As President Trump endorses a bill to restrict immigration, Lecturer in North American History, Julio Decker, reflects on the history of US attitudes to the ‘huddled masses’.
Much of what has been happening since the American election last year seems novel and unprecedented. It seems difficult to remember a single week of the Trump administration that did not collide with political customs. Last week, another seemingly unprecedented break with the past happened when White House Aid Stephen Miller declared that Emma Lazarus’s poem ‘The New Colossus’, engraved in the pedestal, was irrelevant as it was added after the Statue of Liberty had been erected. In a heated exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta, he defended President Trump’s support for a Senate Bill that would halve the number of legal immigrants allowed to come to the United States. The bill would test potential migrants’ job prospects before admission, among them their English-language skills.
For many commentators, this seemed like a new low: denigrating a poem that stood for the American tradition of calling for the world to send ‘your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’. And there is a case to make that Miller misrepresented the poem, which was written as part of a fundraiser for the statue, thus being explicitly connected to the Lady of Liberty. But Miller did get one thing right: opposition to immigration, and to the poem and what it represented, was not a break in American history: it had existed even before 1903 when the plaque with the poem was installed. Just like the travel ban, the Trump administration’s immigration policy proposals have such a clout because the restrictionist impulses have a long tradition in American history.
Lazarus wrote the sonnet in 1883, one year after Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned – with only a few exceptions – an entire nationality from entering the United States. Opposition to immigration was not limited to those from Asia: when the origin of most new arrivals started to shift from North-western to South-eastern Europe in the 1880s, many Americans started to demand restriction. These nativist voices explicitly rejected the spirit embodied in ‘The New Colossus’ – new immigrants were depicted as lowering wage levels, being unwilling to assimilate, and lacking the cultural knowledge to participate in a democratic society. In the late nineteenth century, these views were framed in contemporary racial theories – new immigrants were classified as part of the Alpine or Mediterranean races, supposedly inferior to Anglo-Saxons.
From the 1890s, nativist voices began to be heard in Washington. Conservative think-tanks and lobby groups such as the Immigration Restriction League built alliances with farmers, Southerners, and labour unions. Influential Senators such as Henry Cabot Lodge started to lobby for new means of reducing immigration. What university degrees, skills, job prospects, and language skills are to conservative lawmakers today, the literacy test was for nativist reformers of the early twentieth century. At Ellis Island and at other inspection sites at American borders, immigrants were meant to prove that they could read and write. Restrictionists argued that the test was impartial, and that apart from testing a crucial skill for participation in American politics, it would also exclude the most undesirable, as illiteracy supposedly correlated with criminality, poverty, and dependence on state aid. The real motivation, however, was another correlation – that illiteracy was the lowest among people from North-western Europe. Depending on the audience, restrictionists would openly address this racial dimension– the founder of the Immigration Restriction League, Prescott F. Hall, declared in 1919 that immigration restriction should be seen as a method of keeping ‘inferior stocks’ from ‘both diluting and supplanting good stocks’.
For most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, Presidents rejected the ‘radical departure from our national policy’, as Grover Cleveland wrote when he vetoed a literacy test bill in 1897. Woodrow Wilson vetoed similar bills in 1913 and 1915. Furious with the President’s threat of a veto, Senator Lodge declared that instead of clinging to the tradition embodied by ‘The New Colossus’, he should read Thomas Bailey Aldrich. In 1893, this poet had written ‘The Unguarded Gates’ as a reply to Lazarus, bemoaning that the nation let in ‘featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho, Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt and Slave’, who brought ‘with them unknown gods and rites’. The poem called out to Lady Liberty to rethink her welcome to the world:
In street and alley what strange tongues are loud,
Accents of menace alien to our air,
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!
O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well
To leave the gates unguarded?
Lodge was not the first to bring Aldrich’s poem into political debate – it was popular among restrictionists. While citing it did not convince Wilson in 1913, the nativists’ lobby work did eventually pay off when the United States entered World War One. Public doubts over immigrants’ loyalties helped restrictionists to organize the Congressional votes necessary for overriding another veto by Wilson. In 1917, the new Immigration Act included the literacy test. It also banned all immigration from the so-called Asiatic Barred Zone, stretching from the Ottoman Empire to New Guinea. While this wholesale ban excluded migrants regarded as non-white, the literacy test proved to be less effective than originally envisioned. In the 1920s, a wide coalition of Democrats and Republicans passed acts establishing a quota system which drastically limited immigration from South-eastern Europe. Like today, the radical anti-immigrant rhetoric was supported by the White House. ‘American liberty’, vice-president Calvin Coolidge wrote in an article for Good Housekeeping in 1921, ‘is dependent on quality in citizenship’. While the ‘Nordics propagate themselves successfully’, he wrote, in the question of limiting immigration ‘racial considerations [are] too grave to be brushed aside’. It is only ‘when the alien adds vigor to our stock that he is wanted’ – to ensure national progress, racially inferior immigrants therefore had to be excluded, he argued.
