December 07, 2021

Interview with Helen Cowie, keynote for 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World'

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Professor Helen Cowie (University of York)is the keynote speaker for the 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World' conference. Here, she talks with conference organisers Camilo Uribe Botta and Cheng He about her reseach on the history of animals.

1. Could you talk a bit about your research interest?

My research has focused predominantly on the history of animals – though from a variety of different perspectives. In my PhD research, I started off by looking at animals as scientific specimens, as a part of a broader project about natural history in the Spanish world. I focused on the representation of animals in museums, in the form of taxidermy and at how they were depicted in art works, particularly zoological illustrations. I was interested in questions about museum, empire and collecting, and studied (mostly dead) animals within this context.

From there, my focus moved to living animals, especially zoos and menageries. Though I was concerned primarily with how these animals were received while they were alive, and the different kinds of interactions people had with them, I also looked at the posthumous lives of some menagerie animals, many of which were donated to local museums after they died. You can still see the skeleton and hooves of tapir from Wombwell’s menagerie at the University of Aberdeen’s Natural History Museum, for example. I have therefore been interested in the transitions undergone by exotic animals at different points in their lifecycles, and the ways in which many straddled the boundary between spectacle and specimen.

Recently, I’ve been working on animals as commodities, particularly animal products, such as birds’ feathers, seal skins, ivory, animal perfume and exotic pets, etc. I’ve studied the new technologies and global connections that facilitated their exploitation and the environmental consequences of this. I explore these issues in my recent book, Victims of Fashion: Animal Commodities in Victorian Britain.

Victims of Fashion

2. Which methods do you use in your research? In what ways is your research interdisciplinary?

Although I’m primarily a historian, I’ve benefited from important research in a range of other disciplines. Looking at images of animals, for instance, involves drawing on the expertise of historians of art, while reading animal-related literature relies upon methodologies formulated by literary scholars. In my book on llamas, for instance, I examined artistic representations of llamas and alpacas, as well as portrayals of the animals in literary texts, from novels to children’s books. The other type of literature I use is scientific literature, particularly when I try to look at animals as biological specimens and to understand the environmental pressures they face To understand why elephants have been so badly impact by the ivory trade, for instance, you need to recognise how slowly the animals reproduce, and how devasting the loss of a single animal (particularly a female) can be for the survival of the species. To understand nineteenth-century debates about the conservation of the fur seal, meanwhile, you need to know something about the animal’s migration patterns and breeding practices. I would certainly not claim to be an expert in these areas, but I’ve found the work of biologists very useful in this regard.

Detail of a llama

Detail of a llama. Anonymous. Plaza Mayor de Lima. 1680. Museo de América, Madrid.

3. How do animals appear in your sources?

They appear in a variety of ways. Some animals receive detailed treatment as individuals while others are referred to only briefly, perhaps as numbers or statistics. The degree of prominence usually depends on the species of the animal, and its particular status. Exotic animals in zoos, for instance, are often named and accorded a celebrity status, so they will tend to generate images and articles that present them as individuals (albeit though human eyes). A classic example of this would be Jumbo the elephant, who generated extensive newspaper coverage in 1882 when he was sold by London Zoo to the American circus owner PT Barnum. Pets also generate a disproportionate amount of coverage, appearing in diaries, letters, advertisements for lost companions and sometimes portraits or photographs. By contrast farm animals such as pigs, cows or sheep tend to leave fewer traces, and might simply be listed as numbers of stock.

Of course, what we’re really accessing in all of these cases are usually human representations of animals, not the animals themselves, so this raises questions of agency. This is something historians of animals debate extensively. Can we really understand how animals experienced the past, or only how humans viewed them in particular eras?

Sloth and armadillo

Sloth and armadillo. Malaspina Expedition. 1789-1794.

4. How did you find the materiality of the animals as a physical object in your research?

Though I mostly work with written sources, we can access various physical objects to help us understand the lives of animals in the past. First, of course, we have museum specimens, which enable us to view the actual bodies of some creatures – mostly as scientific specimens and representatives of their species, though occasionally as named individuals. Second, some animals have left behind artefacts relating to their care, from collars and brushes for pets to saddles and shoes for horses – and occasionally even suits of armour (at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds you can even see a suit of armour made for an elephant in Mughal India (link here:. Third, we have archaeological traces of some animals, which zooarchaeologists can use to understand when particular species were domesticated and how they interacted with humans. Recently, for example, the mummified remains of guinea pigs and llamas were discovered at an archaeological site in Peru, having been used by Pre-Columbian civilisations for sacrifice. And finally we have some more idiosyncratic material traces of animals, ranging from footprints to cages. In 1420 a pet cat at monastery at Deventer in the Netherlands peed on a medieval manuscript, prompting the exasperated monk to draw a picture of it (picture here, if you’re interested:! So there are lots of ways in which we can use material remains to study animals in the past, though many of these have not yet been fully exploited by historians.

Wallace the lion

Wallace the lion from Wombwell's Menagerie Saffron Walden Museum.


November 12, 2021

The Supernatural: A Global and Transhistorical Approach

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To accompany their conference The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World, HRC doctoral fellows Francesca Farnell and Imogen Knox will be blogging on their own research, the conference themes, and the process of putting together a one-day interdisciplinary conference. In this second blog, Francesca and Imogen discuss their desire to examine the conference themes across boundaries of geography and temporality.

In our last blog post, we discussed how our respective doctoral research projects intersect with the themes of our conference, The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World. This post will explore the conference parameters in greater detail, offering insight into our own understanding of the supernatural as a subject of study, alongside wider, sometimes contrasting, conceptions of it across the pre-modern world.

