VC Redvers Henry Buller, credit Wikipedia
Atlas Woke, by Bill Hartley
Historical geography has been defined as ‘the branch of geography that studies the ways in which geographical phenomena have changed over time’. There used to be a more succinct definition: ‘the study of past landscapes’ but perhaps the newer version is more appropriate, given the way the subject has evolved in recent years.
At one time it was the place to go for anyone interested in, say, Domesday woodland, or patterns of agricultural change. Something then of a minority field within the wider community of academic geographers and perhaps why the scholarship always seemed so rigorous. Those working in the field such as the late Professor GRJ Jones of Leeds University weren’t widely known but they produced material that contributed to a deeper understanding of history.
Things have changed though and a clue comes in a job vacancy to be found in the newsletter of the Historical Geography Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society. It transpires that Professor Nicola Thomas of Exeter University is in need of support. And not the sort that involves mapping mining activity in the Mendips. More specifically, the Prof expects that the role will focus ‘on research activities currently underway which are informed by decolonial imperatives’. The portfolio of research also involves ‘decolonising science’ and better still they’ve found a racist building. Snowshill Manor, the formerly harmless National Trust property, has been found to be hiding connections to ‘transatlantic plantation economy’. There’s even a bit of statue bashing on the job description, to wit, ‘the need to contribute to the website denouncing the controversial memorial to Redvers Buller in Exeter’. Wasn’t it fortunate for posterity that Bullers’ admirers sited the statue so conveniently close to the university? The old general has something of a mixed reputation amongst historians, though he did win a VC. Otherwise, he seems like the type that the late George MacDonald Fraser sent up in the Flashman novels. However, he did spend some time fighting Zulus so perhaps that is what makes him controversial.
In the field of historical geography, the Professor isn’t labouring in isolation. On 2nd June 2023, at Nottingham University, there is to be a workshop ‘to explore the historical function of everyday ritual in the British Empire’. The blurb for those wishing to attend this workshop states that ‘ordinary daily practices have long been recognised as essential to the maintenance of cultural identities, from combing ones hair to using the correct fork’ and ‘at the same time, the reclaiming of certain daily practices has been an importance expression of colonial resistance…’
Leaving aside the mangled grammar, this conjures up an image of a native bearer watching with contempt as the sahib chooses the correct fork for the fish course and then, back in the native quarter, deliberately picks the wrong fork to symbolise resistance. Strangely, all those National Liberation Fronts failed to include hairdressing and table etiquette in manifesto’s underpinning the struggle for colonial freedom.
Nottingham University’s geography department provides access to an online journal called The Conversation in which there is a ‘world first’ paper co-authored by one of their staff, explaining how Australia experienced a ‘disruption of cultural burning which promotes shrub encroachment and unprecedented wildfires’ leading to a ‘catastrophic fire risk’ after the British Invasion. This term represents a step forward in pejorative terminology. Previously, historical geographers preferred the word ‘settler’.
Clearly, getting the terminology right can be difficult. Fortunately the Journal of Historical Geography is able to help. It provides guidance for would be contributors. Authors, it says, should remember to use ‘inclusive language’, be ‘sensitive to differences’ and ‘make no assumptions about the beliefs or commitments of any reader’. Contributors are advised to ‘seek gender neutrality by using plural nouns’ avoid using ‘he or she’ and words such as ‘blacklist’. Instead they should use ‘blockist’ or ‘allowist’ whatever they may be.
A clue to where this is going can be found in an essay by Professor Mike Heffernan of Nottingham University, who claims that the ‘study of imperialism and colonialism has grown steadily more important and has shifted the focus of historical research from the developed to the developing world’. It certainly seems so, though there is a fight back of sorts. The History Reclaimed website contains an article which posits a positive side to colonialism. Its author comments critically on what he terms the ‘simplistic obsession with racism’ and the desire to show guilt by removing statues and street names. The same publication also notes how the Empire, Hong Kong to be specific, provided refuge for thousands fleeing the Chinese civil war. It is worth quoting George Orwell here. Writing in 1942, he noted that ‘the British Empire is demilitarised to a degree which continental observers find almost incredible’.
Orwell’s remark undermines the idea of subject peoples groaning under the weight of oppression, the premise of so much recent scholarship. Interestingly, in Singapore, they appear to be more mature about this. With the 200th anniversary of the death of Sir Stamford Raffles approaching, there is no desire to tear down his statue, even though the authorities acknowledge that his reputation, both personal and professional, leaves a great deal to be desired. Instead they accept him as an important part of the island’s history, rather than trying to erase (or ‘blockist’) him.
Historical Geography was once noted for its careful scholarship. A glance at some of the key texts such as Geographical Interpretations of Historical Sources (1970) bears this out. However, in recent years, there has been a shift in emphasis with the cultural taking precedence over the historical. Of course, a subject will change and evolve over time but with much recent work seen through the prism of racism (of which the Empire is automatically culpable), its veracity seems questionable.
Often the focus tends to be on the Victorian era, the high water mark of Empire, with assumptions being made about contemporary attitudes towards colonialism. It seems that racism and oppression are taken as a given. Those working in the field appear to have accepted the comment attributed to Lytton Strachey: ‘the history of the Victorian era will never be written, we already know too much about it’. When Historical Geographers begin from this premise, with conclusions about race and the evils of colonialism already self-evident, then they risk making their work suspect. Interestingly, that eminent Victorian Cardinal Newman had something to say on the subject: ‘most men in this country like opinions to be brought to them, rather than to be at the pains to go out and seek for them’.
The Victorian era was immensely complex and deserves some preliminary study. Doing this could help avoid simplistic assumptions. A useful starting point would be Walter E Houghton’s The Victorian Frame Of Mind 1830-1870 (1957). Sources like this can provide an early appreciation of the often paradoxical ideas and attitudes which can be encountered in that era. However, the ‘notes for contributors’ in the Journal mentioned above, suggest that the emphasis lies on presentation rather than depth of understanding.
William Hartley is a Social Historian