1940.

[6] SHD, 14P46, Michel Gnimagnon, captivity report, 21 January 1941.

[7] AD Haute-Saône, 9J10, Journal de marche du ‘Mouvement Lorraine’ de la Haute-Saône, 28 September 1940.

[8] Ibid.

New Frontiers of the History of Books, Media and Libraries

This piece is part of our 2020 Alumni Magazine. The magazine pieces for this year’s edition will be published online, as well as included in a combined 2020/21 printed volume next summer.

Blog written by Dr Arthur der Weduwen. Dr der Weduwen’s research focuses on history of communication, the early modern print world, the development of the state and the growth of a politically-engaged public.

I first enrolled at St Andrews as an M.Litt student in 2014, after which I took up a PhD in Modern History the following year. As a postgraduate student, my research developed in two areas, both focussed on the history of the Netherlands. I firstly embarked on a study of the emergence of newspaper publishing in the seventeenth century. The Netherlands was a hotbed for the development of the newspaper, and Amsterdam was one of the earliest newspaper centres of the world, responsible not only for multiple competing Dutch papers, but also the first English (1620), French (1620) and Yiddish (1687) newspapers in the world. My work with these early papers, which took me to dozens of libraries in thirteen countries, was published in 2017 as the first complete bibliography of the early Dutch press.

While my interest in these newspapers allowed me to gain insights into the development of commercial news media in the early modern Netherlands, my PhD subject allowed me to acquire a complementary perspective: that is, how government engaged with printed media. The authorities of the highly decentralised Dutch Republic increasingly relied on printed matter – edicts, ordinances, tax forms – to communicate with their citizenry. Based on archival research throughout the Netherlands, my research revealed for the first time to what extent the oligarchic regents of the seventeenth-century Netherlands were at pains to solicit the consent of ordinary citizens to support their administration. At the same time, this work brought home to me how non-commercial jobbing print, like government ordinances, was essential work for the printers of the Dutch Republic: the work was steady, well paid and increasingly lucrative.

A copy of the oldest book printed in the Icelandic language, a New Testament, produced in Roskilde, Denmark (1540). Credit: Proquest

St Andrews was, undoubtedly, the best place to work as a postgraduate student in history. I had the continuous support of the sizeable group of scholars and students who work at the school, not least the group working on early modern book history, revolving around the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC) project. The USTC, which was started in St Andrews in 1995 by Professor Andrew Pettegree, is a free online resource that aims to provide descriptions of all books printed before the year 1650, covering the first two centuries following Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. I first encountered the project as an undergraduate student at Exeter when I joined the USTC for its annual summer volunteering programme. Once at St Andrews, I continued to work on the project, mostly on my area of expertise, the Low Countries. From the autumn of 2018 onwards, after finishing my PhD, I had the good fortune to be able to stay at St Andrews and work as a research associate of the USTC project. Since then I have worked closely together with Andrew Pettegree on two further projects: a general history of book publishing and trading during the Dutch Golden Age (published last year by Yale University Press as The Bookshop of the World) and a two-volume history of the invention and development of newspaper advertising – a process that also took place in the precociously innovative Dutch Republic.

Baroque glories. The eighteenth century saw the transformation of many libraries in German and Austrian monastic houses from humble work rooms to grand library halls – impressive for visitors, not much congenial for study. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The global pandemic threw a spanner in the works for many research plans this year, not least the cancellation of the symposium on newspaper advertising in Amsterdam that was to accompany the publication of our latest project. Nevertheless, I was lucky to be able to turn to other work that could be done from the safety and convenience of home in St Andrews. One of the most exciting aspects of this work was the advancement that the USTC team – staff, students and volunteers – made to expand its coverage of the national print cultures of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. The art of printing, invented by Gutenberg in Mainz in the 1450s, spread rapidly throughout Europe but failed to settle permanently in broad swathes of northern and eastern Europe. For this reason, countries like Latvia (where printing started in 1588), Estonia (1632), Finland (1642) and Norway (1643) did not feature strongly in the first iterations of the USTC. We have now rectified this, adding records of thousands of books printed in these countries, as well as in Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Lithuania and Belarus. It is a real pleasure to bring this work to a global audience. It has also allowed me to introduce myself to a whole new range of European scholarship and languages (I’ll admit that my Swedish is getting on better than my Estonian). We are keeping up with progress as I write: our current work concentrates on Hungary, Romania and Poland – more sizeable, but equally remarkable print domains.