Not an insignificant amount of energy from numerous scholars of various disciplines has been put into finding a universal definition of ‘the supernatural’. Many have pointed to the boundaries between the natural, preternatural, and supernatural that, in theory, neatly trisect all the beings and things within the cosmos. Robert Bartlett has asserted that the medieval world was ordered and understood in terms of ‘the dichotomy “natural/supernatural”’.[1]The latter term, the supernatural, has been defined by Ute Lotz-Heumann as ‘anything that contemporaries perceived as having origins outside of the realm of human understanding and/or of being outside and beyond the workings of “natural causes.”’[2]

Robert Fludd, Tomus secundus

Image Credit: Robert Fludd, Tomus secundus ... de supernaturali, naturali, praeternaturali et contranaturali microcosmi historia (1619-1621), Wellcome Collection

While these approaches have been helpful in formulating our own conceptions of the supernatural, such definitions are inherently bound by Eurocentric models, informed exclusively by Christian dogma and, in particular, the dense theological works of Thomas Aquinas.[3] Even in our own work on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain, we recognise the inherent limitations of imposing definitions constructed by elite religious authorities upon complex and often fragmented ‘popular’ religious beliefs. Such definitions are rendered further inadequate if studying the supernatural within cultures that do not fit the model of Christian Europe, which itself is often treated as a homogeneous culture.

For ‘The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World’, we have therefore adopted a much broader framework for what can be considered ‘the supernatural’, permitting and encouraging participants to follow their own definitions as best fitting their respective interests.To that end, papers that problematise or contest notions of ‘the supernatural’ are also welcome.

Robert Fludd, Tomus secundus

Image credit: as above

Taking some ontological liberties rather than seeking to impose a single unifying definition of the supernatural is necessary for ensuring that cross-cultural and interdisciplinary exchange is at the heart of the conference. Rather than attempting to create an artificial sense of uniformity by insisting on a shared but unproductive definition of the supernatural, it is in analysing the theme of suffering that fruit may be brought to bear in finding a common thread across the milieu of global supernatural beliefs. Most countries, cultures, and even particular regions, have their own particular supernatural belief systems, from the Tommyknockers of Cornwall, the Striga of Slavic regions, to the Wendigo of the First Peoples of North America. There is undoubtedly an already rich corpus of research dedicated to the supernatural across manifold countries and cultures, but exciting recent work, for example, Anderson Hagler’s research on indigenous beliefs in colonial Mexico and Karl Bell’s recent edited collection, Supernatural Cities: Enchantment, Anxiety and Spectrality, proves that the field continues to grow. To foster this growth, we would love to be able to push this conference beyond the English-speaking world, and to explore beliefs outside of the Christian framework.

Our temporal approach is similarly broad. We have opted to limit the conference to ‘pre-modern’ periods, though we offer no specific cut-off point as the line between pre-modernity and modernity is a fine and often arbitrary one contingent on the country and culture under study - and one that furthermore prioritises Western narratives of civilisation, industrialisation and enlightenment. Presenters are welcome to address this point through their own understandings and approaches. The equivocal nature of the term ‘pre-modern’, we hope, will both serve to sidestep issues of precise periodisation and foster conversations and connections across these vast temporalities. As with our global approach, it is our belief that the theme of suffering will transcend periodisation in the context of the supernatural.

We are very much looking forward to pushing the boundaries of supernatural research, and to drawing connections across vast temporalities and geographies.


[1] R. Bartlett, The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2008), p.2

[2] Ute Lotz-Heumann, ‘The Natural and Supernatural’, Ulinka Rublack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations (Oxford, 2016), p.689

[3] C.S. Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England (Cambridge, 2007), p.18

November 10, 2021

Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World: Introducing Camilo Uribe Botta's research

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In this second blog post relating to the HRC conference on 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World', the other co-organiser, Camilo Uribe Botta, a third year PhD student in History, explains his own doctoral research and how it links to the theme of the conference.

My thesis investigates the commerce of Colombian orchids in Victorian Britain. During the nineteenth century, orchids became a trendy plant, creating a phenomenon called orchidomania, reminding of the once-famous tulip fever in the Netherlands. Today orchids still fascinate people, and they are plants relatively easy to buy and maintain. Still, in the nineteenth century, orchids were a newly discovered rarity coming from the tropics, scarce to obtain, expensive to buy and difficult to maintain. With a privileged geographic position in the tropics, Colombia became one of the main spots for plant collectors to hunt for orchids.

Masdevallia coccinea

Figure 1: Masdevallia coccinea. © copyright of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

As more orchids were discovered and new species arrived in Europe, these plants were conceived with different meanings. First of all, they were seen as botanical curiosities as they slowly but firmly gained a place in the British botanic and horticultural world. Then, as knowledge about their habitat and reproduction methods advanced, as scientific objects, they earned a place in the scientific debates in the middle of the century. And finally, as the plant became more popular as a luxurious commodity, being an example of the British imperial project for discovering, classifying and obtaining natural resources around the globe.

But the presence of orchids was not always in the form of a living plant. Many orchids arrived in Britain in the form of herbarium specimens. European herbariums count thousands of orchids collected in the tropics during the nineteenth century, collected for scientific purposes to classify this exciting family of plants. These items, once living plants, are carefully dried, pressed and mounted on a paper sheet and stored in an artificial environment, where the plant can stay still for centuries.

From the very beginning, orchids also appeared in the form of botanical illustrations and works of art. Lavishly illustrated books were published with the most elegant and delicate tropical orchids as part of a broad Victorian orchid literature: horticultural manuals, travel journals, collectors books, novels and short stories represented orchids as exotic, sometimes even dangerous plants. These visual and written representations of orchids were instrumental in popularising these plants in Victorian society beyond the scientific world.