Symbols like the Statue of Liberty are imbued with political meaning. For many liberal Americans, the statue stands for an American tradition of welcoming immigrants regardless of English-language skills, race, or ethnicity. But the statue so many immigrants saw on their arrival to New York also embodies another powerful strand in American politics, one those with a positive view of the United States tend to repress. Immigration legislation was also shaped by a strong tradition of nativism, racism, and conservatism, one that politicians can mobilize when calling for tighter regulation. In their vision of American history, Lady Liberty was wrong in welcoming the world’s poor and huddled masses – this is why ultra-nationalists interpret the latest Vogue cover as a criticism of the Trump administration. Understanding this history gives us a stern warning: when this tradition is embraced by the White House, consequences for immigrants can be dire.
University of Bristol history graduate Karen Mead reflects on her summer research internship and how it led her to a dissertation on Bristol women’s relationships with American GIs:
When I was invited to be a history research intern last summer, I was thrilled. I could never have anticipated the journey on which the research would take me! The project initially involved researching African-American GIs’ experiences in Bristol during the Second World War. Together with Dr Julio Decker, lecturer in North American history, I was to work with archival material from the Bristol Archives. As with many archives, much of the Bristol Record Catalogue is conveniently listed online. Following an extensive search of the material they held, it seemed they held promising material for the research project. I made an appointment and was excited to be viewing primary sources, the bedrock of historians’ work.
It quickly became clear, from looking at the initial material, that the task was not going to be as straightforward as I had imagined. From the outset, despite online listings to the contrary, police records for the crucial war years were missing. Equally, some of the material had sustained damage and some records were incomplete. It also became clear that, due to the US military having jurisdiction over their own servicemen, any records of their transgressions were likely to be held in the United States; this further limited the material we could work with. Unfortunately, these problems are regular obstacles that historians can encounter in the course of their research. Nevertheless, inspiration came from an unlikely source. Following nearly nine months of research, the unexpected find of twelve letters to the Bristol Mayor, which initially seemed outside the scope of the research project, transformed the central focus of the research project onto a under examined area of the Second World War.
Whilst examining the Lord Mayor’s Wartime Correspondence, I came across a selection of letters written by members of the public, British servicemen, and even from America following the publication of a small article in the Sunday Pictorial Newspaper in August 1945. The article detailed scenes in Bristol when African-American soldiers were leaving to return to the United States at the end of the war. Whilst the authenticity of the article may be apocryphal, the responses were damning. The writers of these letters fiercely criticised the purported behaviour of these women. This indicated to me that these writers perceived the behaviour as unpatriotic and suggests that some British servicemen considered British women their property on their return from the war.
With such clear condemnation and an awareness of the contemporary labels attached to women who had relationships with American servicemen, these letters led me to consider the motivations and experiences of these women. At first, I thought that this topic would have attracted significant historical scholarship. To my surprise, only a few female scholars had directly looked at these relationships in the last few years. Their research focussed on government actions to discourage such relationships, the tension they caused, and the framing of the relationships as unpatriotic. These articles were notable for their lack of evidence from the women themselves. In light of the sparse scholarship, I wanted to recover these women’s stories. As many of these women did not leave contemporary accounts for historians to draw upon, this proved challenging.
After much searching, I found oral history interviews and questionnaires completed by GI brides in the Imperial War Museum Archives in London. These detailed oral history interviews and questionnaire responses, covering their experiences of meeting their husbands to moving to America, shed light on a previously unexplored aspect of the social history of the Second World War. Importantly, these sources challenged the limited historical research on these relationships to date and formed the bedrock of my dissertation. My final piece ‘Finding Love in War: An examination of the motivations and experiences in their relationships with American GIs during the Second World War, 1942-1946’ combines oral history and documentary sources. It reveals that – contrary to contemporary stereotypes – the women in the study married their American GIs for love, had positive experiences introducing their GI to their families and were welcomed by their new American relatives. This study challenges prevailing historical scholarship on these relationships, which has suggested women were motivated by the luxury items that GIs could provide, often resulting in transitory encounters. Moreover, it highlights the importance of diversifying the historical picture by examining evidence from the individuals involved.
 L.McCormick, One Yank and They’re Off: Interaction between US Troops and Northern Irish Women 1942-1945, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 15 (2006), 228-257; S. O’ Rose, ‘Girls and GI’s: Race, Sex, and Diplomacy in Second World War Britain’, The International History Review, 19 (1997) 146-160; W. Webster, ‘Fit to Fight, Fit to Mix’: Sexual Patriotism in Second World War Britain, Women’s History Review, 22 (2013), 607-624.
“We’ve killed off the dodo, released unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and raised sea levels: welcome to the Anthropocene, the geological age in which humankind has permanently left our mark on the planet.”
This was the description I gave to my new unit, ‘The Age of the Anthropocene’ hoping to catch the attention of second year students keen to explore the impact and meaning of global environmental change. It worked: students from History, English Literature, Religion and Theology, Philosophy, Ancient History, and Study Abroad students joined me this autumn to explore how the notion of the ‘Anthropocene’ has gained traction as a definition of time that recognizes the unprecedented Earth-altering impact of the human species. We engaged with debates among scientists and humanities scholars over the concept, while also exploring how it has captured popular and scholarly imagination.