In The Library, A Fragile History, we write about libraries of all shapes and sizes, including the mid-twentienth century vogue for an organised pack horse library service that ran throughout the Appalachian range. Credit: University of Kentucky Library

The period of lockdown also proved to be an amenable time for writing. The past eight months has seen Andrew Pettegree and myself write the text of a new book, The Library, a Fragile History, to be published by Profile in 2021. In this work we survey the global history of libraries, from ancient Alexandria to the present day, and frame the current crisis of public library funding and closures within a broader narrative in which institutional libraries have always struggled – for funding, status and survival. It has been exciting to write on such a broad topic and to learn so much in the process about different time periods of history and different cultures. Although I’m certain that the early modern Netherlands will always remain dear to my heart, it has been a fantastic experience to move seriously beyond its remit.

I received the happy news earlier this summer that I will be able to stay in St Andrews on a three-year postdoctoral fellowship funded by the British Academy. One thing is clear to me – I would not wish to work anywhere else. The new teaching and research regime imposed by the pandemic will undoubtedly bring its challenges, but I am confident that staff and students at the school of history will flourish as before.

Project: Esperanto & Internationalism, c. 1880s-1930

Blog written by Dr Bernhard Struck. Dr Struck is a Reader in Modern European History and founding director of of the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History at St Andrews. His research interests include the history of Germany, Poland and France in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, transnational and comparative history, the history of travel and cartography, and now Esperanto.

Ču vi parolas Esperanton aŭ vi estas muglo? Do you speak Esperanto or are you a muggler? (AKA a non Esperanto-speaker) Esperanto is an easy language to learn. Its grammatical rules are simple and few—in fact, there are only sixteen in total! It can be learned in 30 minutes (seriously, compare that to Czech or Russian). The vocabulary is built on a blend of Romance and Germanic languages (mainly), some Slavic and a logical structure of Latin-based suffices and affixes. Linguists say the effort to learn and converse in Esperanto is about 1/5 compared to French. So why not learn Esperanto?

The Aberdeen Esperanto Society, 1919
Part of University of St Andrews Special Collections

That question may have been on the mind of some 40 Esperantists that we see in a photo taken in Craibstone near Aberdeen in 1919. We do not know much about these 40 individuals, yet the photo is a microscopic lens into the fascinating and multi-faceted Esperanto world in the early twentieth century and into a new interdisciplinary and collaborative project “Esperanto and Internationalism, c.1880-1930”.

The Esperanto society in Aberdeen was founded in October 1904 at a time when clubs mushroomed across Europe: in Dundee, Montrose (and elsewhere in Scotland), in Pardubice, Kutné Hoře, and Prague in Bohemia, in Saxony, in Warsaw and western Tsarist Russia, in Finland, Catalonia, in the English Midlands, and rural Bavaria, as well as in the US, in China and Japan. The movement bridged generations, it brought together women and men, it attracted Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Free Thinkers. It attracted teachers, scientists, engineers, doctors, and later on workers and civil servants.

The language was created by the Polish-Jewish doctor, Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (1859-1917). He grew up in Bialystok (today’s Poland) in Tsarist Russia. In the 1870s in Bialystok, with a large Jewish population, he would have heard Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew along with another handful of languages and dialects. As a young medical student in Warsaw the young Zamenhof witnessed the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1882/83 that raged across the region. It was against this backdrop of rising ethno-nationalist tensions, at a time of globalisation, internationalism, and nationalism, that Zamenhof published his first two Esperanto manuals, Unua Libro and Dua Libro in 1887/88, first in Russian, and swiftly translated into other languages. With Esperanto, Zamenhof and his many followers hoped (Esperanto translates as “the one who hopes”) to give the world a neutral, non-national communication ground for a better, peaceful future of mankind.