Masdevallia coccinea

Figure 2: Masdevallia coccinea. Woolward, Florence H; Lehmann, F.C. The genus Masdevallia. London: R.H. Porter, 1896. Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Contributed by Missouri Botanical Garden. Peter H. Raven Library. |

Orchids becoming more famous led to a boom in the commercialization of these plants. Technology made greenhouses more accessible to different segments of society, and orchid hunters were sent to catch plants all over the tropics. More than sixty visited Colombia in the nineteenth century, sending living plants to Europe by thousands where big commercial nurseries were selling them at expensive auctions. This orchidomania had a devastating environmental impact with limited success, as many plants arrived death through hard travel from South America.

These are some of the topics I have been working on in my research. In connection with Cheng's work, we are interested in the material culture approach to the objects of our study. More specifically, we are interested in the layers of meanings things have. These layers of meanings could be defined by the cultural and social contexts these objects belong to. But also as part of their movement in a global world. And these meanings also represent objects in different ways. For example, in my case, orchids as botanical curiosities are more likely to be part of artistic and literary representations, orchids as scientific objects appeared more in herbarium specimens and orchids as commodities appeared more as living plants. And I think not only plants were considered in this way, but exotic animals and even people sometimes had a variety of meanings when we follow them across the world from different geographical, social and cultural contexts.

October 27, 2021

Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World: Introducing Cheng He's research

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In this first blog post relating to the HRC conference on 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World', one of the co-organisers, Cheng He, a third year PhD student in History, explains how the theme of the conference links to her own doctoral research.

My thesis on lacquer centres around people’s understanding of this material in early modern England. Today lacquer means a kind of sticky liquid applied to the surface of objects. It forms a shiny and protective layer after dried. The word is often interchangeably used with ‘varnish’. Lacquer can also refer to varnished objects. In museums and stately houses, we can often come across lacquer furniture such as cabinets (Fig. 1), folding screens, or smaller objects including tea caddies, writing boxes, etc. Some of them were made in Asia and brought to Europe through maritime trade since the sixteenth century. Some were locally made to imitate Asian lacquer, whose smooth and reflective surface was highly praised in early modern period.

Japanned cabinet

Japanned cabinet on stand, English, c. 1690, 218 cm x 101.6 cm x 49.5 cm, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

When I was considering about the specific topic of my doctoral research, my focus was actually on the export lacquerware made in China. I thought it would be interesting to trace how these objects were designed, made and received by European collectors. This topic is still attractive to me, which would be fascinating to pursue. However, when I started to write the research proposal and looked up the word ‘lacquer’ in a dictionary, I was surprised to find that the first meaning of the word was not varnish nor varnished objects. Instead, the word has a long history with different meanings.

Therefore I realised that it was not proper to have a presumption about the definition of lacquer, especially if I wanted to study how this material was perceived by early modern people. I took it for granted that ‘lacquer’ had exactly the same definition as it does today. But the meanings of lacquer in early modern period were not just about a craft but also the plants that produced the raw material for making varnish. Then there was another question: when did the line between craft and raw material, between artificial and natural lacquer become clear in this case? Was it a smooth process?

If the meaning of lacquer was not settled, and when there was more than one type of raw material to be used for making varnish, did people differentiate them and how? In addition, varnish was not a processed material that can only be find in one geographical area, but also in many places all over the world, then did the definition of lacquer change because of the diversity of the raw materials? Was there any hierarchical ranking of these materials? Would this affect how people understood lacquer objects?

Above are some questions that I’ve been working on in my research. I believe lacquer is not the only material that is worth similar questioning. When placed in a different time period, the understanding and definition of a material could be different. This may include a less clear-cut conception between a natural material and objects made of this material. Moreover, if its raw material or related craft can be found in different parts of the world, the understanding of an object could be more complicated. Based on this, we can ask if a material was thought to possess the same identity after being transferred to a different region, processed into other objects and represented in a different form (like a print or painting), since this was associated with its interpretation. In this sense, can we say a still material is ‘living’ because its identity and cultural meanings are constantly changing?

In short, unstable identity and categorisation of a material is one aspect that led to the topic of this conference. When a material and the knowledge of it spread and interacted with each other, the story might be intricate and yet rich. In next blog entry, my colleague Camilo will talk about his research, which shares certain common ground with mine and at the same time provides other elements to the conference topic.

Cheng He (PhD student in History)

October 07, 2021

The Supernatural: Reflections on Research

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To accompany their The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World conference, HRC doctoral fellows Francesca Farnell and Imogen Knox will be blogging on their own research, the conference themes, and the process of putting together a one-day interdisciplinary conference. In the first blog, Francesca and Imogen reflect on their respective research interests and how they relate to the conference.

The supernatural is, scholars argue, a form of religious discourse that allows individuals to express ‘otherwise unspeakable fears’.[1] Subsequently, supernatural narratives are inextricably tied to different modes of suffering, giving voice to things like mental anguish, bodily pain or collective social anxieties that people had no other means of expressing. By way of introduction to our conference, today’s blog will reflect on how our respective doctoral projects and wider interests intersect with its core themes, that of the supernatural and suffering. As our shared interest in these themes has encouraged us to work closely alongside one another, in hosting an interdisciplinary conference around them we hope to weave together even more strands of research into the supernatural to provide a greater appreciation of how suffering has been represented in a multitude of mystical, magical and metaphysical ways across the pre-modern world.


Woodcut (1790), Wellcome Collection

Francesca’s interest in ‘the supernatural’ began during her undergraduate degree at Warwick when she wrote an essay on Elizabeth Barton, an illiterate domestic servant turned prophet of God, whose opposition to the Henrician religious reforms looked to threaten the whole regime. From then on, Francesca consistently combined her fascination for the popular religious belief systems of early modernity with her passion for the study of women and gender, culminating in her current doctoral studies at Warwick. Her PhD thesis uses the supernatural and other mystical phenomena to explore female experiences in post-Reformation England.