One of the activities that I looked forward to was holding an inaugural Bristol ‘Anthropocene Slam’ – inspired by the original Anthropocene Slam at the Nelson Institute, Centre for Culture History and Environment (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2014); the Anthropocene exhibition at the Deutsches Museum (Munich, 2014-16); and the BBC/British Museum initiative, ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’. The challenge was to select an object/visual/sound that encapsulates and communicates the Anthropocene to a wide audience. Here, the students describe the unit, the Slam, and present their selection of objects which best communicate the Anthropocene to you, the public.
What is the Age of Anthropocene unit?
The Anthropocene is the notion that humanity has become a geological force in its own right, moving us in to a new epoch. Proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, it has inspired this unit ‘The Age of Anthropocene’, which explores the origins, reality and future of the changing planet. Expect hard-hitting truths about the changing relationship between humans and the environment, using the most innovative of recent scholarship, but also material and technology sources.
What is the Anthropocene Slam?
Slam! Now I’ve got your attention. For the Anthropocene slam we were each tasked with presenting a material source ranging from audio to bleach bottles, which represented our perceptions of what the broad concept of the Anthropocene meant. Our overall purpose was to present the Anthropocene with clarity, in the most effective fashion. Our broad scope reflected how the Anthropocene affects all areas of life.
Object 1: Fordite /Detroit agate
Proposed by Thecla Horton
I chose this as an item that I think most represents the Anthropocene for a number of reasons. Fordite is layers and layers of old car paint, from when cars were hand spray-painted, which built up in the painting bays on the ‘tracks’ and ‘skids’ that cars were painted on. The colourful layers show many years of this, these layers were then ‘baked’ when the car bodies went into ovens to set the paint. This process is now extinct as cars are no longer hand sprayed.
Firstly, I think it is a good representation of the Anthropocene as a product of the automobile industry-a significant driver behind the oil industry, mass consumption, and a significant contributor to global warming. The fact that the production of this material is now extinct seems symbolic to the proposed idea that we are entering the 6th mass extinction. Technology and our world is moving so quickly that even these man made materials are becoming rare.
It looks natural and beautiful even the name, Fordite/Detroit agate, is suggestive of a natural mineral, the pattern of multiple layers making it look like it is millions of years old. Yet it is a fossil of the beginning of the Anthropocene. While fossils have taken millions of years to form, the human impact on the planet has happened so rapidly and violently to produce fossils within just a few years, and then for it also to become virtually ‘extinct’.
Object 2: Photograph of Male, Maldives
Proposed by Toby Lane
This is Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Situated in the Indian Ocean it is home to over 130,000 people and is the fifth most densely populated island globally. It is the world’s lowest lying nation with the islands that make up the Maldives being on average only a few feet above sea level. Sea level rise consequently jeopardises the future existence of the Maldives and the way of life for all those who live on the island. The example of the Maldives epitomises the problems offered by the onset of the Anthropocene but also its unjust nature. Those who live on Malé have contributed little towards anthropogenic climate change but will be massively affected by the decisions and excesses of others. Furthermore the fate of Maldives is almost entirely outside of its inhabitants’ influence and the country lacks the ability to defend itself. Malé itself is only protected by a 3m high sea wall which took 14 years to construct at an expense of $63 million (99% of which was funded by Japan). Finally, a study of the Maldives also emphasises how little time is left in order to take action on climate change if catastrophic levels of disruption are to be avoided. In April 2012 President Nasheed of the Maldives declared that “If carbon emissions continue at the rate they are climbing today, my country will be underwater in seven years.”
Object 3: Emojis
Proposed by Noa Leach
Object 4: Video of a turtle (warning: scenes of an animal in distress)
Proposed by George Mumford
Object 5: Pollution mask
Proposed by Matt Davis
Since the end of the Second World War and the onset of the ‘Great Acceleration’ phase of the Anthropocene air pollution has risen rapidly.
In the build-up to the 2008 Olympic games held in Beijing the Chinese media became fixated on the city’s choking pollution. During an air quality crisis in February 2015, the concentration of ‘hazardous particulate matter’, known as PM 2.5 since they are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, rose to nearly twenty times the safe level.
Due to the health risk many people who live in China’s major cities have started wearing pollution masks in an attempt to keep themselves safe from PM 2.5, that are small enough to seep into a person’s lungs or bloodstream. The cause of the ridiculously high air pollution has been attributed to the Chinese industrial sector as the nation’s heaviest polluters. Despite the use of pollution masks a recent report has claimed air pollution is killing around four thousand people per day in China, and accounts for one in six premature deaths.
Air pollution masks represent much about human interaction and the general consequences of the Anthropocene. It has been predicted by scientists that continued burning of fossil fuels and high pollution levels will make much of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable by the year 2100. Pollution masks represent how Beijing has arguably become the closest city yet to be rendered unfit for human habitation due to the effects of the Anthropocene, and although the government is taking action to reduce pollution, the staggering number of deaths caused already begs the question ‘are they acting too late?’ The mask also represents the human reliance upon technological remedies to the Anthropocene, a quick fix that makes the immediate threat smaller and yet fails to address the cause of the problem, that of a constant striving for economic growth, over consumption and a frame of mind that prioritizes the pursuit of human progress over nature.