The photo of the Esperanto group from Aberdeen provides the backdrop to the research questions for our new project hosted in the School of History and at the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History (ITSH): How did the movement spread? Who learned the language? How was Esperanto lived and organised at a local, regional, and transnational level? How did Esperantists live and communicate in Esperantoland a far-reaching, organised, yet non-territorial language community as teachers, engineers, and doctors, as Scots, Bohemians, Germans, Fins, and French? Were they internationalist, affiliated with other international organisation and attending the Universal Esperanto Congresses, or were they rather local-internationalists who did not attend congresses, but preferred to exchange postcards in Esperanto between Dundee, Bohemia, India, and Oslo?

The Esperanto project group. From left to right: Marcel Koschek, Manuela Burghelea, Pilar Requejo De Lamo, and Dr Bernhard Struck

Currently, the projects brings together four researchers with distinct, yet interrelated topics. Marcel Koschek joined us in September 2019 with degrees in History and Political & Social Sciences from the University of Würzburg and Bonn. He is working a PhD project “Local Internationalists. Polish and Central European Esperantist Networks between the local, national and global, 1880-1920s”. The projects aims to showcase how Polish Esperantists interacted in different spheres and examines their personal backgrounds, professions and interest.

Pilar Requejo De Lamo came to St Andrews in 2018 for an MLitt in Intellectual History and with a degree in International Relations from King Juan Carlos University in Madrid. Her PhD is entitled “Early Esperanto Communities in Spain: Tensions between Local, Regional and National Organisations”. The aim of this PhD is to bring into discussion the development of the artificial language in 20th-century Spain, and particularly in Catalonia.

Manuela Burghelea joined the Esperanto-Project at St Andrews as a continuation of her Master research on Esperanto between universal ideals and local cultural practices. She holds a joint MA degree in Intercultural Mediation (Lille) and a Bachelor degree in Philology (Bucureşti). Manuela conducted European volunteer work in Esperanto associations in France and in the Netherlands and is currently administrating the online citizen media translation community Global Voices Esperanto. Her project is entitled “Wandering Language: Senses of Place and Belonging among Esperanto Millenials”. In a socioanthropological and historical perspective, the project analyses motivations, aspirations, and agendas of young Esperanto speakers in current day Rio de Janeiro.

Working on a monograph on Modern Europe. A Transnational History, 1760s-2000s (Bloomsbury) Bernhard Struck started reading around the Esperanto movement and fell in love (academically). Taking an explicit local and regional starting point, his own research focuses on Scotland, the Midlands, Saxony, and Bohemia in the early twentieth century. Beyond the transregional focus around these four Esperanto regions, his current interests revolve around Esperanto experts as ‘epistemic communities’ by looking at doctors, architects, city planners in the Esperanto movement.

QGIS map of all international congress visitors across Europe 1904-1913.
Photo courtesy of the Esperanto project

While research on Esperanto exists, the movement as such has never been studied as what it truly was: a cross-border, translocal, transregional, and, in fact, global community. While all of our projects follow discrete questions and local and national particularities, they follow an explicit transnational perspective: a spatial and scalar perspective that starts from the local and individual and builds outwards to the regional, national, and transnational. The project builds on a complex linguistic and far-spread archival base from local and private archives, to city archives, museums, and national archives. It has a spatial and Digital History component by data mining of sources and visualisation of local memberships, journal publications, and international congress participation.

We would like to thank a number of sponsors of the project: the University of St Andrews, the German Academic Exchange Service, (DAAD) the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the CEDIES (Luxembourg), ESF (Esperantic Studies Foundation).

‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’: an exhibition by Professor Rab Houston

Blog written by Professor Rab Houston. Professor Houston has worked at the University of St Andrews since 1983 and is Professor of Modern History, specialising in British social history.