Supernatural tales abound in this period and in offering a thorough-going gendered analysis of the fantastical reports of ghosts and fairies, the legal records of witches and wise-women, and the remarkable narratives of demoniacs and prophets, Francesca seeks to demonstrate how such ‘extraordinary’ sources may shed new light on ‘ordinary’ women. From the inner lives to the outer worlds of women, her research explores themes of embodiment, motherhood, sexuality and marriage, religious conflict, socioeconomic and political participation. In studying these disparate themes under the unifying lens of the supernatural, Francesca seeks to underscore the multifaceted ways in which women’s thoughts, feelings and experiences found alternative outlets. The theme of suffering routinely intersects with Francesca’s work, from the corporeal torments of women demoniacs to the emotional anguish of mothers who blame purported witches for the death of their child. More generally, religious suffering, such as self-mortification and ‘anorexia mirabilis’, is of particular interest.[2]


Hannah Trapnel, a Quaker and a pretended prophet (1823), Wellcome Collection

Imogen’s fascination with the supernatural also started during undergrad studies at Exeter. After studying the witchcraft of early modern Europe, and broader supernatural phenomena of England, she became interested in the taboo behaviour of possessed and bewitched children. Like Francesca, Imogen’s research employs stories of the supernatural to uncover experiences otherwise obscured from the historical record. Her thesis explores suicide and self-harm in Britain, between 1560 and 1735, and uses accounts of encounters with witches, devils, ghosts, fairies, and other spirits.

Traditionally, the history of suicide is studied through coroners’ records produced in the aftermath of such a death taking place, but in using the supernatural, Imogen may access the experiences of people who considered, and even attempted suicide, but did not necessarily take their own lives. This work also engages with the emerging historical field of self-harm, exploring the permeable boundary between fatal and non-fatal self-injurious acts in the early modern period.

Witches and demons regularly tempted individuals to harm themselves. Even in meeting ghosts, fairies and other seemingly less threatening spirits, people could be so affected that they became suicidal. The experience of temptation, and the feeling of despair, are crucial to suicidality in these contexts. Imogen’s work views the supernatural as a means through which early modern people could articulate and work through suicidal feelings, without being received as mad or sinful by those around them. Thus, her work ties the supernatural with both emotional and bodily suffering.

The History of Witches and Wizards (1720)

W. P., The history of witches and wizards (1720), p.128, Wellcome Collection

After beginning our PhD studies as part of the same cohort and even sharing a supervisor at Warwick, we quickly discovered the significant crossover in our research: our projects employ the supernatural as a means of uncovering obscured voices, and view it as a further means to express or alleviate various forms of suffering. Crucially, our aim in this conference is not to exploit or sensationalise narratives of suffering, but to restore dignity to the people and the stories we discuss. The HRC’s doctoral fellowship is therefore the ideal opportunity to unite our projects and furthermore provide an exciting platform for fresh perspectives in the broad field of the supernatural.

Both our research focuses on the early modern period in Britain, with our work spanning the mid-sixteenth to the early-eighteenth centuries, however our conference is designed to reach beyond this scope. We will be inviting participants to present work pertaining to our themes from any ‘pre-modern’ temporality and geographical context (topics which we’ll be exploring in our next blog post).


[1] Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (London, 1996), p. 2

[2] See Rudolph Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago, 1985); Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley, 1987)

June 14, 2021

A Conversation between the Conference Organisers

In this final blog post of the At Home in Empire: Colonial Experiences of Intimacy and Mobility conference series, Hannah and Liz reflect on their experience as conference organisers and the impact of the conference on their own PhD research.

Hannah and Liz

Liz: It’s been a few months now since the conference - how did you enjoy it?

Hannah: I really enjoyed it and was so happy with how everything went. It was great to have such a variety of papers addressing subjects spread across time and space, and I also liked how it brought together researchers from around the world. It was good to be exposed to topics I had not encountered before as well as more familiar themes, which I found refreshing.

Liz: Definitely! I felt that the panels spoke to each other beautifully and there were rich conversations taking place across the day because so many of our speakers really took the themes of the conference and ran with them. I was also really grateful so many people attended and participated from across the globe, staying up late or getting up early. It was a tiring day though - but I think I did expect to be more stressed on the day and it ended up going smoothly! I think if we did it again, we would possibly try and avoid the “Zoom fatigue” and maybe spread it across two afternoons and build in more time for discussion. We had so many great applications that we packed as many papers in as possible, to which there are pros and cons.

Hannah: I completely agree. I think that is one of things I have learnt, not just from our conference, but other online events I’ve attended over this period of lockdown. I can see the benefits of splitting what would traditionally be a day-long, face-to-face conference across a couple of days online because it was a long time to be sat, focusing on a screen. There were so many interesting questions and discussions which developed out of the panels that it would have been good to have had longer for discussion. But, it is a learning process and I think overall, the day worked well. How did the conference make you reflect on your own research?

Liz: When we were first developing the conference and building our proposal and CFP, one of the key themes for me was the emphasis on anxiety. I was approaching it from having freshly read Ranajit Guha’s article but also arguments from Kenneth Ramchand, drawing on Frantz Fanon, that white Caribbean writers displayed a sense of “terrified consciousness”. So the whole conference really helped me to think through some of these ideas further and interrogate that anxiety of dislocation or not quite belonging. However, I also took so much away from the panel on Spaces of Encounter. It’s so important for my own research on whiteness in Jamaica to decentre the white gaze and to understand how whiteness has been challenged and contested. This panel made me think about the relationships that occurred across domestic settings and how those could disrupt over-simplistic readings. Power dynamics were very much there, but there were also examples of intimacy, dependency, and vulnerability.