Object 6: Bunch of Keys
Proposed by Beth Gaffney
This object consists of a household key chain, three different sized keys, a combination padlock, and a supermarket points fob. This object symbolises Paul Crutzen and John McNeill’s third stage of the Anthropocene: ‘The Age of the Stewards’, which marks mankind’s recognition that human activities are indeed affecting the structure and functioning of the Earth system as a whole and is filtering through to decision making. Just as a steward is an official person responsible to take care of something, mankind uses keys to lock something into a safe space. This illustrates how humans have come to acknowledge their responsibility for the earth systems, which they value for continuance of human life.
However, keys are generally forgotten about; they remain hidden in our pockets for most of the day and are often misplaced. This suggests that mankind “knows” the importance of protecting the Earth systems, but often forget to act appropriately in everyday life. Mankind’s planetary ecological consciousness has not formed.
In addition, the different sized keys illustrate how human individuals have been given various “solutions” to protect the environment. However, neither of these three keys fit into the padlock. The keys also sit alongside a plastic supermarket key fob. The solutions provided by market environmentalism often falsely legitimatize the idea that one can continue his or her consumption habits without adjustment, and no broader systematic or structural changes are required. For example, polluters pay distant others, frequently located in the global south, to engage in emission reduction activities as a substitute for reductions at the source. These solutions prioritise the western anthropogenic world and are tokenistic.
By Dr Marianna Dudley (Lecturer in Environmental Humanities), Lucy Bennett (Religion and Theology), Matt Davis (History), James Foss (History), Beth Gaffney (History), Thecla Horton (History), Lydia Hunt (Philosophy and Theology), Yejin Jeong (Study Abroad), Toby Lane (History), Noa Leach (English), Rupert Liddell (Ancient History), George Mumford (History), Roisin Murphy (History), Olivia Nathan-King (Religion and Theology), and Cassie Rist (Religion and Theology) . Thanks go to Bristol Museum Curator Bonnie Griffin for joining our workshop and sharing her expertise, and to Cabot Innovation Fund for their support.
University of Bristol, July 19th -21st 2017
What does it mean for history to be creative?
This two-day conference explores the ways that educators, researchers, writers, artists, students, practitioners, and curators have brought the past to life, made history compelling, and had fun.
This is particularly important today. While public enthusiasm for history is as strong as ever, academic historians face currents of anti-intellectualism from politicians convinced ‘we’ are sick of ‘experts’, and even senior university officials who think ‘society’ does not need historians. Some academics, on the other hand, have jealously guarded the title of ‘historian’, leading to debates about professional identities, independent research, and popular history. Now, more than ever, is the time to explore the creativity of the many different types of history being produced in (and across) many different places.
We invite proposals for contributions including performances, recitals, demonstrations, research papers, and exhibitions addressing one or more of the following broad themes:
History in Public – History from and for below – Community histories and co-production – Museums and galleries – Interactive historical education – History publishing – The economics of public history
Historical (Non)Fiction – Novels – Poetry -Theatre – Journalism – Memoir and autobiography
Visual Histories – Photography, film, television – Art history – Curation
History and Social Media – Blogging – #twitterstorians – Digital humanities – #storypast
Proposals of 250 words for a single contribution should include the name(s) of contributor(s), the AV and technical needs and length of the contribution, and explain how it relates to the theme of ‘creative history’ and the sub-themes above. Grouped proposals for sessions of two to five contributions are especially welcome.
Deadline: 31st January 2017.
Please send proposals and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On his travels again, Andrew Hillier finds evidence of British colonisation nearer home in the French Riviera resort of Menton.
In my last blog (Malaysian Linkages, Old and New) I examined how Britain’s presence in nineteenth-century Malaysia could be explored through its buildings, cemeteries and other spaces. Similar evidence of a British presence, albeit in a different context, can be found in Menton, the village, perched on an outcrop of the Mediterranean coast, which Britons began to frequent in the 1860s.
University of Bristol historian John Pemble’s, The Mediterranean Passion, published almost 30 years ago, remains the most engaging account of how the Riviera was colonised during this period, principally by Britons, Germans and Russians. As he shows, it was British doctors who, by ordering their patients to go south in winter, first transformed the region’s ‘humble French and Italian villages into fashionable winter resorts’.
Nowhere was this process more evident than in Menton. If Dr James Henry Bennet (1816-1891) first put the medieval village on the English map, by recommending it for patients suffering from phthsis (tuberculosis), it was Queen Victoria who gave the resort its real impetus. She spent two months there in 1882, in search of a cure for her youngest son, the sickly Prince Leopold; sadly without success, as he died two years later.
Such was its attraction as a health resort that, by the turn of the century, invalids in ‘their Bath chairs monopolised the promenade du Midi by day and by night their premature retirement imparted a hospital hush to the atmosphere’. By then, although multi-national, the French regarded it as ‘une colonie Britannique’. And although this was in part Gallic humour, it can properly be considered as part of ‘the British World’: of its seventy-five hotels, seventeen boasted Anglo-Saxon names, including Victoria, Windsor, Balmoral and Westminster, and, outside the old town, many of its Belle Ēpoque villas were owned or occupied by Britons, whose lush ‘English’ gardens cascaded down to the sea.