Professor Rab Houston

‘Prisoners or Patients?’ is the latest part of a major project I began in 2016 to use the lessons of history to stimulate awareness of mental health issues in the modern world.

Using free podcasts, social media, public talks, and photo exhibitions of asylum and prison patients I tried to reach out to sufferers and those close to them, medical professionals, and anyone with an interest in what is the fastest growing diagnostic category in global healthcare. I did this using history because it is, I think, uniquely useful for enabling empathetic engagement.

William Porter, convicted of housebreaking and theft.
Image: National Records of Scotland

People a century or more ago seem very different to us. The rationale behind the photo exhibitions is that the further you get from an event or a person, the harder it is to know what they were actually like. The more you can keep of the physical reality, the more you keep of the mental reality. Seeing someone’s face engages us straight away, and then you begin to question why their image was taken. In this case it was because of a crime. What were their family circumstances? How did those around them see their mental state? Did they get a bad break or make a bad choice? How did the justice system deal with those who were not responsible because they were insane? What therapies were available to treat someone who went mad? All these steps draw us into a material world that is different to our own – but a mental world that is more familiar than we might think, because the combination of genetic predisposition and life-stresses that produce mental disorders was almost certainly the same in the past as in the present.

Britain’s present-day prison system was created by the Victorians. They built not only penitentiaries, some still housing prisoners, but also a national system of administration. What were called ‘criminal lunatics’ became part of an integrated system during Victorian times, rather than anomalies in both justice and health care. Perth Prison’s Criminal Lunatic Department was created to house the most seriously disturbed offenders from across Scotland, and it was the only facility of its kind until what is now The State Hospital, Carstairs, opened in 1948. 

Margaret Hunter or Beaton, convicted of killing her young son
Image: National Records of Scotland

The problems the justice system faced then were similar to today. How to identify whether someone really was mad or feigning insanity in hope of more favourable treatment? Where to put criminal lunatics to prevent them from harming themselves and others? How to balance the needs of society with the rights of individuals? How to help prisoner-patients recover and re-enter the community? Prison communities of all kinds had much higher levels of mental disorder than the general population in Victorian times, something which remains true today.

There are differences too. Victorians thought that institutions were the key to most social problems, whereas their successors today prefer smaller scale solutions. Most of the drugs now used to manage mental problems have only been available since the mid-20th century; Victorians had only sedatives and hypnotics. We have different ideas about the status of women and children, and the acceptability of violence in interpersonal relations. But the difference is not as crude as we might think. The Victorians knew about social issues and mental disorders, dealing with them as best they could by the standards of their times. The past really is another country, where they do things differently. We should respect their efforts, even if, ultimately, we ourselves choose to do things differently.

What does all this mean? The famous British historian G. M. Trevelyan once wrote movingly:

‘The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact, that once, on this earth, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another; gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at dawn.’

A body belt used to restrain a prisoner’s arms and hands. Restraints like this were used in all UK prisons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Image: National Records of Scotland

The exhibition helps us to reach out to them across time and to see ourselves and those around us in a different, more sympathetic light. It allows us to learn more about mental health through the lessons of history. Because we are all migrants through time.

The exhibition showed at the National Records of Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival (August 2019) and was part of the official Fringe program. Between now and the end of 2019 it will be in various Scottish prisons, The State Hospital Carstairs, and on display at a UK forensic psychiatry conference. The project runs until the end of July 2020.

From Dakar to Aix: the struggle with researching imperial histories

Blog post written by Dr Sarah Frank

V-P-HIST-03440-05, Guerre 1939-1945. Châlons-sur-Marne. Dulag Ob West. Camp de prisonniers de guerre. Homme de confiance des détenus coloniaux français.