Hannah: For me, I was thinking about the first panel this morning! I will be doing an exhibition as part of my PhD and that panel reinforced to me the importance of considering how this research will be represented, communicated, and accessed within museum spaces. The papers highlighted the power of the curator in telling the historical narrative and the politics of how objects are displayed in both the home and museums. This is something I need to carefully consider in my own work. I was also interested in the examples of children and the disruption or absence of home in their colonial experiences, which was a thread running through many of the papers. The lives of foundlings I am researching reveal complex interactions with British colonialism and their absence of a home, other than an institutional setting, has started me thinking about how children function as historical actors and how they interpreted this idea of “home”. How did foundlings of colour think about home? How did they think about their own sense of belonging? Where and how did they forge their homes in eighteenth-century Britain?

Liz: What do you think has been the major takeaway for you?

Hannah: Food! The significance of food was evident in several of the papers, which was an interesting and unexpected ingredient (see what I did there!) of the day. Food could be a way to maintain a sense of home and belonging, to build and develop networks in new places, or even as a form of resistance as in the case of Warak Anab. More generally, I think the conference demonstrated the fundamental human need to create or recreate ‘home’, which spans time and space, and the significance of which has been brought into sharp focus during our own experiences of living through the pandemic. It was a surreal experience to be doing a conference about the home whilst sitting at home.

Liz: I think for me it was the parallels that came through from across different places and different times. There were so many commonalities alongside the specificity of different contexts and experiences. Kate Smith’s keynote was a powerful conclusion that brought together these different threads. Returning to the start of the day in a country house to moving across different spaces, different encounters, the power of the gaze, Kate’s paper brought together this emphasis on the importance of constantly having to negotiate and construct “home”. Looking across the different sources that people were working with, I was struck by the labour that went into making and remaking homes, whether that was in terms of cooking or keeping diaries, writing letters, drawing and painting; it was an ongoing process and never something to be taken for granted.

Hannah: So, finally would you do it all again?

Liz: Maybe - but not just yet! It’s been quite nice not to be worrying about the administrative side for a while, checking emails and trying to keep track of everything. But I did enjoy it and learned a lot from the experience.

Hannah: I agree, the administrative side was probably the most stressful part of the process as there was always the worry that we had forgotten to do something. However, it was great to have someone to share the journey with, and I think we worked well together which ultimately resulted in a really successful conference.

Thank you again to everyone who attended and participated in the conference, and particularly to the Warwick Humanities Research Centre for their support and generous funding.

May 13, 2021

Reflecting on the Afternoon: Mobility and Intimacy

Session 3 – Mobile Lives and Distant Homes

Our first papers of the afternoon developed many of themes explored in the previous panel, pushing further our thinking and discussions about practices of home-making and belonging. We designed this panel to centre around mobility and distance, asking how home could be at once imagined and material, a complex composite of different experiences, emotions, and negotiations.

Kate Donnington’s fascinating work on the Hibbert family moved us across the Atlantic and back to examine the complexity of family life between Jamaica and Britain in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Her paper was carefully attuned to the power dynamics of the masculine space of the early Hibbert world in Kingston, reflecting on the sexual “transgressions” with unnamed women whose lives and experiences remain tantalisingly just out of reach in the archive. Marriage, however, marked a clear change for Robert Hibbert, and Donnington powerfully evoked the tensions which arose between Hibbert’s white creole wife and his mother on the couple’s return to Cheshire.

Alex Lindgren-Gibson then followed with her study of Mermanjan, a young woman from Afghanistan who eloped with a colonel in the British army during the nineteenth century. While the story of the so-called “Afghan princess” has been written about and embellished several times, Lindgren-Gibson’s rich analysis of Mermanjan’s scrapbooks asked new questions about how she experienced her mobility across colonial spaces and how she felt about her relationships. From her romantic first marriage, her more painful second marriage, to the bonds of female friendship, Lindgren-Gibson explored Mermanjan’s authorship over her own story through her sketches.

Photograph of Mermanjan

Above: Photograph of Mermanjan in the early days of her marriage - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur E304/, British Library.

Finally, Mikko Toivanen turned to the childhood experiences of mobility and home through the diaries of Corry and Hugh Loudon who travelled to the Dutch East Indies during the 1870s. For these children, their experiences of mobility were disorientating as they compared the new spaces they encountered with the familiarity of home in the Netherlands. Their writing often expressed difficulty at reading gender roles, as well as feelings of discomfort as they came face to face with their own whiteness in the colonial setting.

Together these papers emphasised the intimate bonds and expressions that undercut the mobile lives of their historical subjects. Their focus on personal and private sources, such as diaries, letters, and scrapbooks, suggest the ongoing navigation of identity and belonging that underpinned the colonial experience.

Session 4 – Spaces of Encounter

Our final panel delved further into this theme of intimacy, centring the home as a space of encounter. As later questions rightly framed, often the emphasis on home during the conference looked to the homes of those in power. While this panel largely maintained this emphasis, the papers also offered space for new stories and perspectives to come to the forefront.

For example, Marie Grace Brown’s discussion of male Sudanese servants working for British colonial officers during the 1930s powerfully evoked the contradictions and multifaceted relationships that could characterise the employer-employee dynamic. As men employed to perform so-called “women’s work”, these servants effectively ‘ran the bachelor’, holding domain over the kitchen in ways that could both expose and collapse distance. Food, again, played an important role in building eaffective relationships, going beyond sustenance to promote familiarity and sentimentality.