The more intimate setting of Le Cimetière du Vieux Chateau most obviously captures this presence. Multi-denominational, the marbled mausolea of French Roman Catholics greet you on arrival. Higher up the hill, the graves of those same invalids compete for the fabulous views which unfolded before the grieving mourners. Trusting in, but – alas – not cured by, treatments prescribed by Dr Bennet, they first started to be buried here in the 1870s. Plainer than the French graves, the simple stone slabs are each surrounded by a low gated fence – the only concession to the Mediterranean ambience. Evocative in their own right, they connect us with lives that, for all their luxury, ended, for many, in their early thirties.
It might be thought that these Britons, who spent their winters in Menton and other Riviera resorts, developed a more cosmopolitan outlook than their counterparts who stayed at home. The evidence is, however, against this. Most came in search only of the climate and a cure and had little interest in France or its culture, nor in associating with any of the other nationalities who wintered there. When they stayed in hotels, they held themselves aloof and when they rented villas, they brought their own servants to tend to their needs. If they had any interest in their surroundings, it was limited to classical antiquities. As Pemble concludes, in the years leading up to the First World War, the British ‘were never more insular than when they were abroad’.
If this smacks of a typical colonial mentality, it would be wrong to suppose that it was resented then, or is so now. The resort is keen to celebrate what an official publication calls ‘la volonté Britannique de recréer un “bout d’Angleterre” partout où ils s’installent’. Buildings and streets retain their English names: Rue Henry Bennett boasts a statue in his honour; Avenue Edouard VII runs in parallel to it; and, in 1960, an elegant fountain was installed in Square Victoria, as it is called, to commemorate the visit of that monarch’s mother.
Not only is the foreign section of the cemetery well-maintained but public funds were also made available to restore the grave of a quintessential Englishman, even though he had not merited a mention in Pemble. If the Revd William Webb Ellis may not be the cemetery’s most celebrated incumbent, his grave is now certainly the most garlanded.
No indication is given as to why the Vicar of St Clement Danes, The Strand, was in Menton at the time, but, if, as seems likely, it was to convalesce, then as with so many others who came for that purpose, it was to no avail. A bachelor, he died on 24 January 1872 at the age of 65. Whether he did in fact pick up the ball and run and thereby found the game of rugby is controversial. However, plainly this does not trouble those who climb the hill to pay their respects and place their tributes on his tomb. Ranging from New Zealand to the Ukraine, they demonstrate how memorialisation can be a positive means of generating and reflecting international goodwill.
Surrounded by the graves of Britons, Russians, Germans and French, high above the bay known as Le Golfe de la Paix, the private memorial of one unassuming English clergyman provides a fitting space in which to ponder the fragile nature of international comity.
 John Pemble, The Mediterranean Passion: Victorians and Edwardians in the South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); quote at p.84.
 Pemble, p.87.
 Pemble, p.268.
 Francois Rosso et al., Menton rejoint la France: 1861, Chronique du Rattachement (Les Archives Municipales de Menton, 2011), p.58.
 The French always spell his name with two T’s, Pemble, following his BMJ entry, with one.
Andrew Hillier – who recently completed a PhD at the University of Bristol – shares his research in this blog, which addresses the history of Malaysian diaspora by exploring its spaces, places, furnishings and memorials.
Walter and Betty Medhurst arrived in Melaka (Malacca) in 1817. A printer by trade, Walter had been sent by the London Missionary Society (LMS) to the Ultra-Ganges region, to assist Robert Morrison and William Milne in the task of printing and distributing translations of the Bible and other tracts. But Medhurst was fired with evangelical zeal and his principal aim was to become a missionary himself. Two years after his arrival, having acquired a reasonable command of Chinese and shown a fervent devotion to the Gospel, he was ordained and spent a further two years in Malacca before moving to Penang. His fervour did not always endear him to his colleagues and as a result, a year later, he was transferred to Batavia (present-day Jakarta), where he lived for the next twenty years. The objective was to enter China and begin the mass ‘conversion of the heathen’ and so, when the first treaty ports were opened in 1843, Medhurst immediately embarked on this task.
As the first of my forbears to ‘go east’, the Medhursts are the starting point for my thesis, in which I explore the relationship between family and empire through the lens of four generations, who lived and worked in east and south-east Asia. Although they only spent four years in Malaysia, this was a formative time for Walter and Betty and, whilst Medhurst wrote of his experiences in China: Its State and Prospects (1838), I wanted to see the places for myself. In the event, apart from a fine memorial to William Milne in the Dutch Church in Malacca (plate 1), I found little evidence of the LMS, since, after the opening of the treaty ports, it removed its operations to Hong Kong.
However, the visit proved rewarding because there is a lively interest in the history of both Malacca and George Town (as Penang’s port-city is still called), spear-headed by Khoo Salma Nasution, who also runs her own publishing house. This contributed to the two port-cities being jointly listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in July 2008. In the words of the Declaration, their rich multi-cultural heritage had been preserved and maintained over several centuries and could still be seen in their ‘…unique architecture, culture and townscapes’. Of this, three elements were of particular interest.
1. Memorial tablet to William Milne, Dutch Church, Malacca.
First, the vibrant plural society of Chinese, Malay and Indian, which greeted Medhurst on his arrival, can still be found in both the buildings and the everyday life. Secondly, whereas Britain was the only European power to colonise Penang, in Malacca, the presence of the Portuguese and, later, the Dutch had plainly influenced the port-city’s development. Thirdly, leaving aside the European presence, what had given rise to the plural society in both settlements was the mass migration, principally of Chinese but also of Indians, Indonesians and others, which had begun in the 1500s. Accordingly, by the early 1800s, within the framework of Britain’s formal empire, there was an informal empire or diaspora, promoted by the Chinese both economically and culturally. Moreover, family had played a key role in stimulating and consolidating this process.