Reconstructing the stories of colonized peoples presents a certain number of challenges. One struggle for historians of imperialism is how to draw out the voices of marginalized peoples when the archival trace places a euro-centric filter on their experiences. The research for my book, Hostages of Empire: Colonial Prisoners of War and Vichy France, took me on what sometimes felt like a wild goose chase hoping for memoirs and first-person accounts of captivity and finding mostly administrative documents. My first research trip as a young, hopeful PhD student took me to Paris for the French National Archives and the French Military Archives. These are the first ports of call for anyone studying the Second World War in France. I quickly realized that finding prisonnier de guerre in an inventory most likely referred to white, metropolitan prisoners of war, and not the approximately 85,000 men from across the French empire who were also captured in the Battle for France.

Evidence was there, it just needed to be found. Digging through correspondence between the French and German armistice commissions revealed intense negotiations between Georges Scapini, the half-blind veteran of the First World War placed in charge of all POW affairs, and his German counterpart over where the colonial prisoners should be interned. Once prisoners were settled into camps, international inspectors from the Swiss International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), or the American Young Man’s Christian Association (YMCA) started visiting colonial and white prisoners and reporting on their mental and physical conditions. While white prisoners sometimes left memoirs most colonial prisoners did not leave written records of their captivity. Luckily there are a few notable exceptions such as Léopold Sédar Senghor (first president of Senegal, poet, a brilliant intellectual), Ahmed Rafa (who became one of the first Algerian generals in the French army) and Michel Gnimagnon (a teacher from Dahomey). Still, much of the information about the colonial prisoners’ captivity was filtered through a white European lens – even when colonial prisoners were asked about their own experiences.

V-P-HIST-03440-35, Guerre 1939-1945. Melun. Camp de prisonniers de guerre français et sénégalais. Groupe de détenus sénégalais.

For a variety of reasons, the French authorities interviewed most of the colonial prisoners who escaped from captivity. Summaries of these interviews were submitted to the French military authorities interested in German propaganda, morale in the camps, and relations with French civilians. These testimonies constitute the largest records of colonial prisoners’ captivity experience, containing first-person narratives from surrender, capture, through to camp life and escape. So this is a fantastic source where we can finally hear from the prisoners themselves. But it of course remains problematic. One of the challenges is then, how to draw out the voices of those people whose every interactions with the French, who represented the colonial authority, was impacted by hierarchies of race and citizenship. Questions of sex and gender are inherently important for POWs, but do not exist in the source material. No colonial soldier would ever think of reporting sexual relations with a white French woman to a French military officer.

V-P-HIST-03440-36, Guerre 1939-1945. Melun. Camp de prisonniers de guerre français et sénégalais. Groupe de détenus sénégalais.

One method I found useful when working with problematic written sources was to expand my research to include as many different perspectives as possible. To do so, I travelled to the German Military archives in Frieburg, French Overseas Archives in Aix, Kew in London, the Senegalese National Archives and seventeen departmental archives in France hoping to find traces of colonial prisoners who had worked locally. Being an underfunded PhD student, these archival trips were somewhat dire – 5am trains to Vesoul, low-budget hotel rooms, and archival staff confused as to ‘what I wanted’. I quickly learnt that material on the colonial prisoners was rarely in a box labeled ‘colonial prisoners of war’, and that one should never travel without tea bags.  Surprisingly, the presence of a large POW camp, like that in Epinal which held up to 10,000 prisoners, did not guarantee that information about its colonial prisoners would be found in the departmental archives. In many departments school children were encouraged to collect clothes and scrapes of fabric to send to the ‘suffering populations in North Africa’ while ignoring the North African prisoners located in their towns. Other archives had a wealth of material, like in Mayenne, a rural department, where many small towns were forced to hire colonial prisoners to work on public works. As costs increased, so did the number of complaints which were kept in the archive, revealing the multitude of attitudes of French civilians towards the colonial prisoners.

Eventually, the diverse material from different actors allowed me to reconstruct the colonial prisoners’ experiences of life in captivity, relationships they formed, and how they survived until their return home. Reading widely allowed me to identify and challenge the assumptions of the documents’ writers, my own assumptions, and those of previous historians. Most importantly, thinking outside the box (and visiting as many archives as possible!) helped reveal the voices and agency of the people I was researching.