As Brown left us eating ice-cream on the veranda, Rosie Dias followed with a fantastic analysis of the veranda or terrace as a hybrid space where the colonial house did not – or could not – escape its colonial setting. Looking across a range of visual representations in colonial India, Dias explored the gender, racial, and cultural negotiations on display in this blurring space. While Johan Zoffany’s portrait of the Impey family exposes both self-fashioning and anxiety, the works of Julia Margaret Cameron and Marianne North speak to the female inhabitation of the oriental gaze as they photographed and painted pedlars from their veranda.

Dias’s emphasis on visual representations was continued by Ellen Smith who combined photographs and postcards with her wider study of letter-writing. Rounding off this panel, Smith complicated typical post-1857 narratives of colonial India by emphasising the constant lived interaction and bodily contact between coloniser and colonised. She suggested there at times existed an uneasy state of sociability, exposing the moments of tension and misunderstandings on the part of missionaries who might misread important class and familial dynamics.

Group Portrait of Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, c.1783-1784

Above: Group Portrait of Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, ca. 1783 – 1784. Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 122 cm, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.


Finally, we were delighted to welcome Kate Smith as our keynote speaker. Provoked by the Ranajit Guha article from which the conference took its inspiration, Smith interrogated the interlaced relationship between anxiety and home in the experiences of Sarah Elizabeth Amherst as she lived in India with her parents during the nineteenth century. Through her journals, Smith identified how Amherst continued to feel a sense of unhomeliness while travelling across the subcontinent, experiencing India as a space unknown and unknowable, while highly conscious of herself as someone subject to the gaze of those she encountered. The journals themselves were written with others in mind, namely her brother who remained in England, allowing her to maintain a sense of belonging and connection to “home” in Britain. This forging of intimate connections while navigating distance also took material forms as the arrival and expectation of correspondence via the packet service was accompanied by long periods of waiting and fears of disruption.

Lady Sarah Elizabeth Amherst

Above: Lady Sarah Elizabeth Amherst's sketch of the East wing of Government House, Calcutta (1824).

Smith’s keynote beautifully tied together the conference, evoking the key themes of materiality, representations, intimacy, mobility, and anxiety that cut across the earlier panels. In our next and final blog post, we will reflect further on these themes and the next avenues for our thinking and the conference. Until then, we wish to express again our thanks to all speakers, chairs, and participants for making the conference such a rich and thought-provoking event.

At Home in Empire Conference – Reflections on the Morning Panels

The At Home in Empire: Colonial Experiences of Intimacy and Mobility Conference 2021 has now taken place, and having had several weeks to digest and reflect upon the fantastic papers given by our speakers, we thought this blog would be a good place to share some of the exciting research and thought-provoking ideas that were highlighted during the conference.

To begin the first panel of the day, ‘Curating and Collecting: Domesticity on Display’, Charlotte Johnson introduced us to her research on the collections of Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Curzon amassed an extensive collection of Asian and imperial objects during his time in India, which he sent to be displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Later, they were used in the creation of an ‘Eastern Museum’ at Kedleston Hall, Curzon’s ancestral home. Using examples of various objects and records from both the V&A and Kedleston Hall, Charlotte demonstrated how the collecting and curating of these objects embodied imperial mobilities, with the histories of the objects often constructed so as to centre the narrative of Lord Curzon. In doing so, they created silences of empire, obscuring source communities and colonial practices.

Lord Curzon’s collection of Asian and imperial objects

Above: some of the objects from Lord Curzon’s collection of Asian and imperial objects discussed by Charlotte Johnson.

Continuing the theme of the individual colonial figure as a collector and curator, Carl Deußen’s paper explored non-European artefacts in imperial German homes through the the example of Wilhem Joest, an ethnographer in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Photographs of Joest’s flat reveal it was extensively decorated with artefacts, curios and souvenirs from his travels, as well as diaries, letters and publications. Deußen suggested that Joest’s collecting and the display of objects throughout his home was a form of constructed empire: his selection of artefacts aimed to present an image of a strong and static empire, which disguised the true nature of a fragile relationship between colony and metropole. Simultaneously, the size and composition of Joest’s collection worked to legitimise his status within the field of anthropology.

The final paper of the panel shifted our attention to present-day interpretations and displays of domestic settings of West Africa and Caribbean plantations within British museums. Matthew Jones used examples of displays in several museums to demonstrate how resistance to enslavement is often portrayed through a lens of masculine military conflict. In doing so, Matthew argued that the absence of domestic spaces neglects their role as settings from which everyday resistances to slavery were enacted and the legacy of the Middle Passage was lived out. In doing so, the interconnectedness of homemaking and resistance is lost, and the narrative of the slave trade and resistance becomes a gendered history in which the roles of free and enslaved African women are often erased.

Overall, the panel highlighted the role of the coloniser as central in the construction of representations of imperial domesticity. In doing so, the papers reveal how the roles of indigenous and enslaved peoples in the creation and history of objects, as well their lived experiences in domestic spaces, are often marginalised or absent through the practice of collecting and displaying empire.

The second panel of the morning explored questions around the making and remaking of home in colonial contexts. Dr Claudia Soares began by interrogating the experiences of poor children sent to Canada as a result of the policies of major British charities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Foregrounding the voices of these children, Claudia used publications and newsletters from the institutions to demonstrate the changing and complex meanings children associated with their new environments. These meanings were dependent on the children’s ages, memories and experiences of the Old Country and of Canada. Case studies of children revealed common themes of homesickness, the difficulties of maintaining family ties over time and space, and the highly mobile nature of many migrant children as they sought to establish a place they could call ‘home’.