To understand this, it is logical to begin with Malacca because it was there that the Portuguese first landed in 1511, and established a safe haven for their voyages to and from the Spice Islands. Whilst there is little tangible evidence of this now, by inter-marrying, they added to the island’s plural society and left an enduring Catholic legacy. When the Dutch arrived, they introduced a very different version of Christianity and European culture, which shaped the city’s development during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. By the time the British formally acquired the Settlement in exchange for Bencoolen in 1824, the port had lost its importance, with Penang providing better facilities and Singapore already becoming a busy entrepôt. As a result, it is the Dutch influence which continues to exemplify the European presence.
It is evident in the simple lines of the Dutch Reformed Church which overlooks the central square, in the administrative buildings, such as the Stadthuys, and in the street architecture, where the Dutch style of merchant house, locally known as a ‘shophouse’ was introduced. A typical example can be found in Heeren Street, adjoining Jonkers Street. Totally derelict twenty years ago, it has been carefully restored by the Heritage of Malaysia Trust. It illustrates how Dutch building methods and materials were used in the construction of such houses and how, later, it served the needs of a Chinese merchant and his family. The shop’s façade contains one large shutter which would fold down to serve as a counter for displaying wares (plate 2).
2. Facade of restored shop-house, Heeren Street, Malacca, 2016.
Inside, there is a central open courtyard, with the family rooms being at the rear (plate 3). On the bench are examples of the original Dutch bricks which were shipped as ballast and then used for building. Fittingly, inside, there is a Vermeer print to show how closely the design matches that of similar houses in Delft. Here, therefore, we have strong linkages between Dutch and local Malaysian society.
3. The Inside courtyard of the shop-house
About 50 metres down the same street is a strikingly different building – one built by a rich Peranakan Chinese, or as they are more usually called now, a baba-nyonya. These were the Chinese who, from the 1500s, came over to settle and, often leaving a wife at ‘home’ on the mainland, to whom they would return from time to time, married a ‘local’ woman, either Malay or Indonesian. Contrary to Western colonial culture, where such inter-marriage was frowned upon, this class became respected and often affluent and formed a key part of the local community.
This is all brought together in the baba & nyonya Heritage Museum, the former home of a baba, Chan Cheng Siew (1865-1919), whose father had first migrated from China and who, having made a fortune in rubber and other investments, built this lavish mansion for himself and his family (plate 4).
4. The Former Home of a Rich Peranakan, Malacca.
Whilst it is Chinese in its overall appearance and much of its furnishings, with chairs and tables made of Chinese black-wood and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay, the fashion was to import and use British materials: plasterwork, tiles from Stoke on Trent, wrought iron pillars and beams manufactured by Macfarlanes in Glasgow and art nouveau glass for windows, chandeliers and artefacts (plates 5).
Further down the same street is Hotel Puri, the ancestral home of Tan Kim Seng, a third generation Chinese, born in Malacca, whose grandfather, like many others, first came from the Eng Choon district of Fujian in the eighteenth century. The current house, which was built in 1876, retains many of the original Chinese features as well as a library where the story of the Tan dynasty is displayed. By chance, I got talking to a cleaning lady who told me the history of her family, which was Indian, third generation Malay. Taking me to a map, she described the trajectory of their lives which now extended to Singapore, Italy, Britain and Canada, which she still visited. Thus, Malacca’s plural culture, underpinned by family connection, continues to thrive.
A similar pattern can be found in Penang where, in the nineteenth century, wealthy Chinese and Peranakan families established themselves, living and working alongside the British. It is illustrated by two houses, previously derelict but which have been restored by entrepreneurs dedicated to preserving Penang’s heritage. The Blue Mansion was built by one of Penang’s richest merchants, Cheong Fatt Tze, who arrived penniless from Guangdong in the mid-nineteenth century, and went on to amass a fortune through rubber, coffee and tea investments, and was appointed Consul-General to the Qing government in the 1890s. The house comprises 38 rooms, 5 courtyards and seven staircases and is a typical mixture of Chinese and European taste. One of its most distinctive features is the ‘cut and paste shard’ porcelain decoration on the outside of the building, the restoration of which could only be done by craftsmen brought over from the People’s Republic of China. Cheong left eight wives and six sons but none of them were able to continue his legacy.
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion was owned by a very different type of Straits Chinese. Chung Keng Kwee made his fortune through tin mining and other more dubious enterprises and was one of the principal leaders of the Chinese secret societies, until they were outlawed in the 1880s. Born in 1821, Chung came from a family of farmers living in a remote Hakka village in the region of Zengcheng, east of Guangzhou. Coming to the mainland in search of his father, he quickly established himself as an astute businessman and was appointed leader of one of the secret societies. Frequently in dispute with other Chinese Clans, the rivalries culminated in the Larut Wars which indirectly led to the Pangkor Treaty (1874) and the introduction of a British Resident as ‘adviser’ to the Sultan. Whilst the house has been restored to reflect this family history, the contents are primarily Peranakan, albeit it is difficult to define that style precisely.