British immigrant children from Dr Barnardo’s Homes at landing stage, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

Above: British immigrant children from Dr Barnardo’s Homes at landing stage, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. Source: Isaac Erb. Library and Archives Canada, PA-041785

Following on from this discussion, Dr Dayana Ariffin turned our focus to the colonial construction of family in British Malaya. Through the study of her grandfather, Noor Mahmud Hashim, Dayana examined the complexities of navigating identity and home against a backdrop of colonialism and increasing nationalism. Born to a Scottish mother and Indian father, Noor lived in Singapore, India, and Malaya, eventually making Kuala Lumpur his home. This personal story challenges the dominant narrative in Malaysian history of the binary of resistance or collaboration with colonial powers, highlighting the mobilised identities of Noor as he occupied space between indigenous and colonial identity, which were further complicated by his role as a colonial civil servant and the intricacies of social class.

In her fascinating paper, Yasmin Shamma engaged with Palestinian cookbooks, poems and the testimonies of refugees to examine ideas of cooking, waiting and making-home when away from home. She took us on a journey through refugee camps, arguing that cooking traditional recipes in these environments allows refugees to continue cultural practices. By preserving the ingredients to cook these dishes, refugees are preserving their agriculture and connection to ‘home’, whilst engaging in a form of everyday resistance to their dislocation.

Kate McGregor’s paper continued with examining ideas of dislocation and preserving a sense of ‘home’, through the lens of imperial Germany. Using case studies of two German women living in the African Colonies at the turn of the twentieth century, Kate explored their roles in recreating a German Christmas for their families. This demonstrated the women’s use of specific traditions, Christmas decorations, songs and food to capture a sense of weihnactsstimmung, the Christmas mood. In enacting a German Christmas, Kate argued these women played a significant part in ensuring the cultural heritage of their families, as well as helping to solidify white German identities in colonial settings and therefore protecting their racial integrity.

Photographs of Helene von Falkenhausen and Magdelene von Prince

Above: Kate McGregor discussed the lives of Helene von Falkenhausen and Magdelene von Prince; two German women who strove to create the experience of a traditional German Christmas for their families, whilst living in colonial Africa.

These papers each demonstrated the complexities of identity and home when coupled with colonial mobility or displacement, highlighting a fundamental human need to hold onto or recreate a sense of home, irrespective of age, gender, time or place. The rich cross-section of papers left us with much to think about as we took a break for lunch, and the scope of stimulating topics continued in the afternoon session, and will be discussed in the next blog post.

February 20, 2021

A Conversation with Dr Kate Smith

As the day of the conference draws near, we are delighted to introduce our keynote speaker Dr Kate Smith and hear more about her work and thoughts on the themes of the conference. Kate Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century History at the University of Birmingham. She completed her PhD at the University of Warwick in 2010, followed by a fellowship at the University of Milwaukee. She was a Research Fellow on the Leverhulme Trust-funded East India Company at Home 1757-1857 project before joining the University of Birmingham in 2014.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your research interests and how they developed?

I have long been interested in material cultures and the material world. With my first book, I was interested in questions of consumption and production and how consumers understood the objects that they were buying during the eighteenth century. How were they able to decipher questions of skill and value? How did their relationship to production change? I think that early work was informed by thinking about the production of these objects in a global context. I was interested in how these processes of production were informed by global interactions and trade, and how consumers were interested in those influences. In some ways these questions also informed on my second project, the East India Company at Home, led by Margot Finn.

EIC at Home

Q: The East India Company at Home is a really significant project, can you tell us a little bit more about your involvement and the themes you were exploring?

My interest initially was about the material culture coming from the Indian subcontinent and from East Asia and how it was shaping the country house in Britain. I had done some earlier work thinking about women and how they used material culture as a means of trying to create and express identity. As I got further into the project, I was attentive to how gender was at stake in the movement of these objects into country houses and how objects were used in these spaces.

With the East India Company project, we were considering not only this shifting material culture and the kind of influence it was having, but how that material culture was also moving because of people’s relationships to each other. It was not just about trade and processes of private trade, but things moving because people wanted them to. People used objects for multiple different purposes, including building affective relationships with others. They also used them to produce identities at particular points. In the project, we also became really interested in the idea of return and what happened when people who had been out in the empire returned and had to reconfigure themselves in Britain. One of the ways they did this was through material culture and houses.

British Women and Cultural Practices of Empire

Q: How does your current research build and develop some of these themes?

The East India Company at Home project brought up questions of longing and loss. There seemed to be so much about people longing for a space they were not in and longing for family members. There was anxiety about letters not arriving, gifts not getting through, missing things. This led on to the project I am doing now which is thinking about lost property and what happens when people lost things, particularly in the long eighteenth century. Moments of loss are important for understanding what possession might have meant in the first place. It is only when you lose things that you have to think about maintaining possession and what it might mean to own something.

I am thinking about not just objects that go missing but also people who go missing by comparing lost property notices with runaway notices. I’m interested in the ambiguities of people as property in eighteenth-century Britain and particularly how such ambiguities impacted women and enslaved people. To lose things is to lose part of oneself or lose possession of oneself. The fragility of identity and a sense of self is exposed in these moments of losing things. Similarly, part of the move to runaway is to assert self-possession. When we see these lost property notices alongside runaway notices, are we seeing similar processes at stake? How do you maintain possession of oneself? I think that this project relates back to these bigger questions of empire which are about trying to navigate identity and power.

Englefield House

Englefield House by John Constable, c.1832

Q: What role does “home” play in your work?

One of the things I found with country house research, was a wealth of interesting research exploring how these sites were built and maintained. Within this though, I became interesting in the idea of home-building (as opposed to house building). I was interested in the emotional labour at stake in the creation of these sites as meaningful spaces. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, imperial families worked hard to try and ensure that a particular site remained ‘home’. Other members of the family were often out in the empire, setting up their own homes and involved in their own home-building projects. Letter writing was crucial and was used to keep people involved and updated with any changes to the home so that it remained a recognisable site to these family members in distant places: a recognisable and known place to return to.

Such home-building also played into the idea of metropole. There was an idea of ‘here’ and ‘there’, but such distinctions needed to be established and were often fragile. It took work on the part of different people to evoke an idea of Britain as the centre of empire, that that’s where home is and everywhere else is ‘elsewhere’. We think about these histories of home and histories of family as mundane and not part of these grander narratives but of course they are. These histories are important for lots of different reasons, but they were central to the idea of Britain as an imperial state.

Our thanks to Dr Kate Smith for a wonderful initial conversation and thoughts on the topics of home, empire, mobility, and intimacy. We look forward to hearing more about her research and discussing these questions with all our panellists at the conference on 13 March 132021.

Registration has now reopened with a very limited number of spaces available. Once full, please contact us on to be added to the waiting list should anyone not be able to attend.

January 25, 2021

Introducing our Panels

Writing about web page

We are very excited to reveal the programme for the At Home in Empire conference, to be held on 13th March 2021. You can register to attend this one-day interdisciplinary conference HERE. We were overwhelmed by the number of fascinating responses to our Call for Papers and deciding on the final programme was one of the most difficult tasks of conference-planning to date. The panels, which vary across different spaces and periods, cover a range of topics related to the home, intimacy, and mobility, and we hope to see as many people as possible in March to hear these fascinating papers.

Session 1: Curating and Collecting: Domesticity on Display

Charlotte Johnson (AHRC Midlands4Cities funded PhD University of Birmingham): Colonial mobilities on display: the ‘Eastern Museum’ at Kedleston Hall

Matthew Jones (CHASE AHRC funded doctoral student at the University of Sussex in Art History): Displaying resistance: the absence of domestic life in narrative of enslavement

Carl Deussen (PhD at the University of Amsterdam and holds a research position at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne): Exotic Interiors. Ethnographic Collecting and the Bourgeois Home in Imperial Germany

Kedleston Hall

Kedleston Hall: This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

This panel brings together researchers from across history and the history of art to consider the varied ways in which empire and domesticity have been displayed. Examining varied case studies that underscore the significance of material cultures and museum practices, these papers explore the politics of collecting and curating the home as both a space of display and a space on display.

Session 2 - Making and Re-making Home

Claudia Soares (British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen Mary University of London): Understandings of home, family, and belonging for poor child migrants from institutional care, Britain, Australia and Canada c.1820-1920

Dayana Ariffin (Senior Lecturer at the History Department, the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur): What makes a colonial family? Noor Mahmud Hashim’s journey in finding home and family in British Malaya

Kate McGregor (PhD Candidate, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada): Working for Weihnachtsstimmung: German Women’s Place in the Recreation and Reproduction of German Culture and Identity in the African Colonies, 1894- 1906

Yasmine Shamma (Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Reading): Home is where the Warak Anab is: The Palestinian Poetics of Cooking as home-making

How did people make and remake homes across colonial and post-colonial spaces? Papers on this panel investigate the multiple and complex ways in which the home can be recreated and continued against a backdrop of displacement and instability. These researchers centre the role of the family and culture in the practices of home-making across disparate spaces, demonstrating how individuals and groups sought to preserve old identities or forge new ones.

Session 3 - In Between Worlds: Mobile Lives and Distant Homes

Katie Donnington (Senior Lecturer in History in the Division of Law and Social Sciences at London South Bank University): ‘Domesticating slavery: At home with the Hibberts between Jamaica and England’

Alex Lindgren-Gibson (Assistant Professor of European History at the University of Mississippi): Piecing Together Home: Making Sense of Family and Empire in the Papers of Mermanjan

Mikko Toivanen (2021 postdoctoral visiting fellowship at the Munich Centre for Global History of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität): Imperial childhoods in transit: the journey of Corry and Hugh Loudon to the Dutch East Indies in 1871-2

George Hibbert

George Hibbert: This photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

Centred on the theme of mobility, these papers suggest the implications of distance and movement on the colonial experiences of home and family. Addressing different periods and geographies, this panel foregrounds the difficulties and anxieties evoked by attempts to navigate between different worlds, raising questions about identity and belonging.

Session 4 - Spaces of Encounter

Marie Grace Brown (Associate Professor at the University of Kansas): Running Bachelors, Running Households: Kitchens and Intimacy in Imperial Sudan

Rosie Dias (Associate Professor in the History of Art at the University of Warwick): The View from the Veranda: Negotiating Gender and Race in Colonial South Asia

Ellen Smith (AHRC Midlands4Cities funded history PhD University of Leicester): Interactions with India and Indians: Home Encounters in Colonial South Asia

Marianne North

Marianne North in Mrs Cameron's House: This photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

Recognising the home as a space of encounter, this panel evokes the domestic setting as one of negotiation, intimacy, and power. Bringing themes of race and gender to the forefront of colonial life, these researchers frame the home as a contact zone where relationships between ‘coloniser’ and ‘colonised’ could be interrupted and disrupted.


The conference will conclude with our keynote speaker, Dr Kate Smith from the University of Birmingham.

Together, we hope that these panels will provoke new questions and discussions about what it meant to be ‘at home in empire’. Touching on themes of intimacy and mobility, they invite us to consider the anxieties that accompanied colonial experiences and representations. Stretching across several centuries, continents, and empires, the conference will offer an interdisciplinary platform to problematize the binaries of public and private, coloniser and colonised, centring the complex meanings of home and the messiness of everyday life in the colonial and post-colonial context. We look forward to you joining us in March.

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