The importance of family in these processes is exemplified in the ancestral home of the Khoo Clan, Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi. The Khoo family originated from Sin Kang Village in Fujian and was one of the Five Big Clans that formed the backbone of the Hokkien community in early Penang. According to the Kongsi curator, Lawrence Cheah, the birth of the first Khoo clansman in Penang took place in 1775. His son married a local woman and their children were thus baba nyonya. The earliest Khoo clansmen to Penang earned their livelihoods as fishermen and small-time merchants but, when Francis Light established the port-city in 1786, the Clan began to build their fortune, bringing over from China not only their own kinsmen but also substantial contingents of Chinese labour.
6. The Khoo Ancestral Temple, Penang
In 1850 the Clan bought the land on which their home now stands, presided over by its giant ancestral temple. In the adjoining rooms, the Clan’s history is displayed, with memorial tablets recording its members’ achievements, amongst whom are a number of UOB alumni (plate 7).
7. Bristol Alumni, Khoo Temple.
Each year, coming from all over East and South-east Asia and further afield, the Clan assembles at the Kongsi and nowhere could better represent the importance which the Chinese still attach to ancestral worship and filial piety than this set of magnificent buildings.
Whilst the formal British presence is represented by standard colonial architecture – Fort Cornwallis, former government buildings and a number of churches – the everyday life can be found in the street architecture and arcades, and, of course, in the Christian Cemetery. In this tranquil, if somewhat unkempt, setting, the hazards and heartache of colonial life can be found inscribed on gravestones and memorials. The following provide a few poignant examples.
8. Tombstones, Christian Cemetery, George Town.
Considering these lives in the context of this society, two questions occurred to me. First, what sort of contact took place between the British and this affluent Chinese/ Peranakan community? That there was a degree of intellectual interaction is evident from the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, produced and edited by James Logan between 1847 and 1858, and the proceedings of various learned societies – see Su Lin Lewis, ‘Between Orientalism and Nationalism: The Learned Society and the Making of “South East Asia”’, 10 (2013) Modern Intellectual History, pp. 353-374. But it would be interesting to know how this developed when imperialism became more strident. Secondly, given the appetite for British materials and furnishings, how was the exercise of designing, ordering and shipping from Britain performed? Might there be private archives with records of such transactions and what would they tell us about these relationships? Given the number of UOB alumni, perhaps there is scope for forging linkages between the University and Penang to explore these sort of questions.
Third-year undergraduate Tim Galsworthy reflects on a year of participating in ‘History at the Hawthorns’: a series of informal discussions with academics outside the seminar room.
Whilst undertaking a History degree at the University of Bristol we spend an awful lot of time doing history, but we spend less time thinking about history. What are we doing history for? Who are we doing history for? Is there even any point in doing history at all? These are some of the major questions we have been wrangling with during the History at the Hawthorns series. The History at the Hawthorns series has given us an informal setting to discuss all things historical. From topic specific sessions, such as one on the historical memory of the Easter Rising, to general sessions of big issues, such as the pursuit of truth in history, we have covered a great deal of material.
We reached general consensus on the importance of public history, a major topic of our discussions. In a world of diffuse moments, historical films, and even historical video games the past is omnipresent in our society. We debated the issues of ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy’ in public history, agreeing that academia needs to engage with the general populace. The issue of historical memory, especially physical reminders of the past, also drew our attention. The concurrent ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign informed these debates. We argued that erasure of the past is just as dangerous as the celebration of imperialism. We argued for the historicising of artefacts, rather than their destruction. Once more we saw the importance of engaging in such public historical issues.
The make-up of our History at the Hawthorns group has been just as rewarding as the discussions themselves. Our group contained first, second, and third years, along with Masters students. A number of mature students also made up our group. It was extremely satisfying to discuss historical issues with a diverse assembly of people. Different ages, even different generations, from different backgrounds bring a great variety of views to the table. It is always worthwhile to hear competing opinions, sometimes opinions you never even considered, on such important topics. It is only through such interactions that we can grow as historians specifically, and as individuals generally. The interaction between students in different years is expedient in creating a greater sense of community in our school.
Praise must also be paid to the academics who took the time to lead these sessions. History at the Hawthorns allowed me to feel like a historian in training. The informal nature of the discussions allowed staff and students to discuss history as equal, coming from different perspectives and different predispositions. Just as talking with students from other years contributes to a more wholesome University experience, talking with academics enables students to consider themselves as junior academics in a shared scholarly community. As someone who wants to become an academic, but is currently still a student, the opportunity to look a major historical problems from both sides of the fence was an incredibly useful experience.
We spend so much of our University experience with our heads stuck in books, writing essays, and accumulating marks. History at the Hawthorns afforded us a casual vehicle to spend time just talking about history, without having to worry about exams or essays. It enabled us to really sit down and think about what history means, to historians as a collective and to us as individuals. There is nothing better than discussing history, over or a pint or a cuppa, with other people passionate about the past. Sometimes our degree gets so hectic – especially for third years like me – that we forget just how lucky we are to spend our time doing history. The History at the Hawthorns series has reminded me just how much I love history purely for the sake for it, rather than just as a degree subject. I would recommend students in future years take up the opportunity to partake in this series.
Hunter Charlton, a 2015 graduate of Bristol University’s History Department, has made a film about the decline of industry on Tyneside in collaboration with the AHRC research project The Power and the Water.
Hunter also wrote a final year undergraduate dissertation on ‘Landscape and Change: Shipbuilding and Identity on the Tyne’, which you can read here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/history/documents/dissertations/2015charlton.pdf.
Our series by new lecturers continues with a piece by Will Pooley, Lecturer in Modern European History, who brings together his work on the histories of folklore and witchcraft with this blog on the strange case of ‘Father Bloodsucker’:
I’ve come across a few pretty weird cases in my ongoing search to find crimes involving witchcraft in France between 1791 and 1940, but perhaps none are stranger than the story of ‘Father Bloodsucker’ (Le Père Sangsue).
This is how the violently anti-clerical and republican newspaper La Lanterne told the story at the time:
The following events took place in a small village in the Gers, where there lived an ugly old man who had been dubbed Father Bloodsucker, who lived by a pond teeming with eels and leeches. But nobody dared to fish in the pond, which was considered bewitched!
Father Bloodsucker claimed to be a witch, exploiting the terror he inspired in order to extract food and tobacco from the local population.
But one local man, Jacques Drux, refused to give in, driving Father Bloodsucker out of his house with his cudgel. Father Bloodsucker decided to take revenge.
He managed to gain the trust of both Jacques Drux’s daughters. He made them believe that the Kingdom of Leeches lay under his pond, and that he himself was King.
Every month, he was transformed into a leech and would go to see his subjects. Underwater, there was a wonderful palace.
Finally, he told them that any girl who threw herself in the pond on the night of the full moon at midnight, will be turned into a mermaid, and become princess of the leeches.
Inspired by his words, the young girls, Jeanne and Madeleine, arrived one night, determined to take the plunge. Jeanne rushed in first. Madeleine was about to follow her, when she saw a terrible head grinning in the rushes nearby. Father Bloodsucker had therefore not turned into a leech at all!
Madeleine realized the horrible truth and ran away, mad with terror. The next day, the locals found the body of Jeanne, with hundreds of leeches attached.
The old rascal has not been seen since.
Several things immediately make me suspicious about this story with its strange Freudian undertones:
-The vagueness of the location. Newspapers tended to either report the exact location of witchcraft cases, down to the hamlet or street where events took place… or they would use anonymised details, and ellipses to draw a veil of privacy over personal tragedies.
–The apparent blind credulity of the rural population. This is largely inconsistent – no matter what the newspapers claimed – with how people actually behaved in accusations of witchcraft. Many participants were skeptical, empirical, and careful, but confessed confusion and dismay at events they did not understand. In the case of Father Bloodsucker, though, the entire local population supposedly falls for his deception, and the young daughter of Jacques Drux are particularly vulnerable. This discourse of female credulity and superstition was the stock in trade of anti-clerical publications like La Lanterne.
–The fairy elements of a hidden world where a humble outcast is actually king. The story sounds suspiciously like a folk tale. There are a whole set of tales where it tends to be heroes (rather than villains) who persuade their enemies to jump into lakes or rivers, claiming there are submarine realms where they can become rich. If crimes involving supernatural beliefs such as witchcraft were fairly common (there were often three a year mentioned in the national press), this is the first time I have seen any evidence of a crime based the fairy world in France. Perhaps there are similarities here to the famous case of the murder of Bridget Cleary in Ireland, but even that is quite different to Father Bloodsucker. Bridget’s murder had many of the features of intra – family conflict, misfortune, and ill-health that characterise witchcraft crises.
–The characterisation and motives of the protagonists. These all sound rather fanciful, and stereotyped, more like how urban writers imagined the moral conflicts of the countryside than how people there actually behaved.
And it turns out I am right to be suspicious.
Twenty five years before this story appeared in La Lanterne, the Beaumarchais theatre in Paris briefly hosted a piece called ‘Le Père Sangsue’.
I have had a quick look through library catalogues, and cannot find any evidence of a script for this show, but it may well be that this was the kind of light (?) entertainment that leaves little trace in the archives. If any does know anything about this show, or about the Beaumarchais, I’d love to hear more.
But is that the end of Father Bloodsucker?
My research is about the very real conflicts that French men and women engaged in over sorcery in this period. The story of literary representations of witchcraft during the same era is in many senses a completely different one, which Vincent Robert has begun to tell.
Or is it?
I can speculate about why La Lanterne chose to present a story that was almost certainly fabricated as if it were true. Perhaps they were simply passing on a badly researched legend, which may have come from the theatre piece, or may have been the inspiration for both the earlier theatre piece and the newspaper story itself.
Or perhaps they were making a point about the credulity of the French population. La Lanterne was very fond of referring to the Catholic priesthood in the same terms most other newspapers reserved for the fraudsters, magicians, and magical healers hauled before the courts in this period. Perhaps Father Bloodsucker was meant to be read allegorically?
Whatever the case, it seems important to me that this story could be presented as if true, because it suggests I have to be careful whose truth I am dealing with when looking through the newspapers. Did readers think this story was true? Might it have fed back into their own beliefs about the creepy old men who lived near their houses?
How to draw a firm line between fact and fiction?